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Community science: more than a hobby

"Community science can mean making specific observations in your daily activities: you walk to the park, you walk to the forest, you water your house plant, or you do gardening, or you mow your lawn. And you look for unusual things, like yellow spots on a leaf, a hole in the trunk of a tree, or a bug on a tomato plant."

Dr. Pierre Bilodeau, Executive Director, Plant Health Science Directorate, CFIA

You don’t consider yourself a scientist? Think again. In this podcast, Dr. Pierre Bilodeau explains how apps can help you make discoveries in your own backyard.

Community science: a hobby that's making a difference – Audio Transcript

Co-host (Greg Rogers): What exactly is community science?

Co-host (Michelle Strong): How can you get involved in plant health in Canada?

Greg: What apps can you use to make scientific discoveries in your own backyard?

Michelle: Welcome to Inspect and Protect, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency's official podcast, all about food safety and plant and animal health.

Greg: I'm Greg Rogers.

Michelle: And I'm Michelle Strong. We're in Communications at the CFIA, and we're excited to host this series discussing the what, the how, and the why of the Agency's work, and how it relates to you and your family.

Greg: Today, we're talking about community science and how everyone can get involved in protecting Canada's natural resources—whether you have a science degree or not.

Michelle: We're speaking with Pierre Bilodeau, Executive Director of the Plant Health Science Directorate, here at the agency. Pierre, welcome to the podcast.

Guest (Dr. Pierre Bilodeau): Well, thank you for having me.

Greg: I want to dive in and talk about community science and what that means, but first, tell us what you do at the CFIA.

Pierre: As Executive Director of Plant Health Science, I'm basically responsible for a group of about forty people providing strategic advice, or science advice, to our programs and operations colleagues, doing risk assessments on some of the key pests, or potential pests, that may come to Canada. And then, doing a lot of surveillance, planning some of the survey activities that we're doing, and we're also managing some research activities.

Greg: Today we're talking about community science, or citizen science, so, I guess the first question, Pierre, is what is community science?

Pierre: Science is really the study of nature and behaviour of natural things, and the knowledge that we obtain about them. So, really, it's about anybody can do that. You don't need to have a Ph.D. to do science.

So, when talking about plant health science, community science can mean making specific observations in your daily activities: you walk to the park, you walk to the forest, you water your house plant, or you do gardening, or you mow your lawn. And you look for unusual things, like yellow spots on a leaf, a hole in the trunk of a tree, or a bug on a tomato plant. So, this is what for plant science, what community science looks like.

Michelle: And anybody can participate, right? I went out for a walk not too long ago with a friend — socially distanced, of course — and I saw a piece of wood with some swirls on it. So, my instinct was, oh, I wonder if this is emerald ash borer. And I took a picture, because my dog was sniffing around it and I thought it was cute. But is that something that can be considered part of this whole thing? And I could submit it?

Pierre: Yeah, for sure, that's exactly what I'm talking about, and we'll probably talk about it a little bit later, but there are specific tools that you could use—like, you're seeing some swirly things on a bark or on a leaf, you can basically take a picture, and then, you could use that to try to figure out what it is that you've seen, and whether it is a specific invasive species, or it's something that's common to your environment.

Michelle: I'm sure we have a list at the Canadian Food Inspection Agency?

Pierre: Yeah, there is a list of regulated pests for Canada. There's about 250 of those that are listed.

Michelle: Oh, wow.

Greg: Let's take a second to discuss why the food inspection agency is involved in all this. I think there's sometimes confusion about our agency's name. What's the context here?

Pierre: The Canadian Food Inspection Agency is the national organization mandated by the Government of Canada and the International Plant Protection Convention, to safeguard plant health in Canada. So it's, in plant health, this is our mandate in Canada, to make sure that there's no invasive species that come to impact the plant environment, the plant production—which is agriculture, and all this—but also the plants that we find in the environment, like trees, and bushes.

We have to understand that plant health is very important for Canada. We are an exporting nation and we export a lot of agricultural products: canola, barley, wheat, and these sorts of things, potatoes. So, it's very important that plant health, that everybody understands the importance of plant health, not only from a production perspective, but also from an environmental perspective because, you know, trees are plants. Every species of wheat, plant species that grows in the prairies, they are plants, and they need to be protected.

Michelle: Going back to the idea of community science: what's the potential impact someone can really have making observations in their day-to-day life and reporting what they see? Like do you have real-world examples of how this works and what the impact is?

