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From Uniformity to Diversity March 18th, 2018 by

Industrial agriculture has so damaged our farmland that the survival of future generations is at risk, reveals Professor Emile Frison in his report “From Uniformity to Diversity”, but there is a way forward.

Frison’s conclusions are staggering. The indiscriminate use of synthetic fertilisers has destroyed the soil biota and its nutrient-recycling potential. The combination of monocultures with highly mechanized farming and fertiliser abuse has caused historical land degradation on over 20% of the Earth’s agricultural land.

High yielding varieties and abundant chemical inputs increased global crop yields in the early decades of the “green revolution”, but by now the sobering figures indicate that productivity in 24% to 39% of the areas growing maize, rice, wheat and soya bean has stagnated or collapsed.

The productivity of industrial agriculture has systematically degraded the environment on which it relies. The use of pesticides in agriculture has caused a global decline in insect pollinators, threatening the very basis of agriculture. Some 35% of global cultivated crops depend on pollination by insects.

Pests, diseases and weeds are adapting to chemical pest management faster than ever. Genetically modified soya bean and maize that are herbicide-tolerant have led to an indiscriminate use of glyphosate-based herbicides such as Roundup and 2,4D. Some 210 species of weeds have now evolved resistance to herbicides. Clearly, this flawed, industrial model has mainly benefitted corporate interests and the wealthiest farmers.

Of equally great concern to our future generations, industrial agriculture significantly reduces the agrobiodiversity of livestock and crops. Underutilized or minor crops such as indigenous leafy vegetables, small-grained African cereals, legumes, wild fruits and tree crops are disappearing in the face of competition with a limited number of industrially produced varieties of rice, maize and wheat.

Greenhouse gases, water pollution, over-exploited aquifers, soil erosion, loss of agrobiodiversity and epidemics such as the Avian influenza and the foot-and-mouth disease are all signs that we need to urgently re-think the way we produce, source and consume food.

A study covering 55 crops grown on five continents over 40 years found that organic agriculture was significantly more profitable (22–35%) than conventional agriculture.

In developed countries, yields of organic agriculture were 8% lower than conventional agriculture, but they were 80% higher in developing countries where the negative impacts of industrial agriculture on food and nutrition security are felt much stronger.

So, diversified systems have shown the capacity to raise productivity in places where additional food is desperately needed.

Yet corporate lobby groups, some donors and development agencies continue to push governments towards unsustainable production models. In many developing countries, the general switch towards specialized, export-oriented systems has eroded the diverse farming economy, causing a gradual loss of local food distribution systems.

With rapid shifts in global and regional competitiveness this has destabilised national food supply, not only jeopardising the very livelihoods on which rural people depend, but also putting the economic and political stability of developing countries at risk.

Ethical labels, such as Fairtrade, ensure that farmers in developing countries get more money for their produce, while at the same time ensuring social and environmental services are ploughed back into the rural communities, as explained by Nicolas Lambert, CEO of Fairtrade Belgium.

Emile Frison, and other outstanding scientists like Professor Olivier De Schutter, former UN special rapporteur on the right to food, have joined forces in the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems. There is indeed an urgent need to alert policy makers to the high risks related to short-term thinking and concentration of power in the hands of fewer, large-scale retailers and corporate agri-businesses.

It is re-assuring that eminent people have joined forces to protect global biodiversity and farmers’ rights to seed as key requirements for food systems that respect the farmers and their environment. The opponents are powerful, and motivated by greed, so the struggle is bound to be a long one.

Further reading

IPES-Food. 2016. From uniformity to diversity: a paradigm shift from industrial agriculture to diversified agroecological systems. International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food systems. www.ipes-food.org

Related videos

Farmers’ rights to seed – Guatemala

Farmers’ rights to seed – Malawi

Succeed with seeds

Around 100 farmer training videos on organic agriculture can be found on the Access Agriculture video-sharing platform:  Organic agriculture

Photo Credit: Soya beans are harvested in Brazil. Paulo Fridman/Corbis

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To fence or not to fence February 25th, 2018 by

Fences reveal a lot about rural communities. They show  how farmers make good use of available materials, but they can also uncover social tensions. Reading fences and understanding what they do and represent tells you a lot about how people work and live.

In the country-side of Kenya, farmers have a long tradition of fencing their farm with wooden poles. While this practice stems from a time where trees were abundant, competition with fuel wood is gradually changing this practice towards more inclusion of living plants.

