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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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Private screenings February 4th, 2018 by

A recent study by Gérard Zoundji and colleagues in Benin, West Africa, has shed light on a promising way to get training videos to farmers through local shops. Zoundji worked in four vegetable-producing regions of southern Benin, where farmers were so worried about pests that they sprayed pesticides even before the bugs appeared.  Convincing such apprehensive farmers to hold the pesticides would take some serious persuasion.

Zoundji took nine videos on vegetable production from the Access Agriculture video platform (www.accessagriculture.org), including how to reduce pesticide use, and put five language versions (English, French, Fon, Yoruba and Bambara) on one DVD. Zoundji had the brilliant idea of reaching the farmers through local shops, in an attempt to overcome the limited distribution available through the extension service. In 2015 he convinced 13 owners of small shops (mostly farm supply stores and movie DVD vendors) to stock copies of his DVD, titled Improving Vegetable Production. From August to December, the shopkeepers sold the DVDs to customers for up to $4. Starting in June, 2016, Zoundji tracked down 120 vegetable farmers who had bought the DVD, received it as a gift from friends or family, or watched it with their neighbors. He visited the farmers’ fields to learn more about what had happened after watching the videos.

Most of the video-watching farmers were young, with an average age of 28. Youth are drawn to vegetable production, which can be profitable on a small piece of land, and to videos, complete with music and a compelling narration. A third of the farmers were women. Almost half had no formal schooling, but the videos require no reading.

Zoundji found that only a third of his farmers regularly received extension visits, while twice as many got information from agro-dealers. All the farmers shared information through their own informal networks.

Zoundji’s collaborating shopkeepers sold 669 DVDs. I was surprised that only 58% of the DVDs went to farmers. Government officials, students, their parents and extension workers bought the rest. Such folks often grow their own gardens, or they have links to vegetable-growers.

After watching the videos, farmers realized that they had been over-using pesticides. Aristide, a vegetable farmer, from Abomey-Calavi said:

Before the video training, I used to manage nematodes, pests and other diseases by using any agrochemicals I could get hold of. I just needed to see insects and pests in the field to unleash a treatment. But after watching the video, I realized how wasteful and harmful I have been.

Farmers had been applying pesticides up to seven times during each season, but after watching the videos, 86% said that they had reduced pesticide use. Mr. David, a farmer at Sèmé-Podji, said:

To grow tomatoes on a 400 square meter plot, I often used for example 1 kg or 1.5 kg of fungicide, one to two litres of insecticide, 2 kg of nematicide and about 30 kg of NPK (fertilizer), but since September 2015 I started applying the knowledge from the videos. I’m progressively reducing the chemicals … and the tomato yield is still the same as before videos, but now they keep longer than before (I watched the) videos. This is the third time I’ve harvested.

Some farmers reported that although they had heard about alternatives to pesticides from extension agents they remained unconvinced until they saw the videos. The videos show farmers from Benin and other countries using the recommended alternatives, making a novel idea seem much more practical. A farmer on a video can be more convincing than a conversation in real life. “Videos stimulate learning and facilitate more experimentation for change than face-to-face extension carried out by an extension worker,” Zoundji writes.

It wasn’t only crop protection practices that were improved. Crop rotation, compost, and nets to keep insects out of vegetables were widely adopted as alternatives to agrochemicals.

There were further changes that took place in the shop owners selling the DVDs. One third of the agrodealers began to stock the equipment for setting up drip irrigation. This was astounding, an unexpected consequence of Zoundji’s original idea. Changing business practices matters because in previous experiences with drip irrigation, farmers have been dependent on projects to buy the necessary equipment. (See Paul’s earlier story, To drip or not to drip). Now, after watching the videos, farmers were investing in drip irrigation equipment and asking agrodealers to stock items they needed, such as hoses, nozzles and tanks. Other farmers were making their own kits.

Family farmers are used to shopping at family-owned businesses. It may not be necessary to have a project just to share information with farmers. Small shops may be just the place to sell videos with useful ideas that farmers can use.

Further reading

Zoundji, Gérard C., Florent Okry, Simplice D. Vodouhê & Jeffery W. Bentley 2018 “Towards Sustainable Vegetable Growing with Farmer Learning Videos in Benin.” International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability. Read it here.

