WHO WE ARE SERVICES RESOURCES




Most recent stories ›
AgroInsight RSS feed
Blog

Flying pest control robots September 13th, 2020 by

My friend Steve Peck is a novelist and a professor of evolutionary ecology, whose work on mathematical models of insect populations led him to the topic of one of his short stories, about a tiny flying robot, modelled after a dragonfly. The robots would cruise the countryside, looking for insect pests, which it killed, while sparing the beneficial insects. The story seemed pretty far-fetched when it was published in 2012.

I recently told the dragonfly robot story to another friend, Keith Andrews, an entomologist with years of experience in pest control in Central America. Keith immediately seized on the robot idea. “How did it run, on photovoltaic cells? Did it collect its prey in a kind of stomach or just kill them?”

The story doesn’t say what powered the dragonflies, just that they snipped off bits of their prey to store in a mechanical stomach, so that researchers could identify the bugs later from their DNA.

Real life dragonflies do hunt and kill other insects, to eat. But once a predatory insect is full it rests. A robot wouldn’t need to pause and digest, and could be programmed to just keep up the slaughter all day.

“A robot would be great for that plague of locusts in Africa,” Keith said. “It wouldn’t have to damage an insect much to disable it. A good zap right between the eyes or even to the thorax or abdomen would put a grasshopper out of business.”

A pest control robot could be instructed to target only the pest species of interest, and not kill anything else. It would be the ultimate ecological pest control strategy.

Since Steve published his story eight years ago, the pieces for a dragonfly robot have started to come together.

For starters, flying robots are getting better.

In The Fate of Food, Amanda Little writes that inventors already have a prototype weed-killing robot called See & Spray, that uses a large set of digital photos to distinguish cotton seedlings from weeds. As a tractor pulls See & Spray across the field, the device spots the weeds and squirts them with herbicide. (No doubt future generations of the technology may invent alternatives to herbicide; the point is that the robot can recognize weeds).

Little also describes a robot, already in commercial use, that kills sea lice, parasites of farmed salmon, by zapping the pests with a laser (in the recent blog The Fate of Food).

If you’re wondering if digital software could work to identify pests on small farms, it’s already being done. Researchers at IITA (International Institute of Tropical Agriculture) in Kenya have invented an app called Nuru (Swahili for “light”) that instantly compares thousands of photos of diseased and healthy plants to distinguish between cassava brown streak disease, cassava mosaic disease and cassava green mite damage. The app is already being tested by 28,000 farmers in Kenya.

Art can inspire technology ahead of its time. Novels fueled the idea of space travel, but engineers made it happen. I can only hope that some young robotics designers will read Steve Peck’s story.

Further Reading

Little, Amanda 2019 The Fate of Food: What We’ll Eat in a Bigger, Hotter, Smarter World. New York: Harmony Books. 340 pp.

Peck, Steven L. 2012 Dragonfly Miscalculations. The Journal of Unlikely Entomology.

RTB 2019 Smarter farming: Using apps to diagnose crop health problems. In RTB 2019 Building for better science. Annual Report 2019. Lima, Peru. CGIAR Research Program on Roots, Tubers and Bananas. Available online at: www.rtb.cgiar.org/2019-annual-report

Building a better fruit fly trap August 16th, 2020 by

The Mediterranean fruit fly is a worthy enemy. This pest, also known as the medfly, is widespread over the tropics, attacking and spoiling oranges, mangos and many other fruits. Each female can lay 200 eggs in her brief lifetime—allowing rapid population growth. The medfly damages so much high value fruit, that many people would like to eradicate it entirely.

The medfly has inspired some bizarre responses, such as spraying suburban Los Angeles with Malathion (insecticide) in the 1980s. Then there is the sterile male technique, which has been used from South America to South Africa to the US citrus belt, where billion of the flies are reared in labs, and treated with enough nuclear radiation to make the males sterile. These hapless males are then dropped from airplanes to mate with wild females, who then have no offspring. These programs to eradicate fruit flies over all of Guatemala, for example) are often described as successful, cost-effective and environmentally friendly. They are also large, expensive and highly technical affairs.