Pierre: In 2013, one person in the province of Ontario, in Toronto, identified a sample of Asian longhorned beetle. So, they saw that bug that was a new bug, and they identified the bug and they called CFIA and said, "Here's the situation, I have this bug, what is it?"

And based on this finding by a citizen scientist, we were able to validate that it was actually Asian longhorned beetle, which is a regulated pest in Canada, and we were able to put in place a whole series of activities that allowed us to try to eradicate that pest in this particular environment.

And it's only last year, in 2020, that the Agency was able to successfully eradicate Asian longhorned beetle from this 2013 identification. But if it had not been from this community scientist, maybe the infestation would have been much more bigger and it would have been much more difficult to try to eradicate that pest.

Greg: So, we know eradication is like, the best-case scenario kind of thing, but in instances where eradication isn't possible, why is it still important to report bugs?

Pierre: Yeah, eradication is one thing that we can do. If the pest is too well-established and eradication is very difficult, then, what we do is, what we try to do, is slow the spread. And that's what we do with the Emerald Ash Borer, in this case. It was introduced in Canada many years ago, and now we know it's not possible to try to eradicate it. So, we're trying to put regulated areas so that it's contained in this area and it doesn't spread more.

And this is why we have the "Don't Move Firewood" program, because if you go camping from area which is regulated, to a non-regulated area, and you bring your firewood, you may be the one that will spread this disease, or this pest, further away from the regulated area. So, that's why it's important, even if we can't eradicate, to try to put in place measures to mitigate the impact of this particular pest or disease, for plant health in Canada.

Michelle: So, we're in 2021—a few months in now—and we keep hearing about International Year of Plant Health. Does that have something to do with this year?

Pierre: So, in 2020, the United Nations proclaimed 2020 the International Year of Plant Health, and because of the COVID pandemic, the International Year of Plant Health has been extended until the end of June 2021. So it's still highly relevant. It's a good opportunity to think and talk about plant health across the world, to try to understand what it is, and understand what are the implications of plant health in Canada.

But the other thing is, the entire environment—you know, the forest, the trees, the prairies, the wetlands and these—they all have specific plant species in there that need to be protected.

Greg: So, with the pandemic, a lot of us are staying inside and doing online shopping. Some would say too much online shopping. But if people are looking for plant products online, or getting seeds in the mail, should they be keeping any special considerations in mind?

Pierre: Well, I think what they have to be doing is be a community scientist. So, always be very vigilant of what they're doing. Don't assume that all the products sold online meet our laws and regulations. Do your own research to know where you're buying from, particularly if the product, or the source of product, is unfamiliar to you.

CFIA would have some information on our website for any e-commerce activity, so you're welcome to have a look at this. One example of this is last summer, many Canadians received unrequested seeds in the mail, and it turns out that those seeds were coming from outside of the country. In fact, CFIA has received reports from more than 750 individuals across the provinces, that have received those unrequested packages of unknown seeds. These seeds are from a range of plant species, including tomatoes, strawberries, rose, and citrus, and some of the common wheat seeds in Canada. So, if you ever receive packages of seeds that you didn't order, you should put those seeds in the packaging and mailing label in a sealed bag, inside of a second sealed bag, and bring those to the CFIA closest office to you. And this way, we can have a look at them and make sure that they are not spread out in the environment.

It remains unclear why some Canadians are receiving those seeds, but although some recipients reported having ordered some of those seeds in the past. So don't plant those seeds, don't flush them, don't put them in compost, because they might sprout and spread.

Michelle: What about souvenirs? When we're travelling to another country…back when that was something that we did.

Greg: We'll get back to that eventually someday I'm sure.

Michelle: Is it really important to not bring home products made of wood? I've heard this a few times now.

Pierre: I mean, it's basically the same thing as "Don't Move Firewood". Anything that you bring from outside of the country may have some invasive pests in them, and even if you don't know or you don't see them, they may still be there.

Michelle: We have to be cautious about what we can and can't bring back to Canada.

Pierre: Yes.

Michelle: And if we do get some kind of package at our house, and we didn't order it, then you're saying, just report it to the CFIA office. Be suspicious.

Pierre: That's correct. And the fact that we're doing more and more of e-commerce is quite important. And the Agency is certainly looking at this from a particular perspective of new pathways for potential pests to come to Canada.

Greg: So, let's talk about what tools are available to support community scientists. I know there are a few apps like iNaturalist, PlantSnap, and others.

