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A common ground March 8th, 2020 by

Farmers need new ideas, and researchers need data. When these two professional groups meet in the framework of collaborative or participatory research, it is often not clear who has to evolve in what direction: do farmers need to learn about research protocols, systematically collecting and analysing data, or do researchers need new ideas from farmers to guide their research agenda?

When grantees of the McKnight Foundation from West Africa recently met in Montpellier, France, at a Community of Practice (COP) meeting to share experiences, it was refreshing to see how this network has over time taken ownership of some key values on doing research with farmers on agroecology, as a way to move towards a more just and equitable food system with care for the people and the planet.

Out of the more than 60 people from farmer organisations, NGOs, research institutes and universities from Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger, I was glad to run into some old friends. Ali Maman Aminou is a farmer and director of the federation of farmer unions in Maradi (FUMA Gaskiya), one of the main farmer organisations in Niger.

In 2011, Aminou was one of the twelve people we trained during a 2-week intensive workshop on making quality farmer-to-farmer training videos. Ever since, Aminou has been using video in his interactions with the growing number of members, now some 18,000. The series of 10 videos on integrated striga and soil fertility management that were developed with ICRISAT and its partners were all translated into Hausa, which made it an ideal tool to trigger lively discussions with farming communities. Striga is a parasitic weed that attaches its roots to the roots of cereal crops, as such depriving the crop from the water and nutrients it needs.

“During one of the evenings that we showed the videos,” Aminou says, “one of the farmers spoke out and told he liked the videos, but that they had another technology to fight striga that was also efficient.” Aminou listened intently as the man went on to explain that farmers mix their millet seed with the powdery substance found around the seeds of the néré, a common tree across West Africa. When farmers sow millet, the néré powder apparently inhibits the striga seeds in the soil from germinating.

“This is amazing,” I told Aminou. “It would be great if you could turn this into a training video.” At that stage, it became apparent how much farmers and researchers had already begun to interact as equal players. Aminou swiftly turned to Salifou Nouhou Jangorzo, a lecturer from the University of Maradi in Niger, who had joined our discussion and said: “We need to find out more about this practice. We need all the details of how farmers do this.” Professor Salifou looked surprised at first; he had never heard of this practice before, but after 5 minutes of discussing with Aminou he was convinced. It turns out that he is planning a survey on a labour-saving weeding technology and so he decided on the spot that he would add some questions about managing striga with néré to his survey.

Farmer-to-farmer training videos, like the ones in the striga series, trigger farmers to experiment with new ideas. They also give farmers confidence to openly share their real-life experiences, knowledge and practices. Through a functional network these ideas can find their way back to researchers. In a progressive and collaborative research network, communication is not an end-product in itself, as Aminou has shown, but it feeds into a life of learning to make agriculture more resilient, profitable and responsive to farmers’ needs.

Finding a common ground between researchers and farmers does not happen overnight, it needs a concerted and long-term effort.

Note

The scientific name of the néré tree is Parkia biglobosa, also known as the African locust bean.

Acknowledgement

We greatly appreciate the endeavours and commitment of the Collaborative Crop Research Programme (CCRP) supported by the McKnight Foundation.

Farmer training videos

The videos on striga and on more than 200 other topics are freely downloadable from the Access Agriculture video platform www.accessagriculture.org

Related blogs

Social innovations triggered by videos: Evidence from Mali

Fighting striga and improving soil fertility with videos in Mali

Killing the vampire flower

Version française

Un terrain d’entente

Les agriculteurs ont besoin de nouvelles idĂ©es et les chercheurs ont besoin de donnĂ©es. Lorsque ces deux groupes professionnels se rencontrent dans le cadre d’une recherche collaborative ou participative, il est souvent difficile de savoir qui doit Ă©voluer dans quelle direction : les agriculteurs ont-ils besoin de connaĂ®tre les protocoles de recherche, de collecter et d’analyser systĂ©matiquement les donnĂ©es, ou les chercheurs ont-ils besoin de nouvelles idĂ©es de la part des agriculteurs pour orienter leur programme de recherche ?

