Bringing AI To The Masses – Asian Scientist, April 22 2018

Keen on picking up the fundamentals of AI? A community-driven movement known as AI Saturdays can give you a leg up.
It’s often said that knowledge is a form of wealth; in the face of a rapidly changing world, a new global initiative aims to equip people from all backgrounds with such riches. AI Saturdays, also known as AI6, is a community-driven, non-profit movement established to offer education on artificial intelligence (AI) to the masses. Through structured study groups, lectures and project work, the organizers aim to teach everybody how they can use AI in their everyday lives.
With the first chapter established in December 2017 in Singapore by Nurture.AI CEO Mr. Yap Jia Qing, followed by the second soon after in Kuala Lumpur, it could be said that the AI6 movement is in its infancy. Yet within a few months, the initiative has grown to include 103 chapters across six continents, including 47 in Asia. At time of writing, there are over 5,000 participants worldwide, from Kathmandu to California.
A worldwide classroom
AI Saturdays stemmed from a simple realization by the people at Nurture.AI, according to Mr. James Lee, AI research fellow at Nurture.AI and the co-head of AI6.
“Nurture.AI maintains a web platform for discussing academic AI papers. However, we realized that reading academic papers was not an activity that could be easily accessed by many. We created AI6 to help enable people to be comfortable with the technologies behind AI, as well as to build a community.”
Many distinguished universities, including Stanford and Harvard, offer open-source learning material on AI. Through AI6, the founders hoped to give people the opportunity to experience what it’s like to sit in one of these classrooms—from anywhere in the world.
“We didn’t expect to do anything big with it. We just thought we’d get people together to learn some AI by going through the materials available online. Initially this was for Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, and it spread from there,” explains Lee, who is also one of the ambassadors of the Kuala Lumpur chapter.
Just like with AI technology itself, the direction of a meeting can be hard to predict, and is often dependent on the preferences of chapter members. However, all chapters center their Saturday lectures around open-access course material from universities like Stanford and Berkeley. The first session, ‘Practical Deep Learning,’ sees participants watch and code along with materials from fast.ai, a free deep learning course. In session two, ambassadors are asked to focus on either computer vision, reinforcement learning or natural language processing. Finally, in the third session, members go through Stanford’s Stats385 course and participate in open forum-style discussions. Group project work is also strongly encouraged throughout the course of these Saturday sessions.
“One of the things we do is encourage every chapter to have a milestone, to tell members to take what you have learned so far and produce something,” explains Lee. “In the Kuala Lumpur chapter for example, one guy took ten years of stock prices and made an algorithm that predicts whether they will go up and down in the next month. Others made a Trump tweet simulator. They downloaded Donald Trump’s tweets and tried to create a neural network that replicates the style.”
AI as a basic skill
Becoming an AI6 ambassador doesn’t require a significant amount of prior knowledge; instead, curiosity is key. Ambassador of the Delhi chapter Mr. Divyansh Jha says it was his interest rather than his experience in AI that led him to get involved in the movement in December 2017.
“I’m from an electronics background, but recently I developed a huge interest in deep learning and AI. For the last year, I’ve been taking steps to learn more and doing projects in this area,” he says, adding that becoming an ambassador has helped him to develop leadership skills that make him more employable.
Expanding his knowledge of AI is of great importance to Jha; why does he think others should learn?
“I think AI should become a basic skill, because within ten or twenty years, everything will involve AI. People should learn this skill so they can move forward,” says Jha, who while happy to share knowledge, says he doesn’t believe in forcing anyone to get involved.
For some, the rapid expansion of AI and machine learning is a source of fear. Indeed, in a 2017 global study conducted by independent consumer research agency Northstar, 22 percent of some 4,000 participants said they felt society will become worse due to increased automation and AI. Yet new technology doesn’t need to be fearsome, says Jha.
“The people who know about the current state of AI aren’t fearful. It is people who don’t know about these things who are very fearful,” he says. “I think the AI singularity is very far from today; I don’t see it grabbing jobs from people in the next ten or twenty years. AI is something that will help humans improve.”
Reaping the rewards
Ambassador for the Taipei chapter Mr. Kuo Ruey-shen echoes these views, adding that one must find a scenario suitable for AI in order to fully understand its benefits.
“You have to know the purpose of AI and why you are using it, and then you decide what type of algorithm and deep learning can help you. It’s a tool to help us do a lot of jobs, not a tool to replace you. I think it will allow you as a human to start to live again, but only if you use that in the right way. A lot of the reports write about the wrong way and make people afraid,” he says.
 AI6 ambassadors help people to understand these benefits. At the same time, troubleshooting and problem solving is done through international collaboration over online platforms. This networking may soon become something bigger as a large-scale international AI6 initiative is in the pipeline for July 2018.
Meanwhile, participants such as Ms. Seema Goel are reaping the rewards. Goel was teaching herself AI and machine learning when she was invited to join the AI6 Bangalore chapter in January. She says that joining the group has helped her to progress with her learning and overcome obstacles she faced while learning alone.
“This meetup helped me in every possible way, be it understanding the concepts, technical glitches, and providing inspiration,” she says. “For me the group is meeting all expectations.”
Delhi chapter member Mr. Rohit Singh has similar views.
“The experience has been phenomenal,” he says. “Some members and especially the ambassador, Divyansh [Jha], do a great job at making the experience enriching for everyone. They go through the material, sharing their experience and clarifying doubts for everyone in a setting that’s quite informal and yet focused and driven.”
(First published on Asian Scientist on April 22 2018. Available online at: https://www.asianscientist.com/2018/04/features/artificial-intelligence-saturdays-asia-ai6/)
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We depend two times more on animal feed than our neighbours – Irish Examiner, March 15 2018