Low technology has also been tried. In Bolivia, the soda pop bottle trap has been around for perhaps 20 years, although it has not been widely adopted. You take a plastic drink bottle, punch some fly-sized holes in the side, pour in half a cup of orange juice and hang the bottle from an orchard tree, about shoulder height. The flies come for the juice, fly into the hole, but usually can’t find their way out of the bottle again and drown in the juice.

It’s fine in theory, but when I saw the traps being used in the field, the farmers had quickly given up on them, allowing the orange juice to decay to a black rot. The farmers had tried a trap or two and abandoned the idea. The traps may have needed some further tweaking.

Our personal battle with the medfly began three years ago, when we couldn’t get them out of our guava tree. Entomologist Luis Crespo told us that the flies love guava so much that peach growers have to cut down their guava trees as a first step to managing the pest (The best knowledge is local and scientific). But Luis kindly gave us a pheromone trap, which attracts flies with a sexual scent lure. The flies land on the trap’s sticky surface and die.

Pheromones typically trap one particular species of fly, but we had several, and by then the soil around our guava tree was full of pupating and highly fertile fruit flies. We reluctantly pruned our guava so it wouldn’t bear fruit, but by last year we were getting fruit fly larvae in our tomatoes and even in our avocados, (not a major fruit fly host).

The war was on. We loathed the thought of fruit flies in our avocados, and this was our last chance to stamp out the fly. We uprooted all our tomatoes. Ana and her dad made dozens of traps. Even a technology made from a pop bottle can evolve. We had seen improved models displayed by students at the local fair sponsored by the agricultural college.

You can make a better trap by painting a yellow stripe around the entry holes. Fruit flies are attracted to the color yellow. Take two bottles and make a T-shaped trap. As the flies ascend from the juice to the top of the bottle, they fly into the second bottle and cannot find their way out again. During the mild winter, we may have two to four flies in each pop bottle trap, while the old traps made from a single bottle would catch one or two medflies.

It seemed like a waste to squeeze fresh juice for flies, but we learned with experience that even when the orange juice was a month old, the fruit flies still swarmed to it because they are attracted to fermenting fruits and vegetables.

Traps might also work in a commercial orchard, if you could get hundreds of pop bottles. People are starting to manufacture yellow traps and there are alternative baits (like chicha, a local, low-alcohol brew, which is already fermented and easier to get than orange juice). In spite of our improvements, one has to attack fruit flies with several weapons at once. Our traps are better for monitoring than for total fruit fly control. If not for the Covid lockdown, we would buy some low-toxic insecticide to make more lethal food traps. And we won’t know until our next avocado crop comes in if we have eradicated our fruit flies or not, but at least we have a better fly trap.

Scientific name

The Mediterranean fruit fly is Ceratitis capitata, but other fruit fly genera in Bolivia include Anastrepha and Bactrocera.

Related blog story

Guardians of the mango

Related videos

Killing fruit flies with food baits

Weaver ants against fruit flies

Collecting fallen fruit against fruit flies

Integrated approach against fruit flies

Further reading

Enkerlin, W. R., J. M. Gutiérrez Ruelas, R. Pantaleon, C. Soto Litera, A. Villaseñor Cortés, J. L. Zavala López, D. Orozco Dávila et al. 2017 The Moscamed Regional Programme: Review of a Success Story of Area‐Wide Sterile Insect Technique Application. Entomologia Experimentalis et Applicata 164(3):188-203.

The fate of food August 2nd, 2020 by

In The Fate of Food, Amanda Little (professor of journalism and science writing at Vanderbilt University) takes us on a strange journey to the cutting edge of agricultural research. Little has an astonishing knack for getting quality face time with some of the most innovative (and busy) people in the science of food.

She takes us to Shanghai to meet Tony Zhang, an entrepreneur who dreamed of being the Whole Foods (grocery store chain) of China. Zhang was so enraged when he found out that his vegetable farmers were growing special plots of organic produce just for their own families, while selling produce tainted with pesticides, that he created his own 4,000 hectare farm where he monitored his crops with electronic soil sensors that captured data on soil moisture and temperature, humidity, acidity and light absorption. The cost of managing the data and cleaning the heavily polluted soil eventually led Zhang to quit farming, but other companies continue to improve his idea of the digitalized soil sensors.

