Friday, November 13, 2009

MSU scientists will continue to bolster food production in Central Asia with our partners

Good news -- our team recently received word that US-AID IPM CRSP has renewed our funding at $1.25 million for the next five years.

We'll be promoting better pest management in growing key food crops: tomatoes, potatoes and wheat (for producing bread like the lovely loaf in the image).

Part of the goal will be to help our Central Asian partners build local expertise. Graduate students and key agricultural leaders will come to Michigan State University (MSU) and the University of California-Davis for short and long term training.

I'll be posting more details.

View photo gallery of our work at our web site.

Monday, June 8, 2009

More MSU science: Check out hyenas, pandas and biobased technologies

The members of the IPM Central Asia Project are back in their offices, glad the 30-hour journey home is over and suitcases are intact. Additional pictures are posted in the photo section of our web site, It is our intent to continue this blog by reporting in the future on our global IPM efforts.

If you have enjoyed reading about MSU science and its international applications, you may also enjoy reading these blogs:
1) MSU students researching hyenas in Kenya.
2) Travel journal kept by MSU researchers working on panda bear habitat in China.
3) A partnering trip to Sweden by MSU’s Office of Biobased Technologies.

Special thank you to my project partners and colleagues for their willingness to share their experiences through this blog. You are good sports and great travelers through all the jet lag, challenging conditions and long days. Thank you.

Global goodwill

The IPM Central Asia Project is in the last year of its funding from US AID. There are few other American universities working in Central Asia and we have compiled many indicators that our work has been productive here. The last day of our visit to Kyrgyzstan was spent developing a renewal request to continue our work. Most of our Central Asian partners came to our renewal planning session and, afterwards, surprised us with an informal trip to the nearby snow-capped Tien Shan Mountains. At a national park, they hosted a picnic-style break of Kyrgyz cheese, sausage, bread, chocolate and kumis, fermented mare’s milk. In Googling “kumis,” (to learn the correct spelling), I found this interesting factoid from Wikipedia:

quote-- In 2005, George W. Bush visited Mongolia, becoming the first U.S. president to do so, "and probably the first to drink fermented mare's milk in a felt tent guarded by the latter-day Golden Horde and a herd of camels and yaks", according to the Washington Post. The same article casts doubt on whether Bush actually drank: "No word on whether Bush actually swallowed or not, but some of his aides evidently did, judging by the looks on their faces afterward." --end quote.

I would like to report that our team was bold and I believe all tasted the kumis. It is very sour like plain yogurt and has a smoky flavor like a sausage – very odd, but perhaps no odder than American eggnog. I was assured by Kyrgyz friends that it was great for my health.

In the evening, one of our Bishkek colleagues, Gulnaz, graciously invited us into her home for dinner and we were given more gifts by Central Asian members of our team. As you’ve read in this blog, the people have been amazingly generous with us. They are extremely resourceful and quick to envision how to adopt an American agricultural practice to suit Central Asian conditions. We are in awe of them.

One last thought to share about the kindness of people around the world. In Aleppo, Syria, as we walked down a street, an older man called out to us and asked where we were from. After learning we were Americans, he replied he likes Americans and believes Americans like Syrians. He suggested the conflict is among politicians and has nothing to do with the American and Syrian people. “We should be like brothers and sisters.” We shook his hand and left enjoying the goodwill he offered us.

Picnic preparations underway.

The national park included a traditional "yurt," the felt tent home of these nomadic people. Dr. Walt Pett (sitting in the yurt) agreed to try the kumis and reports he does not intend to drink more in the future.

Gulnaz and several of the women who are partners in the IPM Project prepared us dinner in her apartment.

Friday, June 5, 2009

You are invited to a dinner in your honor

Ceremonies tell others about us. They honor, entertain and seal friendships. Throughout our visit, the Kyrgyz people have welcomed us with several variations of their traditional ceremonial dinner. Typically, these are hosted by dignitaries – our hosts included the Minister of Agriculture and the President of the Kyrgyz Agrarian University. The dinners are held in pleasant locations and table settings are carefully designed with food and dishes creating a lovely display. Many salads made from fruit and vegetables along with cold meats and cheese fill the table. Pieces of round bread made in tandori-style ovens are eaten throughout the meal. Waiters keep bowls filled with either green or black tea.

The first course is usually a clear broth soup seasoned with dill and filled out with large pieces of meat and perhaps vegetables. The next courses include cuts of meat and perhaps noodles or rice. The highest honor is the final meat course which is mutton. The boiled sheep’s head is served to the top-ranking guest and the other honored guests are served large cuts of meat. Fruit or something sweet completes the meal.

