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As an entomologist I am used to getting blank, catatonic glares when I tell people what I am researching. For your average man on the street, insects have no bearing on daily existence. That is not the case. Most people do not realize that a large portion of all of our food comes to us because of a direct relationship between a food crop and an insect.
Here is an article from the BBC about how India is facing a food shortage because of an inability of flowering crops to be pollinated properly by insects. This is interesting for several reasons.
First, India produces more vegetables than any one nation besides China.
Second, India is the second most populous nation in the world, with %17.3 of the world’s population. Agriculture is a huge industry in India. The impact of having a large portion of the world out of food and work can’t be estimated and would have disastrous effects.
This issue is not restricted to India, but is a big deal in Europe and the Americas. So big the United Nations has an entire program devoted to it.
I will leave Haagen-Dazs to bring the point home.
Where the heck I have been
The past several weeks have been very hectic.
I decided in the middle of July to begin study for the MCAT and begin applying for medical schools. This may seem a little odd to some people to go from entomology to medicine. There is actually a lot of cross over. Ever heard of Asthma? How about the deadliest animal in the world?
It has actually been on my mind quite a bit and I just recently decided it is something that I wanted to tackle. So I am battling with a large book and a battalion of flashcards to re-learn all of the physics, biology and chemistry I learned in four years of college. Today is oficially one month away from the test date. Wish me luck.
In the midst of studying I have been up to my neck in research which has been slightly painful. Aphid numbers across the US are very low this year. It is difficult to study how to control a pest if it does not show up. But I have been able to gather some good data in spite of it all and do have some good projects coming to a close. As those are completed I will share snippets here for all to read.
I had a fun time today when my crew was caught in a downpour while in a corn field today. We were getting wet but my research, sadly, was not going to count itself. I was able to fashion a shelter between our cages using nothing but a tarp, twist ties, and corn stalks. Rest assured- corn will hold up to the test of a heavy rain and will help keep you dry. I felt a small bit of pride from my use of the surroundings. If I am ever stranded in a corn field with a tarp and twist ties, I know what to do.
I am about three weeks away from the winding down of the field season. We are weeks ahead of schedule in terms of heat units, so hopefully I should be able to get harvest done early and start writing my thesis. I may go into a cave and emerge four months later with a rough draft.
The last several weeks have been pretty hectic. After finding aphids two weeks ago, I have been frantically running around Michigan in search of aphids and other miscellaneous entomological flotsam.
When I last wrote, I was en route to plant a potassuim study with the help of my faithful undergraduates and my cohort Meg Chludzinski (Say Kluh-Jen-Ski). Planting went well and everything is progressing according to plan except my fertilization regimen was too conservative, so an additional application of potash will be required.
Last week I began my natural enemy study in Frankenmuth and am all set to continue with the same study on campus. It is a relief to begin collecting data. Datum does not fall from the sky, much to a graduate student’s chagrin; they must be beat out of the air. This study is nice in that it only requires heavy work every other week, so it avoids the weekly toil associated with my other studies. I say toil in the best possible way.
My genetic diversity study was recently granted funding by the MSU Entomology department, so I will be able to drive around and try to get aphids, although from talking to extension agents and growers, most have not seen them. The thought of driving all the way to Alpena to find no aphids is not entirely appealing. All in the name of science.
The last two days have been extension heavy. I went with my advisor Dr. DiFonzo to talk to growers in Gratiot county about insect damage to crops. I was able to witness a field infested with corn leaf blight miners. These little maggots crawl through the leaf tissue and leave a white trail behind. Corn plants can become overrun and will have white, wilted leaves.
Today our crew attended the MSU Weed Science Weed Tour. I know that for the average person a weed tour sounds about as appealing as watching paint dry, but for an entomologist it was exciting. We got to talk to industry reps about new products and see what weed control methods were best in crops. This is extremely important as these studies can help in making farming more sustainable by allowing no-till agriculture and by reducing herbicide resistance.
Tomorrow I am off to Frankenmuth to check on my plots and plan out the next phase of my work.
Over the past year I have gotten to know Fred Springborn. Fred is the extension agent for both Montcalm and Newaygo counties in the midwestern half of Michigan.
I am currently performing studies on some of his land and am working with him cooperatively on several projects.
When I first met Fred my immediate reaction was that he reminded me of a character out of The Adventures of Homer Price. Fred is a tall man, usually wearing a John Deere hat, cowboy boots, jeans and a striped cotton shirt. With the exception of the BlackBerry on his belt, he would be at home in the backdrop of a John Wayne movie, speaking in his measured Sanilac county drawl.
Every time I interact with Fred I am astounded by the array of information he carries around in his head. Fred is an expert and is passionate on the subject of manure and soils. Beyond this expertise Fred gives advice and wisdom to growers of wheat, corn, soybeans, dry edible beans, potatoes, oats, barley, as well as fruits, vegetables, and livestock. The area he serves provides most of the peas for the Gerber Baby Food company as well, providing millions of dollars to the Michigan economy. For each of these specialties Fred gives advice on equipment, fertilization, tillage and pest control, including nematodes, fungi, insects and diseases. The amount of information he is able to deliver is incredible. Fred is also a curious person. I have known him to carry a list of questions to ask when he sees us; questions he has been pondering and wants answers to.
