Children in the UK know more about the developing world than ever before. Some of what they hear is exceptional, with brutal conflicts and spectacular natural disasters grabbing headlines. Fortunately, schools try to give a more complete view of life in poor countries, even if learning about major social problemsâ poverty, malnutrition for example âinevitably paints a rather bleak picture.
When I was asked recently to talk to primary school pupils, I decided to focus on a tropical food crop. I chose cocoa. Everyone likes chocolate, especially children. My aim was to explain how the plant was grown and beans were produced and sold, discussing the people involved at different stages in an attempt to explain why agriculture is so important.
In a small town 100 miles north of London, I reckoned few if any in my class of ten year-olds would know the cocoa plant. But I checked before starting the two-hour session, just in case. Sure enough, one girl had seen a cocoa tree in a greenhouse in a botanic garden. We began by making a long list of things that contained cocoa, including cocoa butter. We then discussed countries where cocoa was grown, using maps I provided.
The children quickly realised that cocoa grows close to the equator, because, as one girl said, âthatâs where you get tropical rain forests â and they store lots of rainâ. We went through the list of cocoa-producing countries. No one had heard of Guatemala, but several boys knew about Togo, because of another more famous export: professional footballers.
I planned an illustrated journey, going in stages from planting seed to producing cocoa beans, first showing large pictures on a screen before getting the children to look more carefully at photo-sheets. We began with photos of different cocoa gardens, one well-tended, another in decline and one with dead and dying trees. Next, we did seed to pod and then pod to bean. The children asked good questions about planting, flowering, pod production and shading of young cocoa plants with bananas and other plants.
I brought out three cocoa pods and said we were going to look inside. Eyes widened as the children carefully cut open the pods, exposing a perfect sequence from unripe to ripe and over-ripe pod (this was more luck than judgement). Handling the pods sparked the childrenâs curiosity, and they asked more questions: how do you know when the pods are ripe? They change colour. How long can you keep a pod after youâve removed it from the tree? About a week.
The children tasted the flesh surrounding the beans in the ripe pod, pleasantly surprised at its fruity flavour. A few nibbled at the beans, equally surprised to discover these did not taste of chocolate. We moved on to the next sequence of photos: from pod to bean, then bean to truck. The children learnt about fermentation and drying, the challenges of selling and buying beans, and moving 63 kg bags from DR Congo to the port of Mombasa in Kenya for export, a journey that takes about two to three days by truck.
The children also cut open some dried beans. They graded them, as a buyer would do, then cut them open to check the quality, using a colour chart â as a chocolate maker would do. In two hours weâd gone from growing cocoa to exporting beans. Along the way the children had seen farmers in action, where they lived, the clothes they wore, and learnt about the importance of cocoa as a major source of income to nearly 30,000 farmers in DR Congo.
Todayâs children are tomorrowâs leaders, and in a world where people are far removed from the source of their food, it is vital that we help people in the North understand the importance of agriculture to people in the South, and the need to help farmers succeed. Better yet, while stimulating young minds, to allow children to taste the real flavours of the South.
My thanks to Marianne Quinsee and Toni BoaÂ of Little Bowden Primary School, Market Harborough, for enthusiastically supporting the visit, and to Andrew Daymond of the International Cocoa Collection at the University of Reading for providing the pods and beans.
Nutritionists and physicians have started to question milk-drinking, suggesting that many consumers eat far too much dairy. Dr. Michael Klaper has even suggested that milk is just âbaby calf growth fluidâ, designed to âturn a 65 pound calf into a 400 pound cowâ, and that unless you have long ears and a tail, you should never drink the white stuff (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=toZ7Mr-ClCE).
In other words, Dr. Klaper argues that cowÂ´s milk should be avoided because it was designed as calf food. But his reasoning is absurd reductionism, because most of what humans eat was meant to be something else, not people food. Wheat grains were intended to be seed, not flour. Honey is supposed to tide the hive over the lean season, not to be added to pastry. Fish certainly did not evolve so that people could make sushi.
Before agriculture, all humans were hunters-and-gatherers. They ate meat when they could (but seldom as much as people who get their food from the supermarket). They ate a bit of fat (wild animals can be pretty lean). Fish were part of the diet in many places and so were insects in a few areas where other sources of animal protein were scarce. Honey was occasionally on the menu, but no processed sugar. Some grains were eaten, but not much, because large-seeded grasses were not very common in the wild. The ancestral human diet was mostly fruit, nuts, roots, tubers and vegetables, and no milk.
This began to change about 8500 BC when wheat and a handful of other crops were dom
esticated in the Near East (Zohary et al. 2012). Studies at the site of Ãatal HÃ¼yÃ¼k, in what is now Turkey, suggest that farmers began to domesticate cattle at that same time. But the transition to agriculture was gradual, and early farmers still hunted; most of their meat still came from the wild. Livestock only began to provide most of the meat for Near Eastern farmers about 7500 BC, around 1000 years after the beginning of animal domestication (Helmer and Vigne 2007). It seems that then as now, farmers were adapting gradually, experimenting as they went.
Daniel Helmer (a specialist in the ancient Near East) and Jean-Denis Vigne (a zoo-archaeologist) suggest that during these early centuries of animal rearing, domestic animals were not kept so much for their meat, but for other products like traction, skin, hair, and manure, but most of all for milk. Archaeological evidence (especially remains of milk residues on pottery sherds) suggests that dairying was established by about 7000 BC in the Near East, and by about 5900-5700 BC in Britain, and in central Europe (Helmer and Vigne 2007).
Over the centuries, ancient farmers selected for cows that gave more milk. The modern dairy cow yields around 40 liters of milk a day during the first month of lactation, far more than the calf can drink. Milking allowed farmers to take food from their livestock every day, without killing the animals. The milk was rich in fat and protein, both of which were scarce in early agricultural diets.
There was one problem with ancient dairying; most people could not digest lactose, the natural sugar in milk. Human babies can digest the lactose in their mothersâ milk, but most lose this ability in adulthood.
Humans managed to eat milk products in two ways. One was to make cheese or other fermented products, where the yeast or lacto-bacteria broke down the lactose. The second way: some peoples evolved a genetic ability to absorb lactose, a trait governed by a single, dominant gene. Anthropologist William Durham asked why people would evolve the ability to digest fresh milk, if they could simply make it into easily digestible cheese. There must be a high adaptive advantage to being able to digest fresh milk, since in some populations, e.g. in Northern Europe, nearly 100% of the population has the genetic ability to digest fresh milk. It turns out that fresh milk is rich in vitamin D, which allows easy absorption of calcium. Durham reasons that this conferred a special advantage on people in cold countries, where they did not always get enough sunlight to synthesize their own vitamin D.
It is also possible that when people had been raising cows for centuries, and milk was abundant, people who could drink fresh milk were better fed than their neighbors, and so the milk-drinking gene spread through the population. That is my guess, but there is no doubt that the modern people who can drink milk are the ones whose ancestors tended cows in ancient Europe, Africa or South Asia.
If your ancestors were not dairying folks, you may be lactose intolerant. If you can drink milk, you can thank your forbearers who herded cows and put milk on the table.
Durham, William H. 1991 Coevolution: Genes, Culture and Human Diversity. Stanford: Stanford University Press. Pp. 228-259.
Helmer Daniel and Jean-Denis Vigne 2007 âWas Milk a âSecondary Productâ in the Old World Neolithisation Process? Its Role in the Domestication of Cattle, Sheep and Goats.â Anthropozoologica 42(2):9-40.
Zohary, Daniel, Maria Hopf and Ehud Weiss 2012 Domestication of Plants in the Old World: The Origin and Spread of Domesticated Plants in South-west Asia, Europe, and the Mediterranean Basin (Fourth Edition). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Access Agriculture has a small collection of videos for small-scale dairy farmers.
Related blog stories on the prehistory of food
Vea la versiÃ³n en espaÃ±ol a continuaciÃ³n
Producing food aid locally may take some work to organize, but the quality is better than shipping surplus grain from a big producer, such as the US or EU.
Last week I visited Yo Prefiero (I Prefer), a farmersâ association in Ibarra, Ecuador that has been contracted by the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock, Aquaculture and Fisheries to provide food baskets every month to 200 impoverished mothers of small children. 300 other baskets go to other government programs. Giving food away is like anything else. You get better at it the longer you do it.
Food aid used to come in the form of surplus commodities. In Guatemala, years ago, I saw poor villagers receiving dried maize and beans, cooking oil and an unappetizing mix of ground soybeans and corn that looked like livestock feed.
The Yo Prefiero farmers are spread out over several municipalities and different agroecological zones. This means they produce a wide variety of food, such as round, moon-like, white cheeses, freshly harvested beans, cracked corn, fluffy quinoa bread, papaya, sweet potatoes, bananas and tree tomatoes. There are over 20 products and all are top class. Even the fussiest consumer would be delighted to get a large food basket from the Yo Prefiero farmers.
Yo Prefiero has 23 farmers: nine women and 14 men. Each farmer delivers a specific commodity to the warehouse on the morning the baskets are packed. The association members are obviously well experienced at this task. They organize the goods into neat stacks on two parallel rows tables, so that all of the products are within reach, and the packing goes quickly.
On basket day, the ladies from the association take a list, moving from pile to pile, snatching up an item and gathering into a blue cloth bag. The men lift the heavy bags of produce onto a rented truck, which takes the baskets to a local school or parish association, where representatives of the Provincial government give the moms short courses on child care and feeding. Sometimes other specialists come and teach courses on gender, gardening and there is even a cooking class taught by a chef. The mothers receive a food basket every month, when they attend one of these courses with their baby. During the month the moms also attend a local clinic, where doctors and nurses weigh the babies,Â to see that they are well nourished.
No one is paid to pack the baskets. The 23 members of the association do this work for free because they are able to earn more than if they sold their harvest on the open, wholesale market.
One of the farmers told how he was happy to sell his papayas through the association for a dollar each, around four times as much as he was paid before joining.
The farmersâ association provides its food baskets as part of a program with several ministries and UN agencies; Â the farmers are paid for their goods with funds fromÂ the WFP (United Nations World Food Program), via the Provincial government. The baskets are so good that several hundred other people pay to receive one. These private subscribers fill in an order form once a month. A few days later they get a phone call telling them to pick up their produce. The subscriber goes to the Yo Prefiero warehouse, pays for her produce, and picks up her order.
I learned this when I spent a day visiting Yo Prefiero with colleagues from the Andes who all had a long experience of agricultural development. It was a sophisticated group, not one easily taken in by appearances. My colleagues asked how prices were set. The people from the Ministry said that they took into account all of the farmersâ costs, including store-bought supplies and unpaid contributions by the farm household, such as water and labor. (There are various philosophies regarding whether household labor and other unpaid costs should be accounted in the same way as cash expenses, but that is a topic for another story). The staff from the Ministry of Agriculture compares the farmersâ costs with the prices offered at the wholesale market, and decides on a fair price to pay the farmers.
This answer seemed a little fuzzy to my colleagues. It was not clear how much more the farmers made by selling for food aid than they could make on the open market. The contents of baskets vary, but one estimate was that farmers got $40 for produce worth $36 on the open market. But whatever the exact numbers, farmers were earning more by selling through the association.
Later in the day we visited one of the farmers, Rosmeri Menachu, who grows her own lettuce and broccoli seed which she uses to grow her own vegetables. She farms vegetables on a little over half a hectare, a small farm by any definition. Rosmeri is the carrot grower for Yo Prefiero. She plants carrots once a week so she always has fresh ones to sell.
It takes a certain amount of administration and training to keep this effort going. The communities have help from five extension agents from the Ministry, which is a lot. The scheme survives thanks to funding from the World Food Program and other donors.
It takes a lot of effort to create an alternative market. It might fail without outside help. But this model is an improvement on what went before. In Honduras in the 1980s, the US donated shiploads of wheat, which depressed grain markets, and discouraged local farmers. Food aid organizations are getting wiser. The World Food Program, for instance, now buys much of its food aid within the receiving country, which helps those who need the food, while stimulating local farmers to produce more.
Donaciones de comida, con estilo
El producir las donaciones de comida localmente puede costar algo de trabajo para organizarse, pero la calidad es mejor que enviar granos excedentarios de un productor grande, como los Estados Unidos o Europa.
La pasada semana visite a âYo Prefiero,â una asociaciÃ³n de agricultores en Ibarra, Ecuador que se ha contratado por el Ministerio de Agricultura, GanaderÃa, Acuacultura y Pesca para proveer canastas de comida cada mes a 200 madres pobres, con hijos pequeÃ±os. 300 canastas mÃ¡s se destinan a otros programas gubernamentales. El donar comida es como cualquier otra cosa. Uno se mejora con la prÃ¡ctica.
Antes, la ayuda alimentaria venÃa en forma de alimentos excedentarios. En Guatemala, hace unos aÃ±os, vi a campesinos pobres que recibÃan a maÃz y frijol seco, aceite vegetal, y una mezcla desagradableÂ de soya y maÃz molido que parecÃa alimento de ganado.
Los agricultores de Yo Prefiero estÃ¡n dispersos por varios municipios en diferentes zonas agroecolÃ³gicas. Por lo tanto producen una amplia variedad de comida: quesos blancos y redondos como la luna, frijoles reciÃ©n cosechados, maÃz quebrado, pan fresco de quinua, papaya, camotes, bananas y tomate de Ã¡rbol. Hay mÃ¡s de 20 productos y todos son de primera. Hasta el consumidor mÃ¡s exigente estarÃa encantado de recibir una canasta grande de comida de los agricultores de Yo Prefiero.
Yo Prefiero tiene 23 agricultores: nueve mujeres y 14 hombres. Cada agricultor entrega un producto especÃfico al almacÃ©n el dÃaÂ que empacan las canastas. Los miembros de la asociaciÃ³n obviamente son bien experimentados con esta tarea. Organizan los productos en grupos ordenados sobre dos filas paralelas de mesas, para que todos los productos sean fÃ¡cilmente alcanzados, y el empacar progresa rÃ¡pidamente.
El dÃa de las canastas, las socias de la asociaciÃ³n toman un listado impreso, y pasan de alimento en alimento, agarrando una cosa a la vez, y juntÃ¡ndolas en una bolsa de tela azul. Los hombres alzan las pesadas bolsas de productos, cargando un camiÃ³n alquilado, el cual lleva las canastas a una escuela o junta parroquial, donde representantes del Patronato Provincial (que es parte del Gobierno Provincial) Â dan cursos cortos sobre el cuidado y la alimentaciÃ³n de los niÃ±os. A veces llegan otros especialistas y les dan cursos de gÃ©nero, jardinerÃa y hasta hay un curso de cocina impartida por un chef. Las madres reciben una canasta de comida cada mes, al asistir a uno de estos cursos con su bebÃ©. Durante el mes, las madres tambiÃ©n asisten a unÂ centro de salud local, donde los doctores y enfermeras pesan los niÃ±os (para ver si los bebÃ©s estÃ¡n bien nutridos).
Nadie gana un salario por empacar las canastas. Los 23 miembros de la asociaciÃ³n contribuyen este trabajo gratis porque les permite ganar mÃ¡s que si vendieron su cosecha en el mercado mayorista.
Uno de los agricultores dijo que Ã©l estÃ¡ feliz vendiendo sus papayas a travÃ©s de la asociaciÃ³n por un dÃ³lar cada una, mÃ¡s o menos cuatro veces mÃ¡s de lo que ganaba antes de ser socio.
La asociaciÃ³n de agricultores vende sus bienes a un programa que incluyeÂ varios ministerios y agencias de la ONU. Los agricultores son pagados por sus bienes con fondos del PMA (Programa Mundial de Alimentos de las Naciones Unidas) a travÃ©s del Gobierno Provincial. Â Las canastas son tan buenas que cientos de otras personas pagan por recibir una. Estos abonados particulares llenan formulario una vez al mes. Unos dÃas despuÃ©s reciben una llamada informÃ¡ndoles que ya pueden recoger su producto. La abonada va al almacÃ©n de Yo Prefiero, paga por sus alimentos, y recoge su orden.
AprendÃ todo eso cuando pasÃ© un dÃa visitando a Yo Prefiero con algunos colegas de los Andes, todos con una amplia experiencia en el desarrollo agrÃcola. Era un grupo sofisticado, no uno que se deja engaÃ±ar por las apariencias. Mis colegas preguntaron cÃ³mo se fijaban los precios. Los del Ministerio dijeron que tomaban en cuenta todos los costos de los agricultores, incluso los suministros que se compran en la tienda y los insumos no monetarios de la familia campesina, como el agua y su mano de obra. (Hay varias filosofÃas, si la mano de obra familiar y otros gastos no pagados deben ser contabilizados en la misma forma que los gastos en efectivo, pero eso es tema para otra historia). La gente del Ministerio de Agricultura compara los costos del productor con los precios ofrecidos en el mercado mayorista, y decide en un precio justo para pagar a los agricultores.