In some parts of East Africa, fences contain the so-called pencil plant (Euphorbia tirucalli), grown in Europe as an ornamental. The aim is to discourage potential intruders, particularly those trying to steal livestock.  The fragile branches of pencil plants break easily, releasing a white sap that can blind people when the juice gets into their eyes.

In Egypt, farmers protect their maize from grazing animals by surrounding the field with a row of nightshade (from the same plant genus as potato and tomato). As with Euphorbia, the nightshade’s leaves contain a toxic juice. Farmers can restrain their own animals from grazing afar, but can’t be sure their neighbours do the same. And once cattle get into your maize field, the damage can be huge. A small investment in fences prevents disputes with your neighbours about who pays for the losses.

But fences often do more than keep animals out. Stone walls in Guatemala often contain sisal plants. Without reducing the land available for grazing animals, the space taken up by the fence is used to grow this valuable plant that provides farmers with fibre to make ropes. By diversifying crop, livestock and plant species on farm, farmers ensure a steady supply of what they need to live from their land.

At the highlands of southwest Uganda, a local farmer, James Kabareebe, showed us how he plants Calliandra around his fields, an agroforestry practice widely promoted by projects in the 1990s. Prunings of this leguminous tree are used as mulch to enrich his soil with nitrogen. And above all, it provides the necessary organic matter to soils on sloping land that are highly vulnerable to erosion caused by tropical downpours.

At times, living fences also point to a level of social injustice. Customary land rights benefit male community members, while women are often left to struggle to grow food on smaller plots or on less fertile soils.

In parts of Mali, women have negotiated with their men to grow a high value crop along the border of the field. The juicy, red flower heads of the roselle or bissap plant (Hibiscus sabdariffa), which is native to West Africa, provide a good source of additional revenue for rural women.

Fences across the world give us insights into how people manage their land. They are like a signature, revealing a little about how people relate to the land, and to each other.

 

Further reading

Tripp, A.M. 2004. Women’s Movements, Customary Law, and Land Rights in Africa: the case of Uganda. African Studies Quarterly. http://www.africa.ufl.edu/asq/v7/v7i4a1.htm

Related blogs

Mending fences, making friends

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Seed fairs February 18th, 2018 by

Seed fairs are gaining in popularity around the world, and are a great way to encourage farmers and gardeners to conserve global biodiversity. But the fairs can do more than just provide an opportunity for people to exchange and sell seed, as I recently learned during a visit to Guatemala to make a farmer training video on farmers’ rights to seed, with a particular focus    on women in biodiversity management. In Guatemala, donor agencies and organisations have supported community biodiversity conservation initiatives for over a decade.

Our local partner, ASOCOCH, is an umbrella organisation of 20 cooperatives and farmer associations, representing some 9,000 farm families in the western highlands of Huehuetenango. On Sunday, one day before the actual seed fair starts, we visit the venue. The seed fair has become a large annual event, unlike in Malawi, where seed fairs are less regular. The fair attracts hundreds of people from across the highlands, some travelling long distances. One elderly woman told me she rode a bus for five hours to get there.

The seed fair is a lively, social event, with a Ferris wheel, stalls with amusement games and one with wooden, artistically carved horses with leather saddles on which people can sit and have their photo taken against a painted background of lush vegetation, complete with mountains and waterfalls. Visitors can buy sweets and nuts. A young boy gently pushes his wheelbarrow full of mandarins for sale through the crowds, while indigenous women sell traditional delicacies. Families with grandparents and kids relish the event as the region does not have such a large fair very often.

But there is more to the fair than having fun and eating. The seed fair is held on school grounds and I soon see farmers in intricately woven, traditional clothes lining up to register for classes. There are four large rooms where farmers can learn about potato, agrobiodiversity, climate change and women’s rights. My wife Marcella and I first attend the talks in the agrobiodiversity room, where Juanita Chaves from GFAR explains about farmers’ rights to seed. To my surprise this is followed by two presentations on aflatoxins in maize by staff from a local NGO. The presenters graphically explain the relation between mouldy maize cobs and the disfigurement of children and internal organs. As most farmers conserve their own maize seed they need to be aware of the risks of fungal infections. I am still a little puzzled as to how this relates to the seed fair and agrobiodiversity conservation, but after lunch all becomes clear.

We accompany the farmers who attended the aflatoxin sessions to the Clementoro Community Seed Bank, less than 10 kilometers away. The farmers see seeds stored in plastic jars, clearly labelled and neatly stacked on the shelves. In the middle of the room, a young agricultural graduate working at the seed bank shows farmers how they can detect if their seed is contaminated with aflatoxins by using a simple methanol test. “When you store your maize crop and seed, you need to be sure it has less than 13% moisture so that moulds will not develop,” the enthusiastic young woman explains. “Here at the seed bank, you can have your seed tested and conserved in optimal conditions,” she continues.

