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Marketing something nice April 15th, 2018 by

vea la versión en español a continuación

I’ve always been impressed by the way Bolivians adapt creatively to new situations. The other day Ana and I went to a farmers’ fair in the small town of Colcapirhua, near Cochabamba. The fair was due to be held in the charming main square of the town. Paved in flagstones, closed to through traffic and with steps leading up to a small church it would have been a delightful venue. But local townspeople were already there, angrily but peacefully protesting about alleged corruption in their town council.

The protesters were there to stay, so the farmers moved their fair two blocks south, where they strung out their stands on an empty side lane along the main highway between Cochabamba and La Paz. It was less picturesque, but there were more potential customers passing by.

The farmers selling goods represented organized groups from all regions of Bolivia. The fair was actually part of the annual meeting of the National Soils Platform, which had chosen “fair trade” as its annual theme. As we moved up the line of stalls, the farmers were keen to sell us a wide range of goods that were not only high quality, but also unique, such as strawberries from the valleys of Santa Cruz, oven dried to sweet perfection.

Coffee growers from the Amazon (parts of which are cool enough for coffee) had brought little plastic bags of coffee seed. “Ready to plant!” they exclaimed, eager to encourage other farmers to start growing their own coffee. Cacao farmers from the Beni had bitter, white and milk chocolate. There was real pleasure in buying chocolate from the people who had made it from the cacao beans that they grew themselves.

There were tiny puffed grains of amaranth (ready to eat like cold cereal), fresh cherimoyas (a native fruit—but of a small, sweet variety that is now hard to find). Some farmers from Chuquisaca had a local variety of chilli that was so hot, it is called “la gran putita (the great little whore)”. We had to buy some.

There was traditional food, like an aged cow’s cheese from the warm valley of Comarapa. It tasted marvelous, but the smell of cow was not for beginners.

What struck me the most was how many of the products were new, and inventive. Things you wouldn’t find in the supermarket in Cochabamba, such as dried apples, preserved peaches still on the stone (moist and sweet but with no sugar added). Quinoa and wheat were packed in neat plastic bags, with labels, ready to make into soup.

We have said in a previous blog that smallholders with attractive products struggle to produce equally attractive labels, which by law often have to list ingredients. Here, the chocolate was wrapped in handsome paper with a printed label.

My favorite was the apple vinegar, in recycled Mexican beer bottles. The farmers had covered the beer label with a new paper one, proudly explaining that this vintage was made from just three ingredients: organic apples, raw cane sugar with no additives, and water. The bottles were neatly sealed with bright yellow bottle caps.

Most of these farmers’ associations have received support, often from their parish priest or from Church-sponsored NGOs, some with volunteers from Europe and elsewhere. Outside help in manufacturing and packaging had clearly contributed to the quality of the goods, but the farmers were self-motivated to sell their goods. Agriculture is in large measure about producing something to sell.

Although this was an event on fair trade, there was no mention of being certified as fair trade. One speaker the first day had mentioned some of the hurdles that keep smallholders from being able to qualify for fair trade certification, and this group had readily agreed with her.

This group of smallholders certainly understood one basic idea, marketing means you must have something nice to sell: attractive, high quality and well presented. Farmers across the globe deserve a fair price for their products, and smart marketing helps to achieve this.

Related blogs

Food for outlaws (on labels for homemade products)

And some stories on chocolate:

Chocolate evolution

Congo cocoa

Out of the shade

Farewell coca, hello cocoa

Related videos

Coffee: group organization

 

ALGO BONITO PARA VENDER

por Jeff Bentley, 15 de abril del 2018

Los bolivianos siempre me han impresionado con su habilidad de adaptarse creativamente a las nuevas situaciones. El otro día fui con Ana a una feria agrícola en el pueblito de Colcapirhua, cerca de Cochabamba. La feria tenía que realizarse en la linda plaza del pueblo. Enlozada, cerrada al tráfico de autos y con una capilla sobre una colina, hubiera sido un lugar encantador. Pero algunos vecinos del pueblo ya estaban allí, protestando pacíficamente pero molestos contra la supuesta corrupción de sus concejales.

La protesta no se movía, así que los agricultores trasladaron su feria dos cuadras al sur, donde colocaron sus carpas en una fila en un camino vacío al lado de la carretera principal entre Cochabamba y La Paz. El lugar no era tan pintoresco, pero sí había más compradores que pasaban a pie.

