Penn State entomology and biology professor David Hughes aims to be a disruptor; to him, he said, it's the way things get done.
Hughes was working in Africa, Asia, and South America conducting research focusing on a fungus that turns ants into zombies when he saw agricultural diseases — which have known solutions, he said — devastating local crops. Disturbed by the inequality, he turned his mind to food security.
“The idea was to have an expert in a phone that a farmer could use to diagnose her problem,” said Hughes.
That idea turned into PlantVillage, an AI (artificial intelligence)-enabled smartphone app and cloud-based knowledge system that would serve as a resource to farmers around the world to learn how to treat diseases. Hughes applied for a Huck Innovative and Transformational Seed Fund (HITS) grant to try out his idea in 2012.
Now, Hughes, Dorothy Foehr Huck and J. Lloyd Huck Chair in Global Food Security and professor of entomology and biology in the College of Agricultural Sciences and Eberly College of Science, is included among a set of eight “Planet Protectors” on the list of 50 luminaries and leaders who are included in Newsweek’s inaugural list of "America’s Greatest Disruptors" for his work on PlantVillage.
For its list Newsweek solicited nominations from experts and change-makers in various fields and their staffs. According to Newsweek, all those on the list are “agents of change who are using technology in ways that will profoundly impact our lives — mostly or wholly for the better.”
For his work on PlantVillage, Hughes also was included in the 2021 Fast Company’s “Most Creative People in Business.”
PlantVillage’s AI system works with other media such as TV, print and community groups, reaching over nine million users a week. This approach to AI powered smartphones that work in remote locations was critical to saving food for 40 million people at a value of $1.7 billion in collaboration with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) during the recent desert locust crisis. In partnership with the U.N., PlantVillage is available in more than 60 countries and has been translated into 30 languages. Since its inception, PlantVillage has helped increase the profits of farmers by between 160-500%.
“It’s truly been a banner year for David and PlantVillage,” remarked Andrew Read, director of the Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences. “This really is the model of what we hope to achieve when we provide HITS grants to promising risk-takers at Penn State. In less than a decade, our initial $100,000 investment has yielded this amazing global impact, with more to come. To see David’s work recognized so prominently has been a fantastic way to end the year.”
Building on the success of PlantVillage, Penn State was recently awarded nearly $39 million from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) for global research on threats to crops that will establish the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Current and Emerging Threats to Crops at Penn State. Hughes will serve as director of the lab that will serve as a venue for a coalition of worldwide experts to work on novel approaches to monitor, predict and combat current and emerging threats to crops in West Africa, East/Southern Africa, South/Southeast Asia, and Central America.
What’s next for PlantVillage and the community of young people, called the "Dream Team," that are critical to disseminating the AI-powered phones driving change? Recently, Hughes has pivoted into startup mode to set up a company, powered by PlantVillage, that aims to partner with African farmers to sell carbon credits by practicing regenerative agriculture that potentially would lead to monetary gains for the farmers and carbon savings for the world.
“Ironically it comes back to inequality again but in the opposite direction,” said Hughes. “We must pull 10 billion tons of C02 out of the atmosphere every year if we are to achieve net zero and keep warming below 1.5 Centigrade. Carbon dioxide removal has always been a surface-area problem and the U.S., Europe and China can fit within the land mass of Africa. Africa has the land available and the goal of this new company we're launching is to see a billion tons of carbon permanently sequestered each year into the soils of Africa. The world needs Africa if we are to solve the climate crisis."