Innovation in agriculture is the key to progress, yet new ideas need to be carefully examined. This is particularly true for âif onlyâ crops, where wondrous benefits could be realised, so we are told, if only more were produced for eager markets. It rarely turns out to be so simple.
From the 1960s onwards the neem tree received a lot of attention from pest scientists who promoted the pesticide properties of naturally occurring compounds. Neemâs properties had been known across India for centuries, but were a source of wonderment to Western scientists, intrigued by the possibilities of natural alternatives to the highly toxic pesticides damned in Rachel Carsonâs Silent Spring.
âIf onlyâ crops often promise increased incomes for farmers, with other benefits such as reduced pest management costs and health risks in the case of neem. Neem was promoted widely in West Africa as part of IPM (integrated pest management), though the most notable success I am aware of was an agroforestry scheme in Niger, where neem was used as windbreaks for annual crops. Neem was also promoted widely as a botanical insecticide in Central America in the 1990s, but the most lasting result of plantings seems to be attractiveÂ trees in public parks.
I did hear of a commercial scheme to harvest neem oil from neem plantations in Indonesia, driven by a reported US market price of US$50 per litre. But, like many other wonder crops, the hype didnât match the reality. Neem products are sold widely in India, often with heavy government subsidies, but wider, international trade has yet to happen.
Promoting any new plant-based product for profit requires a complex series of coordinated steps, from getting farmers to grow enough plants to guarantee a steady supply of raw material, to having processing facilities that can produce the quality product needed by traders that are ready and willing to pay a fair price.
Add to this: trading regulations, alternative suppliers and fluctuating demand, and the barriers to success become daunting. The promotion of neem products has been a qualified success where farmers were already familiar with the plant. Creating enterprises based on a first-time crop is much more challenging, as I learnt last week in Rwanda. Patchouli is a small herbaceous plant whose leaves produce a pungent oil used in perfumery. Patchouli oil is also used in making incense and anyone who has visited India or passed byÂ Hindu temples elsewhere is likely to have smelled its particularly intense and persistent aroma.
About 10 years ago an entrepreneur from Haiti, Pierre LĂ©ger, visited Rwanda and convinced the government to support a scheme to plant patchouli, a previously unknown crop. This was the wonder plant, according to the spiel, that would transform the lives of many poor farmers in Rwanda. Patchouli is well-suited to conditions in Rwanda, where aid agencies and the government were keen to support new enterprises, particularly those that promised high financial rewards. Add to this a global patchouli oil shortage and skyrocketing price at the time, and itâs easy to understand why a proposal to establish a patchouli industry in Rwanda received a sympathetic welcome. Rwanda already grew geraniums for essential oils, so this type of business was already familiar to some farmers.
Today, however, patchouli still languishes as an âif onlyâ crop for Rwanda: if only more farmers had planted it; if only distilling facilities had been successfully established; if only investment from the government had been realised; and if only the original promoter had stayed the course necessary to establish a patchouli oil business. There are wonder crops that have succeeded, but usually because they were already grown by farmers and there was a semblance of a local industry that could be expanded when market conditions became favourable. It also helps to have committed private investors.
Quinoa is not an overnight success for Bolivia or Peru. Many people have worked for years to promote its nutritional benefits, efforts that are now being rewarded by sustained exports to North America and Europe. The quinoa was also supported for years at the exporting end in the Andes by researchers and entrepreneurs in Bolivia.
The overall picture of wonder crops is, however, of patchy success. Leucaena, a woody legume, was widely promoted by projects as a reliable solution to fodder shortages, yet it was plagued by a psyllid (a sucking insect) that followed the expansion of planting aroundthe world. Goji berries, a super-food grown mainly in north-west China, is a wonder crop that continues to do well. But success also encourages competitors, with increased quinoa and goji production in the US, for example.
The main lesson from the fates of many crops promoted as âthe next big thingâ for development is to exercise caution. It is tricky linking production to markets and finding reliable investors who will keep working on processing and marketing after donor dollars have disappeared. A committed community of researchers, processors, exporters, producers and policy-makers is essential. There is undoubtedly a place for wonder crops in creating new enterprises, but only if the assumptions and claims of the promoters are thoroughly scrutinised before taking the plunge.