Ireland is renowned for rolling green pastures and sought-after food products.

But annual imports of 3.47m tonnes (mt) of animal feed are also part of the picture. Ireland is especially dependent on feed imports because of our high proportion of livestock production compared to tillage area.

About two thirds of the animal feeds marketed here are imported, compared to 37% in the UK, 27% in France, and 26% in Germany.

The main commodities imported are maize and maize byproducts, soyabean meal and soya hulls, and rapeseed meal. Up to 90% of the soyabean and maize products are imported from Argentina, Brazil, and the USA.

Our pig, poultry, and dairy sectors are particularly dependent on imports of GM soybean and GM maize by-products. Almost 1.7mt of soya and maize genetically modified (GM) products were imported into Ireland for animal feeds in 2017, constituting approximately 50% of total feed imports.

Significant quantities of non-GM maize and oilseed rape meal are also imported, from continental Europe, including Ukraine.

About 5m EU farmers raise animals, requiring 450mt of animal feed annually.

Recognising the EU’s over-dependency on imported proteins for animal feed, the EU Commission will publish a plan by the end of this year, with proposals to reduce over-reliance on imports.

Apart from dependence on getting feed from around the world, and the pollution and emissions associated with its transportation, soya is a particular cause for concern.

The worldwide growth of the soybean crop has caused large scale loss of biodiversity and wildlife habitat in already vulnerable places such as the Amazon rainforest.

The World Wildlife Fund recently focused on “hidden impacts that animal feed has on our planet”, and concluded that a reduction in meat consumption could alleviate these impacts. That is a shock for farmers, and others whose livelihoods are rooted in agriculture. But what role can they play?

Soybean production isn’t possible in Ireland, but growing other protein crops on our home soil can reduce demand for imported feed.

Ireland’s EU-funded Protein Aid Scheme, introduced in 2015, subsidises farmers for growing beans, peas, and lupins. Last year, the payment rate was set at €215 per hectare, and 1,200 people applied.

“The area of pulses, primarily beans and peas, grown in Ireland is 12,500 hectares. This is up from 3,500 hectares in 2012,” says head of crops science at Teagasc John Spink. “In terms of bean production, they would be grown on existing tillage land in a rotation with cereal crops.”

“From an environmental standpoint, they provide an important flowering crop of value to bees. They also fix nitrogen from the atmosphere and transfer it to the soil.”

However, as noted by animal and grassland researcher at Teagasc Laurence Shalloo, growing these crops domestically can only get us so far.

