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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  

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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

Roundup: ready to move on? August 25th, 2019 by

At our local garden shop, in northeast Belgium, I recently overheard a conversation between the shopkeeper and a young customer, who asked about Roundup®. Since glyphosate, the active ingredient in the herbicide, was banned in Belgium for home use (see note below), a new glyphosate-free Roundup is now aggressively promoted in garden centres. The original Roundup can only be used for professional farming, so the shopkeeper told the customer that her husband is continuously asked to go and spray people’s ornamental home gardens. Even chemical habits can be hard to kick.

When it is my turn at the counter (I am looking for organic chicken feed), I tell the shopkeeper that I just returned from an international conference where American professors revealed how various ingredients of Roundup can be related to male infertility, cancer, Alzheimer and at least 40 other human diseases. She took in the information without being shocked and countered that many people have since resorted to home-made remedies like vinegar to kill weeds, which she preposterously claimed did much more harm to the soil than commercial products. Apparently, the people who sell chemicals, even at the retail level, can become jaded about their dangers.

Both in developed and developing countries, very few people think it necessary to protect themselves when spraying pesticides. People either cannot read, fail to make the effort to read the label or ignore the risks.

While debates on cause-effect relationship can last for decades (the tobacco lobby successfully denied the carcinogenic effects of tobacco for decades, knowing all the while that smoking was a killer), the scientific presentations at the international conference I attended also revealed the shortcomings of official systems that have been put in place to protect our public health. For one, toxicity trials before new products are released only look at short-time effects, whereas diseases of mice (and humans) often show symptoms after years of chronic exposure, as the toxins build up in the body. Equally important, official tests are only done on the active ingredient, not on the full product as it is sold and used.

Protected by intellectual property rights, companies are not obliged to reveal and list the ingredients of the inert material that makes up the bulk of herbicides and pesticides. Laboratory tests showed that one of the ingredients in Roundup is arsenic, which is at least 1000 times more toxic than glyphosate in itself. In short, the glyphosate-free Roundup is still as toxic as before, only it does not show in official tests.

The sad irony is that while the owner of the garden shop is busy spraying people’s gardens with Roundup, the government of Belgium spent millions of Euros to protect those same people, by cleaning the soil from the arsenic factory in Reppel, which was closed in 1971. Although scientific evidence was available that the soil and groundwater were heavily polluted with arsenic, zinc and other heavy metals, it took more than 30 years before the site was cleaned up, and apparently more work is still required.

Environmental damage, including pollution, soil erosion and biodiversity loss are hard to measure in simple economic terms. As Jeff mentioned in last week’s blog, environmental costs are often seen as “externalities” and not considered when calculating the cost:benefit of farms. This has given conventional farming an unfair advantage over organic or agroecological farming.

Although the narrow focus on a single active ingredient, such as glyphosate, may have been good to trigger a public debate around food safety and the danger of corporate interests in our food system, a more holistic approach to crop protection and food production is required that takes into account these externalities.

Managing weeds is a key challenge for farmers across the globe. While mulching, crop rotation, intercropping and green manures are all options, additional weeding may be required—often by appropriate, small machines. Alternatives to herbicides do exist. For commercial (conventional and organic) farmers affordable mechanical weeding technologies, based on precision technology, would make a huge difference.

For instance, the food processing industry has benefitted a lot from optic food sorting machines. In a fraction of a second, a stone the size of a pea can be removed from millions of peas. With a simple mobile app called PlantNet I can take a photo of any plant which immediately tells me what plant it is, even if I only have the leaves at hand and the plant is not yet flowering.

Despite what the industry wants to make us believe, farmers do not need herbicides. If countries are serious about public health, more research is needed to support non-chemical food production. Agricultural robots are getting better. In the near future it would be possible to engineer a wheeled robot that could systematically drive over a field, scanning for weeds, and eliminating them mechanically, even within crop rows.

If governments would invest more in alternatives to chemical agriculture and organise nation-wide campaigns (as they have done for decades to inform people of other health risks, such as smoking, and drinking and driving), farmers, gardeners and shopkeepers (like the lady near my village) would become more aware of the dangers of herbicides and more open to promoting and using alternatives.

As I walked out of the village garden shop without my organic chicken feed (she did not have it in stock for lack of demand), I realized that shopkeepers are happy to sell what people ask for, if enough people ask for it. I hope one day to go back and find them selling better tools for controlling weeds.

Further reading

Defarge, N., Spiroux de VendĂ´mois, J. and SĂ©ralini, G.E. 2018. Toxicity of formulants and heavy metals in glyphosate-based herbicides and other pesticides. Toxicology Reports 5, 156-163.

First International Conference on Agroecology Transforming Agriculture & Food Systems in Africa: Reducing Synthetic Pesticides and Fertilizers by Scaling up Agroecology and Promoting Ecological Organic Trade. 2019, Nairobi, Kenya. https://www.worldfoodpreservationcenterpesticidecongress.com/

HLPE. 2019. Agroecological and other innovative approaches for sustainable agriculture and food systems that enhance food security and nutrition. A report by The High Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition. www.fao.org/fileadmin/user_upload/hlpe/hlpe_documents/HLPE_Reports/HLPE-Report-14_EN.pdf

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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Out of space July 28th, 2019 by

Celebrating 50 years after landing on the moon, a series of weekly TV broadcasts nicely illustrates the spirit of the time. One interview with a man on a New York City street drew my particular attention. The interview showed why so many people supported the NASA programme: “We have screwed up our planet, so if we could find another planet where we can live, we can avoid making the same mistakes.”