Michelle: Greg, you use iNaturalist right now, right?

Greg: My wife and I are actually kind of having a competition to see who can identify the most species. It's kind of like Pokémon Go, who can catch them all kind of thing, and unfortunately she's ahead right now. But what are some of the tools that community scientists can use?

Pierre: I mean you mentioned the apps, so iNaturalist is one of them. There's many others that help you to identify those species, and then potentially share the information with others. So, this is one tool.

The other one is, you know, the internet. There's a whole lot of information on the internet about what species is regulated in your area, what are the key, you know, if you go, see in the forest and you see some things, you can take pictures and then compare to what you see on the internet.

Greg: Do you use any of the tools yourself, Pierre?

Pierre: Yeah, I have in fact used PlantSnap. Last year, I went to my mother's place and she had a weed in her garden that I didn't know about. So I just took a picture, and then instantly, I was able to identify what it was exactly. So, yeah, those are very powerful.

Greg: Do we just take photos? Is there instances where we should actually like, take a piece of a plant, or a bug, and keep it in our freezer, or something like that?

Pierre: For an organization like the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, in order for us to verify and confirm that what you've seen and what you've observed is actually the invasive species that we think it is, we need to have the specimen. So, it's very important that if you see something abnormal, take a picture, share this information, but also try to keep a sample as clean as possible, so that if you are called up based on your observation, we will be able to have access to the specimen to validate whether that's the right thing or not.

Greg: Not sure my wife would like me keeping bugs in the freezer, but. Maybe just one or two, I don't know.

Pierre: Yeah, that's it.

Michelle: Now, what about plants or tree trunks, when you see some insects have been in there? I mean, we can take a photo of it, and I don't know if we can lug a whole tree back, but.

Pierre: Yeah, this is where you need to rely on maybe some of the experts. We have survey, CFIA has survey biologists in many of the regions of Canada, or we have inspectors. So, if you find something that is unusual and you can validate through the internet that this is a regulated species, then call us at CFIA and we will send a local inspector to have a look at what you found.

Michelle: So, we have to be ready to provide information on where.

Pierre: Yes. And that's the beauty of those iNaturalist, they will geo-localize whatever picture you've taken, so that it's quite an effective tool to use those applications.

Michelle: Cool. With the apps and tools making everything so accessible, and the whole idea of community science being that you don't need advanced qualifications to participate, what's the best way for young people get involved?

Pierre: Yeah, this is very interesting because I think kids can be a great help in the garden or when you look out for unusual-looking insects, or while playing on a scavenger hunt. Every city and region has its own challenges with invasive plant species—some that you can see, like insect weeds, but some that you can't see, which are bacteria or virus. And if you thought viruses were only attacking humans, think again, because plants too can be infected by viruses. Not the same one as kids, but they're as impactful as those affecting humans.

So, if you're you know, invasive species, or invasive plants, or insect, could be a show and tell for your project at school, and if you want to know more about them, you only have to look at your local news, contact your city councillor, or go out and discover for yourself what's in your environment.

I know there are organizations like Scouts Canada and Girl Guides are all very actively involved in outdoor type of activities. And, in fact the CFIA, in 2020, we have started to work with Scouts Canada and we have produced a plant health crest that boys and girls across Canada can earn by taking part in activities that support plant health.

Michelle: That's such a great partnership.

Pierre: Yeah.

Michelle: There have been so many interesting angles on this subject and I just want to say thank you, Pierre, for joining us.

Pierre: Thank you very much, Greg and Michelle, for having me today. It was a pleasure. And it was great to be able to raise awareness about plant health and its important for Canada.

Greg: Thanks for being on the show and sharing your expertise. I want to get one of those Scout badges if I can. I think that's a really neat idea. Both of my sons are in Scouts.

Michelle: Fun fact, I was in Scouts.

Greg: Oh really?

Michelle: I have all the badges. I know what I'm doing next. I'm going to be downloading those apps and giving them a go.

Greg: You'll have to find me on there. I'll give you my username. We should also probably mention our website, where anyone can go to get more information about plant health in Canada.

Michelle: And about food safety and animal health too, of course. For all that info, check out inspection.canada.ca.

Greg: This has been Inspect and Protect, the CFIA's official podcast. Subscribe in your favourite podcast app, or on the web at inspection.canada.ca/Inspect-Protect-Podcast.

[End of recording]

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