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Organic agriculture and mice December 9th, 2018 by

Some practices are harder to introduce to farmers than others. In Europe, environmental degradation caused by industrial agriculture has given rise to new forms of subsidies for farmers to provide specific environmental services, such as planting hedgerows or keeping wild flower strips around their fields. In developing countries, however, environmental subsidies are non-existent and hence curbing environmental degradation can be extra challenging.

Recent developments in the global quinoa trade have devastated the fragile ecosystem of the Bolivian Altiplano (see Jeff’s blog “Wind erosion”). As quinoa production intensified, farmers ploughed up large sections of native vegetation, which left the soil prone to wind erosion. With the thin fertile top soil being blown away and young quinoa plants being covered with sand, many farmers abandonned their land and moved to the cities. The loss of native vegetation also limited the forage available for the llamas and vicuñas.

To address this problem, the research organisation Proinpa is trying hard to re-introduce native plants. If native plants could be grown as live barriers around quinoa fields, they would provide fodder and at the same time reduce wind erosion. But some farmers are reluctant to adopt this technology. Planting live barriers costs money, labour and takes up part of their land.

Many of the farmers who plant barriers belong to associations that market organic quinoa. Organic certification ensures that farmers get higher prices, as long as they follow certain practices (such as planting hedges) that contribute to a better social and natural environment. Subsidies for organic farming are rare in developing countries, premiums from certification schemes can partly make up for missing government subsidies, unless pests also like organic crops.

Farmers who grow live barriers told Proinpa that the hedges attract mice who can destroy young quinoa seedlings. Mice are also attracted to the harvested grain as it dries in the field, before threshing. If the quinoa is not stored properly, mice often get into the warehouses. When droppings foul the grain, the crop is rejected for organic trade.

Organic agriculture can be a blessing to boost the income of smallholder farmers and to protect the environment. But as this example shows, organic farmers are prone to additional challenges. Farmers on the Bolivian Altiplano set traps by burying cans partly filled with water to drown the mice. Frustrated quinoa growers also stomp on mice burrows in thie fields or leave quinoa chaffe at the entrance of mice holes, so they eat this and leave the young quinoa untouched.

Every new technology has unintended consequences. Perhaps no one anticipated that live barriers would protect mice, and the soil. Yet farmers who have planted the barriers see their benefit and are willing to find new ways to take on the mice.

Watch and download videos

The video from Bolivia on live barriers against wind erosion will be published early next year on the Access Agriculture video platform .

The video on Grass strips against soil erosion made in Thailand and Vietnam is available in 10 languages, including English, Spanish, Ayamara and Quechua

The many farmer training videos on organic agriculture

Related blogs

Waiting for rats

Quinoa, lost and found

Acknowledgement

The video on live barriers in Bolivia is developed with funding from the McKnight Foundation’s Collaborative Crop Research Program (CCRP). Thanks to Milton Villca, Eliseo Mamani and colleagues at Proinpa for background on this story.

Alligators in your vegetables October 28th, 2018 by

Something caught my eye recently when I was reading a video script. Crawling insects that look like little alligators are actually the offspring of ladybird beetles. I thought nothing of this the first time I read the script by some colleagues in Bangladesh. But the second time I read it, it occurred to me how strange this was, comparing a common, garden insect with an alligator, an animal not found in Bangladesh and which few people have seen.

Years ago, colleagues in Honduras used the same alligator analogy to familiarize farmers with the red and black ladybird larvae, which eat aphids in vegetable gardens. The Honduran farmers knew what alligators looked like, even if they had never seen the reptiles in real life, and the analogy worked. There are no alligators in Bangladesh, but I’m sure that the analogy will work, for a couple of reasons.

First, humans are inherently interested in large vertebrates. Even children that grow up in big cities know the names of African wildlife before they can name the electrical appliances in their own home. Second, the increasing reach of mass media has made animals familiar to people who don’t see them in the wild. I remember years ago, sitting with an elderly Portuguese farmer engrossed in a TV show about walruses. She had never been to the Arctic, but was fascinated by the strange creatures. Today Animal Planet, the Discovery Channel and others have regular programming in Bengali, Portuguese, Spanish and other major languages, bringing large (and often threatened) species into our homes.

