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"And Now for the Rest of the Story..."

Rebuttal to "Digital Disaster and the Ethics of Virtual Plant Pathology"

J. L. Sherwood, Department of Plant Pathology, University of Georgia, Athens, GA 30602-7274

21 June 2000. Plant Health Progress doi:10.1094/PHP-2000-0621-01-LT.

Reproduced, with permission, from Phytopathology News, May 1999.

I borrow this segue from Mr. Paul Harvey as a beginning to my response to the Letter to the Editor by Dr. Larry Stowell (Phytopathology News 33:62) in which he expressed his concern about the use of digital imaging for plant disease diagnosis and the "extreme" that The University of Georgia is engaged in implementing this technology (view article). I would share the concerns expressed by Dr. Stowell if implementing digital imaging for diagnostics to provide service to those engaged in plant production for their livelihood in the 159 counties in Georgia was being done without meaningful support for the county agents using the technology. At each of the 72 sites in Georgia, there are significantly more resources than Dr. Stowell leads the reader to believe. For each work station, there is a hand-held digital camera to capture images in the field, dissecting and compound microscopes with a camera to capture images seen using the scopes, a computer and software, and a substantial set of APS Press resources. Each county agent goes through 2 days of training in using the system. The images captured by the county agents using the hand-held camera and microscopes are sent over the Internet and coupled to an automated e-mail system that notifies the extension specialist that the "sample" has arrived. The use of digital imaging by county agents facilitates continued in-service training, because immediate feedback can be provided to the agent on sample quality or need for additional sample information before a crisis situation develops for the grower or before the agent is engulfed in the next problem. This immediate reinforcement concerning a particular disease is in addition to the year-round training county agents receive on disease cycles and signs and symptoms of diseases common to the crops in their geographic area of responsibility.

There are several advantages to the digital imaging system. First, critical information is rapidly exchanged. Secondly, the availability of the extension specialist is increased, because the specialist can be paged to check a sample on their laptop computer or by stopping at any county office or public library that has Internet access. As a result, driving back to the office to see a sample that was in the mail or refrigerator for 3 days from a county that was 20 minutes from the grower's meeting where the extension specialist was the night before is becoming less frequent. I also would embrace the concern of Dr. Stowell if we were trying to replace components of the extension service in Georgia with this system. However, two diagnosticians have been added to our faculty ranks in the last year. We now have in the Department of Plant Pathology at The University of Georgia four full-time highly skilled diagnosticians working with our Ph.D. extension specialists in handling the approximately 4,000 disease and 19,000 nematode samples we receive each year for analysis. In addition, two support specialists for the technology side of the digital imaging project were hired to address computer-related problems of users and to manage the growing image and information database. The database is being developed into an educational resource for students, growers, consultants, and others with an interest in plant pathology. The quality of micro- and macroscopic images prepared from fresh material by county agents for diagnosis exceeds what can be prepared from material that has spent days in the mail.

Impact is an over-used term, and unfortunately, each of us spends more and more time engaged in trying to determine impacts to defend and justify our programs. Thus, I will not bore the reader with a list of impacts the use of digital imaging has had in Georgia, except to say that more than $300,000 has been saved since the initiation of the program in 1998 due to more timely diagnosis and implementation of disease-management tactics. In addition, we have been able to inform county agents of new diseases (Langston, et al. Plant Dis. 83:199), so they can stay alert for outbreaks of new or recurring problems. Digital imaging technology also is proving useful in the disciplines of entomology and weed science at The University of Georgia. Digital imaging technology has allowed us to more comprehensively meet client needs in plant health management, because maladies caused by diseases, insects or weeds can be discerned in a more timely manner for effective management.

The Distance Diagnostics through Digital Imaging Program at The University of Georgia has been planned, implemented, and supported so we can meet our responsibilities as plant pathologists outlined in the APS Code of Professional Conduct, "to serve the public interest, honor the public trust, enhance the welfare of humanity, encourage environmental stewardship and demonstrate a commitment to professionalism." Failure to adapt new technology to fulfill this responsibility is the grave amiss. "And now you know the rest of the story. Goooood-day."