In Silicon Valley, Indian cardiologist Uma Valeti leads a startup that is culturing meat in the lab. It’s real meat, just grown in a Petri dish, not in an animal’s body. Little finds the duck meat tasty, although at over $100,000 a serving, it’s still not commercial. But costs are falling.

In Norway, commercial salmon grower Alf-Helge Aarskog is growing the fish in cages in the seawater of a fjord. Fish farmers are racing to invent technology fast enough to solve their emerging problems. Captive salmon were once fed wild sea creatures, but the diet is now 75% grain, with the goal of creating a completely vegetarian, cultivated fare. The dense populations of penned fish are a breeding ground for “sea lice,” a crustacean parasite of salmon. Aarskog is using a robot that can spot the sea lice and zap them with a laser as the fish dart through the water.

Robots are the newest farm workers on dry land as well. Peruvian engineer Jorge Heraud and colleagues in California have invented a “lettuce bot” that can thin a field by recognizing when seedlings are too dense, and kill the extra plants with a precision over-dose of chemical fertilizer. John Deere sees enough promise in the idea that the corporation recently bought Heraud’s company for $305 million.

In the USA, most lettuce is grown in California in the summer, and around Yuma, Arizona in the winter, a continent away from the big consumer markets of the East Coast. Former Cornell professor Ed Harwood and colleagues have solved this problem by growing aeroponic lettuce in an old building in Newark, New Jersey, where the plants grow under LED lights, without soil. The lettuce is marketable after 12 to 16 days instead of 30 or 45, and the plants yield four times as much as in the open field. The lettuce is grown on trays stacked high, so the yield per hectare can be 390 times as high as in a conventional farm.

The book is crowded with insights. For example, drip irrigation was invented in the 1930s by Simcha Blass, an Israeli engineer, after he observed a tree growing big and lush in the desert, thanks to a nearby, overlooked leaking faucet. Little is also cautious about some recent innovations; 90% of the maize, soy and cotton grown in the USA now is genetically modified, mostly to be grown with high doses of herbicides. Pigweed has now evolved resistance to the herbicides and infests 70 million acres (28 million hectares) in the United States.

As we learned from professor Calestous Juma, earlier in this blog (The enemies of innovation), innovations often look awkward at first; it took years for the farm tractor to become agile enough to really compete with horses. It’s hard to tell which of the innovations that Little describes will produce the food of the future. But big data, robots and more indoor farming may all be here to stay. Little starts and closes her book with a vignette about Chris and Annie Newman, a young couple in Northern Virginia raising pigs and chickens, and fruit and nut trees, with permaculture. The Newmans are pro-environment and pro-technology; they look forward to the day when they can use weeding robots on their farm. It’s just possible that digital technology of the future might tempt more young people to invest in highly productive, organic family farming.

Further reading

Little, Amanda 2019 The Fate of Food: What We’ll Eat in a Bigger, Hotter, Smarter World. New York: Harmony Books. 340 pp.

Validating local knowledge July 26th, 2020 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación

Paul and I have written earlier stories in this blog about the yapuchiris, expert farmer-researcher-extensionists on the semi-arid, high plains of Bolivia. At 4000 meters above sea level (over 13,000 feet), seasoned farmers know how to observe plants and animals, clouds and stars, to predict the weather, especially to answer the Big Question on their minds: when will the rains start, so I can plant my crop?

All of the yapuchiris know some traditional ways of predicting the weather. Some yapuchiris also write their observations on a special chart they have designed with their agronomist colleagues at Prosuco, an organization in La Paz. The chart, called a Pachagrama, allows the yapuchiris to record the weather each day of the year, just by penciling in a few dots, so they can see if their predictions come true, and how the rains, frosts and hail affect their crops.

It can be daunting to prove the value of local knowledge, but it is worth trying.

Eleodoro Baldivieso is an agronomist with Prosuco, which has spent much of the past year studying the results of the Pachagrama weather-tracking charts. As he explained to me recently, Prosuco took four complete Pachagramas (each one filled out over seven years) containing 42 cases; each case is a field observed over a single season by one of the yapuchiris. Comparing the predicted weather with the recorded weather allowed Prosuco to see if the Pachagramas had helped to manage risk, mainly by planting a couple of weeks early, on time, or two weeks late.