“In terms of potential production, we could only produce a fraction of the protein requirements of our livestock industries. If we absolutely maximised bean production on our existing tillage area, we could produce 360,000 tonnes per annum.”

Increasing the number of grazing days for livestock could be a way of further bringing down the reliance on imports, says Shalloo.

“Grazed grass obviously has sufficient protein to meet the requirements of dairy and beef animals and sheep. Maximising the grazing days in livestock production systems will reduce supplemented protein requirements.”

Co Cork dairy farmer Peter Hynes operates a grass-based system. But the 90 tonnes of animal feed he uses annually contains soya, something he’s trying to change.

“One of the big issues we are all well aware of is that the price of soya can fluctuate greatly, and can drive up the price of dairy rations overnight, so we definitely need to steer away from it,” he says.

The fact that most imported soya is genetically-modified (GM) is another incentive to seek out alternatives, according to Hynes, who says there is growing consumer demand for GM-free products in some of Ireland’s biggest dairy markets, such as Germany.

When it comes to reducing soya imports, he says this is likely to be a greater source for concern to Irish farmers than deforestation abroad.

“I do think we need to look at the carbon footprint of our milk, and that includes what we put into the feed, the haulage process and everything else,” he adds. “We can’t discount where our feed comes from. The carbon footprint of soya is huge, and it’s only going to get bigger.”

Professor emeritus of European agricultural policy at Trinity College Alan Matthews does not regard our reliance on imported soya as a large worry, and has no personal worries about the safety of GM soybeans. However, he does recognise the reality of “asynchronous approval” problems.

“A high share of soybeans are GM. In the EU, there’s no legal problem with that, except that each particular GM needs to be approved, before it can be brought in. This is quite a complicated and time-consuming process.”

Matthews says that this can be problematic if a supplier country introduces a new GM variety of soybean that has yet to be approved in Europe.

“They may try to ensure that shipments to Europe are separate, but it’s inevitably going to get contaminated somewhere along the line. You end up in a situation where you have a shipment from somewhere with this new GM variety, it’s detected at entry and then refused,” he says.

“That’s a concern for the European livestock sector, that they could find themselves inadvertently unable to import feed.”

Matthews believes that growing more protein crops in Ireland may have other consequences, saying we will either have to substitute other forms of production or clear more land to facilitate it.

“Are you therefore protecting the environment, by increasing the area granted to protein crops in Ireland, if the objective is to reduce land usage overall?”

However, he also recognises that deforestation and biodiversity loss occur elsewhere. In order to conquer this, he says we should “use our market power as an importer” to insist on the countries we get the feedstuffs from protecting their vulnerable habitats and raising their standards.

Secretary of the Irish Pig Health Society Shane McAuliffe, from McAuliffe Pig Farms in Co Kerry, has worked with nutritionists from Cargill to reduce the amount of soya protein in his pigs’ diets by 20%, subsequently reducing his pigs’ ammonia emissions by 15%. He also incorporates seaweed into the diets, which he says is reducing his costs and need for antibiotics, while maintaining the health and growth-rate of his animals.

As technology advances, he’s positive we can “significantly reduce” our reliance on imported feed. “Science and technology are moving forward rapidly and more sources of feed are available. It’s up to the government to provide incentives and make policy to use more sustainable practices,” adds McAuliffe, who says he sees promise in new feed sources such as algae and insect protein.

 

PANEL

There has been much abuzz about the potential for insect protein to feed the humans and animals of the future and a pair of Meath-based innovators are getting involved.

The brainchild of Alvan Hunt and John Lynam, Hexafly was established with the aim of developing sustainable feed for the agriculture and aquaculture industries using insects. Using biomimicry techniques, Hexafly takes black soldier flies into the lab, breeds them and hatches the larvae. The larvae are then fed with by-products from the brewing industry which they convert to a higher quality protein source before being used in feed.

“I looked at the production figures several months ago and on a per tonne basis, our method produces 90 per cent less greenhouse gases than one tonne of soy for example,” explains CTO and co-founder John Lynam. “In terms of space efficiency, on a good year on a soya farm you get one and a half tonnes of soya protein per acre. We are using one third of an acre and can produce 2,000 tonnes within one year.”

