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April 29, 2015

A recently announced $7.4 million, five-year grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture will place the University of Vermont at the forefront of a national effort to reduce the impact of catastrophic disease outbreaks within the U.S. livestock industry.

UVM will lead the multi-institutional effort, multi-disciplinary biosecurity initiative. The end-product will be a variety of research-based messaging strategies, educational programs, Web modules and other initiatives designed to protect food-producing livestock from new, emerging or foreign diseases and pests.

While introducing new bio-security products like vaccines to agricultural producers is relatively easy, changing the behaviors of producers, veterinarians and others in the livestock supply chain is at least as important to animal health and is much more challenging, said team leader Julie Smith, an associate professor with joint appointments in UVM Extension and the Department of Animal and Veterinary Sciences in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

For that reason, the project integrates faculty from a number of different disciplines, including those in veterinary, animal and the social sciences.

“Our goal is to facilitate the development and adoption of practices and policies that collectively reduce the impact of new diseases of food-producing hoofstock,” Smith said. “So we are taking a human behavioral approach rather than a disease-specific one and integrating theories of behavior change, communications and economic decision-making.”

The project will guard against contagious new diseases that may emerge, as well as ones such as foot-and-mouth disease, which has not been diagnosed in the United States since 1929 and could have a devastating impact on the U.S. food-producing livestock industry.

Gaming lab is key part of proposal

One of the key components of the proposal is the UVM Social-Ecological Gaming and Simulation Laboratory (SEGS Lab), established with funding from the National Science Foundation’s Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR).

The SEGS lab takes an experimental gaming approach for bringing the dynamics of human decision-making into models of ecosystem-level problems, enabling researchers to determine how farmers and producers would react to disease or pest outbreaks without exposing animals to new infectious threats.

The SEGS lab allows the researchers to “place farmers and producers into virtual worlds to see how they react to different situations,” said Scott Merrill, a research assistant professor in UVM’s Department of Plant and Soil Science and one of the lab’s designers. “Data collected using experimental gaming and simulation can be used to develop models that will help us understand producer decision-making, which will allow for improved communication and education.”

Another team member, Jason Parker, an agricultural anthropologist also with UVM’s Department of Plant and Soil Science, brings an understanding of producer risk perception to the project.

“It is important for us to first understand how farmers perceive the sources of risks from livestock pests and pathogens before we can identify the best ways to shape behavioral change,” Parker said. “Understanding stakeholder perceptions of what would work and what would get in the way of taking action to adopt prevention and control strategies is the key to creating effective outreach.”

The UVM-led proposal ranked first among the Food and Agricultural Science Enhancement Grant proposals, and is one of three to be funded last year within the Food Security Program area to minimize livestock losses from diseases and pests.

In addition to Merrill, the SEGS lab was developed by Community and Applied Economics professor Chris Koliba and Asim Zia, an associate professor in the same department.

Collaborating research and extension faculty are based at the University of Kentucky, Iowa State University, Kansas State University, Montana State University and Washington State University. Representatives of many agricultural stakeholder groups will serve in an advisory role to the project.

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