by Rose McNulty
by Lee Griffin
of the worlds foot soldiers, who may well be on his way to making
general in the war against biological invaders, Bruce Parker says, We
feel our work has put UVM on the map from North Africa to the former
states of the Soviet Union. People there know about the University of
Vermont. The putative Generals army is small and handpicked.
But, despite the range and power of their many opponents, he and his
troops are formidable front-liners in the battle against insect pests
that threaten food supplies and fledgling export economies in countries
of desperate need.
Often on the road more likely, in the air on yet another
biological crime-fighting sortie, Bruce Parker and his warriors regroup
regularly in UVMs Entomology Lab on Spear Street. Where, despite
the constant hustle that their schedules and grant-getting demand, these
otherwise peaceable souls willingly emerge from their paper-stacked,
refrigerator-carton cubbies to talk about the Middle East, Africa, pesticides,
and other topics near and dear to them. Toss out a question, and you
might take their voluble, overlapped responses for competition. Youd
be wrong. What Parker, Margaret Skinner, and Michael Brownbridge value
most is teamwork. If they cut off one another in mid-sentence on occasion,
its to finish the thought, add an anecdote, or pump-up the response
with a passionate stance about the places theyve seen, the people
theyve met, and the insect terrors theyre after.
Of late, their work has brought the researchers to the Middle East and
Africa, where seemingly endless news of strife and hunger casts ironic
shadows on the historical significance of these lands as the fertile
cradles of civilization and agriculture. The enemies are multiple, each
one compounding the problem, each one complicating the solution. And,
some of the lowliest enemies can be the toughest. To an outsider, the
problems seem overwhelming.
The first time I went to Ethiopia, says Brownbridge, a Briton
by birth, I wondered How the hell can I make a difference?
You see how poor these people are first-hand, and you see every fifth
truck filled with U.S. grain. What does it matter what Im doing?
But, with subsequent visits, you get past that, he says. In order
to get sustainable development
its got to be internal
me going in, doing something, then coming out.
The researchers abiding commitment to improving international agriculture,
Skinner says, includes their work abroad, collaborations with other
scientists, and mentoring students from UVM and other countries. She
understands how life-changing working or studying in another country
can be. As an undergraduate at Ohio Wesleyan, the Vermont native had
to change her major from art to sociology in order to study in Beirut.
It was the defining moment of her undergraduate education and just the
beginning of international work for Skinner, who also spent eleven years,
three of them in Northern Ireland, working with mentally ill people.
Parkers Pied-Piper-with-attitude M.O. overcomes an initial curmudgeonly
impression. His global connections and unabashed passion for the work
have enticed professionals like Brownbridge and Skinner to join the
team and have influenced a host of students to take the plunge into
other worlds. He occasionally revs up conversations with coach-like
enthusiasms, such as, We are a dynamic, innovative group with
a very positive, can-do attitude. We dont wait around we
go for it.
The team also excels in another part of its mission collaboration
with other scientists. They currently are working with colleagues in
countries of great need to dismantle a core problem staple crop
devastation by insect pests. The order is tall, the collaborations spectacularly
refined, and the good guys are gaining.
For the past eight years, working in Syria, Iran, Central Asia, and,
recently, in Afghanistan, the entomologists have set their caps to undo
the Sunn pest. Only a half-inch long, the dun-colored insect is a formidable
and for farmers trying to combat it a mortal enemy. The
Sunn pest damages cereal crops, especially wheat, by feeding on all
parts of the plant, but the greatest impact occurs when it feeds on
the developing grains. To enhance its digestive ability, it injects
an enzyme through its saliva that breaks down the grains gluten,
which, if the grain were milled, would render the flour unusable for
Were not talking about something incidental, Parker
says of the Sunn pest, which he notes is expanding its range and is
now also on the border of Pakistan, a country of 153 million. Were
talking about a major, major problem, a major reducer of yield, of quality
in wheat primarily, but also barley.
Longtime colleague Mustapha El Bouhssini, an entomologist from Morocco
who lives and works in Syria, says, If as little as 2 or 3 percent
of the grain in a crop has been affected [by the Sunn pest], the grain
is unusable for baking. The Sunn pest (Eurygaster integriceps)
affects about 37 million acres annually, and the bill for using chemical
insecticides against it each year is more than $40 million, he says.
The implications for a country like Afghanistan are enormous. In addition
to its natural hazards of drought, earthquake, and lack of potable water,
25 million people depend on the 12 percent of arable land, and the pest
is eating its staple crop. Syrias landmass is primarily desert.
Slightly larger than North Dakota, it must feed 18 million people. Twenty-six
percent of its land is arable.
And, in the category of the cure is worse than the disease, eradication
of the Sunn pest and other serious pests has attracted another enemy,
wholesale use of chemical pesticides. In countries desperate for quick
fixes on these problems, officials often see pesticides as magical cures
and because the government usually pays for the cure, the farmer willingly
uses the chemicals. You have to do it (spray) every year,
El Bouhssini says, and the chemicals kill bees, pollute water.
Skinner adds, Using insecticides on the Sunn pest has disrupted
the natural enemy complex, because they also are killed.
Sunn pest can develop resistance to pesticides.
The skirmishes in which the UVM trio engages pit naturally occurring
enemies like fungi against insect pests, a key component in a process
known as Integrated Pest Management. They and the other ten scientists
and graduate students in the Spear Street lab develop effective biological
agents to control or destroy insect aggressors in agriculture, forests,
and greenhouses. As the name suggests, IPM uses a variety of approaches,
but the goal is to control the damaging pest without damaging anything
else and to develop those controls so that farmers, foresters, and growers
can use them, economically, and in a way that is environmentally sound
Their research on fungal pathogens as part of an IPM approach has pitted
them against such enemies as the hemlock wooly adelgid, which originated
in the Far East and traveled westward, without any natural enemy to
keep it in check; the pear thrips, which severely damaged sugar maple
trees in Vermont in 1988 and 1990; and the western flower thrips, which
is a pest of global significance in flower and vegetable crops.
Parker and Co.s investigation into pear thrips is a model of the
IPM approach. The researchers studied the pest in its origins and sought
and identified pathogenic fungi that worked against the thrips. Then
they developed a way to mass-produce the fungi using old maple leaves,
thus arming Vermont sugar makers with grow-their-own, low-tech ammunition.
The scientists international reputation is a direct outgrowth
of their continuing work to aid Vermont and other U.S. farmers, foresters,
Brownbridge currently is wrapping up work on two USAID projects in Africa.
He worked with Kenyans to develop a sustainable IPM program that small
farmers with few resources could use to defeat the African armyworm,
a migratory pest that ranks second only to the voracious locust in the
level of damage it causes in staple food crops and arable grazing land.
Hes also completing work with the Ethiopian Agriculture Research
Association to train citrus growers in the use of biological controls
and to assist the fledgling greenhouse industry.
For the past eight years, the entomologists have dedicated their vast
experience and knowledge of IPM practices to eradicating the Sunn pest.
Phase one of the project took about three years, during which the researchers
collected fungi that occurred in the pests overwintering sites
throughout its whole range Syria, Turkey, Iran, Uzbekistan, and
Kazakhstan. The insect lives probably nine months of the year
the foothills of the fields, under litter, (dead leaves
and twigs), Skinner says. They found some fungi on the cadavers of the
Sunn pest, but lab tests were needed to determine if the fungi killed
the pest or were merely opportunistic.
When the lab results proved positive, it was back to the field, where
if the fungi didnt disappoint the scientists would
devise a way to apply it. One advantage of using the overwintering
site for treatment, Skinner says, is that there is time for it
to work, as opposed to using it in the wheat fields, when the damage
may already be done. At first, Skinner and Parker took dry fungal spores,
mixed them with water and sprayed the mixture on the Sunn pests
overwintering sites. Local residents were quick to teach them a lesson
that Skinner translates into American vernacular: Hey you guys,
were in the Middle East. We dont have a lot of water.
They focused instead on using a nutrient-based granular formulation,
which means, Skinner explains, growing the fungus on a solid substrate
like rice or millet. Population is in an abundant supply, so these
countries can pay someone to throw the inoculated base around
the sites, she says. The biggest question was whether the formula
would penetrate the litter to where the insects snoozed.
Within a year, they had the answer. The fungi had grown all over the
litter and despite a rainy winter and a summer with 115-degree
temperatures the fungi continued to grow and kill the Sunn pest.
Parker says getting the fungus to persist is all-important. Next
season, new insects will go there and will be killed, and what youve
got is sustainable.