So smallholders in the tropics watch TV, engage with images of large, strange animals, which then become common knowledge, while the creatures running around in one’s own garden need some explaining. So you can indeed tell a rural audience that ladybird larvae look like alligators. Oddly enough, the analogy works.

And analogies really do help to make the strange seem familiar. Ladybird larvae lack the powerful tail and the long head of alligators. But like the alligator, ladybird larvae do have a long body and small legs. When all is said and done, ladybird larvae do look a bit more like alligators that like their parents, the shiny, round ladybird beetles.

Not sold in stores October 14th, 2018 by

I love supermarkets; whenever I visit a new country I think of the local supermarket as a kind of interactive food museum, with its own unique groceries on display.

But the supermarket also has a stranglehold on what we eat and grow, as I learned last week when I heard a talk by Lauren Chappell, a plant pathologist at the University of Oxford. Dr. Chappell explained that carrots come in white, pink and even purple varieties, in a rich diversity of sizes and shapes. We only think of the long, tapered orange varieties as the one and only true carrot because supermarkets will only buy varieties like Nairobi and Nantes, the stereotypical carrots. Some British chefs love the white and purple “heritage carrots,” but you won’t find them at the supermarket.

It’s the same with apples. Supermarkets only stock a handful of varieties, so that limits what even small-scale commercial farms can grow. On a recent visit to the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) gardens at Wisley, in southern England, I was delighted to see a whole orchard filled with 40 different kinds of apples. There was a large, bright pink variety, Rubinola, with a marvelous, spicy flavor, and a green Russet with a lumpy, almost toad-like skin, but an amazing, tart clean taste. These varieties, curated by the RHS, are rarely sold in stores, but keeping them alive is an important safeguard of our planet’s biodiversity. This rich gene pool is crucial for future efforts to breed fruit and vegetables that are adapted to tomorrow’s climate and to upcoming pests and diseases.

Preserving diverse food crops is also essential for a rich and varied diet. Gardens and small farms help to preserve our edible biodiversity.

Various institutions also encourage people to conserve genetic resources, for example by promoting farmers’ rights to seed, as we will see in next week’s blog story.

Other related blogs

Bolivian peanuts

From uniformity to diversity

Innovative processing (such as an apple juice factory on a truck) can help people to save time, and to maintain their orchards of local fruit trees (see The juice mobile).

Videos on farmer rights to seed

Farmers’ rights to seed: Malawi

Farmers’ rights to seed: Guatemala

Battling the armyworm September 23rd, 2018 by

In the 1500s, when men on sailing ships were casually spreading crop plants from one continent to the next, maize came to Africa. Fortunately many of the maize pests stayed behind, in the Americas. But slowly, trade and travel are re-uniting maize with its pests. A caterpillar called the fall armyworm is the latest American pest to reach Africa, and in two years it has spread across the continent, threatening one of Africa’s staple food crops.

Just as maize originally came to Africa without its American pests, the fall armyworm arrived without its natural enemies, including a couple of dozen species of tiny parasitic wasps. This has helped the armyworm to spread faster.

Governments panicked over the arrival of the fall armyworm. Some tried massive campaigns to eradicate it manually, as in Rwanda, where large teams of people destroyed the caterpillars by hand. Others began widespread campaigns to spray farmers’ fields with insecticide. Fortunately, there are alternatives to insecticides, as explained in two new videos, directed by Paul Van Mele and beautifully filmed by Marcella Vrolijks, both of AgroInsight.

The videos explain that fall armyworm damage often looks worse than it really is. The caterpillars eat gaping holes in the maize leaves and defecate what looks like wet sawdust all over the plants. But the plants usually recover and produce a full ear, in spite of early damage to the young plant.

Conveniently for farmers, the fall armyworm is also a cannibal. Each one lives alone in the maize whorl and eats any smaller armyworm that comes in. So a maize plant rarely has to suffer more than one armyworm at a time.

Although the armyworm left its specialized natural enemies behind, once it arrived in Africa it met with generalist, native predators like ants, earwigs, ladybird beetles and other beneficial insects that soon began to attack and eat the caterpillars.