Frost, hail and unpredictable rainfall are the three main weather risks to the potato and quinoa crops on the Altiplano. In October, a little rain falls, hopefully enough to plant a crop, followed by more rain in the following months. Average annual rainfall is only 800 mm (about 30 inches) in the northern Altiplano, and a dry year can destroy the crop.

For the 42 cases the study compared the yapuchiri’s judgement on the harvest (poor, regular, or good) with extreme weather events (like frost), and the planting date (early, middle or late) to see if variations in the planting date (based on weather predictions) helped to avoid losses and bring in a harvest.

The study found that crops planted two weeks apart can suffer damage at different growth stages of the plant. For example, problems with rainfall are especially risky soon after potatoes are planted, affecting crops planted early and mid-season. Frost is more of a risk for early potatoes at the start of the season, and for late potatoes when they are flowering. Hail is devastating when it falls as the mid and late planted potatoes are flowering.

The yapuchiris are often able to accurately predict frost, hail, and rainfall patterns months in advance. Scientific meteorology does a good job predicting such weather a few days away, but not several months in advance. When you plant your potatoes, modern forecasts cannot tell you what the weather will be like when the crop is flowering. Forecasting the weather in a challenging environment is helpful, at least some of the time. Planting two weeks early or two weeks late may help farmers take best advantage of the rain, but then expose the crop to frost or hail. Changing the planting dates can help farmers avoid one risk, but not another.

The weather is so complicated that risk can never be completely managed. And because scientific meteorology cannot predict hail and frost months in advance, local knowledge fills a void that science may never replace.

Previous blog stories

Cultivating pride in the Andes

To see the future

Predicting the weather

Watch the video

Recording the weather

Watch the presentation by Eleodoro Baldivieso (in Spanish)

http://andescdp.org/cdp16/seminarios/seminario_4_respondiendo_amenazas_productivas/yapuchiris_Prosuco

Acknowledgement

This work with weather is funded by the McKnight Foundation’s Collaborative Crop Research Program (CCRP). Francisco Condori, Luciano Mamani, Félix Yana and Santos Quispe are the yapuchiris who participated in this research. Thanks to Eleodoro Baldivieso, María Quispe, and Sonia Laura of Prosuco for reading and commenting on a previous version of this story. The first two photos are courtesy of Prosuco.

VALIDANDO LOS CONOCIMIENTOS LOCALES

Por Jeff Bentley

26 de julio del 2020

Paul y yo hemos escrito historias anteriores en este blog sobre los Yapuchiris, expertos agricultores-investigadores y extensionistas en el Altiplano semiárido boliviano. A los 4000 metros sobre el nivel del mar, los agricultores experimentados saben cómo observar plantas y animales, nubes y estrellas para predecir el clima, especialmente para responder a la Gran Pregunta en sus mentes ¿cuándo comenzarán las lluvias para yo pueda sembrar mi chacra?

Todos los Yapuchiris conocen algunas formas tradicionales de predecir el tiempo. Algunos Yapuchiris también apuntan sus observaciones en un cuadro especial que han diseñado con sus colegas, los ingenieros agrónomos de Prosuco, una organización en La Paz. El cuadro, llamado Pachagrama, permite a los Yapuchiris registrar el tiempo cada día del año, con sólo dibujar algunos puntos, para que puedan ver si sus predicciones se hagan realidad y como las lluvias, heladas y granizadas afectan sus cultivos.

Puede ser difícil comprobar ese conocimiento local, pero vale la pena intentarlo.

El Ing. Eleodoro Baldivieso, de Prosuco, ha pasado gran parte del año pasado estudiando los resultados de los Pachagramas. Cómo él me explicó hace poco, Prosuco tomó cuatro Pachagramas completos (de siete campañas agrícolas) y 42 casos; cada caso es una parcela observada durante una campaña por uno de los yapuchiris. El comparar el tiempo previsto con el tiempo registrado permitió a Prosuco ver si los Pachagramas habían ayudado a manejar el riesgo, principalmente mediante la siembra temprana (dos semanas antes), intermedia y tardía (dos semanas después).