Los agricultores representaban a grupos organizados de todas las regiones de Bolivia. En realidad, la feria era parte de la reunión anual de la Plataforma Nacional de Suelos, que había escogido a “comercio justo” como su tema anual. Al caminar por los puestos, los agricultores estaban con ganas de vender una amplia gama de productos que no solamente eran de buena calidad, pero también únicos, como las frutillas (fresas) de los valles de Santa Cruz, secadas a la perfección en horno.

Caficultores de la Amazonía (partes de la cual son tan frescas que se puede cultivar café) habían traído bolsitas de semilla de café. “¡Listo para el almácigo!” exclamaron, felices de animar a otros a producir su propio café. Productores del Beni tenían chocolate amargo, blanco y con leche. Dio gusto comprar chocolate de la gente que lo hizo, a partir de granos de los cacao que ellos mismos cosecharon.

Habían pipocas de amaranto. Habían chirimoyas (un fruto nativo—pero de una dulce variedad pequeña que cuesta encontrar). Algunos de Chuquisaca tenían una variedad local de ají tan picante que le llamaban “la gran putita”. Había que comprar un poco.

También había comida tradicional, como un queso añejo de leche de vaca del valle bajo de Comarapa. El sabor era maravilloso, pero el olor a vaca no era para principiantes.

Lo que más me impresionó era que muchos de los productos eran nuevos e innovadores. Cosas que no se encuentran en el supermercado de Cochabamba, como manzanas secas, duraznos preservados con la pepa (húmedos y dulces sin azúcar agregado). Quinua y trigo en bolsas impresas con etiquetas ya estaban listos para hacer sopa.

En un blog previo hemos dicho que los campesinos luchan para hacer etiquetas dignas de sus lindos productos. Por ley las etiquetas tienen que describir los ingredientes. Por ejemplo el chocolate estaba envuelto en un papel hermoso con una etiqueta impresa.

Mi favorito era el vinagre de manzana, en botellas recicladas de cerveza mexicana. Los agricultores habían tapado la etiqueta original con una de papel, orgullosamente explicando que esta vendimia se hacía únicamente a partir de tres ingredientes: manzanas orgánicas, chancaca pura, y agua. Las botellas llevaban una tapa metálica de amarillo brillante.

La mayorĂ­a de esas asociaciones rurales han recibido apoyo, a menudo de su parroquia o de ONGs vinculados a la Iglesia, algunos con voluntarios de Europa y otros lados. La ayuda de forasteros en la manufactura y el envase sĂ­ habĂ­a contribuido a la calidad de los bienes, pero los agricultores estaban auto-motivados a vender sus productos. La agricultora en gran medida se trata de producir algo para vender.

A pesar de que el evento se trataba del comercio justo, no había mención de hacerse certificar como comercio justo. Una expositora el primer día mencionó varios de los obstáculos que previenen que los campesinos puedan certificarse, y este grupo había estado plenamente de acuerdo con ella.

Estos campesinos organizados tenĂ­an bien claro que el comercio consiste en tener algo bonito para vender: atractivo, de alta calidad y bien presentada. Las familias campesinas en todo el mundo merecen un precio justo por sus productos, y el mercadeo inteligente les ayuda a lograrlo.

Blogs relacionados

Comida contra la ley (sobre etiquetas para productos populares)

Y algunos relatos sobre el chocolate:

Chocolate evolution

Congo cocoa

Out of the shade

Farewell coca, hello cocoa

Videos relacionados

El café: constitución de agrupaciones

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The Common Stream April 8th, 2018 by

A few months ago, Eric Boa (who writes this blog with Paul and I) sent me an extraordinary little book, The Common Stream, by Rowland Parker. It’s a singularly remarkable history of Foxton, a village in Cambridgeshire, England.

It may be the most complete history of any village anywhere, which is surprising given how ordinary the village appears today. Yet Parker, who lived there for most of his adult life, used Foxton to represent changes occurring to agricultural communities over the centuries across much of England, and to some extent elsewhere.

Parker picks up his story in ancient times, when a certain Roman living in his comfortable villa near what is now Foxton, forced the native Britons to move their huts onto straight streets. This theme of rich, powerful men knowing what was best for the peasants would continue for some time.