Seed is one of farmers’ most precious resources, and storing it at a community seed bank requires lots of trust. They need to know that their seed will be safely stored until they need it, either for the next growing season or even a few years later whenever the need arises. By organising seed fairs, seminars and visits to community seed banks, ASOCUCH is building trust through sharing knowledge and explaining clearly what they do.

The next day, we film the actual seed fair itself. There is an overwhelming abundance of crop varieties, fruits, medicinal and even some ornamental plants. Farmers and their families are clearly excited as seed and plant material changes hands. There is brisk trading between farmers. While some exchange materials, most sell and buy seed. People tell each other about the seeds they have on offer. ASOCUCH, with the support of GFAR, had also prepared a booklet with traditional recipes. Copies are spread on tables at the entrance and they run out like hot cakes.

There is a judging competition to find the best seeds.  Judges visit each stand, measuring maize cobs, counting seeds, weighing potato seed tubers and taking notes. Agrobiodiversity is a serious matter. At the same time, outside the schoolhouse, sheep are being rated by another set of judges. In the late afternoon, the results are shared with the audience. People had brought dozens of varieties and over a thousand accessions of various crops. The audience is excited, and so are we. This has been a fascinating two-day event, and the drive of the farmers and their organisations has made us hopeful for the future.  Local initiatives are where conservation begins, but they need the support of local authorities, governments and international organisations to increase their impact.

Everyone has had a good time. More importantly, farmers have made new contacts, acquired seeds of traditional varieties that may have been lost in some areas and helped others to preserve them in new areas. They have learned about saving seed, but most of all, the farmers have learned that they have certain rights to seeds—they can plant their own native varieties as they wish, for example—and that these rights mattter hugely in sustaining local agriculture.

Related blogs

Quinoa, lost and found

Homegrown seed can be good

Bolivian peanuts

We share

Further viewing

Farmers’ rights to seed – experiences from Guatemela

Farmers’ rights to seed – experiences from Malawi

Managing aflatoxins in groundnuts during drying and storage

Acknowledgements

Thanks to the Global Forum on Agricultural Research and Innovation (GFAR) and the European Union for funding the production of the video discussed here. Support in Guatemala was kindly provided by the AsociaciĂłn de Organizaciones de los Cuchumatanes (ASOCUCH).

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Sorghum and millets on the rise December 10th, 2017 by

For decades, various international aid agencies have pushed Africa towards adopting maize as the hunger-saving technical solution, with traditional crops such as sorghum and pearl millet only receiving a fraction of the support. But climate change is forcing donors and governments to re-think their food security strategies. Recent research in Mali highlights the importance of research and communication to help improve traditional crops and to support farmers as they cope with climate change.

While maize was first domesticated some 7,000 years ago in Mexico, sorghum and pearl millet have their origin in Africa. Sorghum domestication started in Ethiopia and sub-saharan Africa some 5,000 to 6,000 years ago. Through farmer selection numerous improved sorghum types were developed, which then spread via trade routes into other regions of Africa and India. Domestication of pearl millet started only around 2500 BC, in eastern Mali, and spread rapidly to other countries through pastoralists, spurred by the increasing desiccation of the Sahara desert at the time.

The rich genetic diversity of these traditional African crops and the wealth of farmers’ knowledge have formed the basis of recent crop improvement programmes. In West Africa, a handful of devoted sorghum and millet breeders, Drs Eva and Fred Weltzien-Rattunde, Bettina Haussmann and Kirsten vom Brocke, in close collaboration with partners, were able to develop improved sorghum and millet varieties by improving local germplasm. The new varieties cope better with pests and diseases, as well as with rainy seasons that are becoming shorter and more unpredictable.

But these breeders, then working for ICRISAT, did not limit their efforts to participatory plant breeding alone: they also invested heavily in supporting farmer cooperatives to become seed producers and sellers. Some of these examples were captured in a chapter written by Daniel Dalohoun as part of the book African Seed Enterprises that Jeff and I edited with Robert Guei from FAO.

Farmers across Africa are keen to learn how to better conserve, produce and market seed of their traditional crops. While making a video on Farmers’ rights to seed a few months ago at a seed fair in Malawi, farmers eagerly exchanged traditional sorghum and millet varieties with each other. As the government had so far focused on maize only as a food security crop, some communities lost certain traditional sorghum and millet varieties , but seed fairs and community seed banks helped them to again access these varieties. In addition to seed, farmers also want new knowledge about farming practices. Mr. Lovemore Tachokera, a farmer from the south who attended a seed fair in the north, told me: “The one thing I will make sure to tell my fellow farmers back home regarding conservation of indigenous crops is that we should also practice new farming technologies even on the indigenous crops.”