The host welcomes and offers a toast for the guests and dinner. This begins a steady stream of toasts throughout the meal as specific guests are invited to speak. Interspersed between the toasts, talented entertainers sing and dance displaying Kyrgyz customs. At times, guests are encouraged to join in. By the end of the evening one knows the Kyrgyz are creative, fun-loving and generous people. We are glad to be among them.

The dinner hosted by the president of the Kyrgyz Agrarian University.
The Minister of Agriculture presents IPM Central Asia CRSP Project leader Karim Maredia with a gift.

A singer and dancer at the minister's dinner.

Bright students, bright future

During lunch, seven students from the Kyrgyz Agrarian University answered my questions about their studies, interest in agriculture and family life. Most are in their third year of study and excited to be focusing on their area of specialty having finished core classes. They enjoy the student farmer field school because they are actively farming with their friends and contributing to something productive. One works for an agricultural publication and hopes to continue in that area after graduation. Another wants to attend graduate school in horticulture, while a third will specialize in forestry. The others are more generalists studying agronomy. All grew up in farm families with two to three siblings. Our interpreter noted families were larger a generation ago. Their family farms are small (most about 2 hectors) and few grow enough crops to sell beyond local use. Typically, they have a small number of livestock.

All of the students have cell phones and enjoy using them. They did not think their parents listen to farm radio or television shows. Some spoke a little English. They seemed to be enjoying interacting with the IPM CRSP team and were very engaged in the diagnostic training, asking questions and earning certificates of completion. The future of Kyrgyz agriculture would be in good hands with these enthusiastic learners.

MSU's Dieudonne Baributsa awards the students with IPM scouting materials from the IPM CRSP Project for their work in the farmer field schools.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Diagnosis, please

As in medicine, correctly diagnosing the problem is a critical first step in IPM. A farmer who unknowingly plants diseased tomato seedlings in her field, has a crop doomed to an early death or poor yield. Unfortunately, since many plant diseases are initially undetectable to the human eye, this situation is all too common in Central Asia.

In the past 20 years, molecular techniques have revolutionized pest diagnosis in the developed world. Unfortunately, this progress coincided with the collapse of the Soviet Union and severe economic limitations for the new Central Asian republics. As a result, many of these molecular techniques are unavailable in the region.

A key part of our trip was to hold a two-day pest diagnostic training workshop which was largely organized by Dr. Sally Miller (the Ohio State University), a plant pathologist who has worked on diagnosis of plant diseases in a several international settings. Sally was assisted by the IPM CRSP team and by Dr. Barry Jacobson (Montana State University), also an international expert in disease diagnosis. Students at the workshop learned how to couple modern molecular techniques with classical symptom-based diagnosis. The result means more rapid and accurate detection leading to the right course of action and – most importantly – more food and income for Central Asian farmers.

Biolabs: Replacing pesticides with biological control

A central tenet of IPM is to use biological pest controls whenever possible. As we have visited the region over the last five years, we have learned about their long history of using predatory and parasitic insects to control crop pests. Since Soviet times, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan have relied on biolabs to rear and supply natural enemies for biological control, particularly in cotton. These labs produce many organisms, including: a tiny wasp called Trichogramma that attacks caterpillar eggs, green lacewings that eat aphids, and helpful microbes that promote healthy root growth by excluding harmful bacteria.

Typically a government-assisted central lab supplies smaller village labs. At one time, there were over 800 community-based biolabs operating in Uzbekistan alone. Formerly part of the collective farming system, many labs are now private businesses.

Two members of our team are focused on expanding the product line for the biolabs. Dr. Frank Zalom (Univ. California -Davis) and his post-doc Dr. Barno Tashpulatova have been developing simple methods for rearing predatory mites. These mites are very effective at controlling pest mites and thrips in field and greenhouse crops. Based in Uzbekistan, Barno has developed methods to rear these predators on easy to grow grain flour mites. She enhances their health by supplementing their diet with plant pollen. This system has proven very reliable and has been adopted by the central biolab in Kyrgyzstan who is now able to generate income by sales of this new product.

Barno, Frank and an associate at the central biolab. Below, staff explain rearing procedures.

Meeting the farmers of tomorrow's future

Here are the pictures we promised from our visit to the student field school farms. I was privileged to have lunch with these students. They are curious and bright young people. I hope to write more about that lunch later.

Students display information about farming with the landscape ecology team of the IPM Project.