By the fifth century the Romans had left, and the Saxons began their slow, leisurely invasion. Over two or three generations, they rowed up the rivers, stopping where they wished, and settling on the best land, where they farmed and kept what they harvested. But it was too good to last. By the 900s land was being appropriated by lords and religious orders. By 1086, 90% of Foxton’s 200 inhabitants had almost no personal possessions. Most of the land belonged to a nun, the Abbess of Chatteris, whose word was the law. The common people had no money, but lots of work. They were old by the time they were 40. The diet was coarse bread, gruel, cheese, vegetables, pease (peas and other legumes), besides boiled mutton, and boiled bacon with the occasional chicken, egg or rabbit. And lots of ale.

By 1250 two-thirds of the peasants were still virtually enslaved, but some had been freed and self-government began to emerge. The villagers elected their own officials, such as constables and “ale tasters”, a popular position that obliged the office holder to visit the homes of people who made ale and take a sip (or more) to see that the brew met the standards for proper beer.

The Black Death killed half of the people of Foxton around 1348. By 1485, perhaps in response to the enduring loss of population, or a growing sense of social injustice, the lords of the manor and the abbeys began to set their slaves (bondsmen) free. But it was only a partial freedom. Peasant farmers had to pay a large entry fee to the manor to occupy land and a house. Still, the change meant that common people had a little money to spend and by the 1500s there was a weekly market in Foxton, selling meat and butter.

Relative prosperity improved through the 1550s, when villagers rebuilt Foxton, crafting fifty houses that were so well made that by the 1970s twenty of them were still standing, including one that Rowland Parker lived in.

But rural poverty was an enduring problem. Sometimes the poor were whipped, to stir them into productive action, but that did no good. Paupers could be paid a few coins from the “poor rate,” a local tax levied on farmers. Destitute women were also employed to collect stones (for road repair) by hand from the frozen ground in the winter, by the cartload.

In one strange episode in the 1860s “coprolites” were discovered just under the topsoil in the fields surrounding Foxton. These were nuggets of phosphorous that could be sold as fertilizer. Landowners hired gangs of men “as strong as horses” to peel the earth back like a carpet, remove the coprolites, and put the soil back. It was a short-lived boon to agricultural wage workers.

By the 1880s most villages in England had a railroad station. People left farming, if not the villages, commuting to industrial wage work. This was followed by an agricultural revolution led by machinery and fertilizer. In the 1880s twenty men would harvest a wheat field with scythes, walking together in a line. By the 1970s one worker in a combine harvester would bring in the grain. Parker notes ruefully that from 1885 to 1970 crop yields quadrupled as the workforce declined dramatically. One man replaced ten. “There is now more farming done in Foxton than there ever was before and hardly any people are doing it.” Poverty was finally eliminated after the Second World War by the introduction of universal social welfare. Parker observed that people were better fed, better dressed and that all the children were going to school. Modern farming has eased drudgery and improved harvests. Life is better now than it was in the Middle Ages

Rowland Parker was Eric Boa’s French teacher at The Grammar School for Boys in nearby Cambridge. It was only some years after leaving school that Eric learned that the austere Mr. Parker had spent many of his weekends interviewing elderly villagers and translating local manuscripts from Latin and Old English.

In 2014, Tim Martin reviewed The Common Stream for The Telegraph, in a series on the A to Z of forgotten books. Martin called Parker’s book a “miniature classic of social history.” Indeed it is, and it is well worth reading.

Further reading

Parker, Rowland 1976 The Common Stream. Frogmore, St. Albans, UK: Paladin.

Related blog

Mending fences, making friends

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Mix and match April 1st, 2018 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación

This blog often features farmers creatively adapting ideas they learned from watching farmer learning videos. It should come as little surprise that agricultural extension people can also get inventive with new ways to show the videos.

In April 2017, I gave several organizations in Bolivia copies of a DVD with seven videos, each one with Quechua, Spanish and Aymara versions. Two of the videos were made with farmers in Bolivia, but the other five presented farmers from other countries.

MarĂ­a Omonte, an agronomist and the national director of the NGO World Neighbors, watched all seven of the videos. To my initial surprise, MarĂ­a also watched all of the videos in Spanish on the Access Agriculture video portal. She is a registered user and checks the portal frequently to see if any new Spanish versions of videos have been added. MarĂ­a graduated from the prestigious agricultural university in Honduras, El Zamorano, and her training and natural curiosity has made her a keen life-long learner.

MarĂ­a and her team had been working for almost three years in six rural communities in Vila Vila, in the warm, semi-arid valleys of southern Cochabamba. Last December the team introduced the idea of organic fertilizer and Bordeaux mixture, a copper-based fungicide, as well as other similar products for diseases of papaya, lemon and other crops. After seeing some practical demonstrations and receiving starter kits with the ingredients, some of the farmers tried the Bordeaux mix, but MarĂ­a felt that they needed more encouragement to keep using them.