Lorsque les projets financĂ©s par la Fondation McKnight en Afrique de l’Ouest se sont rĂ©cemment rencontrĂ©s Ă  Montpellier, en France, lors de la rĂ©union de comitĂ© de pratique (CoP) pour un Ă©change d’expĂ©riences, il Ă©tait intĂ©ressant de voir comment ce rĂ©seau s’est appropriĂ©, au fil du temps, certaines valeurs clĂ©s sur la recherche avec les agriculteurs en matière d’agroĂ©cologie comme moyen d’Ă©voluer vers un système alimentaire plus juste et plus Ă©quitable, soucieux des populations et de la planète.

Sur plus de 60 personnes issues d’organisations de producteurs, d’ONG, d’instituts de recherche et d’universitĂ©s du Mali, du Burkina Faso et du Niger, j’ai Ă©tĂ© heureux de rencontrer de vieux amis. Ali Maman Aminou est agriculteur et directeur de la fĂ©dĂ©ration des unions de producteurs de Maradi (FUMA Gaskiya), l’une des principales organisations paysannes du Niger.

En 2011, Aminou Ă©tait parmi les douze personnes que nous avons formĂ©es lors d’un atelier intensif de deux semaines sur la rĂ©alisation de vidĂ©os de formation de qualitĂ© paysan Ă  paysan. Depuis, Aminou utilise les vidĂ©os dans ses interactions avec le nombre croissant de membres de l’organisation, qui s’Ă©lève aujourd’hui Ă  environ 18 000 personnes. La sĂ©rie de 10 vidĂ©os sur la gestion intĂ©grĂ©e du striga et de la fertilitĂ© des sols, dĂ©veloppĂ©e avec l’ICRISAT et ses partenaires, a Ă©tĂ© traduite en Haoussa, ce qui rend l’outil idĂ©al pour susciter de vives discussions avec les communautĂ©s agricoles. Le striga est une mauvaise herbe parasite qui attache ses racines aux racines des cultures cĂ©rĂ©alières, privant ainsi la culture de l’eau et des nutriments dont elle a besoin.

“Lors d’une soirĂ©e oĂą nous avons montrĂ© les vidĂ©os”, raconte Aminou, “un des agriculteurs a pris la parole et a dit qu’il aimait les vidĂ©os, mais qu’ils avaient une autre technologie pour lutter contre le striga qui Ă©tait aussi efficace”. Aminou a Ă©coutĂ© attentivement comment les agriculteurs mĂ©langent leurs graines de millet avec la substance poudreuse qui se trouve autour des graines du nĂ©rĂ©, un arbre commun dans toute l’Afrique de l’Ouest. Lorsque les agriculteurs sèment du millet, la poudre de nĂ©rĂ© empĂŞche apparemment la germination des graines de striga dans le sol.

“C’est incroyable”, ai-je dit Ă  Aminou. “Ce serait gĂ©nial si vous pouviez en faire une vidĂ©o de formation.” Ă€ ce stade, il est apparu clairement que les agriculteurs et les chercheurs avaient dĂ©jĂ  commencĂ© Ă  interagir en tant qu’acteurs Ă©gaux. Aminou s’Ă©tait rapidement tournĂ© vers Salifou Nouhou Jangorzo, un professeur de l’UniversitĂ© de Maradi au Niger, qui s’Ă©tait joint Ă  notre discussion et a dĂ©clarĂ© “Nous devons en savoir plus sur cette pratique. Nous avons besoin de tous les dĂ©tails sur la façon dont les agriculteurs font cela “. Le professeur Salifou a d’abord eu l’air surpris ; il n’avait jamais entendu parler de cette pratique auparavant, mais après 5 minutes de discussion avec Aminou, il Ă©tait convaincu. Il s’avère qu’il prĂ©voit d’effectuer une enquĂŞte sur une technologie de dĂ©sherbage permettant d’Ă©conomiser la main-d’Ĺ“uvre et il a donc dĂ©cidĂ© sur-le-champ d’ajouter Ă  son enquĂŞte quelques questions sur la gestion de la striga avec la poudre de nĂ©rĂ©.

