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Digital Plant Diagnosis: Turning a Mobile App into an Agricultural Game-Changer

Posted by Scott Elliott, National Institute of Food and Agriculture in Food and Nutrition
Feb 21, 2017
High quality images of plants
High quality images of plants are the foundation of PlantVillage’s plant disease diagnosis algorithm. (iStock image)

Ireland lost about 20 percent of its population to starvation and emigration during the great famine of 1845-1849 because disease destroyed that nation’s major food source – potato.  Today, an Irish-born professor at Penn State University believes that a similar situation in other regions, such as sub-Saharan Africa, could be a thousand times worse.

But there’s hope, he said, because modern food producers have a tool the 19th century Irish did not – smartphones and mobile apps, like PlantVillage.

According to PlantVillage co-creator Dr. David Hughes, assistant professor of entomology and biology at Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences, PlantVillage provides access to a computerized plant diagnostic system that boasts an algorithm capable of diagnosing 26 diseases in 14 crops with 99 percent accuracy.  In essence, computers have been “taught” to diagnose plant diseases by comparing the images of healthy and diseased leaves.

Hughes developed PlantVillage with Dr. Marcel Salathé, former assistant professor of biology in Penn State’s Department of Biology (and now at Switzerland’s Ecole polytechnique federale de Luasanne), to help reduce food loss by making it easier for knowledge providers to share critical information to growers around the world.  According to Hughes, as much as 40 percent of the world’s potential food supply is destroyed by diseases that affect crop plants.

More 2.5 million growers around the world have used the social media PlantVillage platform to ask questions and post images about their particular issues and also to help answer the questions of others.  Many forum answers and images come from experienced growers, extension experts, land-grant scientists, industry professionals, and scientists at international centers.  So far, the expanding A-Z library of plants in the PlantVillage data base ranges from African eggplant to yams.

According to Hughes, the smart phone-based diagnosis is only possible because of plant pathology research funded by USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) and other national bodies around the world, such as the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) centers.  The web-based PlantVillage algorithm uses a dataset of more than 54,300 images to make its diagnoses.

The proliferation of smartphones and the acceleration of computer technology is what makes Hughes confident that PlantVillage is a game-changer for agriculture.  It will not replace experts in the field diagnosing plant diseases, but could act as an important tool in areas where land-grant university extension programs are not available.

Game-changing and cutting edge as it is, Hughes sees PlantVillage as just the beginning.  He and Salathé are continuing to expand the dataset of images and improve the algorithm by reaching out to plant scientists around the world.

By merging “crowdsourced” science-based expertise with easy access to information, PlantVillage leverages the very latest in computer science to help tackle crop disease, feed the world’s growing population, and prevent future tragedies like the Irish Potato Famine.

NIFA invests in and advances agricultural research, education and extension and seeks to make transformative discoveries that solve societal challenges.

Category/Topic: Food and Nutrition

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Jul 13, 2016

Where did you get 2.5 million users from? They only seem to have about 4100.

Jul 14, 2016

Simply Super!

Zach H
Jul 15, 2016

One cannot distinguish abiotic issues from many viral, bacterial, nematode, or other disease related issues. This may be helpful for easy to diagnose issues. Crowd sourcing is a dangerous way to gather information. Interesting the person is a any guy not a disease expert.

Jul 16, 2016

Show me an app that can tell the difference between wilts, root rots, grub damage, compaction, and or nematode damage and then you'll have a game changer. Here you just have another picture booking app that can potentially ID easily identifiable leaf diseases under ideal conditions.

Jul 18, 2016

diseases must be confirmed by more than just symptomology. There are too many other factors and mimics that can affect how a disease presents itself on a plant. Also, this sint the first time this idea has been attempted.

Jul 18, 2016

A blurb from UMN about "Expert Advise" as it relates to soybean / aphid information on the internet: "
The question is where to get the best information? There is a wide array of pest management advice and information available for soybean producers. The internet is particularly rife with newsletters, social media postings, and videos that all purport to give expert advice. It’s wise to always consider the source of the information and also evaluate what it is actually based on - making a statement with absolute certainty doesn’t necessarily make it a fact. As scientists at universities, we make pest management recommendations that are based on repeated and controlled studies, statistical tests and, ultimately, a system called “peer review” that ensures that what we publish is vetted thoroughly and evaluated by other scientists, often anonymously. However, for many of the sources of information available to soybean farmers, there is no review of any kind. As a result, many of the “recommendations” from entities not relying on sound science are never challenged or critically evaluated. As such, they are just opinions." Plant village and it's creators should be careful about what they are putting out there as "fact" as ultimately the effects could be damaging to those that may use this particular application or webpage.

Jul 19, 2016

This might be better suited for insects, perhaps?

Ben Weaver
Jul 20, 2016

@Anon - The figure of 2.5 million users is based upon Google analytics, which shows how many people have used our content. The 4,100 figure is the number of registered users – the people who ask questions and provide answers. Most of the people who use PlantVillage arrive at our site from organic searches, which explains why a single question can have more than 80,000 views. -Dr. David Hughes, Co-creator of PlantVillage and assistant professor of entomology and biology at Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences.

M Dutta
Jul 25, 2016

How authentic and reliable is this tool of diagnosis?

Tom Rich
Jul 31, 2016

Are these GMO or 100% organic plants? Have they been sprayed with anything? Any fertilizers used? All the above make a huge difference.

Aug 06, 2016

This seems like a silly idea coming from someone who doesnt understand diseases or plant production.

Alyssa Ferd
Aug 08, 2016

This seems to be very useful, and while many people may think that this will only be used by farmers in the developed world the number of people who have smartphones in Africa and developing countries is rapidly increasing. It is a great idea to harness new technology and innovation to try to solve important, life-changing problems in agriculture.