Category Archives: In the Media

Grant will support expanded use of artificial intelligence for crop health

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — A research team developing artificial-intelligence-based solutions for diagnosing and managing threats to crop health has received a grant to expand the technology to assist more smallholder farmers around the world.

CGIAR, an international agricultural research consortium, awarded the project a $250,000 scale-up grant under its Inspire Challenge program, part of the CGIAR Platform for Big Data in Agriculture. The program is designed to source and foster new solutions for digital agriculture in developing economies.

In 2017, the project — led by David Hughes, associate professor of entomology and biology, Penn State, and James Legg, plant virologist at the Nigeria-based International Institute of Tropical Agriculture — received a $100,000 Inspire Challenge pilot grant from CGIAR. The program’s scale-up grants are awarded to previous Inspire Challenge pilot projects that demonstrated exceptional results, proven viability, potential for impact and likelihood of attracting investment capital.

In collaboration with the Roots, Tubers and Banana program of CGIAR, Hughes and his colleagues developed a mobile artificial-intelligence assistant that works on a standard smartphone and is capable of accurately diagnosing cassava diseases offline, without an internet connection. The app is called Nuru, which means “light” in Swahili.

Continue reading the article here

In the war on emerging crop diseases, scientists develop new ‘War Room’ simulations

Farmers rely on seed systems for access to high-quality, disease-free planting material at the start of the season. Good seed systems ensure access to seed for a variety of crops that are affordable and fully available at the start of the season. Unfortunately, this is not a reality for many smallholder farmers in developing countries, where seed systems often serve as conduits for the spread of crop disease.

Orange-fleshed sweet potatoes are an important source of Vitamin A and a staple crop for Uganda, which is why researchers analyzed a sweet potato system in Northern Uganda for its resilience to potential introduction of a pathogen. This research evaluated the important sellers and villages in the Gulu region, analyzing their potential role for spreading disease and distributing improved varieties of seed. The research team included scientists at University of Florida and Gulu University, as part of the CGIAR Research Program on Roots, Tubers and Bananas and with support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

The researchers used this data for “War Room” style simulation analyses that highlighted the potential paths that a pathogen could take in advance of its spread. This analysis identified the villages that were best for surveillance and the best for management, in order to effectively slow pathogen spread. Their results showed that villages key for surveillance and for management were not necessarily the same.

“This is an important practical finding, as when a new pathogen is introduced into a region there is often a tradeoff between resources allocated to surveillance to detect new occurrences of the disease and to management to slow the epidemic,” said Kelsey Andersen, the lead author of the study. “The findings of our study suggest that selecting locations should be done strategically to maximize the ability to stop or slow an epidemic,” said Karen Garrett, the senior author of the study.

Continue reading the article here

Lowly camote to save the day – for food security and climate-change resiliency

A woman farmer in Southern Palawan shows a newly uprooted cassava. Women in indigenous people communities in the province are planting root crops like ube (purple yam) and cassava to help fight poverty and protect the biodiversity-rich Mount Mantalingahan Protected Landscape.

Camote (sweet potato) chips, anyone?  How about camote cue, or the simple boiled camote? 

Did you know there is more to the lowly sweet potato than your favorite merienda (snack) food?

Among other high-value crops, camote, and other root and tuber crops are now being considered for development by the Department of Agriculture (DA) to prop up food production, and boost the country’s food security and resilience to climate change effects like strong typhoons, flash floods, landslides or even long-season of drought.

In his keynote message delivered by Undersecretary Cheryl Marie Natividad-Caballero during the opening of the two-day “Regional Congress: Root and Tuber Crops for Food Security and Climate Change Resilience in Asia”  held at  a hotel in Quezon City recently, Agriculture Secretary William D. Dar highlighted the importance of the root and tuber crops in boosting the country’s food security and climate-change resilience.

The event served as a venue for root and tuber crops industry stakeholders to share industry developments and approaches, and discuss strategies and initiatives to further prop up production capacities, and expand markets, in Asia.

It was organized by the Philippine Council for Agriculture, Aquatic and Natural Resources Research and Development of the Department of Science and Technology (DOST-PCAARRD), and the International Potato Center (CIP)  with funding support from International Fund for Agriculture Development (IFAD).

Major challenges

Dar said the DA is currently faced with four major challenges—the African swine fever, fall armyworm,  and the falling prices of palay and copra.

These are the reasons why Dar said since he assumed the top post as the country’s food czar, the DA “hit the ground running” on how the agency is expected to deliver services for the Filipino people.

He added:  “Innovation, technology, and entrepreneurship is key to competitiveness. It means expertise on pest and disease management, postharvest, plant physiology and horticulture.