So María decided to creatively combine two videos. She took the Quechua version of “Let’s Talk Money” from the DVD, and downloaded the Spanish version of “Turning Honey into Money”, which was not on the DVD, from the Access Agriculture video portal. She decided to use these two videos along with other information to make a unique training event for the six Quechua-speaking villages, a five-hour drive from the city of Cochabamba.

I was there last week in the community of Sik’imira at an evening meeting in the local school. The courtyard was full of high school students playing a furious game of football on the cement basketball court. María and her driver, Enrique Mancilla, set up their projector and within minutes 25 farmers, over half women, had filed in and taken their seats.

María told the group that she had a video in Quechua, but from Mali, a country in Africa. From previous screenings María had learned that three details in the video were unfamiliar to farmers, so she explained those. The video mentions millet (“a small grain”) and cowpea (“a bean”) and third, the currency in the video is called the franc.

By now the football game outside had ended, and the teenagers were playing loud, pounding music. So the video was a bit hard to hear. Still, people said they understood it, and they had no questions.

María used this as an opportunity to say: “In the video we saw farmers and their facilitator adding up costs for different practices with millet and cowpea to see which one is more practical. Would you like to do the same with one of your crops?” The farmers suggested sweetpotato.

It takes skill to walk through each step in the production of a crop and at the same time count the costs in front of an audience. Unfazed, MarĂ­a launched into the exercise in fluent Quechua. She started to struggle with the loud music still pounding next door, but eventually they turned it down enough for her to continue.

At the end, people looked at the results. “We’re not making much money,” one said. “That’s sad,” another added.

María used this as an entrée to discuss organic inputs, to improve yields, then she asked the packed room – standing room only – if they would like to watch another video. It was 10 PM, past everyone’s bed time, but to my surprise everyone agreed.

Enrique and MarĂ­a put on the video Turning honey into money. She explained that this one was made in Kenya, also in Africa. By then, the music outside had mercifully stopped. The video played beautifully. Although it was in Spanish, which few in the audience understood, MarĂ­a told me that the images in this video are so clear that everyone understood it.

As the video ends, one man shouts out “Now we have the sweet taste of honey in our mouths!” Everyone laughs. None of the Bolivian farmers comment on the skin color of the people in the videos, or their clothing. That is not an issue. María thinks that farmers are intrigued by seeing smallholders from far away.

After watching the honey video, María says that she can bring an expert beekeeper to help them get started raising bees. The farmers request a meeting on Sunday morning. María and Enrique both agree to give up their weekend to do that, delighted at a small victory.  Until now, the Sik’imira community has only ever wanted to meet at night. A Sunday morning meeting suggests that they are taking the extension program more seriously, helped by the warm response to the two videos.

A creative development professional, with access to a library of videos, can mix and match, combining a video on calculating farm costs with one on honey. Then she can add more information, to make an exciting training event that local people find relevant.

Watch the videos

Let’s talk about money is available in 30 languages, including English, Spanish and Quechua.

Turning honey into money is available in 10 languages, including Spanish and English.

Acknowledgements

Our work in Bolivia is funded by the McKnight Foundation’s CCRP (Collaborative Crop Research Program).

COMBINAR CON GRACIA

Por Jeff Bentley, primero de abril del 2018

Este blog a menudo resalta a agricultores que creativamente adaptan ideas que hayan aprendido cuando ven videos de capacitación. No nos debe sorprender que los ingenieros extensionistas también inventen nuevas maneras de mostrar videos.

En abril del 2017, en Bolivia, repartí copias de un DVD a varias organizaciones, con siete videos, cada uno en quechua, español y aymara. Dos de los videos se hicieron con campesinos en Bolivia, pero los otros cinco mostraron a agricultores de otros países.

María Omonte, una agrónoma y la directora nacional de la ONG Vecinos Mundiales, miró los siete videos. Para mi sorpresa inicial, María también miró todos los videos en español del portal de videos de Access Agriculture. Ella se registró al portal y revisa frecuentemente para ver si hay nuevas versiones en español de los videos. María se egresó de la prestigiosa universidad agrícola El Zamorano, y su formación y curiosidad natural le han ayudado a seguir aprendiendo toda la vida.