Hexafly is currently finalising the completion of their commercial pilotfacility and soon after will begin exporting their product. At present, EU legislation only permits the use of insect protein in the aquaculture industry and as Ireland has no compound fish feed manufacturing facilities, they will be focusing on exports in the beginning. However, once they receive the green light to supply to the pork and poultry industries, they envision being able to provide a local feed source to farmers on their home turf. “While we may not be able to replace traditional feed completely, we will be able to produce insect meal in addition to soya and fish meal to ease the demand on the food supply chain,” says Lynam.

(First published in the Irish Examiner on March 15 2018. Also available online at: https://www.irishexaminer.com/breakingnews/farming/we-depend-two-times-more-on-imported-animal-feed-than-our-neighbours-832683.html)

Tackling Ireland’s alien invaders – Irish Times, March 8 2018

The Japanese knotweed, rhododendron and giant hogweed are fast becoming household names as these pests continue to invade Irish landscapes. These ill-famed plants are just some of many invasive species causing destruction to Ireland’s ecosystems.

An inaugural global register of invasive species recently presented in Scientific Data shows that the Republic of Ireland is currently home to 1,266 non-native species – 63 of which have a negative impact. Ireland was one of 20 countries randomly selected for inclusion in this Global Registry of Introduced and Invasive Species (GRIIS), which will include every country by 2019.

“We focused solely on environmental and economic impacts,” says Shyama Pagad, lead author of the work and member of the IUCN SSC Invasive Species Specialist Group (ISSG). “We think it will help countries with trading partners. When you know your trading partner has listed this invasive species, you can set preventative measures to stop them from entering your country. It forms a basic alert system.”

While the ISSG researchers formed their database through analysing existing publications, they required the assistance of local editors to check and add to it. Invasive species officer at the National Biodiversity Data Centre Colette O’Flynn was recruited as editor for Ireland. The use of universal terminology, in addition to the fact that her team are currently undertaking a similar exercise, meant that editing wasn’t difficult.

“It’s always going to be a dynamic list,” O’Flynn says. “Assessments must be repeated as more animals come in and things we thought were invasive turn out not to be, or at least not as invasive as they appeared.”

Asked what our most harmful invasive species is, she says aquatics like the zebra mussel are particularly problematic. These creatures arrived in Ireland in the 1990s, attached to the hulls of imported leisure boats.

“Zebra mussels change the whole ecology of the lake system. They filter water when feeding; you would think that’s a great thing as they clean out the water but this causes more sunlight to reach the plants on the bottom. Those plants then grow more vigorously and this completely changes the food web in the lake.”

In addition to threatening lake systems and native mussels, Zebra mussels also block water intake pipes, filters and boat engines where they settle in large clusters.

Notorious plants such as Japanese knotweed are also acknowledged by O’Flynn as damaging species, which hold the potential to undermine road and building foundations. However, she feels that recent years have seen a big shift in efforts to deal with invasive species.

“This is driven by a number of things. Finding out more about species through databases like this definitely helps, as does people sending sighting reports to our centre,” she adds. “When we have the data, we can analyse it and use it to inform decision-making.”

The European Regulation of Invasive Alien Species enacted in 2015 involves a dynamic list of 49 invasive species of concern in the EU. Once a species is added, each member state is required to carry out appropriate prevention, early detection and rapid eradication and management measures.

Acknowledging the regulation’s potential, head of the Department of Environmental Science at IT Sligo Dr Frances Lucy says it hasn’t truly been enacted yet in Ireland or other member states. “The reason why [it’s not being followed] is because it’s a very new regulation. The European Commission is still gathering information and there hasn’t been any punitive measures attached to it yet.”

Lucy is a firm believer that citizen science is key to tackling our invasive species and in turn, protecting biodiversity. “Even if we had 1,000 biodiversity officers and a whole legislative system in place, it’s not what is going to save biodiversity in Ireland,” she notes. “Right now, we are in danger of disengaging from nature because we don’t spend as much time outdoors as we used to due to the virtual reality we’re using. Why not use virtual reality to re-engage people?”

She refers to the use of various apps, Twitter and other tools currently being used by the public to report and record various species. For example, the National Biodiversity Data Centre receives 10,000 sighting reports a month through interactive tools.