And right he was. Treasuring and improving traditional crops is important, but alone is insufficient to cope with climate change; good agricultural adaptation strategies also matter. GĂ©rard Zoundji, a Beninese PhD student, investigated how a series of farmer training videos on weed and soil management helped farmers in Mali to use climate-smart technologies.

The differences he found between video-villages (where farmers had watched the videos) versus non-video-villages were very significant:

  • crop rotation combined with  intercropping (99% in video villages vs 57% in other villages)
  • compost or microdosing fertiliser application (99% in video villages vs 0%)
  • crop diversification (94% vs 52%)
  • use of improved short-cycle seed varieties (78% vs 17%)
  • use of zaĂŻ pits (51% vs 0%)

Zoundji also found that after watching the videos on Fighting striga and improving soil fertility (see the related blog: Killing the vampire flower), farmers started demanding improved cereal seed. And as a result some women’s groups in the villages of Daga and Sirakélé became seed dealers in their village. Sorghum, millet and maize yields in the video-villages increased by 14%, 30% and 15% respectively when compared to non-video villages.

While maize crops are increasingly failing in parts of Africa due to climate change, the robustness of traditional African cereal crops contributes to to their renewed appeal to African farmers. The improved cultivation of traditional, drought-resistant crops, benefiting from research and training on improved cropping practices, will enable farmers to adapt to a harsher and more variable climate.

Watch the videos

Farmers’ rights to seed

Succeed with seeds

Various farmer training videos on Sorghum & Millets

Further reading

Dalohoun, Daniel, Van Mele, P., Weltzien, E., Diallo, D., Guindo, H. and vom Brocke, K. (2010) Mali: When governments give entrepreneurs room to grow. In P. Van Mele, J. Bentley and R. Guei (eds.) African Seed Enterprises (pp. 65-88). Wallingfrod: CABI. Download chapter from: http://agroinsight.com/books.php

Dillon, Sally L.. Frances M. Shapter, Robert J. Henry, Giovanni Cordeiro, Liz Izquierdo, and L. Slade Lee 2007. Domestication to Crop Improvement: Genetic Resources for Sorghum and Saccharum (Andropogoneae). Annals of Botany, 100(5): 975–989. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2759214/

Hirst, K. Kris 2017. Pearl millet (Pennisetum glaucum) – Domestication and History. https://www.thoughtco.com/pearl-millet-domestication-170647

Zoundji, Gérard, Okry, F., Vodouhê, S.D., Bentley, J.W. and Tossou, R.C. 2018. Beyond Striga management: Learning videos enhanced farmers’ knowledge on climate-smart agriculture beyond Striga management. Sustainable Agriculture Research 7(1), 80-91. Download article from: https://www.accessagriculture.org/publications

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Richness in diversity December 3rd, 2017 by

For decades, new crop varieties have been bred by relying heavily on farmers’ knowledge and the local landraces they grow. Landraces have provided a major gene pool readily used by breeders to make crops better adapted to drought, floods, pests and diseases. But with increased pressure from the private sector and insufficient support from the public sector, many rural communities struggle to maintain their diversity of crops and food, as I recently learned in Malawi.

When Marcella and I were asked by the Global Forum on Agricultural Research and Innovation (GFAR) to make a video on Farmers’ Rights to seed, we only had a faint idea of how strong the debate raged among development organisations, policy-makers and farmers. We were surprised to learn that in Malawi, a draft seed policy had been written that would force farmers to buy commercial seed only.

Driving from Lilongwe to the northern town of Rumphi we passed many fields with dried stubble, where maize and tobacco had been recently harvested. Beyond these bleak fields lie rolling, dusty hills, but decorated during the dry season by trees flowering in white, orange, purple and other colours. But the beauty of the landscape doesn’t stop one from seeing the dire poverty in which the people live.

Maize is the staple food and many farmers grow it as a cash crop, encouraged by government fertilizer subsidies. Farmers who accept the subsidy are obliged to plant only hybrid maize seed.

Families growing tobacco for multinational companies have basically sacrificed their lives to the crop, but unlike the fluctuating world market price for tobacco over the years, their living conditions have remained stubbornly low at all times.

