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Sharing knowledge, feeding the world

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  • An open collection of plant wisdom to help combat food insecurity.
  • Algorithms teach computer to spot plant disease with 99 percent accuracy.
  • Smartphone based resource goes where universities and scientists cannot.

Ireland lost about 20 percent of its population to starvation and emigration during the great famine of 1845-1849 because blight destroyed that nation’s major food source – potatoes.  Today, an Irish-born professor at Penn State University believes that a similar situation in other regions, such as sub-Saharan Africa, could be a thousand times worse.

PlantVillage. Co-creator David Hughes speaks at TEDxPSU about how crowdsourced plant diagnoses can bring an end to food insecurity. Courtesy David Hughes.

But there’s hope, he says, because modern food producers have tools the 19th century Irish did not – smartphones and mobile apps, like PlantVillage.

According to PlantVillage co-creator David Hughes, assistant professor of entomology and biology at Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences, PlantVillage provides access to a computerized plant diagnostic system. The system boasts an algorithm capable of diagnosing 26 diseases in 14 crops with 99 percent accuracy.  In essence, computers have been ‘taught’ to diagnose plant diseases by comparing the images of healthy and diseased specimens.

Hughes developed PlantVillage with Marcel Salathé, former PSU assistant professor of biology (now at Switzerland’s Ecole polytechnique federale de Luasanne), to help reduce food loss by making it easier for knowledge providers to share critical information with growers around the world. 

As much as 40 percent of the world’s potential food supply is destroyed by diseases that affect crop plants.

Growers around the world have used the social media PlantVillage platform to ask questions and post images about their particular issues and to help answer the questions of others. Many forum answers and images come from experienced growers, extension experts, land-grant scientists, industry professionals, and scientists at international centers.  So far, the expanding A-Z library of plants in the PlantVillage database ranges from African eggplant to yams.

According to Hughes, the smartphone-based diagnosis is only possible because of plant pathology research funded by USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) and other national bodies around the world, such as the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) centers.  The web-based PlantVillage algorithm uses a dataset of more than 54,300 images to make its diagnoses.

<strong>Thought for food. </strong>PlantVillage is an online interactive resource designed to share botanical knowledge. An example of the Anthracnose fungus on avocado fruit is pictured. Courtesy David Hughes.

The proliferation of smartphones and the acceleration of computer technology is what makes Hughes confident that PlantVillage is a game-changer for agriculture. It will not replace experts in the field diagnosing plant diseases, but could act as an important tool in areas where land-grant university extension programs are not available.

As revolutionary as it is, Hughes sees PlantVillage as just the beginning. He and Salathé are continuing to expand the dataset of images and improve the algorithm by reaching out to plant scientists around the world.

By merging crowdsourced science-based expertise with easy access to information, PlantVillage leverages the very latest in computer science to help tackle crop disease, feed the world’s growing population, and hopefully prevent future tragedies like the Irish Potato Famine.

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