Have you ever wondered how human behavior is related to plants? Or why humans don't use beneficial insects instead of pesticides? June 2023 Greenhouse Management Magazine's cover feature, Dr. Melinda Knuth, joins Economist Michelle Klieger and Grower Dr. Peter Konjoian to discuss these very research topics that Dr. Knuth is studying at NC State's Cognitive Behavioral Laboratory.
In this week's podcast episode, we hear about Dr. Knuth's inspiring path from growing up in South Dakota on her family business of row crops, dairy and beef producers to a Horticulture Entrepreneurship degree to a production horticulture internship at Walt Disney World. She was introduced to Charlie Hall, the leading economist in horticulture field, which led to working with economists in the human behavior lab and achieving a PhD in Horticulture at Texas A&M as well as a Postdoctoral at University of Florida. At this point, there was an opening at NC State, which was adapted to fit Dr. Knuth's niche. Her appointment includes teaching classes in greenhouse management, horticulture marketing, floral design and a few more.
Peter notes that production teaching from an economist is a beautiful combination. Dr. Knuth emphasizes that her research serves the industry and industry members lead the discussions. She says,
"One can do all the theoretical work, but it needs to have the applied background."
Her primary research project is to understand human interaction with plants, whether it is genetic, neurological, a temperate trait or biophilia hypothesis - that humans have an innate desire to be around plants. She asks questions such as, "What are the mechanisms that cause a reaction around plants?" and "Is looking at a tree enough to decrease stress level?"
The lab is testing participants to qualify how plants reduce stress, which involves a validated process of taking a math test without a calculator while listening to loud electronic dance music. Dr. Knuth hopes to have results by this upcoming fall.
This research connects to many current studies in understanding brain functions to growing food on Mars to the re-emergence of agricultural interest in generations that were raised in exclusively man-made environments. Some theories for this increased interest are social pressures, beautification, and post-pandemic trends. Michelle raises the book, The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin, which has an entire chapter on finding the challenge. Growing tomatoes may be that next challenge for some people to learn something new and gain ownership of the food system.
Dr. Knuth is working on another research project at NC State on the integration of information, such as messaging at a retail center, information sharing between businesses, and incorporating new technologies into a business - tapping into her entrepreneurial side! One example we talked about in the podcast is the shift from peat-based gardening and the technological, social, and financial costs associated with this change. We know that UK, Germany and Netherlands have policy in place to outlaw peat. There is a bit of controversy on if we need to transition away from peat or if it is a failure of education. It is noted that the negative perception of peat forces media companies to look for alternatives.
Lastly, we ask Dr. Knuth what she would like to work on in her free time. She responds that she maintains a growing list in a spreadsheet! One project she is excited about is consumer attitudes toward beneficial insects. Will consumers pay more for plants that are treated with beneficial insects instead of pesticides? There is some initial shock value with insects, but perhaps an educational component can form an acceptance curve. You can learn more about Dr. Melinda Knuth's research through her LinkedIn page or join her sessions at upcoming Cultivate '23.
Listen to the full podcast and catch weekly episodes on all farming topics here.