“The recording of species is one key area where citizens can get involved. The other vital part regards invasive species management, particularly biosecurity. The man on the street needs to know how to manage and prevent their spread,” she says. “This can be done by taking simple precautions every time we engage in outdoor recreational activities; this should be automatic, like putting on your seatbelt.”

If the Government put more funds into educating people on recognising and managing these species, money would be saved in the long run, Lucy points out.

While recognising it’s a concern, campaigns officer at the Irish Wildlife Trust Pádraic Fogarty feels the invasive species issue has “been overblown”.

“A lot of ecologists have taken their eye off the ball. Habitat loss, pollution and biodiversity loss are still our biggest problems in Ireland. Invasive species thrive in habitats that are damaged and degraded,” says Fogarty, who feels these big issues are not being addressed.

“The idea of invasive species is easier to tackle than habitat loss. That’s often more controversial, particularly as agriculture and peat extraction industries can be difficult to deal with.”

There’s an app for that

Technology plays an integral role in identifying and mapping locations of particular species, including invasive ones. The National Biodiversity Data Centre’s Biodiversity Data Capture App allows people to capture details of any species they encounter and send them directly to the National Biodiversity Data Centre’s database.

Meanwhile, the Report Invasive Plants app was developed by Limerick County Council in 2016 specifically in response to invasive plants. It records four species – Japanese knotweed, winter heliotrope, giant hogweed and Himalayan balsam – in addition to having an “other” category.

To date they have received 900 sighting reports from 130 individual users, with Japanese knotweed being the most commonly recorded. Collected data is fed back to the National Biodiversity Data Centre.

“We used cameras and GPS prior to this but it was very time consuming. With just one person doing it, it was never going to work,” explains senior executive engineer with Limerick County Council Anne Goggin. “There are other apps out there to capture invasives but many are complicated. We wanted something quick and simple, aimed at someone who is not a specialist but does have a passing interest.”

Inland Fisheries Ireland also have developed an app to allow for the reporting of invasive species occurring within Irish fresh water.

(First published in The Irish Times on March 8 2018. Available online at: https://www.irishtimes.com/news/science/tackling-ireland-s-alien-invaders-1.3419509)

Leopards that live in cities are protecting people from rabies – New Scientist, March 8 2018

When leopards stray into a city, people often fear them because of the danger they pose. But it turns out these big cats could be valuable neighbours: by preying on feral dogs in Mumbai, they are reducing the risk of people catching rabies.

About 20,000 people die of rabies in India every year. Feral dogs are the main source, as they bite people and pass on the rabies virus.

Christopher O’Bryan and Alexander Braczkowski at the University of Queensland and their colleagues compiled existing data on the diet of leopards living in Sanjay Gandhi National Park, on the edges of Mumbai. They found that 40 per cent of the average leopard’s diet consists of feral dogs.

All told, the 35 leopards in the park probably eat 1,500 dogs per year. Given how often the dogs bite people and how many of them have rabies, the leopards’ kills are preventing about 1,000 bite incidents per year – and 90 potential rabies cases.

“This study is a striking example of a large carnivorous animal providing a direct benefit to humans,” says O’Bryan.

The same could be true of other leopard populations that encroach on cities. The team found 19 studies describing leopards eating feral dogs in Asia and Africa. However, O’Bryan says that they would need to be studied more closely to be sure that they bring the same benefit.

The researchers also emphasise that leopards can  cause harm. In particular, they often kill livestock – leading people to persecute them.

“It’s difficult to weigh up the costs with the benefits with a large cat species that’s known to attack and even kill humans,” says O’Bryan. “We just want to provide an angle that hasn’t been explored before, despite the pieces of the puzzle being in front of us the whole time.”

