PROSSER -- Researchers from India and Nigeria -- working here to stave off grape vine diseases -- have come up with new ways to protect cassava plants a hemisphere away.
Science does that.
In a worldwide economy, agricultural research stretches across the globe, and the Washington State University Irrigated Agricultural Research and Extension Center is a prolific link in that chain of scientific inquiry.
"Science diplomacy," is what Naidu Rayapati, a WSU-Prosser plant virologist calls it.
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Rayapati and post-graduate researcher Olufemi Alabi spend most of their time screening grape vine cuttings for leafroll, a virus that stunts growth and lowers yields in the state's lucrative wine and juice grape industries.
But using many of the same techniques, the researchers have developed cheaper and simpler ways for their colleagues at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture in Nigeria to screen for cassava mosaic disease and cassava brown streak disease, viruses that attack a potatolike root that forms the bulk of the diet for millions in sub-Saharan Africa.
Cassava is the third-largest source of carbohydrates in the tropics and a staple for anywhere from 500 million to 1 billion people. Throughout the world, people ferment it, boil it, dry it into flakes, cook it into chips, grind it into tapioca powder and bake it into cakes. A new company has begun brewing cassava beer.
Nigeria is the world's largest producer.
"It's just like rice," said Alabi, a Nigerian who includes cassava at most meals at his family's Prosser home. "It's just a staple."
But the ubiquitous plant is under attack by viruses spread by insects and by planting infected cuttings. The diseases caused widespread famine throughout the 1900s and have reached epidemic proportions again, this time with highly infectious and damaging new strains, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.
African nations where electricity, communication and even governments are unreliable, struggle to enforce quarantines. The viruses work much like the human flu by constantly creating new strains. Even if cuttings are clean, white flies often spread the diseases.
"It's a very big challenge," Alabi said.
Growers in Africa are just now testing out new varieties that they hope will resist the viruses, but chemically screening plant tissue to detect the virus genome in laboratories is so far the primary means to block the disease's spread. Traditionally, researchers have used expensive and hazardous chemicals difficult for African regions to afford, use and dispose of.
Rayapati, born in India, learned all this while working for a Malawi office of the IITA from 1994-99, where he studied peanuts, primarily. He moved to Prosser in 2004 after earning his doctorate from the University of Georgia.
Alabi worked at the same institute after Rayapati left but had a common administrator who referred Alabi to Prosser for his graduate studies.
Starting in 2005 in Prosser, the two began experimenting with cheaper chemicals to screen plant tissue samples for the virus, working under a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant. For example, they substituted phenol, a hazardous chemical, with more common sodium phosphate and sodium chloride.
In 2009, they visited Nigeria to teach scientists at the institute.
Rayapati said the techniques were simple, but it took a while for African researchers to believe they could do it, often assuming they needed expensive U.S. equipment.
For example, Rayapati said, the screenings require heating chemicals to about 98 degrees. For most of the year in Prosser, scientists use an incubator. In Africa, they just leave the cultures in the sunshine.
"Look, you can do it here," he recalled telling them. "It's a confidence building."
Wine grape growers in the Valley were pleased to learn of Rayapati's widespread reach.
"That's pretty cool," said Kevin Corliss, vice president of vineyards for Ste. Michelle Wine Estates. "I didn't know that and I've spent a fair amount of time with Naidu."
"It's good to have a global mix here in little ol' Prosser," Corliss said.
WSU-Prosser is a hub of internationalism. Most of the graduate students are from overseas, said Pete Jacoby, director of the campus north of town. In the warmer months, students and faculty from Nepal to the Middle East play pickup soccer games on the south lawn.
But throughout the United States, land grant universities such as WSU encourage professors to work overseas to develop an international reputation, Jacoby said.
It's practical too, he said. Washington growers, increasingly expected to market their products overseas, need to understand how crop production in other parts of the globe affect the value of what they grow at home, he said.
"We're not isolated anymore," Jacoby said.