Parker, Skinner, and Brownbridge are not danger junkies, but they dont
share the fears many of us might have in traveling abroad, particularly
in the Middle East. Theyre also not alone. We are very well
taken care of, Parker says. We work with one of the finest
international institutions in the world. He adds: I had my family
there [Syria] for a whole year during sabbatical. I was in Lebanon during
9-11. We work in Iran were 100 percent supported from the
time we reach the Iranian airport. We were well taken care of in Afghanistan,
he says, where he and Skinner worked just south of its politically unstable
capital, Kabul, this past year. However, the hotel they stayed in was
bombed recently, he concedes.
The lubrication for such smooth sailing in potentially troubled waters
is ICARDA, an overarching international organization dedicated to improving
the welfare of people in the dry areas of the developing world through
research and training to increase local productivity. The International
Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas, its full name, is
headquartered in Aleppo, Syria. This isnt a dinky place,
Parker emphasizes. Its a huge facility with expertise from
all over the world. El Bouhssini says about 45 nationalities are
represented among 70 or so scientists and grad students from all over
the world. We have about 500 support staff and thousands of dailies
that help on the farm.
El Bouhssini, one of ICARDAs senior scientists, has worked with
UVMs entomologists for eight years. He also spent the fall semester
at UVM deepening his knowledge of IPM. When we started this association,
the concept of IPM was completely new in the region, so a very interesting
area for us, he says. Of the Sunn pest project, he says, I
am amazed at the progress in a relatively short time.
Referring to ICARDA, Parker says, All the scientists there are
working on a single goal to improve the quantity and quality
of crops in the developing world to feed hungry people.
niche is IPM, and were part of the scientific staff when were
there. We know the institution and region, and before we go, its
outlined exactly what were going to do.
What they do is fairly intensive. Former graduate student Jane Stewart,
who worked in Syria with Parker and Skinner, says fourteen-hour days
in the lab and the field were the standard. The group had only five
days off in the six weeks she was there. Her memories, like all the
UVM researchers, return often to the people. Everyday they (the
local people with whom she worked in the field) would invite me to eat
with them and offer clothing when the temperatures dropped. It snowed
a couple of days while we were in the field, and all the women had on
their feet were plastic shoes, kind of like jellies.
I had on
gloves and boots and a good rain jacket. They tried to give me clothing.
The women were amazingly tough and smart.
Skinner, often the only woman in a working group, echoes Stewarts
sentiments. People are so nice in the Middle East. I havent
had any bad experiences. They dont like whats going on with
Bush, but they are friendly, curious, and like American style
fact that were appreciative and we treat people like people, not
on a class basis.
In respect for different cultural mores, Skinner says, she wears clothing
appropriate to each country. In Syria, you can wear anything you
want. I wear more than Id wear at home, no shorts or short sleeves,
and I wear a skirt or pants. In Iran, I wear pants and a headscarf at
all times. I wear a jacket or coat that comes down to below my knees.
At a conference last year in Iran, Skinner, the only woman, unwittingly
tested Middle Eastern tolerance for liberated Western women. While she
was presenting, her headscarf slipped off. Her expletive (deleted) was
decidedly not within the cultures mores for women, but it broke
the ice. There were about 25 men at the conference, Parker
says, and they all cracked up.
With world population doubling every forty years, no end in sight of
civil strife and war, and the United States pushing chemical insecticides
throughout the world, the ICARDA and UVM scientists wont soon
be out of challenges. But, the four find many reasons to be optimistic
and encouraged about their mission.
Skinner, angry as she is at the deception of the pesticides-cure-all
approach, sees hope for reversing that and for a more peaceful world
through international experience. People dont understand
that Syria is made up of
real nice people, not dangerous terrorists.
The more interactions we have, the more were going to get
Brownbridge believes the strict rules set by the European Union on the
way agricultural imports are produced will have a salutary effect in
emerging export countries like Ethiopia. Growers there will benefit
from rules on fewer pesticides, mandatory safety equipment, minimum
salary requirements, better housing standards, and access to health
care, he says. The positive effects ripple out to the whole
community. A farm I went to employs 2,000 people, each married, with
there are the contractors and suppliers and their families.
El Bouhssini doesnt have to look farther than the farmers he works
with and for as confirmation of all their work. Farmers are changing,
participating, are adopting new technologies, he says. And the
best news of all, he says, This new approach is working and is
better than the old.
believes theyre close to winning the Sunn pest wars. Were
looking at potentially nine months to a year now when weve got
this part of the problem licked, which is fantastic.
There wont be a Mission Accomplished banner hanging
on their lab, and the entomologists will remain anonymous to almost
all their benefactors. But the effects of this collaborative project
will ripple through many countries and will be a victory on the magnitude
of a world war détente.