Journal reference: Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, DOI: 10.1002/fee.1776

(First published online by New Scientist. Available online at: https://www.newscientist.com/article/2163166-leopards-that-live-in-cities-are-protecting-people-from-rabies/)

Natural Pest Control Method Taking Flight – Earth Island Journal, February 26 2018

Farmers from Israel to California are embracing barn owls over toxic rodenticides

A recent study linking fatalities of California’s endangered northern spotted owl to rodenticide poisoning on marijuana farms reignited the flaming debate about the use of chemical agents in agriculture. Yet as discussion rages on, farmers elsewhere are using owls as a pest control solution, hopefully preventing them from becoming pest control victims. And the idea seems to be taking off.

photo of barn owl box

Photo by Bill Gracey: A mature barn owl delivers food to a young owl nesting in an owl box. Barn owls are cavity nesters, meaning they nest in places like hollow trees, open buildings, and nest boxes.

Most farmers use rodenticides to minimize the damage that rodents can cause to crops, but it is no secret that these chemicals can have unintended effects, such as the secondary poisoning of non-target species. As a result, some people have attempted to find other ways of keeping pests at bay, including by attracting barn owls to fields to prey on rodents.

Using barn owls as a form of biological pest control is certainly not a novel idea. First developed as a pest control technique through Malaysian studies in the 1970s, the idea truly took flight in Israel in 1981 when local researchers and farmers decided to test it out at Kibbutz Neot Mordechai, an agricultural community in the Hula Valley. Led by the Society for the Protection of Nature, the Nature and Parks Authority, three keen researchers, and some local farmers, this project saw the installation of eight barn owl boxes, three of which were occupied within a year. (Barn owls are drawn to boxes as nesting sites.) However, like most scientific experimentation, the trial did not come without complications. A pioneering young nature conservationist with the Society for the Protection for Nature, Yehuda Weiss, who played a pivotal role in the research, was killed in action in Lebanon when war later broke out in June 1982, bringing the vital work in this area to a halt.

This did not deter the researchers and farmers involved. Confident in the efficacy of the method following the trial and resulting nestbox occupation, they relaunched their project the following year in Israel’s Beit Shean Valley. Three decades later, and following plenty of ups and downs, between 3,500 and 4,000 owl boxes have been erected across Israel by open-minded farmers willing to give this method a try. The growing interest in natural pest control methods has spurred several related initiatives, including a national barn owl box program and a regional cross-border peace project with Jordan and the Palestinian Authority.

Another recent initiative is the Shamir Research Institute at Haifa University’s Project Bird Box Israel. This group aims to assist farmers who wish to set up their own owl boxes through education and the provision of boxes. Dr. Motti Charter, Head of Project Bird Box Israel, is quick to credit local farmers for the success of this pest control method.

“I’ve given many ideas in my life, but sometimes it’s very easy to simply just say an idea; the person who takes and does it deserves the credit. In Israel, this initiative is 100 percent down to the farmers. They did it slowly and took their time. Little by little, it grew,” explains Charter, whose scientific research sees him monitoring all of the boxes in the Hula Valley in order to improve the efficiency of the nest boxes. “I’ve been able to jump on board because I researched owls but I would have never been able to do this if it wasn’t for them.”

Such methods require more than just barn owls and some willing farmers; having the correct infrastructure in place is key. Barn owls are cavity nesters, so farmers can attract them to an area with a rodent problem — and encourage them to remain and breed there — by erecting simple pole-mounted nest boxes. Project Bird Box Israel offers some assistance to farmers to help purchase the boxes, which cost $250 each, but Charter says that farmers personally pay 95 percent of the price themselves.

Over in the US, Mark Browning, who owns the company Barn Owl Box, has supplied at least 5,000 boxes to farmers and landowners interested in testing out biological pest control. For him, it is not solely a business. It was Browning’s own satellite telemetry study on barn owls, which he conducted while working at the Pittsburgh Zoo, that encouraged him that this was a worthwhile cause. He spent a year and a half perfecting the perfect barn owl box design before putting it on the market.

Echoing Charter, Browning says he doesn’t try to convince farmers to use his solution, he just presents the information. “The way you encourage people to adopt a method is by ensuring that you get the information out there,” he explains. “It is easy for farmers to believe that using a bird is esoteric and mystical but they may not necessarily feel they’re effective at controlling rodents.”

