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.