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Digital Disaster and the Ethics of Virtual Plant Pathology

L. J. Stowell, PACE Turfgrass Research Institute, 1267 Diamond Street, San Diego, CA 92109

Posted 28 June 2000. Plant Health Progress doi:10.1094/PHP-2000-0628-02-PS.

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

     The responsibility we take on as plant pathologists when we diagnose plant diseases is a serious one that impacts crop management strategies, pesticide use patterns, food and environmental safety. For this reason, our goal should always be to use all information available—about the plant, the microorganisms present, and the conditions that led to the problem—to ensure that the final diagnosis is as accurate as possible. Yet in the past few years, we have seen increasing adoption of the use of photographs and digital images as the sole source of information for a plant health diagnosis. Because this trend ignores much of the fundamental information required to make an accurate diagnosis, it increases the likelihood of incorrect diagnoses and of all of the consequences that arise, such as: negative economic impact on the grower, pesticide misuse, added health risks to farm workers and the public, and a downgrading of the skills and professionalism of plant disease diagnosticians. The profession of plant pathology is being led down a slippery ethical slope. We must ask ourselves: Is it ethical for a plant diagnostician to provide a diagnosis of a plant disease based solely on an image of a plant part or of a plant or field? Several university extension programs have now been developed that rely on photographs or digital images as the basis for disease diagnoses on the theory that with this new technology, they can do more for less.

Unfortunately, they really end up doing less for less. At a time when management of plant diseases is becoming more complex and the public is evermore concerned about the excess use of pesticides, including fungicides, should we be promoting such a superficial look at plant diagnostics—one that ignores the biology of the system? Guessing the cause of a disease from a photograph may be fun and challenging at the APS meetings during the disease diagnosis competition, but diagnosis from photographs is not an acceptable standard for the practice of plant pathology. I cannot imagine a situation where an image alone would be suitable for diagnostic purposes and management recommendations.

The use of digital diagnoses was promoted in abstracts and one symposium speaker presentation at the 1998 APS meetings. One abstract was entitled "Digital disease diagnosis in practice" (Phytopathology 88:S39) and the second was entitled "Use of digital images to aid in disease diagnosis at the University of Wyoming Extension Plant Pathology Lab" (Phytopathology 88:S11). In the first abstract, Holmes et al. claim that successful diagnosis has been possible with approximately 80% of the specimens! Need I say more? If, as Holmes et al. claim, "All aspects of the disease signature can be captured" using a variety of digital methods, why were 20% of the specimens unable to be accurately diagnosed? Briere was less enthusiastic suggesting that "Although some routine diagnoses are now rapidly accomplished for remote sites via electronic transfer of digital images, this technology has also proved useful as a supplement to traditional diagnostic methods." In Briere’s case, digital tools augment the diagnostician’s tool box but the use of digital images do not replace handling the sample in person. Even more extreme than the two examples above was the University of Georgia plan to set up 72 digital diagnostic stations that will provide images to pathologists at remote diagnostic facilities (Brown E., Development and implementation of a digital imaging system for distance diagnostics. Presented in: Meeting the challenges in today’s extension system, a symposium at the 1998 annual APS meeting).

Although these tools may provide educational opportunities, they do not address the need for plant pathologists in the field who can diagnose diseases and recommend ecologically sound management practices on their own. The major justification for the use of images as the sole basis for disease diagnostics appears to be decreased funding to extension and university diagnostic programs. It is assumed that digital imaging would allow fewer pathologists to address more problems. But surely embracing a technology that ensures inferior information and service is not the way to deal with the problem of decreased funding. Instead, we in APS need to develop more ethically sound solutions to this problem. We need to ask ourselves why are we not placing plant pathologists in the field where they are needed. Why are we not encouraging the private sector to replace some components of extension programs that are disappearing? Why can’t existing plant pathology programs begin charging for diagnostic samples to cover expenses incurred and to support diagnosticians with proper laboratory support and travel expenses? We should use digital technologies to expand our abilities to accurately diagnose, not simply as a cost saving process that threatens our professionalism and ethical standards of practice.

The first principle of the APS Code of Professional Conduct states: "Members accept the obligation to serve the public interest, honor the public trust, enhance the welfare of humanity, encourage environmental stewardship, and demonstrate a commitment to professionalism." The sole reliance on digital images is a step backward for our profession, but it is not too late to reverse this trend. The American Phytopathological Society needs to review its role as the steward of the profession of plant pathology. Refer to the text of my presentation at the 1994 APS meeting Plenary Session (Phytopathology News 29:38-40) for additional discussion of the role of the APS as the steward of the practice of plant pathology in modern agriculture and society.

For responses to this article, click the titles below:

A Response: Rebuttal to "Digital Disaster and the Ethics of Virtual Plant Pathology. G. Holmes, T. Creswell and T. Dyson. 06-June-2000.

"And Now for the Rest of the Story..."
Rebuttal to "Digital Disaster and the Ethics of Virtual Plant Pathology.
J. L. Sherwood. 21-June-2000.

More on "Digital Disaster and the Ethics of Virtual Plant Pathology." L. J. Stowell. 28-June-2000.