Tropical Crops

Global Plant Health Program and study tours bring Central America to CALS students.

College of Agriculture and Life Sciences graduate students have had the chance to sample the variety of tropical agriculture — from small sugarcane farms to massive banana plantations — through short study tours to Costa Rica for the last three years.

The one-week trips have been part of Dr. Jean Ristaino’s graduate course on tropical plant pathology. Taught in the spring each year, the course has given 35 students the chance to hear lectures about Central America, crop production and significant agricultural diseases affecting tropical environments. Then, each June, the classes have traveled to Costa Rica to experience firsthand what they’ve learned.

The students visited operations producing bananas, coffee, pineapples, sugarcane, root crops, ornamental plants and cacao, the source of chocolate. On several of the visits, they were joined by some of Ristaino’s former students, including Dr. Monica Blanco, a crop production professor at the University of Costa Rica who earned her Ph.D. at N.C. State and who co-taught the course.

This group’s study tour is one of the ways Dr. Jean Ristaino (second row, left) is building the Global Plant Health Program between N.C. State and Costa Rica.

“We have a wonderful Wolfpack family in Costa Rica and are leveraging our alumni connections to enhance the experience for our current students,” Ristaino said.

Course participant Bridget Lassiter said that getting to see so much in such a short period of time made the trip particularly appealing to part-time students. Normally, study-abroad experiences last for weeks, and it can be hard to get away from full-time jobs for that long, she said.

Lassiter, a Ph.D. student in crop science who works as a full-time research assistant in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, said the behind-the-scenes look that the course offered also appealed to her.

“It’s an experience you could never go to a travel agency and pay for,” she said. “Basically, we were seeing crop production the whole week. We were learning in depth about things that the casual tourist wouldn’t get to see.”

Lassiter found the visit to a Dole Food Co. banana plantation particularly interesting. The students got to learn about some of the major diseases affecting the crop and how Dole manages them. They also got to see nearly every stage of production – from planting to harvest, and then on to post-harvest processing and packaging.

“There’s just so much that goes into it,” she said. “The plant pathologist whom we were traveling with at that farm said, ‘We grow bananas, but we sell the peels.’ And he said, ‘If a banana doesn’t look good to you in the grocery store, you are not going to purchase it. So it’s so very important that we don’t do anything to bruise or blemish the outside peel of the banana.’ If you think about how many miles it traveled from Costa Rica to get to my grocery store in Raleigh, N.C., it’s eye-opening.”

Ristaino will be able to offer such informative experiences well into the future, thanks in part to funding from the National Science Foundation, which will cover student stipends for the next three years.

The annual study tours are just one of the ways that Ristaino is building the Global Plant Health Program between N.C. State and Costa Rica, a major source of food crops for the United States. She and her colleagues have taught a number of prominent scientists there, including Dr. Luis Alpizar Gomez, director of the agricultural research center at the University of Costa Rica, and Dr. Felipe Arauz, dean of that university’s agronomy school.

Students got behind-the-scenes looks at crop production processes in Costa Rica.

Building on these and other connections in Costa Rica and elsewhere in Latin America, Ristaino has developed an international project funded by USAID to improve detection and stop the spread of Phytophthora, a genus of plant-damaging pathogens that cause billions of dollars of crop damage around the world each year. The project’s goals include reducing the risk of introducing Phytophthora species into the United States and increasing sustainable horticultural trade in Latin America.

With funding from USAID’s Partnership Program for Support and Research in Horticulture, or Hort CRSP, Ristaino and Blanco coordinated a summer workshop on rapid diagnostic techniques for Phytophthora. The course brought together 24 plant pathologists from nine countries and created a network of scientists to improve the connections between diagnostic laboratories in Central America, Mexico and the United States.

Through the workshop, the project deployed a series of rapid diagnostic tools, including digital cameras that will be used to send diseased plant and pathogen images to N.C. State’s Plant Disease and Insect Clinic for help with identification.

In addition to the Phytophthora project, Ristaino is also helping launch a Global Plant Health Scholars Program at N.C. State. With a grant from the National Science Foundation, the plant pathology professor, Plant Biology Department Head Dr. Margo Daub and partners in Costa Rica have set up a research internship program that will fund 18 study abroad internships for advanced undergraduate or master’s-level students .

In the summer of 2011, selected students will spend six weeks in Costa Rica working on projects developed by N.C. State, Dole, the University of Costa Rica and the Tropical Agriculture Research and Higher Education Center in Costa Rica. They will learn about issues facing agriculture in the developing world, including climate change, food security, emerging plant diseases and trade.

Such international activities are mutually enriching, Lassiter has found.

“Central America is important because we get so many of our food crops from there,” she said. “I also think it’s important that we are working with Central America because they have a lot to teach us, and we have a lot to teach them.”

–Dee Shore

To hear and see more about the study tour, go to:

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