Beyond the raw knowledge, Fred demonstrates one of extensions greatest strengths- connections. When any grower calls Fred with a question, he is one phone call away from the world renowned experts in the field. This last summer, an amish man found some cereal leaf beetles in his barley. Within an hour I was standing in that field looking at this fascinating pest with my professor. We were able to collect samples and give him advice and learn about the pest. This experience was vital for the grower, who learned how to deal with a pest and was also invaluable to us as researchers to view a rare and interesting pest.
The power of connection also travels in reverse. When I am in need of aphids or a location to erect a trap I am one phone call away from having a connection with some of the most diverse and economically important cropland in Michigan. Fred is largely responsible for a majority of the studies being performed by the Field Crops Lab this year. Without him we would not be able to do our jobs.
Michigan State University pioneered the concept of connecting the university with the landscape, providing growers with knowledge, enabling them to improve their practices and providing researchers an arena to seek discovery, test theories and run experiments.
In this state the money spent on extension and agriculture is an investment with tangible returns. By spending the money to connect growers and researchers, growers are placed in contact with the latest research and information on cutting edge agricultural practices. Researchers are also then given access to the practical knowledge of growers and are given the tools to research. Thus we have a state with burgeoning agriculture and cutting edge research. These combine to boost the economy, employ a large number of workers and feed children as far the the face of the Gerber baby travels.
All of this is done by men and women like Fred. Cruising the dusty roads of Michigan in their pickup trucks. Talking to anyone who has questions and seeking to learn themselves. Helping men and women to make money and protect their livelihoods.
This is the first part of a series of posts I will be doing over the course of the summer cataloging the progress of my work researching the control of soybean aphids (Aphis glycines).
Soybean aphids are pretty crazy little dudes that like to suck soybean plants dry and can cause farmers to lose up to 70% of their yield. That is a lot of money lost to this little green bug. The United Soybean Board collects a small amount of money from each grower through the Soybean Checkoff program, a little “soy tax” if you will. This money is referred to as “Checkoff dollars” and is spent on research to figure out ways of improving farmer’s incomes and yield. These funds create the North Central Soybean Research Program (NCSRP). This is the program, in combination with the Michigan Soybean Board, that funds my research.
My research looks at ways of controlling these aphids through conservation biological control and host plant resistance (HPR). Hopefully this will help the bottom lines for farmers and will lead to more sustainable soybean production.
Biological control relies on the principal that in the environment exist biological entities that work to control and provide resistance to the personal and population growth of every living organism on the planet, being plant, bacteria, insect, anything. These forces help to control populations and create an equilibrium, gravitating towards the carrying capacity of an ecosystem. The steriotypical example of the wolves and the moose in Isle Royale is often used to show how one organism effects the population of another. In the case of soybean aphids, the forces that help to lower the populations of aphids are not present in the United States as they are in the aphid’s native lands in Asia.
Several types of biological control exist, such as classical biological control, where we go back to the foreign lands and find the natural enemies that prey on the the aphids. This is being attempted, but is historically not entirely successful, for many reasons. The natural enemies can be fickle and can have a difficult time adapting to new environs. natural enemies can also do too well, as is the case of the Asian Multicolored lady beetle. This is the lady beetle that little old ladies are always complaining about as they invade homes in the fall. Releasing anything into the environment is always a little scary.
There are other types of biological control, such as inundative biological control, but I will not get into those.
My research is with conservation biological control. This relies of figuring out ways of attracting natural enemies that are already in the environment to problem areas by creating amenable conditions for these organisms to feed, aestivate, live, breed, etc… My specific work looks at how variety selection effects the suites of predators that inhabit them.
These varieties are bred and are selected to be resistant to aphids. This is called host plant resistance. The varieties I am investigated have been developed to have lower populations of aphids. I am looking to see how these differences in population effect natural enemy populations.
I will be executing 4 separate studies this summer, literally taking me from one end of the state to another. I have plots in Montcalm county and just north of Frankenmuth as well as plots I have on the campus research farm. I am planning on collecting aphids from one tip of the lower peninsula to the other. This means at some point I shall have to drive the length of our great state and crawl around in farmer’s fields looking for soybean aphids. I have all but one of my studies planted and am hoping to have it completed early this next week. After that he next two weeks consist of watching my plants grow and waiting for aphids to fly in.
It should be exciting, I am hoping to be done next May and am looking at many options, ranging from going directly to my PhD. or even the Peace Corps. I also reserve the right to just work at the local Apple Store.
I intend to put updates here and let people know how things are going, this also serves as a little measuring stick for me to use to watch my progress and see where this all goes.
P.S.- Check out this info on Cereal Leaf Beetle, a rarely problematic insect that is become an annoyance
to many farmers this summer. It is a fascinating insect and it as been fun helping growers and extension agents figure out how to handle it.
Today my father had an article published in the Holland Sentinel concerning the role of chickens in urban areas.