One of the student's teachers explains how the hoophouse keeps plants warm despite some snow. New tomato plants sitting in the hoophouse are visible to the left at her feet.

MSU's George Bird receives a plant from the student organic farm.
A bed frame helps process compost at the student farm.

Most farmers are women. This baby bed is hanging from the barn rafters ready to be lowered for use if needed in the field.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

MSU student organic farm inspires Kyrgyz spin-off

The Central Asia IPM Forum has begun. One fascinating presentation was by Dr. Murat Aitmatov and his students from the Kyrgyz Agrarian University. Murat visited Michigan State University in 2007 as a guest of Drs. George Bird and Walt Pett (MSU Entomology) who co-lead the extension and outreach component of the IPM CRSP project. At MSU, Murat visited the MSU Student Organic Farm, and according to George Bird, nearly filled a notebook with drawings and notes on what he saw. From what he saw at MSU, Murat created what he calls “Student Field Schools,” an adaptation of farmer field schools he uses to educate Kyrgyz farmers.

In a Student Field School, a small group of students plant small plots of produce and meet weekly to learn and practice best Integrated Pest Management (IPM) techniques. This includes selecting the best cultivars, growing pest-free seedlings for transplant, weekly scouting, manipulating natural enemies (beneficial insects and other sources), and harvesting and selling the fruits and vegetables.

One very unique aspect of the project was a direct result of our collaboration. While at the MSU Student Organic Farm, Murat learned of Dr. John Biernbaum’s (MSU Horticulture) work on growing season extension using plastic hoophouses. These allow growers to produce vegetables for most months of the year. Murat and his students have modified this technique for Kyrgyzstan’s environment. They use the heat from composting manure to warm small hoophouses they create from bent willow sticks and plastic sheeting. In this way, they are able to grow vegetables even when there is snow on the ground. This afternoon, we are looking forward to visiting these schools and seeing first-hand this offspring from the MSU student farm. I hope to have pictures to post from that field trip.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Agriculture means food in every country

Friday and Saturday are the weekend in Syria with Friday being the Islamic holiday. Mustafa invited us to lunch at his apartment in Aleppo today. He is Moroccan and wanted us to eat couscous, a grain dish popular in his country. The couscous was steamed and served with beef and vegetables like pot roast – very delicious. Cherries and oranges were the dessert. Food is eaten in season here so cherries are everywhere and taste like they do at home. This is earlier than our cherry harvest in Michigan. Another evening in a restaurant we ate cherry kabobs which were roasted meatballs (lamb?) in a cherry sauce based with grenadine syrup. I don’t know if the Michigan cherry industry has tried this or not? Most of the food here reminds me of the Middle Eastern restaurants we have in East Lansing. They commonly serve pita, humus, olives, kabobs, yogurt, and various salads with tomatoes, cucumbers, and parsley.

Today the rest of the Central Asia IPM project is gathering with us in the Istanbul airport for the flight to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.

Mustafa, dressed in Moroccan robes, with the couscous meal he hosted at his home.

Mustafa demonstrates the method of pouring tea in Morocco which requires pouring from high in the air.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Saving the world's seeds with science

I asked Doug to report on our visit to the seed bank at ICARDA:

Today we visited ICARDA's germplasm storage facility. Here, they have collected and stored over 100,000 samples of different wild and cultivated varieties of wheat, barley, chickpea, lentil and faba bean. These species represent major staple food crops for a large portion of the worlds human population. By saving the wide array of these crops genetic diversity, they ensure the food security for future generations. For example, should a severe regional catastrophe or war wipe out a crop for several years, having these seeds in storage literally ensures a future for humankind.

From the moment you enter the facility, you sense the seriousness with which they take this mission. One almost has the feeling of entering sacred ground. The facility consists of one very low temperature and a long-term storage with larger supplies stored for near-term use at more moderate conditions. Temperature and humidity are constantly monitored as is the quality and viability of the seeds over time. ICARDA freely makes these seeds available to researchers and crop breeders throughout the world as they seek to improve these crops.

We also learned that a duplicate set of the entire collection is housed at a sister research center in Mexico, and a third collection is being amassed at the new Global Seed Vault at Svalbard, Norway, a remote island in the Arctic. While no one wants to contemplate the conditions under which these resources may be needed, it is reassuring to know that someone has.

Seeds in storage.

Research plot that requires hand harvesting.

Sheep herd for ICARDA breed research.

