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soybean plant with unconfirmed disease
PHOTO HAD RAMIFICATIONS: This photo of a soybean plant with unusual growth was part of a story that generated unexpected ramifications once it circulated on the internet.

On internet, accuracy is not enough

Here’s an example about far-reaching implications you could never imagine.

A crops editor helps farmers by publishing photos of unusual diseases or symptoms. It’s a time-honored method that helps farmers recognize these problems in their own fields. However, when editors first used this method, there was no internet, Facebook or Twitter.

Today, everyone worldwide has instant access to information. The world is different. Being accurate is still essential, but it may no longer be enough. Is it fact, or did someone make a statement that you assumed was fact? Could someone use information for a purpose you never imagined?

True example

This example puts these questions in perspective: Steve Gauck, Greensburg, Ind., sales agronomist with Beck’s, discovered unusual symptoms in a few soybean plants in October. The symptoms looked like tobacco ringspot virus, a disease he hadn’t seen before and I had never heard about.

I took photos and thought letting other farmers see them was still the right approach. I checked with Darcy Telenko, Purdue University Extension plant pathologist, and emailed her a photo of the plant. Telenko agreed it looked like TRSV, a seedborne disease. The story appeared on our website on Oct. 21.

Here’s where the story goes off the rails. On Oct. 25, I received an email from Tom Creswell, director of Purdue’s Plant and Pest Diagnostic Lab. He saw the story. In fact, he later told me the story was picked up and circulated elsewhere on the web.

He also noted that the Purdue lab tested three soybean samples from three counties during the summer, all with bud death, but all three were negative for TRSV. What concerned him was that the story said TRSV was found in Indiana. It didn’t mention whether the disease was confirmed. Before I could ask why it mattered, he told me another story.

Creswell noted that rhododendrons shipped to some Walmart and Rural King outlets in 17 Midwestern states, including Indiana, in spring 2019 carried Phytophthora ramorum, a waterborne pathogen that causes sudden oak death in oak trees. Regulators reacted quickly. Stores recalled plants, but the story was all over social media.

Another twist

What do infected rhododendrons have to do with TRSV? Apparently, Creswell explained, a foreign country tried using the rhododendron incident as a barrier to importing U.S. oak products!

Who saw that coming? Who could imagine that wording in a story about unusual soybean symptoms could cause alarm for trade negotiators? Certainly not me!

Now I’m aware. We took the unusual step of republishing the story on Oct. 28, after rephrasing it to reflect that symptoms looked like TRSV, but noting it wasn’t confirmed because samples weren’t tested.

Did Gauck find TRSV? Samples weren’t tested, so we may never know for sure. Creswell didn’t say he didn’t. He just pointed out it wasn’t confirmed. Creswell wanted that acknowledgement in writing should a trade negotiator try to refuse Indiana soybeans based on the story.

Will we continue running pictures of diseases? You bet. Will we send every plant to a lab for positive identification first? No, that’s impractical. However, we’ll be more careful about wording everything we write.

The internet and global trade have ushered in a new age. Realize that what you post online could be used for purposes you never imagined possible.  

Comments? Email tom.bechman@farmprogress.com.

TAGS: Crops
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