María y su equipo llevan casi tres años trabajando en seis comunidades en Vila Vila, en los valles cálidos y semi-áridos del sur de Cochabamba. En diciembre pasado el equipo introdujo la idea del fertilizante orgánico y el caldo bordelés, un fungicida en base a cobre, y otros caldos para enfermedades de papaya, limón y otros cultivos. Después de ver algunas demostraciones prácticas y recibir materiales de arranque, algunos comuneros probaron el caldo bordelés, pero María pensó que ella podría animarles más a usar los caldos.

Así que María decidió hacer uso creativo de dos videos. Tomó la versión en quechua de “Hablemos del dinero” del DVD, y del portal de Access Agriculture y bajó la versión en español de “La miel es oro,” el cual no estaba en el DVD. Ella decidió usar esos dos videos juntos con otra información para crear un taller de capacitación para esas seis comunidades de habla quechua, a cinco horas en auto de la ciudad de Cochabamba.

Yo estuve allá la semana pasada, en la comunidad de Sik’imira en un taller en el colegio local. El patio estaba lleno de estudiantes de secundaria que jugaban un partido enardecido de fulbito. María y su conductor, Enrique Mancilla, armaron su proyector y dentro de minutos unos 25 agricultores, casi la mitad mujeres, habían tomado sus asientos.

María contó al grupo que tenía un video en quechua, pero de Mali, un país en Africa. En talleres en otras comunidades María vio que unos tres detalles en el video eran extraños a los agricultores, así que se les explicó: el video menciona mijo (“un pequeño grano”) y caupí (“un frijol”) y tercero, la moneda en el video se llama el franco.

Ahora el partido de fulbito se habĂ­a terminado, y los jĂłvenes habĂ­an encendido una mĂşsica fuerte y pulsante. AsĂ­ que nos costĂł un poco escuchar el video. Aun asĂ­, la gente dijo que lo entendieron, y no tenĂ­an preguntas.

María usó esa oportunidad para decir “En el video vimos que los agricultores y su facilitador sumaban los costos de diferentes prácticas con el mijo y el caupí, para ver cuál era más rentable. ¿A ustedes les gustaría hacer lo mismo con uno de sus cultivos?” El público sugirió el camote.

Requiere de destreza hablar paso por paso de la producción de un cultivo, contar los costos delante del público. Pero María arrancó el ejercicio de una vez en quechua fluido. Empezó a frustrarse con la música tan fuerte al lado, pero después de un tiempo le bajaron el volumen un poquito y siguió adelante.

Al final, la gente miró los resultados. “No ganamos mucho dinero,” dijeron. “Es triste,” agregaron.

María usó esa observación como una entrada para hablar de los insumos orgánicos, para mejorar su producción.

Ahora había tanta gente que no había donde sentarse. María les preguntó si estaban cansados y si querían irse o si querían ver otro video. Eran las 10 PM, cuando todos normalmente están dormidos, pero querían ver otro video.

Enrique y María encendieron el video La miel es oro. Ella explicó que este se hizo en Kenia, también en Africa. Ahora por fin la música de los chicos se había terminado. El video se escuchó una maravilla. Estaba en castellano, que no todos entienden, pero como María me dijo, las imágenes en este video son tan claras que toda la gente entendió.

Al fin del video, un hombre gritó “¡Nos hemos quedado con el sabor de la miel en la boca!” todos se rieron. Ninguno de los comuneros comentó sobre la tez de la gente en los videos, ni de su ropa. Eso no les importaba. María cree que a los campesinos les intriga ver a sus colegas en países lejanos.

Después de ver el video sobre la miel, María dijo que ella podría traer a un apicultor experto para enseñarles a criar abejas. La comunidad pidió una reunión el domingo en la mañana. María y Enrique se quedaron en eso, sacrificando su fin de semana, pero felices con esa pequeña victoria, Hasta ahora la comunidad de Sik’imira solo ha querido hacer talleres de noche. El querer hacer uno el domingo en la mañana sugiere que la gente empieza a tomar este programa de extensión un poco más en seria, ayudada en parte por su cálida reacción a los dos videos.

Una creativa profesional del desarrollo, con acceso a una videoteca puede combinar diferentes títulos, usando un video sobre cómo contar costos de producción con uno sobre la miel. Luego puede agregar más información para hacer un taller ameno que es relevante para la gente local.

Vea los videos

Hablemos del dinero está disponible en 30 idiomas, incluso inglés, español y quechua.