New thinking for Agriculture

Dar said the conference came at an auspicious time, as the current DA leadership is pursuing a systematic and long-term strategy in attracting private investments, developing markets and promoting exports of raw and processed agricultural products, under what he calls our “New Thinking for Agriculture.”

“At the core of this New Thinking is Inclusive Market-Oriented Development [IMOD] as a strategy to modernize the country’s agriculture sector, boost its resilience against climatic stresses, create employment and income opportunities, and uplift the living conditions of millions of smallholder farmers,” he said.

He said as DA chief, the goal is to have a food secure Philippines with prosperous farmers and fisherfolk.

With regards to the country’s root and tuber crops industry, he said, “We recognize the huge contribution of the industry in our agricultural economy.” 

According to Dar, the country’s production of top 2 tubers—cassava and sweet potato—totaled 3.25 million metric tons (MMT) valued at P2.7 billion at current prices.

“Cassava and sweet potatoes are grown in 312,000 hectares nationwide,” he said.

Liberalized world trading order

He said the globalization of markets created a slew of tremendous challenges and opportunities for Philippine agriculture, in general, and the root and tuber crops industry, in particular.

“The challenge comes from the need to ensure the quality of our products at competitive prices and produce them in economies of scale. But heightened competition also offers us the opportunity to strengthen the national agricultural support system to prosper in the context of our international trade agreements,” he said.

He cited as an example the Asean economic integration and its accompanying free-trade agreement which started in 2015, and gave rise to a large consumer base of 635 million people and combined trade amounting to nearly $3 trillion.

For the longest time, we have been lagging behind our ASEAN peers in terms of land productivity, crop diversification and exports, he said.

Of the Big 5 of Asean—Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam, and the Philippines—the latter is the only country with a negative trade balance because it imports more food and agri-based products than it exports.

A fighting chance for Filipino farmers

DA, he said, recognizes its duty to provide our small farmers, fishers and small-scale entrepreneurs the fighting chance in the global arena.

Through the Bureau of Plant Industry and the High-Value Crops Development Program, which coordinate all efforts for this subsector, the DA is working to ensure the availability of high-quality seeds and planting materials to support the agency’s expansion program for priority root and tuber crops, especially in indigenous peoples (IPs) communities.

Dar said the DA will also establish post-harvest facilities and encourage value addition, bring Filipino root and tuber crops, farmers and entrepreneurs, timely market information, and facilitate all the linkages they require to make the industry profitable, productive and globally competitive.

“We will continuously improve national regulatory services, including our certification systems, and our pest-risk analysis and food-safety services; and develop and promote better production technologies throughout the archipelago, including the conduct of Farmers Field School and Package of Technology (POT) and Training of Trainers (TOT) sessions,” he explained.

Nutrient-rich food crop

Root and tuber crops, or RTCs, have been gaining recognition as nutrient-rich food crops, versatile raw materials for micro and small enterprises, and agri-industry, such as food, feeds, starch, bioethanol, and instrumental to enhance resilience to climate change, DOST-PCAARRD and CIP said.

RTCs grow in a wide range of environments, require lower input than grains and have exhibited evidence of addressing vulnerability and risks related to increasingly recurrent extreme weather events, particularly in Asia and the Pacific region.

The experts believe the cultivation of RTCs amid challenges—including the low productivity of smallholder farmers, pests, diseases, limited utilization and consumption, slow adoption of improved production and processing technologies, and lack of compliance to industry standards offer—farmers in Asia and the Pacific an opportunity to not just put food on the table, such as during emergency situations like natural calamities, but a better economic opportunity through exports.  

They said that one just have to plant the right variety and unique and interesting value addition that will sell the by-product.

Raise awareness

Diego Naziri, of the CIP, or Research Center of  Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), said the two-day event aims to raise awareness on a wide range of stakeholders, including researchers, government agencies, policy-makers, nongovernment organizations, and private sectors, about the importance of root and tuber crops for the livelihood of the people, and as a resilient crop to face the challenge of climate change.

“One of the main outputs we expect from this Congress is to have stronger collaboration and reciprocal knowledge about what we do on roots and tuber crops in terms of research initiatives, and establish collaborative undertakings in research and innovations in root and tuber crops and put the result of the research in the hands of the farmers and the private sector,” said Naziri,  also a project coordinator at FoodSTART.

Of the 100 participants in the event, most are from Asia, including a huge delegation from the Philippines, and representatives from India, Indonesia, Vietnam, Tonga, Myanmar, and Korea.  There are also key representatives from Kenya, Colombia, and the United Kingdom.

Disaster food

According to Naziri, root and tuber crops, particularly sweet potato, are very resilient. 

He said during the aftermath of Supertyphoon Yolanda (international code name Haiyan), where farms were destroyed, root and tuber crops, particularly sweet potato, survived the devastation.