Watch all nine of the vegetable videos (in English, French and other languages)

Managing nematodes in vegetables

Making a chilli seedbed

Insect nets in seedbeds

Transplanting chillies

Drying and storing chillies

Making chilli powder

Drip irrigation for tomato

Reviving soils with mucuna

Managing soil fertility

Videos in the languages of Benin

Access Agriculture hosts videos in several of the languages spoken in Benin, including:

French, Adja, Bariba, Berba, Dendi, Ditammari, Fon, Gourmantche, Hausa, Ife, Idaatcha, Mina, Nago, Peulh (Fulfuldé), Yoruba and Zarma

Photo credit

Photos are by G. Zoundji.

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Malawi calling January 21st, 2018 by

Written with Ronald Kondwani Udedi

I was at home in Bolivia when I got a surprise call from southern Africa. “I’m a chilli farmer in Malawi; you’ve been to my house,” said the confident voice on the other end, before the caller ran out of credit and the faint, crackling connection was suddenly cut off.

But the caller, Lester Mpinda, was not easily discouraged. In the time it takes to walk to the village shop and buy a scratch card, he was back on the phone. “I’ve made a lot of profit from chilli,” he said. Then the call was cut off again.

I remembered Mr. Mpinda well. Malawian media expert Ronald Udedi and I had visited Mr.Mpinda’s garden in September of 2016, in Mwanza, southern Malawi, where he showed us how he had started growing local chillies from seed he bought in the market after watching the videos on a DVD. I wanted to learn more, but the phone connection was too poor to chat. Instead, I contacted my friend Ronald on social media and asked him to find out more.

Ronald filled me in on the rest of Mr. Mpinda’s story. Shortly after our visit to his farm in 2016, Ronald and I made a short video on Mr. Mpinda. Access Agriculture then invited Mr. Mpinda to share his story at a meeting with partner organizations in Lilongwe, the capital city of Malawi. I couldn’t attend, but I was a little apprehensive about the outcome, thinking that the event might distract Mr. Mpinda from his everyday work on the farm. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

At the meeting, Mr. Mpinda met Mr. Dyborn Chibonga, then the head of Nasfam (National Smallholder Farmers’ Association). Mr. Chibonga put Mr. Mpinda in touch with the nearest Nasfam extension agent in Mulanje, who later visited the farm and gave Mr. Mpinda some seed of bird’s eye chilli, the variety used to make tabasco-style hot sauce. The slender red bottles of hot sauce are a common sight on Malawian tables and the dried chilli is exported to food-makers in Europe and elsewhere.

Chilli seed is really small, and a little bit goes a long way, so Mr. Mpinda decided to share his generous gift from Nasfam with his neighbors. Mr. Mpinda started a chilli club with 12 members, of whom eight were women. He showed the club members how to plant the chilli, gave them seed, and once or twice a week he invited the club to his home to show them the chilli videos in Chichewa, the local language. Each member learned more about growing and drying this crop, which was entirely new to them. The club members created a chilli demonstration garden, where they tried out what they saw in the videos.

When the club had a stock of dried chillies, they phoned the Nasfam extension agent, who came from Mulanje, where Nasfam has a factory for making hot sauce. The agent bought 160 kilos of chilli from the individual club members, paying 2,500 Kwacha ($3.50) per kilogram, twice the price of tobacco which is number one export crop. The Nasfam agent left more seed.

Other friends and neighbors who heard of this success asked to join the club. Mr. Mpinda graciously welcomed them and now there are 80 members growing chilli and learning about the crop from the videos.

As Ronald puts it, “the most important thing (that started this new enterprise) was the DVD with the chilli videos. Mr. Mpinda and his friends watched it to learn about everything, from taking care of the nursery beds to transplanting and harvesting.” The videos meant that farmer didn’t have to rely on visits from extension agents, whose time and travel budgets are limited.

For many years only one company, NALI, made hot sauce in Malawi, but now there are over 10. Malawi is now enjoying a kind of chilli boom.  Mr. Mpinda’s story shows that smallholders can independently identify and respond to market openings. Peasant farmers are always open to new opportunities and eager to try useful innovations. I have no idea how long the chilli boom in Malawi will last, but agriculture will never go out of style. As long as smallholders have buyers, seed and good information, they will be able to market quality produce.

