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Grossman's research aids Jamaican agriculture

By Sally Harris

Spectrum Volume 21 Issue 10 - October 29, 1998

The weevil that threatens sweet potatoes in Jamaica now has a new enemy to outwit, and it's a high-tech foe.
Agricultural researchers fighting pests in three of Jamaica's popular export crops--peppers, sweet potatoes, and the leafy green callaloo--now have a new high-tech tool to control damage by predatory insects, viruses, and fungal infections. Virginia Tech is teaching agricultural personnel in developing countries to use new technology to collect and analyze data to help with pest management.
A team of Tech researchers, led by geography Associate Professor Lawrence Grossman, is training people in Jamaica to use geographic-information systems (GIS) in integrated pest management, which uses alternative methods of keeping the level of pest populations low to prevent excessive use of pesticide. GIS programs not only help researchers assemble, store, and recall quickly large amounts of data, but also let researchers manipulate, analyze, and display the spatial patterns of environmental, economic, and socio-cultural variables that might be relevant in solving problems using integrated pest management.
"A lot of work is being done on alternatives to traditional pesticides to reduce pesticide use in developing countries," Grossman said. Reducing pesticide use is not only critical for the health of farmers and environments in developing countries, he said, but is also important in lowering the percentage of export crops that are rejected due to pesticide contamination by countries such as the United States. Integrated pesticide management uses a wide variety of techniques to keep pest populations below the level at which they would cause economic damage. "The idea is to try as many alternatives as possible and use pesticides only in reduced amounts," Grossman said.
The hard-to-control sweet-potato weevil is one example, Grossman said. Because such weevils thrive in dry conditions, farmers can use irrigation to decrease weevil populations instead of applying high dosages of agro-chemicals.
GIS can help in such efforts. For example, if researchers tested the benefits of a new integrated-pest-management strategy in controlling fungal infections in peppers and found that their results were inconclusive statistically, they would traditionally assume that their efforts were a failure. In contrast, using GIS would encourage these researchers to examine their data not only statistically, but also spatially--that is, where the successful and unsuccessful test plots were located and what the surrounding conditions were that might also have affected the results. For example, Grossman said, the researchers might discover that all the plots with poor results were located close to streams in areas with poor soil drainage. Understanding such spatial associations is critical in successfully implementing integrated-pest-management programs.
Grossman led the team from Virginia Tech that included Andy Roberts, research associate in Virginia Tech's Department of Entomology, and Mannin Dodd, a graduate student in Tech's geography department, in conducting a GIS training workshop at the University of the West Indies in Jamaica. The workshop was a component of the Information Systems for Collaborative Research Project of the Integrated Pest Management Collaborative Research Support Program funded by the United States Agency for International Development and managed by the office of International Research and Development at Virginia Tech. Twelve Jamaican researchers participated in the workshop--four from the Caribbean Agricultural Research and Development Institute, five from the Ministry of Agriculture, and three from the University of the West Indies.
One of the problems with learning GIS in Jamaica is the lack of training resources aimed at integrated pest management and other agricultural fields. To assist participants in learning ArcView, the most widely used desktop GIS program, Grossman prepared a 167-page manual focusing on using GIS in integrated pest management. He made the manual relevant to small-scale farming in the Caribbean in general and created data sets for those learning to use it.
Grossman's manual is the first directed at integrated pest management users in the Caribbean. Glynis Ford, regional rural planner with Jamaica's Ministry of Agriculture, wrote that the training manual "demonstrates the application of GIS in a language that the target group could identify with (i.e., pest management)." The Jamaican participants should be using the system shortly, Grossman said, as he has recently sent them CD-ROM's containing all the data and maps used in the workshop.
Grossman is neither a pesticide expert nor an expert in GIS. However, he has done extensive research on agriculture in the Caribbean since 1988 and has written articles and part of his new book on the problem of pesticide use in that area, focusing more on the social, cultural, political, and economic factors that contribute to pesticide misuse.
"I have a fairly good understanding of Caribbean farming," he said. Such experience facilitates the design of tutorials about new technologies, such as GIS, that are relevant to the needs of researchers in the region. He also has prepared a tutorial on the web to teach his Introduction to Geography students how to use GIS software, so he has a combination of knowledge of computer technology and the social, cultural, political, and economic aspects of the area. (The tutorial for Jamaica can be seen on the web at http://www.majbill.vt.edu/geog/3104/jamaica/j-arc1.htm.
Ford said the Jamaica workshop on GIS "stimulated the interest of agriculturists in the use of GIS technology in a big way."