“We have very good examples where root and tuber crops became instrumental in recovery from shocks,” he said, citing the case of Yolanda wherein the sweet potato was among the few survivors among food crops.

All around the world, root and tuber crops remain the last crop standing after the devastating effect of climate change-induced weather events, he said.

“This is important because farmers have access to food in times of food shortage.  Another big advantage of this crop is they are short cycled,” he added.

Sweet potato takes only 90 to 100 days to reach maturity, he explained.

During the post-Yolanda rehabilitation in the affected areas, he said sweet potato planting materials were distributed to help farmers quickly recover. 

Another so-called disaster crop, he said, is the cassava, known locally as kamoteng kahoy  or balinghoy.

Even when cassava is destroyed, the fact that the root crop remains underground makes it safe. 

It is highly perishable after harvest, lasting only two to three days after harvest, he said. However, despite its stem and leaves being destroyed, as long as the roots and the crop are in the ground, they can be kept there for a month and still be good for human consumption, he explained.

Feeding the world

Root and tuber crops help feed the world, says Naziri.

“In terms of production, the roots and tuber crops produce more than 500 million tons of food globally and they are the key staples for about 300 million people around the world,” he said.

Over 1 billion consumers benefited from the works of CGIAR and CIP to improve the productivity of root and tuber crops, he said.

CGIAR and CIP conduct research in partnership with national-partners, primarily to develop new varieties of root and tuber crops.

CGIAR and CIP have the largest gene bank of potatoes and sweet potatoes in the world and distribute these varieties to farmers around the world. 

CIP has offices in 40 countries, including Latin America, Africa, and Asia.

Crop of indigenous communities

Jerry Jing Pacturan, country program officer for Asia and the Pacific Region of IFAD, said root and tuber crops, particularly camote, is the crop of many indigenous communities.

They are the crops of many poor communities, such as in the upland areas of IPs in Southeast Asia.

Besides being very resilient that they survive during typhoons, they are good sources of food and nutrition than most food.

On top of these, root crops are cheap, with camote costing around P50 to P90 per kilogram only, depending on the variety or quality. 

While it is a favorite snack for many Filipinos, however, camote is not considered a staple food, unlike rice, or white corn in some parts of Visayas and Mindanao.

Continue reading the article here

Africa and Asia will propel the world’s population towards 10 billion – but are their food systems ready?

Improving access to other key inputs like water and fertilizer, as well as wider technical services such as agricultural machinery, would help to boost resources, but change needs to happen fast

Talk of the global population reaching 10 billion by 2050 has been around for some time. Yet, this statistic actually hides the real source of this growth, and its implications.

Only two regions – sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia – will contribute the lion’s share of this new headcount. Indeed, elsewhere in the world, populations will mostly either plateau or even decline.

With food systems predominantly local in nature, Africa and Asia face a potentially catastrophic food shortfall unless they can boost productivity dramatically.

This hefty goal is complicated further by the fact that even current farming practices are being compromised by the climate crisis. Disastrous droughtsrecord-breaking heatwaves and weather-related natural disasters are already causing havoc for farmers worldwide.

At the same time, the global agriculture sector is being tasked with reducing its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by at least one gigatonne per year by 2030 (out of around 7-8 gigatonnes total) in order to stay within the 2C of warming agreed by the UN Paris Agreement.

This presents a colossal task, for which we all are responsible, and the available resources are already stretched.

Continue reading the article by Elwyn Grainger-Jones on Independent

FoodSTART+ featured in the latest iMPACT magazine issue

FoodSTART+ Principal Investigator, Diego Naziri, and CIAT Market Access Specialist, Brice Even shared how the partnership between grant projects and investment projects can facilitate taking innovations to scale. From the experience of FoodSTART+, the success of the project highly depends on the outcome of the partnership with investment projects — who are the primary drivers of activities to the farmers and end-users. Major lessons learned from the partnership and project implementation are further discussed in the article.

The iMPACT magazine is quarterly published by the Asia Society for Social Impact and Sustainable Transformation (ASSIST) Asia and shares information and stories about the development work of NGOs, the civil society, CSRs, social enterprises, and philanthropists.

Read the full feature here.

University of Florida Researchers Develop Model to Help Keep Crop Seeds Healthy

Credit: Photo courtesy, Paul Rachkara, Gulu University

Working with international researchers, University of Florida scientists have developed a model that will help protect good seeds, which are necessary to plant healthy crops and determine what areas are at higher risk for unhealthy seeds.

In many parts of the world, people lack adequate access to nutritious food because there aren’t enough quality seeds for food production, said Karen Garrett, a plant pathology professor at the UF Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.