Related blog stories

A hot plan

New crops for Mr. Mpinda

Winning the peace, with chilli and videos

Related videos

Hear Mr. Mpinda tell, in his own words, how he became a chilli farmer. Watch Ronald Udedi’s video

Videos on chilli

Watch the videos on how to grow and process chilli here

Videos in the languages of Malawi

All the videos hosted on www.accessagriculture.org are in English and at least one other language, including the following languages spoken in Malawi:

36 videos in Chichewa

7 videos in Tumbuka

13 videos in Yao

13 videos in Sena

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Fishing changes November 12th, 2017 by

Two million years ago in East Africa, long before humans lived on any other continent, our ancestors followed the receding shorelines of shallow ponds and lakes, during each annual dry season, scooping up the stranded catfish and eels. People have eaten fish ever since, and fishing may have shaped humans more than big game hunting.

From Rome to China, early civilizations would have been impossible without fish, as renowned archaeologist Brian Fagan tells us in a new book, Fishing. Mesopotamians could always rely on fish, even when the flooding Tigris and Euphrates failed to water the crops. When the Nile flooded, it covered the land in fish, as well as water. The pyramids of Egypt were built by laborers fed on rations of beer, bread and dried catfish, caught every year in the shallow, receding flood waters of the Nile.

Ancient sailors in small boats could not carry enough provisions for long voyages. The mariners would never have been able to explore the Indian Ocean and create the trade routes that linked Europe and Asia, without settled communities of fisherfolk, who caught and dried fish to sell or trade.

Fishing would have been impossible without local knowledge. The Tahitians sailed sophisticated, deep-sea canoes to catch large, predatory fish. The big fish and the sea birds both followed dense schools of smaller fish. The Tahitians recognized that the big fish followed the birds to find the small fish. Fishers scanned the horizon for birds, and could tell by the species flying over the water what type of fish to expect there.

Commercial fishing began with herring in the North Sea in the 1300s. Dutch and Flemish crews caught the fish from deep-water wooden ships called busses, which required a large crew and started the season every year on the night of St. John, 24 June. The fish were salted, packed into standard-sized barrels, branded with the seals of the merchants who sold them, and traded all over Europe until 1810. By then the herring were becoming scarce, and salted cod from the Atlantic had captured the market. While there is still fishing in the North Sea, before the 1800s the herring were so abundant they were compared to ants.

As waters were fished out, fishers sailed farther and farther from home. The English were fishing off the shores of Iceland in 1420 and off the banks of Newfoundland in 1600. By about 1880, new technologies such as steam trawlers extended the reach of commercial fishing to deep ocean water. But some modern techniques are devastating, such as the large nets that drag the bottom, destroying the places where the fish spawn.

Many countries have reacted to over-fishing by creating 200-mile exclusion zones and limiting catches. The Canadian government closed the cod fishery in 1992 when stocks hit 1% of their peak. Thanks to the ban, the cod have since partially recovered.

Although subsistence fishing is ancient, it has never destroyed the fishery it depended upon. Salmon and sturgeon once swam up the Danube River to spawn. Communities of fishers had survived for thousands of years at the Iron Gates (on the Danube between Serbia and Romania), until nineteenth century pollution, dam-building and over-fishing destroyed the stocks.

But waters far from home, as in the Antarctic, are uncontrolled and fished recklessly, as though there were no tomorrow. Commercial fishing is now in a slow decline, while artisanal and subsistence fishing are both on the rise. Fish farming is increasing rapidly. By 2012, for the first time in history, more fish were farmed than caught wild.

I saw a glimpse of artisanal, peasant fishing recently in Bangladesh, where many villages have fields interspersed with fish ponds. Farmers throw nets and use various other techniques, bringing home one small bag of fish at a time for the supper pot.

On one especially rainy day, the ponds were over-flowing, and some people were setting up long, gently tapering nets over the drainage ditches, to catch any fish that may have escaped from the ponds. No fish was going to be wasted.

