America the Bountiful ag workforce event highlights Penn State initiative

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — PlantVillage, an online crop-disease knowledge library and image database co-founded by a Penn State researcher, was represented at an event unveiling a new agricultural workforce development initiative Oct. 6 in Washington, D.C.

The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and the White House Rural Council — in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, other federal agencies, and private-sector stakeholders — announced America the Bountiful, which will include wide-ranging efforts to expand and diversify the U.S. agriculture workforce.

David Hughes, assistant professor of entomology and biology at Penn State, was an invited guest at the event, which was held at USDA headquarters. Hughes and Marcel Salathé, a collaborator now at EPFL, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, Switzerland, created PlantVillage with an eye toward "democratizing" science-based information on plant diseases and crop production and increasing food security worldwide.

Federal officials pointed out that agriculture and its related industries provide nearly 10 percent of U.S. employment, but the number of students graduating with degrees in agricultural fields is not meeting industry demand. Agricultural education needs to attract a diversity of students and keep pace with the increasingly complex nature of agricultural innovation needed to address global challenges, they said, adding that falling behind in agriculture is a threat to national security.

As part of the launch of America the Bountiful, officials announced that Penn State and EPFL will invest $250,000 in PlantVillage, doubling their investment to date. The online resource provides more than 100,000 open access images of more than 40 diseases on 30 crops. These images have facilitated the development of algorithms capable of accurately diagnosing diseases with above 95 percent accuracy.

Such diagnostic tools support increased capacity for training in plant pathology where teaching resources are scarce, according to Hughes. He noted that PlantVillage will use this new investment, in part, to develop similar disease diagnosis algorithms with more than 10,000 images of cassava, a crop that is critical for global food security.

"This was an impressive event to be part of because it brought in stakeholders from across academia, industry, not-for-profits and federal agencies. The food system needs collaboration across these areas, and both the White House and USDA are to be applauded for pushing this forward," said Hughes, who has a dual appointment in the College of Agricultural Sciences and the Eberly College of Science.

"It was interesting to compare the community of diverse stakeholders at the event and what we have here on campus," he added. "At Penn State, we have a long history of using knowledge to increase agricultural productivity, but what is so exciting is that we are also a thriving center of innovation, so we can bring nontraditional approaches to the challenge of growing more food. The event confirmed to me that Penn State is superbly placed to be a 21st century land-grant school that has tremendous impact globally."

Before launching the America the Bountiful initiative, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy embarked on a two-year fact-finding process that solicited comments from scientists, educators, industry representatives, and advocates from federal agencies, academia, and the private sector. As a result, officials identified two fundamental goals necessary to meet global workforce and food-security challenges:

-- Increase the number and diversity of agriculturally trained workers at all levels of education, taking into account specific program needs and current and future challenges and opportunities.

-- Expand research and training in higher education in areas that are experiencing particularly serious workforce shortages and are central to meeting future needs.

To meet these goals, several federal and state agencies, companies, industry organizations, and educational institutions made wide-ranging commitments to create, continue, and support a variety of programs to enhance agricultural education at all levels and to strengthen and diversify the agricultural workforce.

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Last Updated October 14, 2016