Les vidĂ©os de formation paysan Ă  paysan, comme celles de la sĂ©rie sur le striga, incitent les agriculteurs Ă  expĂ©rimenter de nouvelles idĂ©es. Elles donnent Ă©galement aux agriculteurs la confiance nĂ©cessaire pour partager ouvertement leurs expĂ©riences, leurs connaissances et leurs pratiques rĂ©elles de la vie. Grâce Ă  un rĂ©seau fonctionnel, ces idĂ©es peuvent ĂŞtre transmises aux chercheurs. Dans un rĂ©seau de recherche progressive et collaborative, la communication n’est pas un produit final en soi, comme l’a montrĂ© Aminou, mais elle alimente une vie d’apprentissage pour rendre l’agriculture plus rĂ©sistante, plus rentable et plus sensible aux besoins des agriculteurs.

Trouver un terrain d’entente entre chercheurs et agriculteurs ne se fait pas du jour au lendemain, il faut un effort concertĂ© et Ă  long terme.

Note :

Le nom scientifique du néré est Parkia biglobosa, également connu sous le nom de caroubier Africain.

Remerciements

Nous apprĂ©cions grandement les efforts et l’engagement du Programme de recherche collaborative sur les cultures (CCRP) soutenu par la Fondation McKnight.

Vidéos de formation des agriculteurs

Les vidéos sur le striga et sur plus de 200 autres sujets sont téléchargeables gratuitement sur la plateforme vidéo Access Agriculture www.accessagriculture.org/fr

A history worth its salt February 9th, 2020 by

Mark Kurlansky’s well-written and inspiring book Salt: A World History, shows how crucial salt has been throughout our history.

Salt was at the very core of Chinese, Mayan and Roman civilization, as it was a key source of revenue for the State. Some ancient civilizations were conquered by destroying the opponent’s access to salt. An army without salt was almost as easily conquered as one without weapons.  A soldier’s daily ration often contained dried and salted meat. Horses would come to a standstill if they lacked a regular intake of salt.

Marco Polo’s economic intelligence was important in part because of his ideas about salt. The son of an established trader in Venice, Marco Polo travelled to China in the 13th century A.D. to establish trade relations. When he returned to Venice after a second, 20-year long visit to China, Marco Polo brought back knowledge of how a salt administration can fill the treasury and that a state can make more profit from trading salt than from producing it. Venice was able to dominate Mediterranean commerce after 1380, thanks to their salt trade, along with their smaller vessels that were more easily converted into war ships than the larger, less versatile Genoese ships. Venetian power lasted for about a century, until the Genoese Christopher Columbus and the Portuguese Vasco da Gama opened the Atlantic Ocean as the main body of water for trade, by-passing the Mediterranean. While Vasco da Gama sailed around Africa to India to avoid the Mediterranean, Columbus tried to beat him by going straight west, where the Americas blocked his route to India, but eventually led to new salt works in the Caribbean.

Having understood the political importance of salt, the British colonial power also adopted a salt administration. In 1600, Queen Elisabeth I granted the East India Company powers almost equal to those of a state: The East India Company was allowed to mint its own money, govern its employees, raise an army and navy, and declare war against rivals. To keep India under control, one of the first things the East India Company aimed for was to neutralise local structures of salt production and marketing.

Centuries later, Mahatma Gandhi broke the British monopoly on salt by encouraging the Indian people to take up local salt production again, usually by evaporating seawater near the coast, eventually leading to Indian independence in 1947.

But salt making soon slipped away from craft producers. Nowadays, salt in India, as in most other countries, is in the hands of a few powerful companies. As an irony of history, British Salt, a company established in 1969 in the U.K. has since 2011 been taken over by Tata Chemicals Europe, which is part of the Tata Group, an Indian multinational holding company.

The six leading salt producers in the world, Australia, Canada, China, Germany, Pakistan and the United States, account for more than half of the worldwide production. In all six countries, apart from China, salt is in the hands of large corporations.