Subsistence fishers are often smallholder farmers. Fishing and farming combine easily. If fishing fed civilization, as Fagan explains, it is the smallholders who will keep fishing alive into the future. The fish ponds in Bangladesh are highly commercial, run by knowledgeable farmers. With the increasing demand for proteins, fish species will continue to feed humanity only with a good balance between open sea fishing that respects quotas (based on science and policy) and fish farming that will require stringent food safety measures, such as guarding against the abuse of antibiotics.

Further reading

Fagan, Brian 2017 Fishing: How the Sea Fed Civilization. New Have: Yale University Press. 346 pp.

Related blog stories

Cake for fish? hold the coconut, please

Fishing on a hill

Further viewing

Food for fish

Stocking fingerlings in a nursery pond

Preparing low-cost concentrate feed

Growing azolla for feed

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Tomatoes good enough to eat November 5th, 2017 by

I was astounded years ago to learn that many farmers in Bangladesh had two completely different ways to grow vegetables. As my friend and colleague Harun-ar-Rashid told me, farmers sprayed pesticides as often as every other day on their commercial vegetables, yet grew a pesticide-free crop to eat with their families.

It’s not that I doubted Harun’s story. He’s a careful observer and an experienced Bangladeshi agricultural scientist, but I wanted to find out more about this odd contradiction. How could farmers simply do without pesticides on crops that usually required a lot of spraying? Harun’s explanation was that the farmers were worried about eating vegetables tainted with dangerous chemicals. But that assumed that there were viable alternatives to the intense use of pesticides.

Recently I got to see for myself how this double standard works. I was tagging along with some of my mature students, who were writing a video script on tomato late blight, the same vicious disease that also destroys potato crops. We were visiting family farmers who grew commercial vegetables in the village of Sordarpur, in the southwest of Bangladesh, near Jessore. The farmers had received a lot of training from extensionists and had thoughtfully blended the new information with their own experience.

On their commercial fields, as soon as the farmers see late blight symptoms on tomato, they begin spraying with fungicides. The growers monitor the tomato crop constantly and spray often, especially when foggy days are followed by sun, which is perfect weather for late blight.

Farmers go to their commercial fields every day to check their tomatoes and prune diseased leaves with scissors. Then they clean the scissors with disinfectant, to avoid spreading disease from plant to plant. Farmers can hire labor to do this in their commercial fields. They say that because of the fungicides, there are few diseased leaves in the commercial fields. The diseased leaves are collected in a bag or bucket to keep them from spreading disease to the healthy plants.

The farmers did confirm that they grow tomatoes differently in their small home gardens, where they grow around 10 plants and uproot the ones that get diseased instead of spraying them. The farmers said that about eight plants usually survive, enough to feed the family.

The farmers in Sordarpur graft their home garden tomatoes onto eggplant rootstock. Partly this gives the tomatoes a stronger stem, but the farmers also think that grafting protects the tomatoes from disease, although they are not sure why. (Grafting can provide disease-resistant rootstock for a disease like late blight which is transmitted in the soil and through the air).

Insect pests can also be a problem. In the home gardens, farmers control insect pests (such as aphids and fruit flies) by hanging up plastic pots painted yellow and coated with engine oil. The fruit flies are attracted to the color yellow and get stuck in the oil. The farmers are also starting to use sex pheromone traps, trying out this new practice mostly in the home gardens.

They make organic pesticides with mustard seed oil, which is used only or mainly in the home gardens. Store-bought chemical insecticides are used in the commercial fields.

Related blog

Read about the farmers in Abdulpur who sell seedlings to the folks in Sordarpur Specializing in seedlings.

For more on pheromone traps see The best knowledge is local and scientific.

Further reading

Lee, Jung-Myung 1994 “Cultivation of Grafted Vegetables I. Current Status, Grafting Methods, and Benefits.” Hortscience 29(4): 235-239.

Further viewing

Watch training videos on fruit flies and integrated pest management


Thanks to Abu Sharif Md. Mahbub-E-Kibria “Kibria” at the Christian Commission for Development in Bangladesh, and to Nazrin Alam (Practical Action Bangladeshesh) and Rakesh Khadka (Practical Action Nepal), for letting me go with them to Sordarpur. Kibria was kind enough to make valuable comments on two earlier versions of this story.

The photo of the pheromone trap is courtesy of Md. Mizanur Rahaman, Practical Action Bangladesh.

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