Communicating at the multi-cultural ICARDA

We've met people from around the globe working and visiting ICARDA from Sudan, Iraq, Morocco, Australia, the Netherlands, and Columbia. English is the common written language. Since I am an IPM communications manager, I had an appointment with Dr. Zaid Abdul-Hadi, the head of the unit that includes publications. ICARDA has good resources: poster printers, photographers, a science writer and an art department. Many publications are printed in Arabic and English. The binding of the two translations is opposite, as Arabic is read right to left and English, left to right. English readers would find the Arabic pages are in reversed order.

I asked about Internet use, thinking perhaps connecting to web sites via cell phone might be common. Cell phone use has been quickly adopted in the region. For example, I am told prior to the fall of Saddam Hussein, Iraq had no cell phones. One year later, Iraqis were using over 7 million cell phones. However, like most Americans, few use phones for web browsing and data.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Visit to ICARDA

The past couple of days we have toured ICARDA and spoken with their staff. The area served by ICARDA includes 1 billion people with 700 million of them living in poverty. ICARDA is working to make agriculture in these countries more productive and sustainable for the people and the environment. Their work takes special consideration of women and children as they are the first segment of the population to be affected when resources are limited. Women also do most of the farm work. ICARDA has a world class seed bank and much of the work we saw focused on wheat, fava beans, chickpeas and other important food sources.

We visited field plots where Dr. Mustafa El Bohissini and his students are growing medicinal plants to learn which are most attractive to beneficial insects (those that attack insect pests). Doug Landis’ work in Michigan has involved planting native plants along fields to attract beneficial insects. In Michigan, the fields are large and it is less difficult to convince a farmer to plant a non-crop plant along a field edge or in less productive areas. Here, farming is more common in small plots, so they hope to convince farmers to plant medicinal plants that can both increase biodiversity and also be harvested for profit.

Mustafa and a graduate student with Doug Landis examine medicinal plants being tested for their ability to to attract beneficial insects.

Mustafa and some of his staff in the entomology section of ICARDA.

On our return to the city, we stopped at Aleppo's citadel, the world's largest. Aleppo, Damascus and Jericho seem to be equally considered the oldest contiguous city in the world. The citadel was built in 1210 and the city was started sometime between 5,000 and 11,000 BC.

View of the city from the citadel. Apartment roofs are covered with satellite dishes.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Regional partner in science, ICARDA

At the start of our trip, I’m traveling with my husband, entomologist Doug Landis. Enroute to Kyrgyzstan, we are stopping to visit an important partner in the USAID IPM CRSP project, the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA). Headquartered in Aleppo, Syria, ICARDA personnel conduct research and education throughout Central Asia, the Middle East and Northern Africa. ICARDA’s regional office in Tashkent, Uzbekistan provides administrative support for the IPM CRSP post-doc’s.

Our key ICARDA collaborator is Dr Mustafa El Bohssini, a Moroccan Entomologist who was trained at Kansas State University. We will be visiting Mustafa in Aleppo to see his research and collaborate on the overall project. One of Mustafa’s students is conducting work in Syria to see if medicinal plants grown in the region can also attract and support natural enemies in cropping systems. If so, famers may benefit from both pest control and have a valuable crop to sell as well.

Mustafa’s main research focuses on management of Sunn pest of wheat. This insect is a pest throughout Central Asia where it feeds on the developing grains of wheat. While the physical damage appears slight, Sunn pest feeding alters proteins in the grain and makes it unsuitable for bread-making, the principal use of wheat in the region.

We will land in Aleppo at 2:30 AM in a few hours.


Traveling from Michigan to Amsterdam to Istanbul takes about 14 hours. I saw a few signs that people are concerned about the H1N1 virus. A handful of people were wearing masks in the Detroit airport. Before the plane landed in Istanbul, we were given forms to fill out stating whether or not we have flu symptoms. After we landed and people were standing in the aisles, the flight attendant announced we couldn’t disembark until they received a form from every person – and we were missing 25 forms. Slowly, 25 more trickled up to the front of the plane.

We had a 10-hour lay-over in Istanbul and chose to find a place to sleep.

Istanbul is beautiful from the air.

The round domes of mosques and tall, thin minarets are visible in the cityscape.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Comings and goings in the middle of the night

I’m in a flurry of emails with Central Asia IPM Project members on the last day in the office before we depart. I’ll be speaking on communications and IPM so I’m putting the finishing touches on a PowerPoint presentation. Frank Zalom, an entomologist at UC Davis has emailed that he’d like to discuss work applications for Twitter with me when there are a few free moments during travel. George Bird, a nematologist here at Michigan State University checks in about featuring the organic agriculture and sustainable agriculture aspects of the project in this blog.