Currently, China Salt is a state-owned enterprise that has a national monopoly over the management and production of edible salt, employing some 50,000 people and controlling assets worth about 7 billion Euro. According the law, salt cannot be sold across different regions, and private citizens are banned from selling their own manufactured salt. 

Just as large corporations have taken over much of the global production of food, agro-chemicals and seed, oligarchies have also dominated the salt supply. It is unlikely that revenues generated from the sales of salt and minerals still benefit states and the well-being of its citizens. Large corporations after all are known for finding clever ways to evade taxes.

Today much of our commercial salt comes from deep, mechanized mines. Salt has become so cheap that we routinely add it to animal feeds, and leave salt blocks for the livestock to lick at their leisure. Salt is now so abundant that we have to be cautioned that eating too much of it is bad for our heart. But it was not always so. Kurlansky invites us to imagine a world, not long ago, when salt was one of the most expensive foods that people bought. While the price of salt has dropped tremendously, the sheer volume of global consumption still makes it a powerful commodity.

Suggested reading

Mark Kurlansky (2002) Salt:A World History. Penguin Books, pp. 484

Related blogs

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The magic lantern January 12th, 2020 by

While listening to a recent broadcast on Belgium’s Radio 1 about the magic lantern and the “lanternists” who entertained paying audiences, I realised that some developments we think off as highly innovative may also be seen as a modification of something that existed hundreds of years ago. 

The magic lantern projected images on hand-painted glass slides using a lens with a light source, like a candle flame or oil lamp. The magic lantern was a great success from the 17th to the 19th century, after which it was replaced by cinema and only used by missionaries who used the most up-to-date lanterns and lenses to sway large audiences of up to 700 people.

Most historians credit the Dutch physicist Christiaan Huygens with the magic lantern’s invention in 1659 because he replaced images etched on mirrors from earlier devices, such as one called Kircher’s lantern, with images painted on glass. This allowed the use of colour and double-layered slide projections to simulate movement, which made for spectacular, detailed and entertaining magic lantern shows.

According to legend, the 17th century Jesuit priest, Kircher, came up with an inventive use of the lantern to convince his sceptical followers. On the glass of his lantern he had painted a realistic image of death, which he projected in the evening on simple farmhouses. The next Sunday morning his church was packed with standing room only. As Kircher was aware that some of his predecessors had been charged with sorcery for using projected images, seen as “the workings of the devil”, Kircher was clever enough to demystify the show by explaining that it involved reflection and optics, not magic.

The magic lantern was not invented by any one individual, but very much came from several minds applied to new and different, ever-evolving ways of creating images to project on screens. Some magic lantern shows were quite sophisticated, using multiple lanterns or several lenses to improve magnification and clarity, or to dissolve one scene into another.

At first, the “lanternist,” as the projectionist was known, simply used a plain cotton or canvas sheet, or even just a wall, but the emergence of luminous painted glass slides – with their bright colours and detailed images – also spurred developments in screen technology. Cinema was born in the 1890s, and in the 1930s plastics started to replace cloth screens. Later, various coatings were used that gave the cinema its nickname, “the silver screen”.

The silver screen may have wiped out the magic lanterns, but other devices were used over the twentieth century for education and entertainment. Small projectors with 8 mm film were used in schools and for “home movies.” Academic talks were often illustrated with overhead projectors and slides, while the DVD player and the projector that could be attached to the laptop brought videos to much wider audiences. In the 2000s, the Digisoft smart projector was the latest device for sharing sights and sounds with audiences of up to 200 people.

The “lanternist” earned money from organising shows, travelling from place to place with the projector in a box carried on his back. The concept of these early mobile screening entrepreneurs has recently been re-introduced by Access Agriculture, an international organisation that supports ecological farming in developing countries through farmer training videos (see the full video library at: www.accessagriculture.org).

While centuries ago, lanternists were adults, Access Agriculture has established a network of young, ICT-savvy, entrepreneurs who make a business from screening training videos to rural communities. Lanternists travelled from village to village with a small collection of glass slides. Today’s young entrepreneurs are equipped with a Digisoft smart projector, a foldable solar panel and a library of more than 200 videos, each one in multiple languages. The whole kit is small enough to take on a motorcycle, but casts an image large and sharp enough for a whole village. Being able to screen videos on demand, these young people bring entertainment and education to remote areas where there is no electricity or internet.