La miel es oro está disponible en 10 idiomas, incluso español e inglés.

Agradecimiento

Nuestro trabajo en Bolivia es financiado por la CCRP (Collaborative Crop Research Program) de la FundaciĂłn McKnight.

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Robbing land from the sea March 25th, 2018 by

The low-lying Netherlands is famous for its polders, the land behind the dikes, reclaimed from the sea. Beginning about 1000 AD, people made dikes, or earthen dams, to protect communities from flooding. At first the water was simply drained through canals, but with time the land in the polders subsided, and by the 1400s water was being pumped out with windmills. Thanks to hard work, investment and some clever engineering, people still live in and farm the polders.

Much of Bangladesh is also right at sea level and densely populated. So why doesn’t Bangladesh have polders too? I wondered out-loud during a recent visit last October.

“But we do! Bangladesh has many polders,” my colleague Salahuddin retorted. He explained that there was a string of some 123 polders over much of southern Bangladesh, an area where several large rivers cut the delta into finger-like strips of lowland.

The polders were built between the 1960s and the 1980s, first by the provincial government of East Pakistan, and later by the Government of Bangladesh, after independence from Pakistan in 1971.

Each polder is ringed by a low earthen embankment (basically a dike), sometimes just two meters high and made by hand. The roughly oval-shaped polders are dozens of kilometers in circumference.

The Bangladeshi polders are drained by an ingenious network of canals, radiating like veins from the center of the polder to the edge, where the flow of water is controlled by a sluice gate in the embankment.The sluice gate is a concrete structure with metal doors that can be raised by a hand-crank to let the water out during the rainy season, and lowered during the dry season to keep out the saltwater.

Originally the wetlands of the delta region had been sparsely populated by fisher-farmers who grew low yielding rice varieties that tolerated brackish water. The polders soon became attractive places to live and settlers trickled in. The people who were born in the polders tended to stay there and so populations increased.

Some of the polders have benefited from some sort of project, and have been reasonably well managed. By 2018 the better polders are like gardens, with comfortable farm houses surrounded by shimmering green rice fields.

The polders have had their share of troubles. Sometimes one of the rivers changes course, depositing a bank of silt next to the sluice gate, so the water inside the polder cannot drain out.  Other problems are man-made. Loggers float timber down the canals, and when the logs reach the sluice gates, the workers take the easy route to the river. Instead of hoisting the logs around the sluice gate, the loggers force the timber through the delicate metal gates, twisting and denting them so they no longer open and close. Wealthy, powerful people sometimes block the drainage canals to raise fish in them. Or they string nets over the canal to catch fish. But this slows down the flow of water, allowing silt to settle and eventually block the canal. The canals are as wide as a highway, and can be just as difficult to maintain. So once the drainage canal stops working, villagers are unable to open them up again without help from outsiders.

The polders are essentially a government mega-project, which sounds at first like a recipe for disaster. But as one drives along the top of a polder embankment, the muddy river on one side and the tidy green fields and villages on the other, it is hard to ignore the fact that the government got something right.

Ironically, country that is flooded during the rainy season may be completely dry a few months later. Various initiatives are now promoting dry-season irrigation for high value crops besides rice, and the farmers in the polders are avidly buying motorized pumps. In many places the rich, black earth inside the polders is now producing two or three crops a year of rice, mung beans, mustard, watermelon and vegetables.

Such changes in the farming system are creating more wealth for the farmers in those polders that are well run. But it will take collaboration, for local government to protect the canals and embankments, for the private sector to provide farm supplies and buy the produce and especially for innovative farmers, to continue re-inventing the agriculture of this marvelous, human-made environment.

Further reading

In characteristic modesty it was some time before my friend Salahuddin told me that he had written his masters’ thesis on the polders of Bangladesh.

Salahuddin, Ahmad 1995 Operation and Maintenance of Small Scale Flood Control Projects: Case of Bangladesh Water Development Board. Master’s Thesis: Institute ofSocial Studies, The Hague.

See also Paul’s blog from last week on coastal Bangladesh: Floating vegetable gardens.

Acknowledgement

I am indebted to Md. Harun-ar-Rashid, Guy Jones and many others for enlightening me about polders on a recent trip to Bangladesh, supported by the Blue Gold Program, with funding from the Embassy of the Netherlands. Thanks to Harun-ar-Rashid, Ahmad Salauddin, Paul Van Mele and Eric Boa for reading and remarking on previous versions.

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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

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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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