Tal respuesta pareciÃ³ un poco vaga a mis colegas. No era claro cuÃ¡nto mÃ¡s ganaban los agricultores al vender para las donaciones versus cuÃ¡nto ganarÃan en el mercado libre. Los contenidos de las canastas varÃan, pero un estimado era que se pagaba a los productores $40 por productos que valdrÃan $36 en el mercado libre. Pero sean lo que sean los nÃºmeros exactos, los agricultores ganaban mÃ¡s al vender a travÃ©s de la asociaciÃ³n.
MÃ¡s tarde en el dÃa, visitamos a una de las agricultoras, Rosmeri Menachu, quien produce su propia semilla de lechuga y brÃ³coli que ella usa para producir sus propias hortalizas. Ella cultiva verduras en poco mÃ¡s de media hectÃ¡rea, una finca pequeÃ±a segÃºn cualquier definiciÃ³n. Rosmeri produce las zanahorias para Yo Prefiero. Ella siembra zanahorias una vez a la semana para siempre tener hortalizas frescas para vender.
Cuesta algo de administraciÃ³n y capacitaciÃ³n el sacar adelante este esfuerzo. Las comunidades reciben ayuda de unos cinco extensionistas del Ministerio, lo cual es bastante. El programa sobrevive gracias a financiamiento del Programa Mundial de Alimentos y otros donantes.
Se requiere de mucho esfuerzo crear un mercado alternativo. PodrÃa colapsar sin ayuda externa. Pero este modelo es mejor que los anteriores. En Honduras en los 1980, Los Estados Unidos donaba embarcaciones de trigo, las cuales deprimÃan los precios de los granos, y desanimaban a los agricultores locales. Las organizaciones de ayuda alimentaria se estÃ¡n volviendo mÃ¡s sabios. Actualmente, el Programa Mundial de Alimentos, por ejemplo, compra muchos de sus alimentos para donar dentro del paÃs que los recibe, lo cual ayuda a los que necesitan la comida, mientras estimula a los agricultores locales a producir mÃ¡s.
What women donât say can be as important as what they do say. As I learned recently in Nigeria.
Cassava is a crop that is native to the Amazon Basin, but spread in early colonial times to much of tropical Africa. The hardy cassava is a short, woody shrub that can live for several years, thanks to its large roots which absorb water and nutrients, which helps the plant to survive the dry season.
Villagers love cassava because of its flexibility. People can harvest the plants one or few at a time, as the household needs food. But cassava can also be tricky. Once the roots are harvested they are fairly perishable and should be prepared into food fairly soon.
During a recent fieldwork sponsored by IITA (International Institute of Tropical Agriculture), we found that, in Southwest and North Nigeria, men grow much of the cassava and women detoxify it by making it into several products, especially one called gari. Â To make gari, women peel huge piles of roots, one at a time, with a kitchen knife. Then the roots are grated in little motorized grills, and the mash is fermented in sacks, and then the moisture is squeezed out. Men may help with the grating and pressing out the moisture (often for a small fee). Then the women toast the mash into gari on a metal pan over a hot wood fire, continuously stirring the mash with a wooden paddle. The women also collect the firewood. Women can sell gari in village markets to buyers, usually women, who bulk the gari and take it to the cities.
To get cassava to transform into gari, Nigerian women use several strategies. They grow some cassava; they get some from their husbands and they can buy roots in the village. In the photo, a man sells a motorcycle load of cassava to a neighbor who will process it. Within four to five days women can turn the cassava into a bit of cashâwhich they can spend or keep.
In the villages across Nigeria my colleagues and I interviewed the men and the women separately. Some of the men told us that, among other things, they needed what they called âready markets,â meaning that the men wanted to be able to sell their cassavaÂ roots raw, in local markets, for a profit.
In separate meetings, the women had plenty to say, but they never mentioned markets. On the other hand, the women wanted cassava that was easier to peel.
If we had interviewed men and women together, the women would not have bothered to contradict the men, when they asked for better markets for cassava.