Like the old lanternists, the youth with their smart projectors are using the best technology of their day, but sharing down-to-earth ideas that family farmers need for a changing world.

Watch a young entrepreneur show videos in rural Africa

On the road with the smart projector in Uganda

Related blogs

Private screenings

Village movies in Malawi

Watching videos without smartphones

Families, land and videos in northern Uganda

Mix and match

Videos that speak to Andean farmers

Videos for added inspiration

Inspiration from Bangladesh to Bolivia

The wolf comes calling December 8th, 2019 by

After moving to a Flemish farm village two years ago, we settled three sheep into the small pasture by our house to keep the grass short under our newly planted fruit and nut trees. The sheep weren’t pets, but they would come to meet us when we took them the kitchen waste or gave them a handful of acorns. So imagine my shock when I found one killed by a wolf last week.

In the thin blueish winter light, I saw our sheep in a pool of blood, its belly opened, intestines oozing out and half of its ribs eaten. Around the sheep I could see a circle of around 3 meters diameter where the frozen morning dew had disappeared. A little overwhelmed by emotions I woke up Marcella. We had heard a wolf had been spotted some 10 kilometres away, but there are so many fields with sheep, that I found it hard to believe it had come all the way to our house, just to kill our sheep. Perhaps it was a renegade dog, I wondered. But whatever had killed the sheep must have been really strong, I thought, as it has dragged the poor animal around while finishing it off.

Marcella quickly found out on the internet what to do when one believes one has been the victim of a wolf. This top predator had arrived in Flanders just a few years ago, and as a protected species, government had quickly established various services, including an information platform. In less than two hours, two government officials from the Nature and Forestry Agency arrived. As with crop pests, when one can only see the damage and the causal agent is no longer present, one needs to rely on knowledge and diagnostic tools.

The two men looked at the bite in the neck of the dead sheep, and took DNA samples to confirm that it was killed by a wolf. We have a solid fence 1.30 meters high around the pasture. One of the men went around and quickly found 4 places where the animal had tried to dig an entry under the fence. Obviously with the night frost the soil was hard, but the wolf had managed to dig at least one place to get in. “We need to confirm with a DNA test,” one of the men said, but in all our cases we have never seen a wolf jump over a fence. If it had managed to make a bigger entry, it would have bitten the spine of the sheep in half, and taken the hind part to a quiet place in the forest, to eat it without the risk of being disturbed.”

As the men shared their knowledge of the wolf’s behaviour, my first emotions of unbelief and sadness over the loss of our favourite of the 3 sheep, gradually mixed with a certain level of admiration for this clever top predator. Wild pigs are a main problem for farmers and hunters fail to keep their population down. “Wolves prey on wildlife, but to catch wild pigs wolves need to be in a pack. As there is now just one wolf in Flanders, sheep are an easy prey,” the official continued.

Wolves were exterminated from most of Europe in early modern times, but they have recently been making a comeback. When visiting a wolf exhibition in a nearby nature centre, we learned that in Europe (mainly Eastern Europe, including Poland) there are currently an estimated 12,000 wolves. Some are starting to make their way back to the more populated part of Western Europe.

In tropical countries, farmers who live near wildlife refuges sometimes complain about elephants eating their banana plants, and similar problems. Such conflicts now start to play out in Western Europe as well.

This wolf issue is highly controversial. Conservationists point out that humans have driven wild animals to the edge of extinction, and it is only right to provide habitat for them. On the other hand, farmers say that wild predators are a risk to livestock.

I don’t pretend to have a solution to this potential conflict, but since this is Belgium, our government has quickly come up with a range of measures. Farmers and even people like us who have just a few sheep, can get 80% subsidies to make their fences wolf-proof. Also, a financial compensation scheme for sheep killed has been put in place.

