A similar scorched-earth policy seems called for when parasites threaten the world's chocolate crop. That's just picking a fight the ants are going to wish they hadn't picked, or at least I hope so. This post from Ed Yong (who writes Not Exactly Rocket Science) examines the troubling state of the globe's plant pathology field, with a special focus on the imperiled African cocoa crop. Since one of the few things that grab my interest as tightly as chocolate is the technique of crowdsourcing, I was drawn to this paragraph about the plant pathogens that continue to challenge modern farmers:
"Farming has always been a community affair but, in the modern era, we’ve lost those connections and knowledge is held by a few," [said David Hughes, an ant-loving evolutionary biologist from Pennsylvania State University]. To rebuild these links, he teamed up with his Penn State colleague Marcel Salathé, a computer scientist who studies the spread of behaviour through social networks. Earlier this year, the duo launched plantvillage.com, an open-access website where people can ask each other for help with agricultural problems. Users vote the answers up and down, and accumulate points depending on how helpful they are. It’s like Quora for gardeners. "We’ll never invest in people like [Harry Marshall Ward, a 19th-century plant pathologist] again," Hughes said. "The second-best solution is to rely on the crowd."
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It’s an approach that could have been lifted from an ant’s playbook. Individual ants are hardly great strategists [or are they?], but through their interactions, they can achieve incredible feats of swarm intelligence. Some successfully rear bugs, and build tents to defend them from threats. Others grow a delectable fungus by feeding it chopped up leaves, while killing off other moulds with antibiotic-secreting bacteria. For millions of years, ants have raised crops, herded livestock and weeded their gardens, all by working together as a large connected society. Humans could learn a thing or two from that approach.