THE BLOG

Plant Village Is Reclaiming Control of Our Crops

19/08/2013 15:15 BST | Updated 18/10/2013 10:12 BST

Plant Village is a unique social media site, enabling agriculturalists to easily and freely share information on crop disease in real time. With monthly page views of almost 170,000 unique visitors from 190 countries, Plant Village might just revolutionise the way we produce crops and the way we think about our food.

150 years ago, around 85% of the population of Western Europe were farmers. Now, we rely on less than 1% of the population to provide our crops. Today, the future of agricultural research is controlled by university labs and private companies such as CABI and the APS, and the resulting knowledge is sold back to agriculturalists at a profit. As Labour unveils plans to encourage a food growing culture in Britain, Dr David Hughes thinks the time is ripe for a revolution in the way we approach agriculture.

Dr Hughes is a faculty member of both Entomology & Biology at Penn State University, where he is also part of the Ecology Program. In addition to his roles in academia, Dr. Hughes is a central figure at the CIDD (Centre for Infectious Disease Dynamics), a role that has led to him advising developers on PlayStation 3 game The Last of Us, as well as Brad Pitt's zombie epic, World War Z. Driven by the geographical and cultural scars of the Irish Potato Famine, and events such as the decimation of the Sri Lankan coffee plantations in 1740, Dr Hughes, along with his colleague Marcel Salathe, has founded PlantVillage.com, a social networking site that allows farmers to take control of their crop's well being. As Dr Hughes explains, 'I see it as a way to leverage the billions of farmers to be sentinels recording in real time disease of crops and animals and tracking it and stopping it before it gets going. Each farmer has a phone with more computing power the Apollo missions. That is powerful.'

Dr Hughes hopes Plant Village will liberate knowledge and advance the rate at which we find accessible solutions to crop disease, benefiting all, rather than profit-driven agricultural companies. As Dr Hughes explains, 'PlantVillage allows the whole world to connect, find, share and liberate knowledge. This will speed up the rate and which we find solutions but at the same time prevent the lack of access to knowledge benefiting small groups of people (academics whose CV's require publications and companies who want profits).'

If Dr Hughes' vision is realised, Plant Village will continue to grow, allowing coffee farmers in Guatemala to share information with those growing carrots and cabbages on British allotments. American farmers growing wheat will benefit from the knowledge of those growing quinoa in the Peruvian Andes. According to Dr Hughes, this sort of information sharing is vital if we're to avoid repeating historical disasters brought about by ignorance.

The British colonisation of Sri Lanka was such a historical disaster. The British seized control of the island in 1796 and began clearing great quantities of land in order to increase their coffee production. Production increased at such a rate that Sri Lanka briefly became the world's largest coffee producer for a small time in the 1860s. Then, in 1869 a fungus known as 'coffee rust' began to spread through the British crops. The British did not take this threat seriously and continued to clear more land. Without being properly treated, the fungus spread to such a point that coffee production was no longer economically viable and Sri Lankan coffee production was shut down.

Luckily, the British were also doing incredibly well with their tea crops, but if they had been just one small country with one staple crop, rather than a global empire, the results could have been devastating. A recent instance being the Irish Potato famine of 1845 -52, a blight brought about by crop disease which caused 1 million deaths and led to a further million Irish leaving the country for America. Whilst social networking sites are obviously a contemporary luxury, there have always been ways for us to share information that could possibly benefit us all.

Although not a common occurrence, there have been some modern instances of the international community sharing resources to protect crops. When the cassava plant came under attack from the mosaic virus the international community came together and shared research on how to build up plant resistance to overcome the virus. As a result of this collaboration, the world's third largest source of carbohydrates was once again stabilised and continues to provide a staple food for parts of Africa, Latin America and South East Asia.

However, Dr Hughes is aware one success story is not enough. As Hughes explains, damage to crops can result in increased prices, and this eventually leads to conflict, 'Darfur, Rwanda and the Arab Spring started out of increased food prices and people rioting over access to bread. This fact is very well appreciated by the former US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, who often made the point of food security and violence. People riot when hungry. There was a massive increase in prices in 2008 that coincided with many conflicts.'

With a plethora of historical warnings as well as contemporary conflicts arising from damage to food crops, it would seem that it is in all of our best interests to protect our food sources. Whilst there are many organisations advancing research in a number of fields, Dr Hughes points to the hypocrisy of a number of 'non profit' organisations, 'Organisations such as CABI in the UK they have reduced public funds, so their publishing arms are relied upon to make money. They publish work which taxpayers have funded, but they cannot make it free. It is run by middle managers who have no idea what the original mission was (food security for poor people in ex-British colonies) and their performance reviews are linked to how many books/databases they sell. So, CABI has the world's best compendium on diseases and they sell it rather than give it away. They have no choice as government funding has evaporated and as a society we see no value in having public knowledge.'

By making such knowledge easily and widely available, Dr Hughes hopes to reduce the potential for such companies to turn a profit. In his essay 'Tragedy of the Information Commons' Professor Harlan J. Onsrud suggests that the ability of companies to profit from knowledge might shrink how much knowledge is being produced, 'To sell government data to a few private firms that can afford it benefits primarily those privileged firms at the expense of the general public and loss of widespread general benefits to the community.' Thus, if sites like Plant Village can make information available for free, companies such as CABI and APS should be able to dismiss their need to turn a profit, and focus on research instead. Of course, this is extremely idealistic and relies on increased government funding in order for such companies to continue.

Dr Hughes is well aware of the benefits of such companies but sees Plant Village as a chance for collaboration, rather than competition, 'I like both but cannot see how we excluded everyone else from the solution finding exercise. Recently, Bill Gates made the point about how capitalism is bad for neglected diseases like malaria, but we spend a great deal of time and money searching for a cure for baldness.' Onsrud goes on to explain, 'Regardless of the justification arguments and their validity, the practice of restricting access to the data produced by government eliminates or reduces use of such data as a public good.' With Plant Village then, Dr Hughes hopes to invite everyone to take part in a dialogue on how to stabilise our crops and thus help provide economical stability in poorer countries. With the website steadily growing and now featuring over 1,000 unique dialogues, he just might succeed.

Plant Village is also available as an app.