At the same time, nature conservation organisations are trying their best to change public opinion in favour of the wolf through exhibitions, radio and TV talks, and so on.

The wolf stirs up such powerful emotions that it was recalled in European popular culture for generations after most people had lost all personal contact with the animal.

In European folklore the bear is a strong, kindly character, like the three bears that frightened Goldilocks, but did not harm her. In contrast, the wolf is not only cruel, but devious, like the one that ate Little Red Riding Hood’s grandmother. And even now we guard against metaphorical “wolves in sheep’s clothing.”

Stuck in the middle September 29th, 2019 by

In my blog, Out of space, I talked about how the energy crisis may make chemical fertilizers unaffordable to farmers in the foreseeable future. Modern agriculture will need to become less dependent on expensive external inputs such as animal feed and fertilizer, and make better use of knowledge of the ecological processes that shape the interplay between soil, nutrients, microorganisms and plants. But whether farming will remain a viable business for European farmers in the next decade, will not only depend on new knowledge.

A recent radio broadcast on Radio 1 mentioned that in Belgium since 1980 two thirds of the farmers have abandoned this profession, with currently only some 30,000 farmers remaining in business. And many see a bleak future. With large corporations and supermarkets keeping the price of commodities at rock bottom, and at times even below the production cost, it comes as no surprise that few young people still see a future in farming. A neighbouring dairy farmer in Belgium told me once that the difference of 1 Euro cent per litre of milk he sells can make or break his year. In 2016, around 30% of French farmers had an income below €350 per month, less than one third of the minimum wage.

One French farmer (often a dairy farmer) commits suicide every two days, according to a survey conducted by the French national public health agency. The suicide rate among Swiss farmers is almost 40% higher than the average for men in rural areas. The reasons include financial worries and inheritance problems related to passing the farm on to their children. The EU farmers’ union said this alarming situation should be addressed immediately, emphasising that the farming community deserves better recognition.

How has it come so far? And is there still time to change the tide?

While reading a book on the history of the Belgian farmers’ organisation, called the Boerenbond (Farmers’ League), I was struck by how deeply engrained our food crisis is and how much history has shaped our agricultural landscape and food crisis.

As the steam engine made it possible to transport food much faster and over longer distances, from 1880 onwards large amounts of cheap food from America, Canada, Russia, India and Australia flooded the European markets. This resulted in a sharp drop in food prices and many farmers were forced to stop or expand, others migrated to Canada, the USA, Argentina, and Brazil.

From the early 1890s Belgian farmers began organising into a cooperative to make group purchases of chemical fertilisers, seed, animal fodder, milking machines and other equipment. Milk adulteration was one dubious strategy some farmers used to make a living.

As early as 1902 the Boerenbond started providing administrative support to its members. Basically, consultants were recruited, subsidised by the Ministry of Agriculture, to keep an eye on the financial books of farmers, and of the quality of their milk. The Ministry also invested in mobile milking schools to teach farm women about dairy and milk processing. Along with milking competitions this boosted the attention to quality and hygiene.

The Boerenbond increasingly tried to bring various regional farmer organisations and milk cooperatives under its wing. In between the two World Wars they had representatives in Parliament, and they had their own oil mills, warehouses, laboratories and animal feed factory (made, for instance from waste chaff from the flax industry). The Boerenbond didn’t risk manufacturing their own chemical fertilizer, but bought shares in some of the large chemical companies. Group marketing, education, social security, credit and insurance were all managed in-house to support its members.

It all seemed so progressive, but by the 1930s, deepened by the stock market crash in 1929, the organisation was in a dire financial situation. After the crash of the potato and milk prices in 1936, the government realised that the Boerenbond was no longer capable of providing all these services, so the government set up its own credit and marketing institutions for milk, grain and horticultural crops.

Shortly after the Second World War, the Marshall Plan provided food aid and contributed to the reconstruction of Europe, under the condition that Western Europe subscribe to international free trade. While economic cooperation and integration gradually took shape, the economic advisors of the Boerenbond pleaded to keep a certain level of national autonomy for matters related to agriculture. But as food and milk production increased, the need for export markets grew and the Boerenbond became a strong advocate of European integration.

