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A big spread of agarwood seedlings

Hundreds of thousands of seedlings are being planted for agarwood production.

Cultivating culture

Scientists learn how to learn from native populations

By Becky Beyers

February 22, 2008

The Aquilaria trees were in trouble.

Old-growth Aquilaria trees produce a rare form of incense that's highly valued in many cultures. Because the incense comes from the resin inside the trees, by the mid-1990s Aquilaria had been harvested in southeast Asia to near-extinction.

But a team led by College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences (CFANS) plant pathologist Bob Blanchette worked with Vietnamese farmers to develop a cultivated version of the trees that provides a sustainable crop for some of the world's poorest regions while saving an endangered species.

The project is one example of how scientists are learning to work in cooperation with people from different cultures. Traditionally, scientists have worked alone to produce innovations or ideas and transferred their work to communities with the expectation that community members would put the ideas to work as directed by the scientists.

But modern science recognizes that a bidirectional, cooperative process can benefit both the scientists' work as well as the end result for users. That may become an increasingly important factor in a changing global climate.

"Science is embedded in societies," Nelson says. "You cannot just transplant what works in one country into another. What works in Iowa doesn't necessarily work in Chiapas."

Blanchette's project, begun about 12 years ago through the Rainforest Project Foundation, started with a meeting of scientists and village leaders. "They were excited about the possibilities," he says, because the incense has such important religious significance and because the trees were disappearing so fast.

Eventually, the scientists discovered that Aquilaria trees produced agarwood as a response to micro-organisms that invaded when the trees were wounded. "Usually you want to limit decay, but in this case, we wanted to stimulate it," Blanchette says. Research into how the agarwood could be harvested from younger trees continued, and now cultivated fast-growing Aquilaria trees are being planted in large numbers and can be harvested after just two years for a sustainable production of the valuable resin.

Local farmers played an important role in the development of the new crop: their traditional knowledge of how the trees grow and the importance of agarwood helped the Western scientists understand the process. As the project began to see success, more local farmers asked to participate in demonstration plot plantings.

One of Blanchette's students, Joel Jurgens, spent six weeks in the Vietnamese village where the project began as part of an Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program project 10 years ago. He lived with village elders and says he was welcomed as part of the family.

Jurgens had never been outside of North America before and relished the immersion in the culture, he says. "Much of the work was the process of building trust as we communicated through translators, but living in the village made this work incredibly easy--we had the groundwork built."

Today, the cultivated agarwood crop is thriving and similar projects are taking root in Thailand, Bhutan and Malaysia. In addition to growing the trees, the communities are processing the resin to make incense and making the wooden boxes the incense is shipped in. "They have a finished product, with very significant beneficial effects for the community," Blanchette says.

Training the next generation

Kristen Nelson has been studying the ways in which communities interact with scientists for most of her career. The associate professor in the Department of Forest Resources and Department of Fisheries, Wildlife, and Conservation Biology recently finished a handbook for scientists and regulators working on environmental risk assessment in multiple countries.

"Science is embedded in societies," she says. "You cannot just transplant what works in one country into another. What works in Iowa doesn't necessarily work in Chiapas."

Cross-cultural work is evolving out of necessity, she says. "We originally had the idea that science was about separating yourself, but problems are more complex than that. There are things you can share and learn from others. You have to build knowledge across networks."

Nelson's approach to training scientists focuses on two concepts: getting past the assumption that "I do it the right way," so that contributors can be true equals, and avoiding the problem of relativism--the other extreme. "That's not respecting what you are and what you think. This isn't about becoming a blank slate."

While the traditional scientific method still dominates, cooperative thinking comes more naturally to the next generation of scientists, she says. "They see scientists as part of society, not as a separate entity."

Scientists who are in graduate school now will spend their careers dealing with "wicked problems," which have been defined as issues with contradictory, uncertain, or changing requirements that involve complex interdependencies. Finding ways to create sustainability on a global scale is one example, Nelson says.

Prentice Beadell, a master's of agriculture student in the Department of Horticultural Science, spent nearly five weeks last summer in New Zealand studying how environmental change was affecting the native Maori people.

She spent much of her time there simply talking to people about their views. "I found the best thing to do was to make the questions simple, and then stand back and listen," she says. One thing that struck her was how Maori people's spiritual beliefs affected their views on sustainability and land use, and she thinks some of that approach can be used in Minnesota.

"It raised questions with me about what it means to own the land and to treat it with respect. I want to try to bring that holistic approach and the connection with past generations back and try to instill more of that here."

Culture at home

As Minnesota's population becomes more diverse, cross-cultural engagement is becoming important at home too.

Craig Hassel, an associate professor in the Department of Food Science and Nutrition, works to interface scientific research with other ways of knowing in a way that respects the knowledge from other cultures.

For example, he says, nutrition science tends to dismiss ideas of food as it relates to people's sense of memory, consciousness and nurturance because these dimensions of personal experience are not easily measured from a biomedical perspective.

"When we study native foods only in terms of nutrients or bioactive molecules," he says, "it emphasizes the physical and chemical dimensions and discounts the personal and cultural dimensions."

Hassel is part of an ongoing project involving local herb growers and Chinese medicine practitioners that uses both traditional knowledge and modern science. While medicinal herbs have gained popularity in the United States, evaluating their quality is a matter of perspective. The situation is complicated because traditional Chinese medicine typically involves combinations of many herbs.

From a Chinese medicine viewpoint, medicinal herb quality is evaluated through many of the same characteristics that are commonly used to evaluate food--texture, taste and other sensory qualities.

So the group's current project uses descriptive sensory analysis--a process in food science where participants are trained to detect those characteristics--on herbs. Graduate students are sampling teas made from different kinds of herbs and trying to define attributes of flavor and aroma. Once practitioners assess the quality of these herbs from a clinical standpoint, the attributes can be understood as positively or negatively associated with herb quality, Hassel says.

"It's a way of communicating quality," he says. "How do you know what's any good? This is a way to learn."

Students are "very hungry for knowledge as understood from different cultural perspectives," Hassel says. "They recognize that the world is a bigger place than what we sometimes offer."

"I believe this is a huge opportunity for our land-grant research universities...all it requires is a shift in perspective."

From Solutions, winter 2008, a magazine by the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences.