Penn State’s PlantVillage uses technology solutions and field crews to increase crop yield for farmers. The non-profit organization has developed an app to detect crop diseases and pests and support carbon capture. This article is part of the “Making Net Zero Possible” series, which uncovers cutting-edge solutions that can make a net zero future a reality. Something is loading.
In early 2020, Edward Idun traveled to the site of Africa’s worst locust invasion in decades, armed with a telephone.
Billions of swarming locusts were devouring crops and trees vital to the continent’s ability to produce food. The loss of trees could weaken Africa’s ability to tackle the climate crisis. Idun and his team tracked locusts in Kenya using eLocust3m, a mobile app.
Originally from Ghana and holds a Ph.D. from Penn State. student, Idun worked with a program called PlantVillage to develop the app. The research and development unit uses technology and field teams to increase crop yields for farmers around the world. His work fighting locust swarms supported a larger humanitarian response that would have saved $1.56 billion in food for 36 million people in East Africa.
PlantVillage was conceived in 2010 after David Hughes, professor of entomology and global food security at Penn State, recognized what he said was the stark inequality in how African farmers deal with pests compared to in the Global North.
With help from foundations, tech giants and $1 million from Elon Musk’s Xprize Carbon Removal competition, Penn State’s PlantVillage has developed eight apps that are used by the UN in more than 60 countries and 30 languages.
African farmers operating smallholdings continue to be disproportionately vulnerable to the effects of the climate crisis. As warming temperatures breed more and more crop pests, groups including PlantVillage are increasingly using artificial intelligence to protect agriculture.
PlantVillage Nursery located in Machakus, Busia County, Kenya. Photo courtesy of Roselyne Kagure
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, plant pests and diseases cause food crop losses of up to 40%. Each year, plant diseases cost the global economy more than $220 billion, while invasive insects cost at least $70 billion. The climate crisis is increasing crop diseases and pests – such as the desert locust, which could spread due to warming temperatures.
Empowering farmers to make decisions that can improve crop yields and profitability, while adapting to the climate crisis, is what Idun called a “win-win for farmers and the international community.” “.
An artificial intelligence assistant for farmers
Nuru, one of PlantVillage’s apps designed to detect crop diseases and pests, is perhaps the largest open-access crop health library in the world, PlantVillage said. The application uses an artificial intelligence assistant to identify and diagnose plant diseases and pests, especially in cassava and maize crops, even in the most rural areas.
“The idea was how can we have AI-level disease diagnosis in an offline phone for African farmers, so they can have an expert at their fingertips, in their field and in season,” Hughes said.
To tackle this digital divide, PlantVillage has distributed around 500 smartphones to farmers and seed growers in Kenya, Tanzania and Burkina Faso.
A practical solution to pests and diseases
With Nuru, farmers are able to diagnose healthy material in their fields and replant only those crops. About 400,000 to 500,000 people are on the platform per month.
Caroline Dama Kitsao has been farming cassava and maize for nearly a decade in Kilifi County, one of Kenya’s poorest and least developed regions. More than half of Kilifi’s farmers and their families live in extreme poverty. Dama Kitsao, who joined PlantVillage in 2020, is part of larger efforts to regenerate farmland into carbon-capturing tree farms.
Dama Kitsao said she faces a high level of cassava diseases and pests that are drastically reducing her crop yields. “Last year, we experienced very low rainfall due to climate change, which made our crops vulnerable to pests, reducing yields,” Dama Kitsao told Insider in Swahili.
“It made farming easier for us,” said Dama Kitsao, referring to Nuru. “Pest and disease levels on our farms have gone down and our crops are healthier.”
Nuru works by using image recognition and detection to spot diseases. Similar to scanning a QR code, farmers can place their phone camera on a leaf, and Nuru can detect diseases in real time and share ways to manage them.
Nuru, a mobile app developed by Penn State’s PlantVillage, for smallholder farmers around the world, provides advice from UN FAO scientists, non-profit groups, and national and state institutions. Photo courtesy of PlantVillage
“It’s important that Nuru has practical solutions that are available to farmers in a timely manner and at an affordable price,” said Allen Van Deynze, plant scientist and director of the Seed Biotechnology Center at the University of California, Davis.
Hughes said Nuru is already having an effect: “AI technology diagnosing cassava diseases was able to increase yields between 130% and 530%.”
Carbon capture is the end goal
Chelsea Akuleut uses Nuru to inform local farmers about adapting to climate change. She is part of what PlantVillage calls its Dream Team – young, African and recruited from agricultural universities. PlantVillage said Dream Team members receive competitive salaries, vacation pay, sick pay, maternity leave and health insurance.
PlantVillage relies on insourcing, which means it provides green jobs to local residents and students who are already on the ground – a tactic that worked well during the height of the pandemic when displacement proved difficult.
Akuleut leads a project with the Kenya Dream Team to plant and monitor 1 million trees on 12,500 farms in Kenya. PlantVillage estimated that each farm could capture three to five tons of carbon per year. Farmers are encouraged to plant trees with biochar, a soil additive that can store carbon dioxide for centuries.
“The goal is to have small centralized biochar production facilities that can serve a community of around 100 farmers guided by our integrated AI and cloud system,” Akuleut said. “Our end goal is carbon capture.”
So far, Akuleut and other Dream Team members have distributed over 400,000 trees to 5,000 farms in Kenya. The saplings include native, drought and termite resistant tree species. Trees also improve agricultural productivity by acting as windbreaks and reducing evapotranspiration, Akuleut said.
Extend the model
While PlantVillage hopes to apply its program in the United States, it is not excluded. PlantVillage once attempted to spot lanternflies in Pennsylvania, but stopped the project for various undisclosed reasons. Yet, the Nuru app is open to everyone around the world.
AI has become an integral part of agriculture in the United States, especially for strategically planting and weeding high-value crops, such as lettuce, nuts and grapes, Van Deynze said.
PlantVillage has extended some of its projects, including Nuru, to Uganda, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Malawi, Burkina Faso, Nepal and Honduras. “We have big plans to be in 40 countries over the next 18 months,” Hughes said.