Las heladas, el granizo y la lluvia impredecible son los tres principales riesgos meteorológicos para los cultivos de papa y quinua en el Altiplano. En octubre cae un poco de lluvia, con la esperanza de que sea suficiente para sembrar un cultivo, seguida hasta marzo por más lluvia. La precipitación media anual es sólo 800 mm en el Altiplano Norte, y un año seco puede destruir la cosecha, lo mismo que un año con mucha lluvia.

Para los 42 casos el estudio comparó la evaluación del Yapchiri de la cosecha (malo, regular, o bueno) con eventos extremos de tiempo (como heladas), con las fechas de siembra (temprano, mediano, o tarde) para ver si el variar la fecha de siembra (basado en el pronóstico del Yapuchiri) ayudó a evitar pérdidas y lograr una cosecha.

El estudio halló que los cultivos sembrados a dos semanas de diferencia pueden sufrir daño en diferentes etapas de crecimiento da las plantas. Por ejemplo, los problemas con las lluvias son especialmente arriesgados poco después de la siembra de la papa, afectando más a la siembra tempran, a principios y mediados de la temporada. Las heladas son más riesgosas para las papas tempranas al comienzo de la temporada, y para las papas tardías justo en la época de floración. El granizo es devastador para las siembras intermedias y tardías, si la papa está en flor.

Los Yapuchiris a menudo son capaces de predecir con certeza las heladas, el granizo y los patrones de lluvia, con meses de antelación. La meteorología científica a menudo puede predecir ese tiempo a unos pocos días, pero con meses de anticipación. Cuando siembras tu papa, el pronóstico moderno no te puede decir cómo será el tiempo cuando tu cultivo está en flor. Pronosticar el tiempo en un entorno desafiante es útil, al menos parte del tiempo. Sembrar dos semanas antes o dos semanas después puede ayudar a los agricultores a aprovechar mejor la lluvia, pero se expone el cultivo a las heladas o granizo, cuando es más vulnerable. Cambiar las fechas de siembra puede ayudar a los agricultores a evitar uno de los riesgos, pero no siempre a todos.

El clima es tan complicado que el riesgo nunca puede ser manejado completamente. Y debido a que la meteorología científica no puede predecir el granizo y las heladas con meses de anticipación, el conocimiento local llena un vacío que la ciencia tal vez nunca reemplace.

Historias previas del blog

Cultivando orgullo en los Andes

Conocer el futuro

Prediciendo el clima

Ver el video

Hacer un registro del clima

Vea la presentación por Eleodoro Baldivieso (en español)

http://andescdp.org/cdp16/seminarios/seminario_4_respondiendo_amenazas_productivas/yapuchiris_Prosuco

Agradecimiento

Este trabajo con el clima es financiado por el Programa Colaborativo de Investigación sobre Cultivos (CCRP) de la Fundación McKnight. Francisco Condori, Luciano Mamani, Félix Yana y Santos Quispe son los Yapuchiris que participaron en esta investigación. Gracias a Eleodoro Baldivieso, María Quispe, y Sonia Laura de Prosuco por leer y hacer comentaros sobre una versión previa de esta historia. Las primeras dos fotos son cortesía de Prosuco.

Monkeys in the sacred forest May 31st, 2020 by

Of all the possible ways to save a primate species from extinction, the least expected is voodoo. It is known as vodun in Benin, West Africa, where Swiss ecologist Peter Neuenschwander began his conservation efforts.

I have written before how Peter first acquired, in 1995, a little group of red-bellied monkeys, a critically endangered species that lives only in the dwindling coastal forests of Benin. Later, Peter started to buy tracts of forest to keep the monkeys. At first, he kept them in cages. But after the monkeys began to mate, the half-grown babies would slip out of the cages and forage in the forest, where they were also fed on cucumbers and bananas, to make sure they got enough to eat.

Peter told me his story when I visited him at his Sanctuaire des Singes (Monkey Sanctuary) in the village of Drabo Gbo, near Cotonou, 12 years ago. Now he’s published a novel, based on his experience, in which he gives more details about how he slowly acquired his 14-hectare forest, buying small plots of about a hectare at a time.