But sometimes the research speaks for itself. Indeed, a three-year study conducted by Browning and colleagues to measure the impact of barn owls on rodent populations on a 40-ha vineyard in California appears promising. The installation of 25 nest boxes on the vineyard led to the rapid growth of the barn owl population on the treatment site. As bird numbers grew, there was a significant decline in the number of gopher mounds. The researchers estimated that the birds consumed 30,020 rodents over three years. They also deemed biological pest control as more cost-effective than trapping or poisoning as it only requires one initial investment in the boxes, rather than repeated investment in traps or rodenticides.

Barn owls are a species that lend themselves well to the task of pest control for several reasons, explains Browning. Unlike other birds, they are not territorial and are happy to nest near one another, as well as within close proximity to humans. They are also attracted to nest boxes, while the fact that they are not powerful fliers ensures that they won’t stray far from their prey source. All of these factors, along with the fact that barn owls pose no threat to livestock, has inspired landowners to test barn owl-based pest control through small initiatives in Argentina, the UK, and Indonesia. Other birds have also been shown to have a similar pest control benefit. For example, researchers in New Zealand found that vineyards with resident falcons had significantly fewer pest birds and less grape damage.

According to Browning, the relationship between barn owls and farmers is symbiotic: “Every time we are distributing a nest box, we are expanding habitat for a very important bird, as well as experiencing a practical application of using natural methods of control. That’s a win-win situation.”

While confident in the method, Browning hopes that more studies will be carried out to determine the effectiveness of barn owls across various cropping systems and scenarios. Roger Baldwin, a wildlife specialist at University of California, Davis, echoes the desire for more studies in this area. Together with colleagues, he is currently conducting research to see whether the birds of prey can help control rapidly expanding populations of rodents such as voles.

Baldwin believes that using barn owls to control rodent numbers will be more effective if all landowners in a given area use the same method, therefore encouraging a greater regional density of owls. However, based on current knowledge, he feels that there’s no one size fits all solution to pest control, and is a firm believer in a combined approach.

“I suspect that in most cases regarding the management of pests, the integrated pest management approach is the most effective; this incorporates multiple strategies of pest control and can target the susceptibility of an animal,” he says. “For example, some creatures are not as prone to walking into traps, others are not as prone to feed on bait or be predated on.”

Baldwin believes that there will always be a place for rodenticides and is quick to address their dirty reputation. “Everyone thinks of rodenticide as one product. There are a variety of different kinds with different active ingredients. Not all of them have the same risk to non-target species and some have no secondary risks. It is a bit challenging to use the term rodenticide without understanding the differences,” he says.

While second generation anticoagulants have been shown to cause harm to non-target species, Baldwin says that other chemicals such as zinc phosphide have relatively no harmful secondary effects. Overall, he feels that responsible usage is key.

However, Maggie Ruffo, a wildlife volunteer with Earth Island Institute’s Raptors Are The Solution (RATS) initiative, would “strongly disagree” that any rodenticides can be used safely.

“From all the research we have read, there are no safe poisons,” says Ruffo, who is also a certified naturalist and volunteer with the Hungry Owl Project. “Anything you put out into the environment is going to cause a problem for wildlife.”

The primary aim of the RATS initiative is to take rat poison off the market and educate the public in alternative pest control methods. According to Ruffo, barn owls are one tool in the toolbox of Integrated Pest Management,” and can in fact be more effective than rodenticides, which can wipe out beneficial predator species through secondary poisoning.

“Rodents are always going to be part of the environment,” Ruffo adds. “They are the chosen prey item for many species. It’s a question of us learning to live with that fact, and doing our best to keep them out of our dwellings and businesses … and then creating attractive habitat for our beneficial predators.”

(First published on Earth Island Journal on February 26 2018. Available online at: http://www.earthisland.org/journal/index.php/elist/eListRead/natural_pest_control_method_taking_flight/)

How microbes may influence our behaviour – The Scientist, September 2017

Stress, anxiety, and depression are emotions we all feel at some point in our lives, some people to a greater degree than others. Part of the human experience, right?

“It may seem odd that my research focuses on the gut if I’m interested in the brain,” says  John Cryan, a researcher at the APC Microbiome Institute at University College Cork in Ireland. “But when we think of how we express emotion in language, through sayings like ‘butterflies in your tummy’ and ‘gut feeling,’ it isn’t surprising that they’re connected.”