Related blog stories
The quinoa boom in Bolivia has been years in the making: Quinoa, lost and found
Persistence helped to establish cardamom in Guatemala, as explained in A troubled crop.
A wonder crop can also be an insect, as we read in Kiss of death in the cactus garden
Itâs difficult to know who reads a fact sheet, listens to a radio broadcast or watches a farmer learning video, but those of us who produce such information always want to know what happens to it, once it leaves our hands. In 2011 my colleagues at Access Agriculture tried a new way to do audience research. Access Agriculture and partners distributed 20,000 copies of a DVD on striga (the devil weed) across East Africa. Each copy contained a questionnaire, formatted as a letter, asking the viewers to tick off a few boxes and mail back the letter in the post. No one bothered to return the survey.
So in 2015, PhD candidate GĂ©rard Zoundji tried a slightly different way to get feedback from viewers in Benin, as he explains in a recent paper in Cogent Food & Agriculture. First he compiled a DVD in five languages, with nine different videos on growing vegetables. Next, GĂ©rard distributed his DVD through the private sector, mainly through agro-input dealers and people who sell movie DVDs. Previously DVDs had been distributed through extension providers, NGOs or government agencies, not from small shops.
GĂ©rard asked the vendors to collect names and phone numbers of people who bought the DVD, so he could do follow up work with the buyers. GĂ©rard gave the vendors the DVDs for free, in exchange for their cooperation, but allowed them to keep the equivalent of a dollar or two which they collected for each sale. He also tried a new way of doing follow up. He put a sticker in the DVD jacket, with a note inviting the recipients to phone in if they had questions. The number was for a SIM card that GĂ©rard bought, just to receive such calls.
It was a pleasant surprise when people started phoning in. Of 562 who bought the DVD, a whopping 341 phoned GĂ©rard. Some just called to say how much they had enjoyed watching the videos. Others wanted to share their story. Nearly 20% of them had been so eager to watch the videos that they bought their own DVD player. Others called to ask where they could buy the drip irrigation equipment featured on one of the videos.
The six agro-input dealers who were selling the DVD were also impressed with the video on drip irrigation, and the interest it inspired in farmers. Two of these dealers actually began to stock drip irrigation supplies themselves.
As Paul has written in an earlier post, farmers who have been exposed to drip irrigation through development projects usually abandon drip irrigation once the project ends. Projects usually make little effort to involve the private sector. Yet here were dealers who were motivated enough to find out where to buy the drip irrigation equipment, and stock it, in response to interest shown by farmers who had watched a video. Sometimes simply watching a video can excite people more than participating in a full project.
I am always delighted to learn about someone using a cell phone in a new way, especially if it involves giving rural people the chance to make their voices heard. A sticker inside a DVD cover was enough to encourage buyers of a DVD to call in with comments.
Since publishing the paper, GĂ©rard has been discussing with Ministry of Agriculture staff in Benin about ways to design an advisory service via phone call.
Agro-input dealers and movie DVDs sellers, including some who were not involved in the study are now requesting new DVDs to sell.
In this story we see the phone was linked with the DVD. Both are ICTs (information and communication technologies), but the connection between the two was one of the oldest ICTs: the printed word on paper.
Zoundji, GĂ©rard C., Florent Okry, Simplice D. VodouhĂȘ, and Jeffery W. Bentley 2016 âThe Distribution of Farmer Learning Videos: Lessons from Non-Conventional Dissemination Networks in Benin.â Cogent Food & Agriculture 2(1):1277838. https://www.accessagriculture.org/publications
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Watch all nine of the vegetable videos
A lot of time and effort goes into development projects, from writing proposals and getting funds through to building partnerships, doing the work and finally evaluating it to show that youâve made a difference. Sometimes a simpler, direct approach is more effective, as my experiences with bamboo in Ethiopia have suggested.
I first learnt about the vast swathes of bamboo in Ethiopia twenty years ago. I was engaged in a pilot project to assess a largely untapped resource comprising huge natural stands and a patchwork of smaller plots dotted around peoplesâ homes. Existing uses of bamboo included conversion into charcoal, building fences and making small household items, such as baskets. The resource assessment was the first step in suggesting profitable enterprises on a much larger scale.