The reliance on these two key crops is beginning to change. Recent development efforts have started to take crop and food diversification seriously. As I talked to farmers over the next few days, it dawned on me how much effort is required for farmers to preserve local crop varieties that have been nurtured over many years. Many families have abandoned their traditional crops and dishes and the current generation of farmers has little idea of how to grow anything else apart from maize and tobacco.

On our first day of filming we visited the community seed bank in Mkombezi. As member farmers arrived in small groups, we filmed the shelves lined with glass jars full of seeds of local varieties of sorghum, millet, maize, beans, groundnuts and Bambara groundnuts.

“We keep seed of our local varieties and multiply them to share with our members, and also to supply non-members. At this moment we have 14 tons of seed in our store room,” proudly explains Shadreck Kapira, secretary of the seed bank.

Outside the seed bank more farmers have gathered. With the support of a local NGO, some eight farmers from southern Malawi have travelled over 600 kilometres to meet fellow farmers in the north. The next day, they will all attend a seed fair to exchange and sell seed of their food crops. The visiting farmers proudly display small plastic bags, each containing precious seeds. Each lot is poured onto a red, blue or green plastic plate and a label attached with the name of the farmer and seed variety.

During the group discussion the farmers from the north show great interest in the sorghum varieties on offer by their colleagues from the south. With the changing climate the hybrid maize varieties do not perform as well as they used to. If rains are not good, a farmer risks losing her entire crop. Some of the local sorghum varieties mature in just 2 months, a month earlier than the hybrid maize, and they can better withstand drought.

Farmers also talk about how they use different crops to prepare food and drinks for special events, such as weddings or the nomination of village chiefs. Millet is one of their favourite crops. It produces a porridge which is not only more nutritious than that made from maize, but can be prepared with less water and without cooking, so there is no need for fuel wood. Millet is also an essential ingredient of traditional sweet and sour beers.

The next morning we leave early, just before dawn at 5 o’clock, to reach Mpherembe on time for a seed and food fair. The local community has fenced off an area near the water well and tied bundles of local grasses to sturdy poles to keep out the dust-laden wind. Local NGO staff register each farmer, the type and amount of seed they bring to the fair. Women have also prepared a diverse range of foods and when I peek under the lid of the occasional plastic bucket I find millet beer, an important part of a fair.

According to the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, signed by over 140 governments across the world, every farmer has the right to exchange and sell their local seed. When we interview Bena Phiri, she is very explicit: “My rights, I can say that my local crops that I grow are mine and no one can have control over my seed. I have the right to sell them at my own will and no one can say anything because they are mine.”

However, a draft seed policy wants to force farmers to buy all their seed at agro dealer shops. If approved, it would spell disaster for local crop varieties. Most agro dealers have few varieties for sale, and hardly any are local. The stores mainly sell hybrid maize from Monsanto, Syngenta and perhaps one or two other multi-national companies. Fortunately, pressure from development agencies and farmer organisations has delayed the new regulation and the draft seed policy has not yet passed Cabinet.

We hope that our video on Farmers’ right to seed, available in English and two Malawian languages (Chichewa and Tumbuka) will help to raise farmers’ awareness across the country. Distributed by Access Agriculture and its diverse partners in Malawi with the support of GFAR, the videos will soon be shown in farm clubs, on local TV, and aired on the radio. We also expect many farmers will view the video directly on their inexpensive mobile phones.

It is ironic that wealthy people are now able to access more food diversity than ever, at a time when the poor could have many of their local crop varieties wiped out by misguided laws. The media has a role to play in raising awareness among farmers, legislators and consumers and to ensure that local cultures based on a rich diversity of crops and foods is maintained.

Further viewing

Watch the training video Farmers’ rights to seed

Related blogs

Bolivian peanuts

Forgotten vegetables

Forty farmer innovations

Homegrown seed can be good

Meeting the need for groundnut seed

Onions from Agadez

The sunflower: from Russia with love, and oil

We share

Quinoa, lost and found

Further reading

Van Mele, P., Bentley, J.W and Guéi, R.G. (eds.) 2011. African Seed Enterprises: Sowing the Seeds of Food Security. CABI Publishing, UK, 256 pp. Download chapters here.

Timothy A. Wise. 2017. Did Monsanto Write Malawi’s Seed Policy? https://foodtank.com/news/2017/08/monsanto-malawis-seed-policy/

Acknowledgements

Thanks to the Global Forum on Agricultural Research and Innovation (GFAR). Support in Malawi was kindly provided by the Development Fund of Norway, Biodiversity Conservation Initiative and the Centre for Environmental Policy and Advocacy.

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