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Muni Muniappan wins award for work in tropical agriculture

 

Saving the papaya industry in southern India. Discovering an invasive species in Senegal and Nepal. Connecting researchers in developing countries. These are some of the accomplishments of entomologist Rangaswamy “Muni” Muniappan that caught the attention of the Board for International Food and Agricultural Development and that won him the organization’s 2014 award for scientific excellence.

Muniappan received the BIFAD Award for Scientific Excellence today in Des Moines, Iowa. It is presented each year by the presidentially appointed body that governs U.S. foreign assistance in agriculture.

Muniappan is director of the Integrated Pest Management Innovation Lab, a venture that works in developing countries to achieve three vital aims: minimize crop losses, increase farmer income, and decrease pesticide use. Muniappan, a longtime expert in the study of insects that benefit or harm humans, leads a multimillion dollar research portfolio of projects that includes partners from 16 American universities and 51 overseas organizations.

Muniappan discovered the papaya mealybug in Asia and helped employ biological control to eradicate it, which restored the livelihoods of thousands of farmers on the Asian subcontinent. This translated to an economic benefit of more than $1 billion over five years, according to a study published in the Journal of Crop Protection.

His discovery of the tomato leafminer (Tuta absoluta) in Senegal allowed experts to be warned so that preventive biological control measures could be taken for a pest that likely threatens all sub-Saharan tomato farmers.

Muniappan has created incentives for scientists to work together across national boundaries. He recently brought together scientists from South Asia and Central America in a conference on invasive species in Senegal.

Muniappan’s achievements also include control of such pests as the pink hibiscus mealybug, the fruit-piercing moth, the red coconut scale, the banana weevil, and the Asian cycad scale. He has worked to control weeds including the Siam weed, lantana, and the ivy gourd. He has been instrumental in establishing working groups for the weeds chromolaena and parthenium within the International Organization for Biological Control.

Muniappan’s career includes 36 years spent in Guam; a stint as a Fulbright Research Scholar in India; a UN Food and Agriculture Organization consultant in the Maldives, Palau, and Vanuatu; and a visiting professorship at the University of Guyana.

An honorary member of the International Organization for Biological Control since 2010, Muniappan has published journal articles in the Journal of Economic Entomology and Annals of the Entomological Society of America.

Funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development, the innovation lab is managed by Virginia Tech’s Office of International Research, Education, and Development.

Related articles:
1. Speckled beetle key to saving crops in Ethiopia
http://www.vtnews.vt.edu/articles/2014/08/082214-outreach-oiredspeckledbeetle.html
2. Halting crop destruction in India saves up to $309 million
http://www.vtnews.vt.edu/articles/2014/01/012214-outreach-oiredindiasaveddollars.html
3. Virginia Tech research program confirms presence of invasive insect in Senegal
http://www.vtnews.vt.edu/articles/2012/09/092812-oired-tuta.html
4. Virginia Tech entomologist helps Asian farmers fend off papaya mealybug
http://www.vt.edu/spotlight/innovation/2012-10-15-india/mealybug.html

 

 

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Flickr/Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation

 

There was one unpleasant surprise in what was otherwise an invigorating and useful high-level discussion at the EU-Africa Business Forum this week (1 April) in Brussels, Belgium: a skewed focus on success and perhaps a reluctance to admit to failure.

The session was organised to draw up a set of core messages on how to get the business sector and public research organisations to work closer and better together on ensuring food security in Africa and Europe.

These were then fed into 4th EU-Africa Summit of Heads of State and Government of the European Union and African Union also taking place this week (2-3 April) in Brussels.

Following several ‘taster’ presentations that helped set the scene with successful examples, my task was to moderate a discussion that would identify both what works and what doesn’t work in making the two sectors more responsive to each other’s needs.
“It is time to look honestly and constructively at failures in the way we do things — in agricultural research and beyond.”

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Mićo Tatalović
“But despite a lively discussion involving most of the 50 or so delegates, and despite repeated calls to also hear examples of what worked less well, or not at all, we mostly only heard examples of success or thoughts on what ought to happen next.”

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Even a delegate who was involved in setting up a repository of examples of best practice aimed at farmers, when asked if we should also have a repository of ‘worst practice’ — things to definitely avoid, seemed unprepared for the question and unsure of how to answer it.

As in science, where in general only results that show something working well get reported, it seems that the participants preferred to highlight things that have worked well. From the launch of new small and medium size enterprises following on from EU Framework Programme 7’s research project in Egypt, to finding an innovative use for unpopular but productive mushroom farming in Rwanda, the success stories are many.

But as in science, our perspective and understanding are skewed if we never see the rest of the iceberg — the hypotheses that did not turn out to be correct — and don’t investigate why that was.

That things don’t always work the way we intended them to is evident from the various suggestions for new and different initiatives, such as innovative ways of financing agricultural research between the public and private sectors. If everything done so far was a success, why bother changing things — why not repeat past successes?

This lack of examples of less-successful initiatives limits our opportunity for learning.

Indeed, while it may be difficult to own up to having worked on project that just did not deliver, without recognising failure and understanding why it happened, we are unlikely to avoid it in future.

This is why SciDev.Net’s news recently started looking more proactively at past initiatives originally launched with high acclaim and high expectations, only to slowly fade from the media spotlight. These follow-up stories (‘whatever happened to…?’) offer valuable insights for others to learn from.

Recent examples include a 2008 MalariaEngage website designed to find a new way to crowdsource finding for malaria research in Africa; and Science for Humanity, which attempted to link up scientists and NGOs for better adoption of research in development work.

It is time to look honestly and constructively at failures in the way we do things — in agricultural research and beyond.

http://www.scidev.net/global/innovation/scidev-net-at-large/eu-africa-research-must-start-learning-from-failures.html

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