Sniffing out dangers to crops

Sniffing out dangers to crops
Feb 25, 2021

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Researchers are training dogs to identify diseases and invasive species

By Diego Flammini
Staff Writer
Farms.com

Researchers are studying whether man’s best friend can help on the farm by detecting crop diseases and invasive species.

Many people identify sniffer dogs with law enforcement applications like drug or bomb detection.

Nathan Hall, an assistant professor of companion animal science at Texas Tech University, is using that same line of thinking to find out if dogs can be trained to identify issues within crops.

“This project is going to be specific for two targets,” Hall told Farms.com. “We’re going to look first at powdery mildew, which can infect grape plants, and spotted lanternfly eggs. We’re going to look at how early the dogs can detect each target. In terms of the spotted lanternfly eggs, we want to study if the dogs can zero in on those eggs and not just any other eggs in the environment.”

The United States Department of Agriculture is supporting Hall’s research with a $475,000 grant. Edgar Aviles-Rosa, a fellow Texas Tech researcher is part of the work as well. Erica Feuerbacher and Mizuho Nita, researchers from Virginia Tech, are involved as well.

The research will take place over four years. Hall hopes he can release some data within two years.

The work with the dogs themselves will involve two processes.

The first will require the use of olfactometers, Hall said.

“They are automated devices which can present a controlled odor to the dogs,” he said. “The dog will be in a contained space and we will introduce the air from a container so the dog can sniff at it. We then have a system that measures the dog’s response to the air.”

The second process is to present the work as a game to the dog.

“In the same way you might play hide and seek with a dog looking for a ball, we train the dogs to do the exact same, except we get them to tell us when they detect the odor,” he said.

This type of work is an extension of precision agriculture.

Rather than treat an entire crop for powdery mildew or spotted lanternfly, if a dog can identify specific infected plants, it can save a farmer money, Hall said.

“This can lead to targeted fungicide applications or targeted plant removal,” he said. “Dogs can tell you right now if there’s a problem and which specific plants are the issue rather than taking a broad approach.”

Hall and his team will study different breeds of dogs.

Most people identify German Shepherds or Bloodhounds being used in airports or by police departments. But that’s historical thinking compared to scientific thinking, he said.

“I did a study comparing Pugs, German Shepherds and Greyhounds and their ability to learn a detection task,” he said. “To our surprise the Pugs outperformed the other two breeds. For this ag project we’re going to try to recruit a wide variety of dogs. We may discover that you don’t need a $15,000 imported German Shepherd to do this work and that your local shelter dog may be able to do it too.”

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