Each year the million hectares of Ethiopian bamboo produce new culms, as the woody, fast-maturing stems are known. There has been no shortage of ideas on what to do with this rapidly regenerating biomass. The most ambitious suggestion has been to burn bamboo and generate electricity. More modest proposals, though still requiring major investment, have included fashioning the bamboo into high quality flooring and decking for export to the North.
When I returned to Ethiopia ten years ago for a new bamboo project, I found little evidence of new enterprises or large scale industrial uses. The most striking discovery, though one that at first seemed commonplace, was the continuing operation of a workshop where people were trained to make handicrafts from bamboo. Some of the oldest ideas had been the most enduring.
During the second visit I went to talk with a small group of shopkeepers who sold bamboo furniture to the better-off denizens of Addis Ababa. These were, as far as I could see, the same shops that had been present when I made my first visit in 1997. The shops were well-stocked with chairs, beds, tables and all the other furniture that middle class families were keen to have in their homes.
The furniture sellers and the handicraft makers were all beneficiaries of a much earlier initiative, some time back in the 1980s, when Ethiopia was run by the Derg, a revolutionary committee drawn from the army and police. The Derg admired the socialist ideals of China and one of the outcomes was a visit by Chinese technicians, who introduced Ethiopian artisans to new designs for bamboo arts and crafts. The Chinese supported the establishment of a workshop in a government-supported, small enterprises institute, where people were still being trained thirty or so years later.
In 1997, the bamboo furniture makers and the craftsmen seemed unremarkable to me because at the time I thought that chairs and baskets would never generate huge amounts of income. But as roads improve, cities expand, and the Ethiopian middle class comes of age, there is now solid demand for sensible furniture. Bamboo industries benefit farm communities with small plots, who send regular truck loads to the bustling workshops of Addis Ababa.
What of the other more ambitious schemes for bamboo? A quick search of the web for current bamboo activity in Ethiopia shows USAID giving a grant of $1.75 million in 2014 to âdevelop processes to make industrial and quality bambooâ. This grant will have a detailed proposal, plan of action and agreed outcomes, all requiring regular monitoring, reporting and so on. In other words, a hefty administrative overhead will eat into the available finds.
But this recent public/private enterprise may also mean that bamboo enterprises are finally going to succeed on a big scale â though thereâs no guarantee that this will happen. Meanwhile the impact of a small gesture by China forty or more years ago to show solidarity with Ethiopia continues to reap benefits, an unexpected outcome of the otherwise tragic and violent period of Derg rule. Sometimes the most effective interventions are also the simplest.
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 cowÂŽs 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 Ăatal HĂŒyĂŒk, 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
Soils are indeed at the core of any crop production system. Without a healthy soil, crops cannot thrive. While measuring the effect of soil erosion at national and global scales is near impossible, all farmers see the difference when effective soil conservation techniques are in place.
Putting the right strategies in place to control erosion is becoming increasingly urgent as climate change is leading to rains falling more erratic and intense than before.
From the gentle rolling lands in Burkina Faso to the steep hills in northern Vietnam, I have seen the devastating effects of rainfall on poorly managed soils. On gentle slopes of even as small as five degrees, the torrential rains wash away the top soil and seal the top layer, after which no more water can penetrate the soil. To remedy this, farmers in Burkina Faso learned about making contour bunds (raised ridges every 20 meters across the field) to allow the rainwater to infiltrate. On steeper slopes, where the land is much more difficult to be ploughed by anaimals or machines, vegetation barriers or terraces are possible solutions to stop soils eroding.
Depending on the slope, type of soil, availability of labour and other resources a wide range of options are available to improve soil and water management. Networks such as WOCAT (the World Overview of Conservation Approaches and Technologies) support organisations working on the ground with farmers by making hundreds of sustainable soil and water management technologies available in an authoritative website.
While many development agencies and projects believe that encouraging smallholder farmers to use mineral fertilizers is the quickest way to solve low crop productivity, without proper soil conservation techniques farmers will see most of their money invested wash down the drain.
And many more under Sustainable Land Management
The WOCAT SLM database: https://qcat.wocat.net/en/wocat/