Here is a link to the article and a link to a post on The Urban Agriculture Initiatives in Detroit blog, an urban agriculture blog I have mentioned before and am a contributor to.
Check them out and try to raise a stink in your neck of the woods to get some birds in your neighborhoods.
This is an essay I just turned in for a class. Thought somebody would enjoy reading it. If not,… whatever.
America’s Fork in the Road
The American food system is in a quiet crisis, a crisis that is being misrepresented by many, ignored by most and furthered by some. The very issues of food safety and food security are at risk by the nature of this crisis. The United States presently possesses one of the best food systems in the world with high safety and relatively accessible and secure products. As was discussed by Dr. Hamm in his lecture to the class, we do have “food deserts”, where a large number of people do not have direct access to quality food; these regions do not typify the American food system as a whole but may in fact become more typical if our system continues to be an amalgamated system, with large ubiquitous corporations controlling the entirety of food production. An ideal example to look towards to see the danger in this type of system is the financial crisis of 2008-2009. The financial industry rested on a handful of large companies that were engaged in activities of dubious legality. When these companies struggled, the ripples were felt across the nation and became shockwaves. The question persists if these trends of consolidation and tight legal control of products will continue. The fate of the global food system rests in the hands of consumers everywhere. Although this does sound like the tagline from the prequel to Water World, it is entirely true. How this plays out depends on three factors. First- Consumers need to become educated on what they are purchasing. If consumers blindly buy anything that has the word “organic” stamped on it without looking at the location it was produced, who produced it, what organic actually means for that crop or product. The purchase of organic Rice Crispies and Oreos has no positive effect on the world except making the consumer feel like they have made a difference. Any individual who understands the system will know that the only thing impacted by this purchase is their wallet. The premium paid for these types of feel-good products only serves to bolster the ballooning assets of food vendors. Second- The type of foods eaten by consumers needs to shift. Demand for items made with sugar as opposed to high fructose corn syrup, demand for local fruits and vegetables. Demand for things fueled by knowledge and what is best as opposed to what makes the consumer feel good. This is an uphill battle. The entirety of marketing relies on making people feel good about buying their product. Currently the majority of the monies available to leverage this marketing power are in the hands of these groups who do not desire to have these shifts occur. This element touches on culture and goes against the flow of money, which makes the outlook of this seem bleak. But, if the first point can be achieved and people become educated, the flow of money can also change directions and can push change as opposed to resisting it. Third- Growers and producers need to jump the gun. What I mean by this is they need to anticipate the change in public perception and make changes regardless of what the corporate entities want. This is almost impossible is almost worthy of ridicule for suggesting. But in fact, many items have been sold on manufactured demand, where the products were sold where originally people saw no need for them. The example of Bottled water is perfect; manufactured demand turned a niche market into a multi billion-dollar industry almost overnight. Producers of water created demand through advertising. Growers have the power to sell products to small firms and to farmer’s markets. If the second step happens and consumers desire new products that are actually better or cut out the middle men, and growers are not willing to sell directly to smaller companies or through farmers markets, the consumers will still be forced to go to the companies they are trying to be free of in the first place. That is the difficult thing about food; if one needs it, one cannot live without it. With bottled water, if someone desires to live without bottled water they can. In many cases, for many people, if they wanted to live without supporting this system, they would starve. This system is not unlike the company store system of the 19th century, which caused many people to become indebted to the corporations they worked for. The consumers at the end of the process, as well as the producer at the start both need to be willing to change simultaneously. If one changes and the other does not, nothing will happen. In sort, it appears that momentum is shifting away from supporting these systemic issues, but that does not guarantee that anything will happen. In my opining many of the changes that individuals are making are not going to have long-term positive consequences. It is uncertain of this trend will continue. If it does I am not optimistic, but if consumers take the next step in exploring how they eat and what we consume, there is hope.
Watch this video-
Over the past months there has been a slew of events where people have ignored or overlooked the fact that agriculture is one of Michigan’s most important industries.
#2 to be exact.
Agriculture has been experiencing double-digit growth over the past several years.
It is now worth over 70 billion dollars to the state (2007 Data).
We grow more crops than any other state besides California.
About 25% of Michiganders are employed by agriculture/food related industry. (This seems big, but that is what my sources say)
People seem to think that agriculture is not important. This is incorrect and people in Michigan need to realize that we live in an agricultural state.
I feel like I am just writing a rant, but I wanted to remind people to do two simple things-
Educate yourself and your children about agriculture. This does not need to be anything intense, but is as easy as taking your kids to the fair every year, if your kids are interested get them into 4H or FFA.
There have been several documentaries that have been produced over the past couple of years that would be good to watch. Two that come to mind are King Cornand Food Inc.
If you are into reading check out Jonathan Safran Foer’s new book “Eating Animals.”
Support Michigan Agriculture. Go to a local farm market, or if you go to Meijer or Wally World buy Michigan produce, they have it if you look for it. If you live in Lansing go to Horrock’s.
Healthy Agriculture- Healthy People-Healthy Environment- Healthy Michigan