In a recent study, Cryan and his colleagues reported a link between the microbiome and fear. By examining mice with and without gut bacteria, they discovered that the germ-free mice had blunted fear responses (Mol Psychiatr, doi:10.1038/mp.2017.100, 2017). Their findings may pave the way for the development of novel treatments for anxiety-related illnesses, including posttraumatic stress disorder.

Researchers at Kyushu University in Japan were the first to show, in 2004, that bacteria in the gut can influence stress responses, prompting many subsequent investigations. Yet despite mounting research, scientists remain uncertain about exactly how the gut microbiome affects the brain. While some bacteria influence the brain through the vagus nerve, other strains seem to use different pathways. It is known, however, that the population of the gut microbiome begins in early life, and recent research suggests that disruptions to its normal development may influence future physical and mental health (Nat Commun, 6:7735, 2015).

Researchers are finding that this gut-brain connection could have clinical implications, as influencing the gut microbiome through diet may serve to ameliorate some psychiatric disorders. Together with University College Cork colleague Ted Dinan, Cryan coined the term “psychobiotics” in 2013 to describe live organisms that, when ingested, produce health benefits in patients with psychiatric illness. These include foods containing probiotics, live strains of gut-friendly bacteria.

While there are many rodent studies linking probiotics and mental health, UCLA biologist Emeran Mayer and his colleagues were the first to test them in humans, using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans to assess the results. After administering probiotic yogurt to a group of healthy women twice a day for four weeks, the researchers found that the women had a reduced brain response to negative images (Gastroenterology, 144:1394-401, 2013).

“We reanalysed the data several times and convinced ourselves that it’s real,” Mayer says. “You can almost say it was a career-changer for me.”

Having conducted this study on healthy participants, Mayer is reluctant to conclude that probiotics can cure mental illnesses such as anxiety. “It’s a complex emotion, not just a reflex behavior like in the mouse,” he says. However, Mayer says he’s very supportive of the potential of prebiotics—fiber-rich foods  that promote the growth of beneficial bacteria in the gut.

Researchers at Deakin University in Australia recently trialed a Mediterranean-style diet, which is predominately plant-based and fiber-rich, in a group of adults with major depression. They found that one-third of the participants reported a significant improvement in symptoms after 12 weeks on the diet (BMC Medicine, 15:23, 2017). One of them was Sarah Keeble from Melbourne. “I’ve suffered from depression for 17 years. At the start of this study, I was right at the bottom of the barrel,” she recalls. “After a few weeks, that sinking feeling slowly lifted, and my motivation and enthusiasm improved.”

Just as activity in the gut seems to affect the brain, mental stress can lead to intestinal problems. Scientists have demonstrated this in research on irritable bowel syndrome. For example, a study by Mayer and colleagues linked early-life emotional trauma to an increased risk of developing the bowel disorder (Clin Gastroenterol Hepatol, 10:385-90, 2012).

As data on the brain-gut axis accumulates, many scientists are taking notice. Trinity College Dublin researcher Shane O’Mara says that there is “great potential” in this area, but cautions that it’s too early to say whether targeting the microbiome will play a role in psychiatric treatment. University of Manitoba gastroenterologist Charles Bernstein also feels the research is promising but believes we are “far from manipulating the microbiome to treat mental health disorders.”

Those spearheading this research are equally aware of the need for more studies, particularly in human subjects, but they are hopeful that change lies ahead. “I’m almost certain that in several years, diet will be considered one branch of therapy for many mental illnesses, alongside medication and psychiatric treatments,” says Mayer.

“People with severe mental illness will still need something very strong, but this is a useful adjunctive,” agrees Cryan. “I think when we go to our GP in future, we will not only have blood tests, we will have the microbiome tested.”

“Within five years, I hope to see more clinical trials that demonstrate the efficacy of prebiotics and probiotics on mental health disorders,” says University of Chicago microbial ecologist Jack Gilbert. “There needs to be a revolution in how we deal with mental illness in our society.”

(First published in The Scientist magazine September 2017. Also available online at: http://www.the-scientist.com/?articles.view/articleNo/50146/title/How-Microbes-May-Influence-Our-Behavior/)