The airlines keep tweaking the schedules by a few minutes so I need to recheck emails with the itinerary. MSU’s Dieudonne Baributsa oversees many of the logistics for the travel. When he first gave me a proposed travel itinerary, I was surprised that he had us on a flight arriving in Aleppo, Syria at 2:00 in the morning! Pity the Syrian host meeting us -- we will be too jetlagged to know the time. Dieudonne explained that it is common for several flights of travelers to collect throughout the day in a city like Istanbul, Turkey (one of our stops), and then after midnight, flights depart on less traveled routes to places like Aleppo and Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. When it is time for us to return to the USA, we will experience the reverse schedule – flights will leave extremely early in the morning, collect larger numbers of travelers in Istanbul and then depart during the day for the USA. My travel path will be Detroit – (1)Amsterdam – (2)Istanbul – (3)Aleppo. Then several days later, Aleppo – Istanbul – (4)Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. Some of the layovers in Istanbul are long (10-12 hours) – exhausting, but a chance to get a quick look around Istanbul.

Monday, May 18, 2009

MSU scientists head to 4th annual meeting in Central Asia

The Central Asia IPM Project formally began in 2004. Collaborative projects take time to setup: securing funding, building multi-country relationships, performing the work, and always lots of reporting. The members of the project met in Uzbekistan in 2005, Kyrgyzstan in 2006, Tajikistan in 2007 and now back to Kyrgyzstan in 2009. The project employs a post-doc (local citizens) in each of these countries. The images in the early blog entries are from these visits.

The blog is being initiated now to share news from the travels to take place May 26-June 6, 2009. This time, along with a Central Asian IPM Forum, there will be a Pest Diagnostic Workshop in Bishkek, led by colleagues from the Ohio State University and Montana State University.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Three great reasons to love working in Central Asia

Why do a bunch of entomologists from Michigan keep returning to Central Asia?

#1 - The people.
They have been kind, generous and thoughtful hosts and collaborators. Below, a Tajik farmer during a field visit with the team in 2007; and girls take a break from helping with their family's field work.

#2 - Did we say many of us are entomologists
(we study insects)? Below, a honey seller in an Uzbekistan market. Note those clever bees are taking back their honey (see closer view on right). The second image shows a Tajik entomologist with his beneficial insects collected from native plants as part of the project work.

#3 - The beauty!
Below is a mosque in Samarkand, Uzbekistan and mountain view in Tajikistan.

There are many more reasons -- you'll see in future postings about our travels and the work we've accomplished in partnership with fellow scientists in Central Asia.

Posted by JL.

Working with the “Stans”

When we tell people the IPM project collaborates with colleagues in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, they are often unsure where these countries are. But, if we say they are located by all the other "stan" countries, then we get a flash of recognition.

The suffix "stan" means "land of," so Uzbekistan is the land of the Uzbeks, and Tajikistan is the land of the Tajiks and so forth. These countries have overlapping populations of various ethnic groups with distinct cultures. During the 20th century, they were part of the Soviet Union until it was dissolved in the early 1990's.

Our travel in late May and early June will take us via Amsterdam to Istanbul, Turkey; Aleppo, Syria; and then Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. Here's a map that shows the region (courtesy of the library of Univ of Texas web site). Kyrgyzstan is a little hard to read -- it is the blue-green country at the far right of the map.

Posted by JL.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Catching up the immune system

We work with Integrated PEST Management (IPM). It doesn't pay to be lax with immunizations if you don't want to personally meet pests when you travel. This morning I got shots, pills or testing for tetanus, hepatitis A&B, typhoid and TB. Heard lectures on rabies and various influenza. Hurray, no yellow fever to be concerned about on this trip. All of this at today's visit to the travel clinic. We will take extra precautions with mosquito repellent.

About that pest management, for this team we address mostly insect pests of agriculture, but sometimes plant diseases, weeds and nematodes are part of the project.
Posted by JL.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Preparations ... and about us

I have the opportunity to travel with the Central Asia IPM (Integrated Pest Management) group to a regional 2009 IPM forum in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. I am the web designer for the project at Through my work as a communicator at Michigan State University, I've Twittered, Facebook-ed, adopted Delicious and other social media... but no blogging. Time to explore. (The image shows the project's home page.)

This project is funded by US AID, is an IPM CRSP (Collective Research Support Program) project and involves, in the United States, Michigan State University and the University of California - Davis. Additional blog entrees introduce our Central Asian partners.
Posted by JL.