Casting a wide net: why the USDA is turning to crowdsourcing

BY HANNAH WEISS | 2 min read

Scientists in the United States Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service are turning to crowdsourcing to help figure out how to eliminate unpleasant flavors in catfish that have been raised in ponds contaminated with blue-green algae. The question has been plaguing scientists and farmers for decades — now it’s your turn to help solve it.


Who’s behind the challenge?

The group sponsoring this challenge is the USDA-ARS National Program for Aquaculture, a governmental organization that works to ensure the quality and safety of aquatic products. The USDA-ARS works with many different types of fish, and catfish are one of their main species of interest. ­­With this project, they are looking for ways to reduce or eliminate off-flavors in catfish raised in ponds. 


Why is this challenge important?

The USDA-ARS has identified off-flavors in catfish as a significant issue that affects the economy, the environment and the livelihood of farmers. 

When catfish are exposed to certain types of blue-green algae, they can develop unpleasant flavors. Current methods of improving the flavor take a long time, meaning that farmers deal with costly production delays. In fact, American farmers lose around $20 million each year due to off-flavors in catfish. “We need to help farmers consistently and efficiently produce an affordable, high-quality product that consumers enjoy, and want to eat again,” said Dr. Caird Rexroad, the head of the USDA-ARS National Program for Aquaculture.

“Helping catfish farmers avoid off-flavor will improve their production efficiency, increase profitability, and improve the well-being of fish through methods that have minimal environmental impacts,” he said.


Why turn to crowdsourcing?

For decades, scientists have been trying to figure out how to deal with this issue. They have made solid steps in the right direction, and they are now turning to crowdsourcing to explore new paths that have not yet been considered.

“Recently, ARS has begun looking to non-traditional innovation platforms to enhance our research programs and we expect to capture new ideas to solve this problem,” said Dr. Rexroad. “We are excited about the possibility of forming new partnerships that we would not have identified through traditional research processes.” The goal of this project is to develop new methods that are cost-effective and don’t result in harvest delays.

“Blue-green algae causes the problem but resolving the problem could take the form of controlling the algae, controlling the compounds the algae produce or preventing the algal compounds from being tasted by consumers,” said Dr. Rexroad.

In addition to helping solve a pressing issue, the winners of this challenge will also have the opportunity to work with ARS researchers to implement their solution.

“This challenge is about good ideas. We would like to partner with winning solvers to develop, demonstrate, and transfer technology to the catfish industry,” said Dr. Rexroad.


What’s next?

Looking beyond, a successful solution to this challenge could help eliminate off-flavors in other species of farmed fish like salmon and tilapia. “We hope that solutions developed for catfish may be more broadly applicable across species and production systems,” said Dr. Rexroad.

To find out more about the project and learn how you can get involved, check out the HeroX challenge page.


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