Cube Lab Blog
Working in a developing country is something I have wanted to do for quite a long time. This fall I worked on a project funded by Horticulture CRSP’s Trellis fund dealing with IPM strategies and general crop management for sweet potatoes in Uganda. Before I left I wrote the aims of the project and never got around to sharing. So, post-travel, here is a description of the project I worked on and the NGO I worked for, for 2 weeks in Hoima district, western Uganda.
Vitamin A deficiency is a serious issue in rural Uganda. The NGO Environmental Conservation and Agricultural Enhancement Uganda (Eco-Agric Uganda) seeks to help change this situation through their project, “Promoting Orange-Fleshed Sweet Potato for Improved Livelihoods in Hoima District.” Their target group is subsistence farmers around Hoima district, western Uganda. The orange-fleshed sweet potato (OFSP), both high in calories and nutrients, including vitamin A and beta-carotene, is a healthy, ideal crop for subsistence farming. The farmers included in the project, 70% of whom are women representing women-headed households, face many challenges including obtaining clean planting material, managing pests and diseases throughout the growth, harvest, and post harvest and storage phases of sweet potato cultivation, and adding value to the crop to increase its desirability in the market. Eco-Agric Uganda, with experience in successfully establishing and maintaining similar programs with tomato and beans farmers in other parts of Uganda, has orchestrated a project utilizing multiple approaches to improve the livelihoods of sweet potato growers, and increase the benefit of growing orange fleshed sweet potatoes.
A group of farmers in Kisiha visits a sweet potato demo plot.
The time was well spent, and had some concrete accomplishments. If you’d like to learn more about the trip, what was done, diseases seen, fun travel facts, or what those accomplishments actually were, check back- maybe someday I’ll get around to writing about that part too.
Sometimes there are strange little coincidences in life when unlikely connections occur. Here's an example. A recent item in the deluge of media coverage on the US election caught my eye:
Although this statement was made by the Republican VP candidate, it might easily have been made by his Democratic Party counterpart, Joe Biden, or by almost any mainstream politician in any country. The reference to pie reminded me of this question, asked by the economist Fred Hirsch in the late 1970's:
While Hirsch seems to be in complete agreement with Ryan, and is arguing against redistribution as a useful idea, in fact his question is part of the set-up for a sustained critical evaluation of the idea that making a bigger economic pie will make more people happy. Hirsch's analysis reveals that economic growth inherently leads to increase in dissatisfaction once everyone's basic needs are met. We can make a bigger pie, he argues, but this will make a larger number of people happier only as long as they're happy to eat pastry, because the rare and tasty treats that go into the filling are scarce and can't be made more available by making more crust. Furthermore, the people who already get more of the tasty filling, will still be in that position no matter how big a pie we bake and how many people we invite to share it. Indeed, the promise of pie only makes people feel disappointed when they realize they're only getting a chance to smell it baking and nibble on the pastry.
In the brilliant introduction to Social Limits Hirsch summarizes the problem with focusing on growth:
Hirsch's analysis is sobering. One of the central pillars of modern economic democracy is found to have a structural problem: economic growth leads to a growth in dissatisfaction. The solution requires a population-level change in attitudes so that we do not pursue the idea that through sufficient hard work and good fortune we can all join the ranks of the rich. We can't. And the reason we can't is that part of what makes the rich rich is the appropriation of goods that are either impossible to share out, or which, when shared out, come in such small portions that ownership or consumption of them doesn't lead to a feeling of wealth, or which lose their value as markers of wealth when they lose their exclusivity.
It is the drive to overcome these problems generated by economic growth which leads to the preoccupation with distribution that Hirsch identified. Hirsch argued that growth in a laissez faire economy will lead to increased general dissatisfaction even as it increases the material wealth of a growing proportion of the population. He was writing in the 1970s so we have the benefit of hindsight to evaluate his analysis. Since that time laissez faire economic policies have been pursued by governing parties of the left and right in both the USA and UK. We have seen increasing disparity in wealth (as those who started this recent 30 year rat race with most were best placed to exploit the chance to accumulate riches). The rate of increase in disparity has been lower when left-leaning parties have governed, but disparity in wealth has increased nonetheless. Anyone who tried to argue that happiness had increased across the population in either country over those 30 years would have a tough row to hoe.
So what about national happiness? There are well-known problems with efforts to construct simple happiness, or well-being, indices comparable with economic indicators such as GDP. These problems notwithstanding, one of the more recent and well-received efforts generated the following set of countries as the top 10 on a national well-being index
One interesting feature of the list is that the European countries that appear in the top 10 have relatively flat income distributions; the rich in these countries are not astronomically many times richer than normal people (the people we now call "middle class" but who used to be called both middle class and working class - Hirsch's ratchet can be seen working in the fact that we no longer appear to have a working class). On the same ranking, the UK is 41 and the USA 23. The fact that Denmark is ranked 1 brings me to the second coincidence that stimulated this post. In snatched moments of quiet I've been reading Peter Hoeg's The History of Danish Dreams and in the last few days came across this quotation:
Grundtvig is widely acknowledged for shaping the Danish social conscience so perhaps it is not surprising it should be a happy place, given Grundtvig's opinions on wealth and Hirsch's analysis of the effects of growth on happiness?
I just got back from my first national meeting at it was amazing! Providence was the perfect town: interesting enough to attract people, not too interesting so that people would skip sessions (*cough Hawaii cough*) . I ended up joining two committees: Epidemiology and Phyllosphere Microbiology. I enjoy epidemiology and it was nice to put faces to the names of people whom I had read, but it is a very large group and it was a little daunting to speak up (I ended up sitting quietly in a corner throughout the whole committee meeting). I joined Phyllosphere Microbiology quite by accident: I was looking for something to do on Sunday morning and wandered in to a room where Johan Leveau and a few other people were sitting, and they seemed to think I was a new member! The Phyllosphere committee seems quite a bit smaller (hardly more than a dozen) with people from all sorts of disciplines but it lets me explore my interest in ecology and food safety that have lay dormant for a while. The special sessions were really nice, I got a huge kick out of seeing both Jo Handelsman and Pedro Crous in the elevator, sadly I missed both of their talks. The technical sessions were also really nice, I enjoyed hearing more about epidemiology and mycology. All in all a very nice trip! Hopefully I can have enough work done by next March that I can attend next year's meeting in Austin!
It is a little over two years since cubelab opened its doors and epidemiology returned in earnest to the Plant Pathology Department at UC Davis after close to a 10 year absence. After two years a clear picture of what cubelab is all about is starting to emerge and I'm excited by the challenge of developing the area of science where plant disease epidemiology, in the traditional sense, meets the social sciences. As the practicalities of feeding the human population within the environmental limits of the planet continue to challenge our ingenuity it seems that integrative research of the type which I hope cubelab will do is going to be needed more than ever. Paul Esker (University of Costa Rica), Serge Savary (INRA, Toulouse) and I have just submitted a review of crop loss analysis methods in which we have tried to pull the academic side of the subject back from a focus on the gap between actual yields and theoretical yields to consider the more pressing problem of the gap between actual yields and required yields. The paper has only just started making its way through the peer review process but will hopefully be published by CABI later in the year in their review journal.
I have collaborated with Paul and Serge for many years while we have been located in various places around the world (always three different places!) including Iowa, northern France, Scotland, Wisconsin, Bordeaux, The Philippines, Brazil, California, Costa Rica and Toulouse. It has been helpful in relocating from Scotland to California to have on-going collaborations which have always been conducted mostly via email. The physical disruption has had a much smaller impact on those pieces of work than on field work, for obvious reasons. Some of the new collaborations I have started are also making use of the internet to allow interaction-at-a-distance. One of these new collaborations is a blog which I'll be writing with Louis Warren of the History Department at UC Davis on a range of topics focused on the Salinas area as an historical center of food production and agricultural innovation. Louis has just started a year-long sabbatical in Germany and at Princeton, so co-blogging seems like a potentially useful way to work together even though we won't actually be in the same place.
From a standing start 2 years ago, cubelab now has projects involving salad greens, processing tomatoes, grapes, citrus and Monterey pine. To be able to work on such a diversity of host plants is one the most enjoyable aspects of being a plant disease epidemiologist in California. Of course there are challenges too; some of them unexpected. Back in the old country it used to be the case that my biggest worry when sampling crops in the summer was whether the water in the wheelings between carrot beds would over-top my wellies:
Summer 2009 sampling carrot fields in Perthshire, Scotland for sclerotinia germination. Typical temperature 60-65F and overcast. And the worst thing I had to deal with was the fact that it used to take a lot longer to sample the fields after a couple of days of rain turned the alluvial soil into boot-sucking mud. The most embarrassing thing that could happen was falling over and getting soaked, or walking out of stuck boots (I did both).
