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Feeding the cities December 2nd, 2018 by

Last week, Jeff, Marcella and I explored the Teleférrico in La Paz, an innovative public transport system that works like a metro with stops for people to get in and out. Using Swiss and Austrian technology developed to transport alpine skiers, the cable cars are the perfect solution to move people around in the Bolivian capital that has sprawled along the steep slopes of the canyon where the city is built, and onto the Altiplano at altitudes ranging from about 3400 meters to above 4000.

La Paz sits in a deep canyon, while its twin city, called El Alto, sprawls over the plains above La Paz. The two cities, side by side, make up the highest major metropolis in the world. One of the Teleférrico lines takes us from La Paz to El Alto. I was amazed at the sheer number of people that have been attracted to the cities, perhaps two million, while El Alto was just farm land until the 1940s and may now be home to half of the population of the Altiplano.

Looking down from our cable car onto the rooftops and small courtyards, it seems that nobody is actually growing anything in El Alto. Only once we hear a cock crow. Supplying these fast growing cities with healthy food that is localy produced will be a challenge for the years to come.

Urban gardening is gaining popularity across the globe and smart innovations like the use of sack mounds to grow vegetables in people’s courtyards offer a great opportunity to make the most of limited space and limited fertile soil and organic material.

The recently released farmer training video produced in Kampala, Uganda, on growing vegetables in sack mounds is a practical example of how farmers and urban gardeners can grow tomatoes and greens in a sack, in a very small space. As countries like Bolivia and Uganda urbanize rapidly, they can learn from each other’s experience.

Through its specialised video platform and translation services, Access Agriculture strives to make this happen. As the Teleférrico moves people across places, so does Access Agriculture move farmer training videos across the globe.

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

Golden urine September 16th, 2018 by

Cities are throwing away a fortune in urine, I learned the other day while visiting Dr. Noemi Stadler-Kaulich, a German agro-forester and long-time resident of Bolivia. The urine from an average person contains $85 dollars´ worth of phosphorous in one year, Noemi explained. Urine is rich in phosphorous, nitrogen and potassium, the main elements of fertilizer (chemical or organic). A metropolitan area like Cochabamba, with 1,200,000 people, flushes away over $100 million worth every year, Naomi explained, just in the phosphorous from urine, turning the valley’s main river, the Río Rocha, into an open sewer.

Noemi has dry latrines on her farm near the town of Vinto, on the edge of the Cochabamba metropolitan area. If you have never sat a dry latrine it can take some getting used to. There is a large hole for feces and a smaller one, up front, to collect the urine, which can be used right away as fertilizer. After defecating, one walks around to the back of the latrine and adds a handful of wood ash to the deposit, which is composted once the container is full. Dried, composted human feces are an excellent, dry fertilizer with little or no smell.

I used to have a nice dry latrine in Honduras. It used no water and made little odor. But dry latrines do take a little management. At the time I was worried about pathogens and had samples from dry latrines analyzed at a laboratory in Tegucigalpa. The samples were free of the most common parasites and pathogens. Dry latrines compost the night soil for at least six months, which helps to kill pathogens. Still, this demands some competent management.

At our home in Cochabamba, we began recycling urine about a year ago. Urine is easy to collect in a jar or bottle or while sitting on a chamber pot. You can mix urine with water or apply it straight to the soil, near plants. We put most of our urine on the compost pile, where the pee helps to speed up the decomposition of paper and dry plants. Urine in a compost heap has no smell at all; perhaps in part because the nitrogen in urine quickly breaks down into ammonia.

I have not yet been able to confirm Noemi’s estimate of the value of phosphorous in urine, not to mention the potassium and nitrogen, but urine is certainly worth something as fertilizer. Recycling urine also helps to save water. Conventional toilets waste up to six liters of precious water to flush 300 ml of urine.

As it is now, modern conventional agriculture applies nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium (NPK) to crops, and (at least some of) the nutrients become part of the living plants, which are eaten by people and later discarded as human waste. No doubt in the future clever people will find other clean, convenient ways to recycle this NPK, without wasting water. In the meantime, saving urine as fertilizer is a golden opportunity.

Related video

Human urine as fertilizer

Further reading

Andersson, E. (2015). Turning waste into value: using human urine to enrich soils for sustainable food production in Uganda. Journal of Cleaner Production, 96, 290-298.

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