“We model where the disease is likely to move next and the management strategies that are likely to be most helpful,” said Garrett, a co-author of a new study on how good and bad seeds get from one place to another.

In the newly published research, Garrett and one of her doctoral students, Kelsey Andersen — the lead author on the study — led a team of UF/IFAS researchers and colleagues in Uganda and the United Kingdom. The research team studied seed systems in Africa. Seed systems are composed of people and businesses that make seed available, and farmers who use that seed.

As a result of the research, scientists developed a model that will help them find seed-borne pathogens and provides recommendations for how to stop the pathogens from spreading.

“Good seed systems provide high-quality, disease-free seeds of good crop varieties, but good seed systems do not exist in many countries,” said Garrett, a faculty member in the UF/IFAS Institute for Sustainable Food Systems. “Seed systems are critical for making new, improved crop varieties available to farmers, but also can serve as major conduits for the spread of seed-borne pathogens if pathogens are not controlled.”

For the study, researchers investigated the seed system for several varieties of sweet potatoes in Uganda, where sweet potatoes are a reliable staple food and can be an important source of Vitamin A.

Continue reading the article by Brad Buck on Newswise. 

Calling On Nature To Combat Insect Pests In Vietnam’s Cassava Crop

“Good bugs, huh?” –farmers and homeowners alike all too often give a blank stare when questioned about the beneficial insects that occur on their respective farm, backyard or flower patch. Though insects abound within natural and agricultural ecosystems across the globe, and a fair share of them provide vital services to humanity, we as human beings rarely pay attention to them. Aside from honeybees and the occasional colorful butterfly, we routinely regard these ‘creepy crawlies’ with disinterest, ignorance or even outright fear.


Yet, many of the insects that assume concealed lifestyles in the undergrowth are natural-born killers – specialized in combating pests through a process called ‘biological control’; a cost-free service provided by nature that’s worth $4-17 billion annually to US agriculture. Biological control thus constitutes a most lucrative alternative to pesticide-based measures for crop protection, helps protect the environment and is a core component of sustainable food systems.

One particular type of biological control, so-called ‘importation biological control’, is tailor-made to tackle invasive species problems. More specifically, invasive pests are managed through the careful selection and subsequent introduction of a highly effective, specialized beneficial insect (or ‘natural enemy’) from the pest’s region of origin. By doing so, scientists reconnect insect ‘friend and foe’ and thus restore balance in invaded ecosystems…

Continue reading the article by Dr. Kris Wyckhuys on Science Trends.

World Potato Congress highlights scientific advances

Tubers were the talk of the town in Cusco, Peru during the week of May 27, when the 10th World Potato Congress (WPC) and the 28th Congress of the Latin American Potato Association (ALAP) were held together for the first time.

The event drew more than 800 participants from 50 countries to the potato’s center of origin for four days of scientific presentations, networking, field trips and celebration of the potato’s cultural and economic importance. 

The WPC is the most important international event for potato scientists and businesses. It is held every three years in a different country and is organized by the non-profit World Potato Congress Inc. and local partners.

Continue reading on Potato Pro. 

Tanzania: Banana Experts Meet to Discuss Hybrid Varieties

An international project whose goal is to boost banana production in Tanzania and Uganda brings together a team of international researchers to deliberate on delivery of hybrid varieties to farmers.

The team will starting today to Friday gather at Arusha-based Nelson Mandela African Institution of Science and Technology (NM-AIST) to review their progress and plan for next years’ activities. “The Breeding Better Banana project is focused on breeding varieties that farmers like and with resistance against the key problems.

However, bananas are difficult to breed because they are sterile and do not produce seeds. “Breeders deal with this (challenge) by using fertile parent varieties that produce seed but the process takes long time,” Lead Banana Breeder at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) and project’s team leader Prof Rony Swennen said.

Continue reading on All Africa.

New mobile app diagnoses crop diseases in the field and alerts rural farmers

Researchers who developed a new mobile application that uses artificial intelligence to accurately diagnose crop diseases in the field have won a $100,000 award to help expand their project to help millions of small-scale farmers across Africa.

Cassava brown streak disease is spreading westward across the African continent and, together with cassava mosaic disease, threatens the food and income security of more than 30 million farmers in East and Central Africa. Likewise, banana is threatened by fungal and bacterial diseases, including the devastating banana bunchy top virus, while late blight still plagues potato farmers.

Farmers often are unable to identify these diseases properly, while researchers, plant-health authorities and extension organizations lack the data to support them.

To stop the spread of these diseases, a team under the CGIAR Research Program on Roots, Tubers and Bananas (RTB) has developed a revolutionary app to accurately diagnose diseases in the field, which will be combined with SMS services to send alerts to thousands of rural farmers.

Continue reading on