Contrast that with summer 2010. Sampling processing tomato crops in Yolo county CA. Typical temperature 95-100F and clear blue sky; my first trip to sample for TSWV and collect sticky cards so that the wonderful Dr Ozgur Batuman could count the trapped thrips. I stepped casually out of our air-conditioned car into the heat, sauntered off along a bone-dry wheeling and noted, somewhat to my surprise, a largish (it seemed to me) snake heading in the opposite direction in the wheeling on the other side of the crop bed. "Hey Ozgur", I shouted, "there's a snake heading your way, quite fast." Ozgur was leaning on the car for balance while he changed his footwear. His head snapped up. "Where?" He started scanning the field in front of him. I pointed to the snake. "Oh no" Ozgur said (or at least that's what he meant), and bending down he scooped up some clods of hard, dry earth and started throwing them at the snake. "It's coming for the car." Ozgur told me, arms whirling, firing a barrage of stones and earth snake-wards. "It's the biggest one I've ever seen in the wild", I said, "but it looks a bit small to swallow the car". Ozgur was not impressed by my humor. "For the heat" he informed me.
ounding Ozgur in the process) and promptly disappeared under the front and up into the engine compartment. Now, there's at least one good reason why a Scotsman and a Turk shouldn't be allowed to do field work in California without a local to act as a guide: we have/had no idea about the local wildlife. Ozgur and I didn't want to drive off with a snake in the engine lest it find its way into the passenger compartment and appear at our feet (and for anyone who thinks that wouldn't be possible, the snake did eventually exit the car by just that route) grumpy, shaken, and ready to bite toe. The snake was eventually encouraged to leave the car by a couple of field workers, but not until long after our day's sampling schedule was gone. As the snake slid off to find somewhere quieter to curl up, one of the field hands calmly bent down, picked it up and carried it back to us, offering it to us as a prize. We said "No thanks" (at least that's what we meant). He shrugged and put it back on the ground. "It's a gopher snake" he said; "completely harmless". Stupid? Who felt stupid? Of course, once I knew it was harmless I was all for a photo shoot. Despite snake delays and other practical issues, the collaboration on monitoring and forecasting thrips/TSWV for Central Valley tomato growers is coming along nicely.
In my final year as an undergraduate at UNL, I participated in a PepsiCo funded research grant program called UCARE (Undergraduate Creative Activites and Research Experience). Under this grant, my adviser and I devised a "short term" study on cropping systems on Ky31 turf type tall fescue. I spent hours setting the project up (cleaning then planting tree tubes with sand and grass seed), hours fertilizing and irrigating (and setting up a drip system later because this made it far more simple), hours trimming treatments based on the level of grass harvested and placing the harvested tissue in bags labeled based on treatment and date, and even more hours drying and weighing these dried samples for an end total of grass matter harvested. Then I spent hours calculating data, making graphs and producing a poster for the UCARE showing, which was a requirement for the grant. I never did publish that data, although I still have the poster, but now as I am working on my first publication I am getting a real feel for what it takes to WRITE a paper. Hours....endless hours...go into research and these hours (more like months/years) most times equate into a poster, or a paper, and unless you have done work in research you just have no idea how much time you consume while trying to find what many philosophers refer to as "The TRUTH". I looked at that poster, which the nerdy side of me hung on my wall with pride for the entire following summer, and just thought to myself, "Wow, all that for this.....a bloody poster.....", my nerdy self is a somewhat British/Aussie type (I don't know where the term "bloody" was actually officially used in that context, perhaps it was Scotland.....). So what exactly am I getting at? The fact that it can be rather tasking on the writer/researcher/poster maker to do all of this endless work for 5 freaking pages of script or one rather large power point slide attempting to justify that what you allowed your life to be consumed by is really important and a good reason to get paid...... The "TRUTH" is there is a lot of work that goes into publishing a paper, perusing through endless journals claiming results that are either indiscreet, insignificant or unrelated to your research, then justifying their results based on their methods, just so that you can get through the introduction! In the research world, the saying follows close behind me "Publish or Perish", but the funny thing is, I have learned so much I didn't know before, and I guess that's why people call researchers of their fields "experts" because they are the only ones willing (and or crazy enough) to read all these publications related to their work :).
My first quarter as a grad student has ended, the finals are done and I have begun to understand a little more about what a plant pathology grad student does. Parts of it are just like in the movies; movies about mad scientists who cackle ominously as they tinker with glass tubes and flasks. It is seemingly paradoxical that in the business of managing and reducing plant disease, I have intentionally killed every plant I’ve come in contact with yet.
plant pathology class is great for this. There are so much more interesting
ways to kill plants than just letting them dehydrate! You can torture them in
all kinds of fascinating and enlightening ways before they eventually kick the
bucket. I have infected plants with viruses, oomycetes, bacteria, and fungi and
seen the lovely symptoms that result. With some of these pathogens, the poor
plant never had a chance and didn’t even see it coming- those are the most fun
to observe because they are in the worst
There is so
much I’ve learned about plant pathogens and how they infect their hosts that I
sometimes marvel that there are any healthy plants out there at all. Studies in
plant disease have a tremendous potential impact on the world, seeing as human
beings tend to like, and even need, to eat food. However I have also learned
that mad scientists are not so far fetched, they exist- right here in Davis.
Now I need to go put on my radiation goggles and get back to my
When I was taking a creative writing course many moons ago, we had contemporary writers visit the class about every few weeks or so. One gentleman stood out to me, Ted Kooser, he said people always asked him where he got his ideas from for poems, his response was always "Just look up." Of course those questioning him would give him a funny look, with the appearance of misunderstanding, so he offered the challenge, "Notice six things each day, I mean really take the time to stop and SEE them, you would be surpirsed what you have been missing out on." His words still ring through my head every time I take a walk, ride my bike, or, like this weekend, when I dropped the top on my Miata and cruised through wine country, cutting up over the Sonoma coastal redwoods to blow kisses to the Pacific on Highway 1. The funniest thing awaited my passenger and I, to our surprise when we pulled off the road to take in the sunset on the water, we heard the thumping and bumping of drums. Only one other person was at this stop, literally right off the beaten two lane concrete path, and in tow was his truck and a drum set. Now I am fully aware of the time and dedication it takes to set up a kit, being a drummer myself, so there was definitely some work involved and possibly some engineering on finding a flat spot to set up said drumset. Yet there he sat, bump, thump, thumping as the sun sunk slowly behind the water, and I thought to myself, "Wow! Brilliant! Gutsy! (it is the rainy season) I have got to try this!" I wanted to give him a high five, but I couldn't disturb the artist heavy in his craft.
We put the top back up to break the chill and stopped off the road again for Mexican style seafood, crabcakes, crab enchiladas, and fish tacos-likely the best food I will ever have the pleasure of eating in my lifetime, of course seafood and Mexican-how could you go wrong right? Driving back wasn't all that bad, given it was half the drive of getting to the coast, I took every windy wooded road I knew of to get there. I still day dream about the redwoods towering above me, finding it difficult to follow the road since the top was down and my eyes were on the trees. There is a whole world out there that we never perceive because it isn't in our eyes' view. I have never found so many mushrooms until last week when our class went mushroom hunting--it's not that they weren't there in the past, I just wasn't looking for them. I had such a crazy time just driving through the coastal mountains and vineyards and I can't stop thinking to myself, what if I didn't go? Think of all the things I would have missed, the drummer, the sunset, the fall color of the hidden vineyards and the barren trunks of the grapevines who were in the heavy wind's way, the lichens growing in the trees and blowing in the breeze, and all I had to do is look up.
As I was limbering up mentally for the day ahead today, curiosity took hold of me and I put the following terms into a standard Google search: "plant disease policy". The results were, well, frankly, maddening, and on reflection, shaming. Take a look for yourself:
Ignoring the section inviting us to look at scholarly articles1 on the search topic, the items on page 1 are a mixture of references to journal editorial policies, web use policies (for a plant pathology department), library collection development policies (for two different plant pathology departments) and six references either directly or indirectly to a single piece of policy-relevant research on plant disease. This single piece of work is part of the UK Government-funded flagship programme of policy-relevant research on the Rural Environment and Land Use (RELU, see http://www.relu.ac.uk/ ). That's it. No USDA pages. No NSF pages. No EU pages. No FAO pages. No WHO pages; but also no hits on US university web pages either (including my own I hasten to add). Apparently plant disease isn't on the policy radar; or at least it doesn't light it up enough for anything to appear on page 1 of the Google search. Is the near-absence of a high-profile connection between policy and plant disease from Google space explainable by plant disease having no consequences for important policy areas? No, it isn't. No-one would consider food security an unimportant policy area. Here are some figures from the excellent review of global crop losses published by Erich-Christian Oerke in 20062.
