David Hughes, professor of entomology and biology at Penn State and creator of PlantVillage, a knowledge platform that helps farmers combat pests and adapt to climate change, has been named the Dorothy Foehr Huck and J. Lloyd Huck Chair in Global Food Security in the University’s Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences.
The Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences support interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research by offering interdisciplinary graduate programs, operating shared core facilities, supporting strategic research initiatives through faculty co-hires and cluster hires, and operating the institutes’ Centers of Excellence.
In this position, Hughes will continue his work to empower smallholder farmers by providing access to technology and knowledge to help them grow more food in the face of climate change. He also will continue studies into how artificial intelligence can be used in regenerative agriculture.
Hughes will leverage the expertise of his PlantVillage team, which is a group of more than 60 scientists who advance technologies in artificial intelligence, satellite technology, drone use and data science to help farmers adapt to climate change. Much of their work focuses on Africa, a continent that has a high level of food insecurity.
Gary Felton, professor and head of the Department of Entomology, said Hughes’ appointment is a well-deserved honor and a distinction that recognizes his achievements, vision and passion for global food security.
“David’s work with PlantVillage has reached millions of African farmers, thus ensuring food security for hundreds of millions on the continent,” said Felton. “It is no surprise that PlantVillage continues to receive recognition and awards, most recently from Mercy Corps AgriFin, an international humanitarian organization. His innovation in helping to solve some of the greatest challenges facing our planet makes him a worthy recipient.”
Hughes earned a bachelor’s degree in zoology from the University of Glasgow in Scotland and a doctorate in entomology from the University of Oxford in England. He completed two Marie Curie Fellowships — one at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the other at Copenhagen University in Denmark.
He came to Penn State to continue his work on ants manipulated by fungal parasites — known widely as “zombie ants” — but also wanted to conduct applied work to solve societal problems inspired by the land-grant model.
This led him to promote evidence-based solutions to the challenge of growing enough food in a climate-changed world through PlantVillage. The project began as a website that uses photographs of plant diseases and insect damage to crowdsource answers to questions posed by growers worldwide. It since has grown to include mobile apps that combine artificial intelligence, machine learning and satellite data to diagnose crop problems, which are verified using “ground-truth” monitoring.
PlantVillage’s staff members come from different countries. They have different skills but share the philosophy that knowledge required to grow food should be available to every farmer in the world. Most recently, Hughes and the PlantVillage team worked with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and others to battle an infestation of desert locusts in Ethiopia and Kenya in 2020.
The Penn State scientists created a smartphone app that made it easy for farmers and citizens to report locust sightings so that pest management teams could target and destroy swarms. The effort and several others were responsible for protecting the food security of 36.6 million people and avoiding $1.56 billion in cereal and milk losses, according to the FAO.
PlantVillage also uses its technology to promote healthy eating among adolescent girls in Ghana and Vietnam. The irony of food insecurity, Hughes has pointed out, is that it also can be too much of the wrong type of food, leading to obesity. This work has been funded by the Botnar Foundation and is in collaboration with the International Food Policy Research Institute.
“David has earned an international reputation for averting food crises by rapidly developing advanced solutions that are simple to use on the ground in remote areas,” said Rick Roush, dean of the College of Agricultural Sciences.
Roush added that to further Hughes’ humanitarian work and push forward such uses of information technology, the College of Agricultural Sciences and the University are supporting his pursuit of a multi-million-dollar grant from the U.S. government to develop an “Innovation Lab” for current and emerging threats to crops.
Andrew Read, director of the Huck Institutes, said its mission is to help drive novel, impactful research in the life sciences at Penn State.
“David’s PlantVillage work is a classic example, and we were delighted to seed fund the initiative in 2012,” Read said. “Since that time, David has grown it into the powerhouse it is now. We are impressed with how he is evolving the original vision, including his recent work with the United Nations to combat desert locusts in Africa. His relentless focus on real-world impact is very refreshing.”