Although Peter enjoyed his research in entomology, and loved living and working in Africa, he swore he would never buy land there. Or at least until a friend took him to Drabo Gbo, a small area near the research station where Peter worked. A large extended family owned a piece of land that had once been natural forest, but was now mainly planted with teak trees. A small area of sacred forest still remained, dominated by a massive cola tree. It was love at first sight. Peter arranged to buy the land with the cola tree, and an adjacent plot recently cleared for maize.

The sale helped the villagers of Drabo Gabo out of an impasse, for they had split into two groups, one of evangelical Christians and one of believers in vodun. The evangelicals wanted to cut down the forest and sell the wood. They also wanted to stop the vodun worshipers holding their rituals beneath the cola tree on moonless nights.

Peter bought the sacred forest from the evangelical faction, which held the title to the land. They got their money and Peter got his land. He then told the vodun group that they could continue to hold their rituals in the forest, but only if they would protect it.

Peter offered more than moral support to the vodun group. He joined in their sessions and, as he acquired more land, he was eventually initiated into two vodun groups, Zan-Gbeto, and Oro. In return, the Zan-Gbeto assigned a young man to be Peter’s guardian. Peter built a house on the deforested land, and with his guardian began to reforest the maize and fallow fields. Fortunately, the land had only recently been cleared from forest. Some trees grew up from the stumps left in the field. Other saplings sprouted from seeds that were still in the soil. Peter’s guardian would also bring in rare tree seedlings that he had found in neighbor’s fields.

As Peter describes in his book, it hasn’t always been easy. The villagers often ask him for cash to pay for school fees, funerals and medical expenses. He feels that he has to pay or they will turn on the forest, since they think that it would be better used for farming. There has also been violence, including a machete fight fueled by alcohol at a vodun meeting, and even murder.

Yet the villagers essentially held up their end of the bargain. The vodun men kept the hunters and woodcutters out of the forest. Peter could not have protected the forest by himself. There have been other benefits besides providing a home for the monkeys. By 2015 about half of the endangered plants in Benin were to be found in this sacred forest. Some animals, like the royal pythons, have become rare, but the red-bellied monkeys are reproducing. Peter has managed to pass his sanctuary forest on to the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), where he still works on a voluntary basis. IITA will use the forest as a place to study insects, which are essential for biological pest control, which is Peter’s specialty.

The sacred forest is now recognized as a reference forest. Botanists can visit and see trees that they may have never seen before, because the forests that still harbor them are too remote.

Many northern scientists who work and live the tropics have done important research. Few have made a home for endangered monkeys in a sacred forest, and by doing so, saved both. It’s not a job for the faint of heart. Peter is nothing if not honest about his experiences. “There are times when I hate myself for being here, and detest the entire village.” But he also writes: “After years of travelling throughout Africa in a quest to improve sustainable farming, this attraction culminated in a boy’s dream come true: living in a real forest, tending rare plants, and raising endangered monkeys.”

Further reading

Bentley, Jeff 2008 Red-Bellied Monkeys.

Neuenschwander, Peter 2020 Death in Benin: Science Meets Voodoo. Just Fiction! Editions, Omni Scriptum Publ., Beau Basin, Mauritius.

Neuenschwander, P., & Adomou, A. 2017.  Reconstituting a rainforest patch in southern Benin for the protection of threatened plants. Nature Conservation 21: 57-82.

Neuenschwander, Peter, Brice Sinsin and Georg Goergen (editors) 2011 Nature Conservation in West Africa: Red List for Benin. Cotonou: IITA.

Neuenschwander, P., Bown, D., Hèdégbètan, G. C., & Adomou, A. 2015 Long-term conservation and rehabilitation of threatened rain forest patches under different human population pressures in West Africa. Nature Conservation 13: 21–46.

Scientific names

Cola tree, Cola gigantea

Royal Python, Python regius

Red- bellied monkey, Cercopithecus erythrogaster

Acknowledgements

A warm thanks to Peter Neuenschwander for comments on a previous draft, and for kindly allowing me to use his excellent photographs. And to Paul Van Mele and Eric Boa, your help on these stories is always appreciated, even if I don’t always say so.

Design by Olean webdesign