The FAO (the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization) organized farmer field schools to teach farmers armyworm ecology and control. Farmers who took these schools were soon using techniques from Latin America, such as applying soil to the maize whorls. But farmers in Kenya also created innovations of their own, such as rubbing cooking grease onto the maize plant to attract ants to kill armyworms, and sprinkling fine sand mixed with tobacco snuff into the maize whorls.

Farmer field schools are an excellent way to teach insect ecology, but field schools only reach a small percentage of the farmers who need the new information. Fortunately, the farmers who have not been able to take field schools will be able to learn from those who have, by watching the fall armyworm videos, which are available for free in English, French, Amharic, Kiswahili and Ki-Embu, with Arabic, Portuguese and Spanish versions coming soon. More translations will help to spread the word about non-chemical control of fall armyworm.

Watch or download the fall armyworm videos

Scouting for fall armyworms

Killing fall armyworms naturally

Related blogs

Armies against armies

Innovating with local knowledge

Further reading

Poisot, Anne-Sophie, Allan Hruska, Marjon Fredrix, and Koko Nzeza 2018 Integrated management of the Fall Armyworm on maize: A guide for Farmer Field Schools in Africa. FAO.

Our current knowledge of fall armyworm ecology owes a lot to earlier research in Latin America, including:

Andrews, Keith L. and José Rutilio Quezada 1989 Manejo Integrado de Plagas Insectiles en la Agricultura: Estado Actual y Futuro. El Zamorano, Honduras: Departamento de Protección Vegetal, Escuela Agrícola Panamericana.

Acknowledgement

The videos on fall armyworm are developed in collaboration with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) with funding from the McKnight Foundation’s Collaborative Crop Research Program (CCRP).

Photos by Eric Boa.

The scientific name of the fall armyworm is Spodoptera frugiperda (Lepidoptera: Noctuidae).

Innovating with local knowledge July 22nd, 2018 by

Local knowledge is dynamic and farmers are fast to adapt traditional practices when the need arises, as we saw during a recent filming visit.

The fall armyworm arrived in Africa only in 2016 and is creating panic among farmers and governments alike. International development organisations are quick to ring the bell and up the competition to bid for public funds to respond to evident emergencies.

But farmers can’t always wait for solutions to be developed by researchers or for government support. In an earlier blog, “Armies against armies,” I wrote about John Fundi from Embu County, Kenya, who combined various observations on how ants behave to develop his own solution. Ants like fat and caterpillars, so if you smear fat on the maize stalks you can attract the ants to move up on the plants and eat the caterpillars.

Aaron Njagi shared another interesting innovation based on keen observations. As an herbalist, Aaron knows a lot about which plants can be used to cure people and which ones can be used to kill or repel insect pests. The herbal pesticide that he uses to kill caterpillars in his vegetable crops proved inadequate to control the fall armyworm, so Aaron immediately figured that this pest was not like any other. His herbal mix needed extra strength.

“Just one drop of aloe vera in water is enough to cure people from respiratory problems, so I decided to add the strength of this plant to the mix of plants I use to control the other caterpillars,” he says. On top, he adds chopped chilli for extra bitterness and strength, and then boils the lot. Once the water has cooled down a little, Aaron removes the plants from the water and adds a little snuff tobacco.

“After fermenting the mix for a week in the shade, I can now use it,” he continues, “but you need to dilute it as it is very powerful. I also decided to add a little washing powder before spraying it, so it sticks better to the maize plants.”

Farmers know when something works, and when something doesn’t work. Everywhere we went, we heard that pesticides did not kill the fall armyworm. But Aaron’s mixture works. That he is already asked by his neighbours to spray their fields with his herbal medicine further testifies how fast farmers can innovate.

Related blogs

Armies against armies

Agro-Insight has written many blog stories on Local innovation and Pest management

Related videos

Scouting for fall armyworms

Killing fall armyworms naturally

Acknowledgement

The videos on fall armyworm are developed in collaboration with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) with funding from the McKnight Foundation’s Collaborative Crop Research Program (CCRP).

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