The women did not ask for a ready market for cassava, because they already have one. They can always carry a basin full of gari down to the village market and sell it. Even landless women can buy cassava and transform it to make a living, working at home.
Men and women may even have conflicting interests. Higher prices for raw roots might benefit men, but could even harm the women, who buy the roots as raw material to make traditional foods like gari, fufu (with the consistency of mashed potatoes) and abacha (almost a kind of noodle).
In Nigeria, women are quietly feeding the nation; they are happy with the market just the way it is. That is why women donât ask for ready markets. What women donât say can be as important as what they do say. To learn womenâs specific views and perspectives, we were reminded one more time that it is important to interview men and women in separate groups.
Tessy Madu and Olamide Olaosebikan held the meetings with the women. Adetunji Olarewaju facilitated the parallel meetings with the men.
The field work mentioned in this blog was part of the IITA lead Cassava Monitoring Survey project funded by institutions including RTB (CGIAR research program on Roots, Tuber and Bananas) and IITA.
As I landed in Bishkek a few weeks ago I marvelled at the sharp contrast between soaring, snow-capped mountain, and plains with multi-coloured strips, mature fields of wheat and freshly planted maize, sunflower and other field crops. On the ground there are plenty of hardy fruit trees, such as apples, pears, apricots, plums and other stone fruits. I watched a family pick cherries from trees they had planted in a hedgerow, making maximum use of their agricultural land. Kyrgyzstan is still hugely dependent on agriculture. A short growing season means that farmers have to be creative. There is plenty of water, if you have access to irrigation.
I heard mixed stories about the profitability of large scale field crops, much of this linked to the phrase that cropped up repeatedly: âafter the collapse of Soviet Unionâ. In the winter of 1991-92 state farms lost their support and the new Kyrgyz Republic could no longer count on the USSR to absorb its exports, leaving farmers exposed to unfamiliar, global competition. Cotton, a major commodity during the Soviet era, is still widely planted in Osh district, in the warmer south, though areas have decreased.
The Kyrgyz language is related to Turkish, and expanding links with Turkey offer new opportunities for trade. Savvy buyers from Turkey have introduced improved cotton varieties, as have the Chinese, only a few hours away by road from Osh. Foreign buyers provide technical advice and training to farmers. Turkey and China also sell agrochemicals. The private sector is taking up some of the slack of a once dominant state-controlled agriculture. Farmers welcome the new sources of support.
Russiaâs influence has not entirely disappeared. They will build and equip a new plant diagnostic laboratory in Osh, and advisors from Moscow were discussing the start of construction during my visit. As they arrived in shiny 4 x 4 vehicles, the similarities to a development project in Nepal or Nicaragua were difficult to ignore.
The agricultural scientists I talked to constantly said how difficult it was for farmers to afford things, part of a general post-collapse pessimism. But it is easy for those who work in laboratories to underestimate farmers. I saw farmers who were investing in their farms and who appeared optimistic about the future. In a recently planted cotton field near Aravan, on the edge of Fergana valley, I was impressed by the size of Israilâs farm, the health of his plants and a modern tractor working the land. Israil has been growing cotton for the last five years, after deciding it was more profitable than wheat.
Farmers now have the freedom to change the crops each season, no longer bound by central planning that may have limited agricultural potential but created a dull kind of certainty. And, encouragingly, there are newcomers to agriculture with no previous experience of farming. Tima and his business partner, Mirlan, had left secure jobs in finance and telecommunications to start a strawberry farm, complete with drip irrigation. They asked me to examine some unhealthy strawberry plants in a newly planted field on the edge of Bishkek, the capital city. They were learning the hard way that small-scale agriculture can be risky, particularly when you are growing a crop for the first time.
Tima and Mirlan wanted a change in lifestyle and were attracted by the commercial potential of fruit growing. Tima and Mirlan hadÂ done their homework before planting, sourcing the best plants and following recommended planting procedures. But Tima also told me that strawberry farmers were not so keen to share information and experiences. After years of working in enforced collectives I have read that farmers in ex-Soviet republics value their independence. On the way back to Bishkek we met Dilmurat, an experienced strawberry grower. He was more than happy to talk about what he did. Maybe my presence made a difference, but I think farmers everywhere want to learn and the best way to do this is to be open and share experiences.