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Happy rice, happy life

11 March 2020
Internship reflections from PhD candidate Daniel Howell
Daniel Howell is a PhD candidate who recently completed an internship program travelling to eight villages in Cambodia. He conducted surveys on small scale rice farms investigating perception and management of rice diseases.
Daniel Howell

Daniel Howell, Agriculture PhD candidate, in the rice fields of Cambodia. 

Optimising rice productivity is one of the major determinants in achieving future food security. Rice is a major staple food and currently feeds more than 3 billion people, most of whom are from developing countries where population growth is rapid.

Plant pathogens are one of the most significant causes of yield loss and quality reduction in rice production. The most common disease worldwide being a pathogenic fungus called Magnaporthe oryzae or commonly called rice blast, which causes necrotic lesions on the leaves and panicles of rice.

Pathogenic fungus called rice blast.

Pathogenic fungus called rice blast.

Northwest Cambodia is known as the nations ‘rice bowl’ due to its rich soil fertility and high productivity. Fungal rice blast is present in all of these lowland rice-growing regions. In Northwest Cambodia, the distinction between pathogenic organisms (bacterial, viral and fungal) is rarely known due to limited availability of accurate information on diseases. Most farmers have had little or no formal education. Rice farmers simply refer to plant diseases as “Kra” meaning “sick plant” in Khmer.

Misidentification and misdiagnosis of plant diseases leads to incorrect management decisions resulting in money and time resources being wasted. To an untrained eye, rice blast and bacterial blight have common symptomology. The former is a fungal disease and the latter a bacterial disease and the management options require very different approaches.

Daniel’s research project aims to develop a mobile app that incorporates evidence-based research findings collected in Northwest Cambodia.

The two main app functions include:

  • machine learning to identify plant diseases based on the symptomology of rice plants
  • early warning system for rice blast epidemics based on weather data, disease epidemiology and farmer inputs.

Both functions will act as decision tools for smallholder rice farmers. This will be achieved by providing information and management options linked with each diagnosis which will be provided in Khmer (text and voice recordings) to ensure accessibility to farmers and to increase the likelihood of adoption of this technology.

Daniel explains “My research aims to help vulnerable rice farming communities in Northwest Cambodia. The development of this app will help farmers make informed decisions when managing diseases in their rice crops. If successful, this mobile app may be able to be utilised in other rice growing regions of the world.”

Submitting a successful internship proposal with the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research titled: Knowledge, perceptions and management of rice blast and other rice diseases in Northwest Cambodia.

Daniel travelled to eight villages in the provinces of Battambang and Banteay Meanchey and conducted surveys on 240 smallholder rice farmers to:

  • identify any gaps in knowledge regarding rice diseases and their management
  • investigate current management practices
  • assess the feasibility of using mobile application technology for disease information in this region.

To conduct the surveys, Daniel hired and trained two groups of multilingual Khmer university students.

“There were challenges working cross-culturally, particularly with the language barrier; however, the field trip was a huge success. The students gave great feedback regarding the skills they gained; an indication this experience was a great capacity building exercise,” says Daniel.

“Personally, my team management skills developed exponentially after working with two very diverse groups with different strengths and weaknesses. Overall, my confidence in my ability to conduct challenging research has improved; breaking down those personal barriers I had for my upcoming experiments in Cambodia 2020.”

Daniel’s PhD research is aligned with an Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research funded project: Sustainable intensification and diversification in the lowland system in Northwest Cambodia (CamSID).

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