In 1958, a year after the European Economic Community was established, member countries developed an agricultural policy meant to guarantee a decent income for farmers. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, productivity enhancement was considered a priority, but farmers found it hard to keep on investing in restructuring their farms to ever more specialised production units while over-production resulted in falling prices. In reality, farmers had to take larger loans and earned less and less. As in the USA, European farmers were buying more machinery, paying more for inputs, and falling deeper in debt.

In 1984, the European Community introduced production quotas to address the shocking situation of milk lakes and butter mountains. With very narrow profit margins set by a limited number of buyers, many farmers gave up.

For those who remained in business, the quotas lasted for about 30 years. By 2015 dairy farmers again could produce as much as they wanted.

The European Commission thought that this liberalisation would not bring back those lakes and mountains, because there was a growing market from developing countries, including China, and price monitoring had improved. In reality, in an attempt to prop up prices and curb the dairy crisis, Brussels has been buying up milk since 2015.

Stockpiled in warehouses, mainly in France, Germany and Belgium, the sacks of milk powder are a déjà vu of the milk lakes. Milk farmers and traders fear that these stockpiles are dragging down prices, as buyers expect the dried milk lakes to be sold off at any time.

Classical economics is based on the idea of many willing buyers and many willing sellers. In modern Europe there are many regulated farmers, buying agrochemicals, seed and animal feed from a few corporations and selling to just a few buyers. Farmers are forced to take prices for inputs set by large corporations, while prices of raw milk are fixed by supermarkets who have concentrated the power of the market. Whether they buy or sell, farmers are price takers, caught in the middle between monopolistic suppliers and a few powerful buyers. And farmers are paying a high price: input costs rose by 40% between 2000 and 2010.

The EU’s common agricultural policy (CAP) will shortly vote on new amendments including the support to protein crops to reduce dependence on imports (read “GMO soya”), and a mandatory introduction of leguminous crops in the rotation in Good Agricultural Environmental Practices.

While EU policies can contribute to protecting our farmers and our environment, consumers also have a crucial role to play. As consumers we have no idea how the continuous search for cheapest products is putting farmers in a stranglehold. While Fairtrade schemes are a nice thought, in reality all food sold anywhere should be fair for the people who produce it, including our own dairy farmers.

For more than a century, strong farmer organisations such as the Boerenbond have tried to protect farmers’ interests by promoting a model of industrial agriculture. How the Boerenbond will deal with farmers’ hard realities, the complexities of a changing climate, environmental degradation and economic pressure of corporations and supermarkets will determine its future relevance.  

Improved consumer awareness to buy local produce at a fair price, enhanced access to affordable animal feed and policies conducive to environmentally sound family farming will decide whether farmers will be able to survive or be replaced by new smart agriculture that can do without farmers, using machineries and investment funds.

Further reading

Belgische Boerenbond. 1990. 100 jaar Boerenbond in Beeld. 1890-1990. Dir. Eco-BB – S. Minten, Leuven, 199 pp

Ulmer, Karin. 2019. The Common Agricultural Policy of Europe: making farmers in the Global South hungry. In: Who is Paying the Bill. Report published by SDG Watch Europe, pp. 21-30. https://www.sdgwatcheurope.org/documents/2019/08/whos-paying-the-bill.pdf/

IPES-Food. 2019. Towards a Common Food Policy for the EU.
www.ipes-food.org/pages/CommonFoodPolicy  

Related blogs

Out of space

Why people drink cow’s milk

Roundup: ready to move on?

Fighting farmers

What counts in agroecology

From uniformity to diversity

Further viewing

Access Agriculture has a collection of videos for small-scale dairy farmers in developing countries.


Hydroponic fodder ; Pure milk is good milk ; Keeping milk free from antibiotics ;  Managing cattle ticks; Taking milk to the collection center ; Keeping milk clean and fresh ;  Hand milking of dairy cows; Herbal medicines against mastitis ; Making rennet ; Making fresh cheese ; Making yoghurt at home

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