We could make some easy excuses based on the arts-science schism, point out that policy-makers and their staff tend to come from one side and while we're on the other, shake our heads ruefully at the problem of getting science onto the policy agenda, and leave it there.
Figure 1. Data extracted from Table 1 in Oerke (2006) indicating potential
percentage global crop losses toplant diseases for five important food crops.
We could, but I don't think we should, for the simple reason that excuses of that sort smell as bad as a blighted tattie. If the importance of plant disease has escaped policy-makers it's more likely to be because we (that is, plant pathologists) have done a bad job of explaining it to them. A worrying story which emerged from Oerke's analysis of the global picture on crop losses is that as attainable yields have increased, potential percentage losses to disease have also increased; simply put, the more we grow the bigger the fraction we stand to lose, and have lost. Plant diseases represent an on-going drain on food production which reduce the value of every unit of wealth invested in increasing attainable yield in disease-free plants. Since Oerke's figures are summaries over a large number of studies and sources of information they represent our best guesses as to what the future of crop losses will look like. Unless something changes qualitatively the wise bet would be that losses to disease are likely to be somewhere in the region of 15%, as a global average. Not only is that bad news for millions of people in relation to food supply and livelihoods, it also represents an inefficiency in research investment targeted purely at increasing yield.
1I love the way Google refers to the academic literature as "scholarly articles". It always brings into my mind images of hushed, wood-paneled libraries; work tables piled with jumbles of books and papers; silent heads bent in serious scholastic endeavours, oblivious to dust motes circling and glinting overhead in the sunlight slanting through high, mullioned windows. It's a romantic picture of a world that is about as close the reality of research for most of us as policy on plant disease seems to be the reality of its impact on food supply.
2Oerke, E-C. 2006. Crop losses to pests. (Centenary Review). Agricultural Science, 144:31-43.
While wandering through a garage sale this weekend I passed
by some Halloween costumes that reminded me of a post I have been meaning to do
for a while.
After many miles traveled up and down the Napa valley, I have been able to collect quite a bit of insight into the social aspects of leafroll in grapevines. I have had a great time meeting with growers and seeing many places off the beaten path that I may not have seen otherwise. I want to post some information on the next step of the process for anyone who would like to know. I sent out an email to those participating with this same information, and my cohorts felt it would be good to put it up on here.
What is the next step of this study after the interviews?
After the interviews are completed we'll have a table of data which has respondents as rows and Q-sort items (the pieces of text you were shuffling around) as columns. You can think of each row of the table as giving a kind of bar coding or profile for each person. What we'll do next is subject the table of data to a Factor Analysis. This does two things. First, it groups together people who have similar codings for the data items, and, secondly, it does the grouping in such a way that groups of similar individuals get associated with different sets of data items. That brings us to the second question:
What is the purpose of this interview/survey that I am asking growers to participate in?
Hopefully we will learn what type of subjective attitudes about leafroll and collective action exist within the sample of people who do the sorting. Based on the information we'll be able to tailor our efforts to stimulate collective action in such a way that we take account of the nature of the population of people with whom we're trying to interact. Obviously that's one benefit to us of doing this exercise and writing papers about the research is another, but more important than that is the third question:
What good is this going to do for bringing growers together...how does it work?
It works in a number of ways. First there's what we might call the "coffee shop" effect (although in our case it might be better thought of as the "bistro" or "wine bar" effect). Essentially this just plays on the human instinct to band together in face of an outside influence. So, if you meet other people from the industry in either a work or social context, the topic of the study might come up and simply through the process of discussing it, it serves to build cohesion. Secondly, it works because we'll be organizing feedback sessions in which we'll explain what the results mean and walk everyone through how to interpret them (I'm preempting the last question a bit). In discussing the analysis we'll look to pull out some deeper insights from the respondents into why the results look the way they do:
Will growers be given the results?
This is absolutely the intention. As I already mentioned the intention is to give each respondent individual feedback that will allow him or her to place him/her-self in the different clusters which the Factor Analysis generates. We'll keep this lighthearted but also focus on the real lessons to be learned from the analysis. I can't say much more at this stage because the specifics will depend on what the sorting process gives us. The other thing the feedback sessions will allow us to do is to put over some of the economic theory behind this work.