Feed the Future
This project is part of the U.S. Government's global hunger and food security initiative.

How Science and Extension Services Benefit From International Collaboration

A dragonfly that weighs less than a button can fly nonstop across an entire ocean. A moth can migrate from the Mediterranean basin to northern Europe and back again. Above our heads, billions of the insects we study follow a comprehensive sky-highway marking the way toward food, love, and safer spaces. Meanwhile, scientists, farmers and other agricultural stakeholders have another important reason for international travel: knowledge.

Globallyeven with the use of pesticidespests and diseases affect a quarter of all agricultural yields. Meanwhile, trillions of dollars are spent every year on the trade of agricultural products, with the majority of the supply being food. That’s why building and maintaining international coalitions and collaborations to implement sustainable agricultural practices is more critical than ever.

Van Crowder is the executive director of the Center for International Research, Education, and Development (CIRED) at Virginia Teach, which houses the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Integrated Pest Management, in addition to a host of other development projects under a sponsored portfolio of $60 million. CIRED works with local and global stakeholders—researchers, scientists, teachers, business people, NGO workers, policy makers and farmers. Extension services are key to the delivery of information and ideas; ensuring that content is in line with markets and value chain demands, Crowder said, is where international collaboration is key.  

“When thinking about improving extension services, it is important to recognize that there are a diversity of extension approaches and methodologies,” Crowder said. “The difficulty is setting up pre- and in-service training systems with knowledge, curricula, materials, etc. to effectively provide the needed training on a continuous basis.”

In Senegal, through the USAID-funded Education and Research in Agriculture (ERA) project, CIRED helped pass a law that created a community outreach role for universities, including working closely with extension services. This is an example of how Virginia Tech’s experience as a land-grant university with research, teaching and extension functions can be used to help partner universities embody new approaches to agricultural development.

From September 27-29, the Innovation Lab will be embarking on an opportunity for international collaboration of their own. At the First International Conference on Biological Control: Approaches and Applications in Bengaluru, India, the team will host two specialized symposia on mitigating the invasive weed Parthenium and the tomato leafminer Tuta absoluta, both of which are major threats to food security. The Innovation Lab team alone will have representatives from a dozen different countries including South Africa, Uganda and India, a small sample of the hundreds of people presenting their own subjects from their own countries.

Wondimagegnehu Mersie is the Associate Dean and Director of Research at Virginia State University and a principal investigator on the Innovation Lab’s project for the biological control of Parthenium in East Africa. At the Bengaluru conference, themes such as biodiversity, biosecurity and biological control policy issues will be covered, but Mersie sees that the conference's real success will be based on its attendees and the myriad of countries, terrains and circumstances they represent.

“There are several examples of how the Innovation Lab Parthenium project has been enabled, enhanced and made more effective as a result of international collaboration,” he said. “Australians and South Africans work with me on the project and have many years of experience in promoting biocontrol of Parthenium with landowners. They shared with Ethiopians what worked and what didn’t work when disseminating biological control knowledge among farmers. This allows Ethiopians to choose those methods that worked and avoid spending resources on procedures/approaches that do not work.”

His hope is that Ethiopians will now share their experience with scientists in neighboring countries such as Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda where Parthenium continues to be a problem. At the upcoming conference, he is eager to meet with scientists from India who released the biocontrol agent Zygogramma to control Parthenium over thirty years ago and have extensive experience on how the biocontrol agent performs under field conditions. Working with scientists from India on those basic preliminary questions will allow Mersie and scientists from other countries to avoid repeating the same mistakes and focus on the procedures and methods that worked.

Whether it be the broader scope of delivering information or the intricate detail of how a mitigating measure operates, international collaboration as a mode for improving extension services and agricultural development saves time and money and encourages productivity. Research or the dissemination of information that might be homogenous in culture, discipline or training can be limiting. In addition to international collaboration helping to test the universality of hypotheses, it helps to establish the literal and figurative translatability of ideas. Collaborations that go beyond borders could even expose the menial or meaningful assumptions we make in the measures that we use every day.

The complex problems that development organizations face, such as food shortages, water crises and conflicts between countries, Crowder said, can only be solved with complex solutions.    

Globe skimmer, globe wanderer and wandering glider are the many names for one dragonfly, but they all mean the same thing. Sometimes travelling over 11,000 miles, this dragonfly completes an annual multigenerational journey around the world that allows it to survive. In its wake are evolutions of beginning, beginning again and the ability to push forward.  

Written by Sara Hendery