History has shown over and over again how the urge to colonise other places has been a response to the declining productivity of the local resource base. In his eye-opening book “Dirt. The Erosion of Civilizations”, Professor David Montgomery from the University of Washington made me better understand the global and local dynamics of land use from a social and historical perspective.

Out of the many examples given in his book, I will focus on the most recent example: the growth of industrial agriculture, as the rate of soil erosion has taken on such a dramatic proportion that it would be a crime against humanity not to invest all of our efforts to curb the trend and ensure food production for the next generations.

The Second World War triggered various changes affecting agriculture. First, the area of land cultivated in the American Great Plains doubled during the war. The increased wheat production made more exports to Europe possible. Already aware of the risks of soil erosion, in 1933 the U.S. government established an elaborate scheme of farm subsidies to support soil conservation, crop diversification, stabilize farm incomes and provide flexible farm credit. Most farmers took loans to buy expensive machinery. Within a decade, farm debt more than doubled while farm income only rose by a third.

After the Second World War, military assembly lines were converted for civilian use, paving the way for a 10-fold increase in the use of tractors. By the 1950s several million tractors were ploughing American fields. On the fragile prairy ecosystem of the Great Plains, soil erosion rapidly took its toll and especially small farmers were hit by the drought in the 1950s. Many farmers were unable to pay back their loans, went bankrupt and moved to cities. The few large farmers who were left increased their farm acreage and grew cash crops to pay off the debt of their labour-saving machinery. By the time the first man had put his foot on the moon, 4 out of 10 American farms had disappeared in favour of large corporate factory farms.

At the same time that the end of the Second World War triggered large-scale mechanization, the use of chemical fertilizer also sharply increased. Ammonia factories used to produce ammunition were converted to produce cheap nitrogen fertilizer. Initial increase in productivity during the Green Revolution stalled and started to decline within two decades. By now the sobering figures indicate that despite the high yielding varieties and abundant chemical inputs, productivity in up to 39% of the area growing maize, rice, wheat and soya bean has stagnated or collapsed. Reliance on purchased annual inputs has increased production costs, which has led in many cases to increased farmer debt, and subsequent farm business failures. At present, agriculture consumes 30% of our oil use. With the rising oil and natural gas prices it may soon become too expensive to use these dwindling resources to produce fertilizer. 

Armed with fertilizers, farmers thought that manure was no longer needed to fertilize the land. A decline in organic matter in soils further aggravated the vulnerability of soils to erosion. As people saw the soil as a warehouse full of chemical elements that could be replenished ad libitum to feed crops, they ignored the microorganisms that provided a living bridge between organic matter, soil minerals and plants. Microorganisms do not have chlorophyll to do photosynthesis, like plants do, and require organic matter to feed on.

A 1995 review reported that each year 12 million hectares of arable land are lost due to soil erosion and land degradation. This is 1% of the available arable soil, per year. The only three regions in the world with good (loess) soil for agriculture are the American Midwest, northern Europe and northern China. Today, about a third of China’s total cultivated area is seriously eroded by wind and water.

While the plough has been the universal symbol of agriculture for centuries, people have begun to understand the devastating effect of ploughing on soil erosion. By the early 2000s, already 60% of farmland in Canada and the U.S.A. were managed with conservation tillage (leaving at least 30% of the field covered with crop residues) or no-till methods. In most other parts of the world, including Europe, ploughing is still common practice and living hedges as windbreaks against erosion are still too often seen as hindrance for large-scale field operations.

In temperate climates, ploughing gradually depletes the soil of organic matter and it may take a century to lose 10 centimetres of top soil. This slow rate of degradation is a curse in disguise, as people may not fully grasp the urgency required to take action. However, in tropical countries the already thinner top soil can be depleted of organic matter and lost to erosion in less than a decade. The introduction of tractor hiring services in West Africa may pose a much higher risk to medium-term food security than climate change, as farmers plough their fields irrespective of the steepness, soil type or cropping system. In Nigeria, soil erosion on cassava-planted hillslopes removes more than two centimetres of top soil per year.

Despite the overwhelming evidence of the devastating effects of conventional agriculture, the bulk of public research and international development aid is still geared around a model that supports export-oriented agriculture that mines the soils, and chemical-based intensification of food production that benefits large corporations. Farm subsidies and other public investments in support of a more agroecological approach to farming are still sadly insufficient, yet a report from The High Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition published this month concludes that the short-term costs of creating a level playing field for implementing the principles suggested by agroecology may seem high, but the cost of inaction is likely to be much higher.

With the reserves of oil and natural gas predicted to become depleted before the end of this century, changes to our industrial model of petroleum-based agriculture will happen sooner than we think. And whether we are ready for it is a societal decision. With all attention being drawn to curbing the effects of climate change, governments, development agencies and companies across the world also have a great and urgent responsibility to invest in promoting a more judicious use of what many see as the cheapest resource in agriculture, namely land. We are running out of space and colonising other planets is the least likely option to save our planet from starvation.

Further reading

David R. Montgomery. 2007. Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations. Berkeley: University of California Press, 285 pp.

HLPE. 2019. Agroecological and other innovative approaches for sustainable agriculture and food systems that enhance food security and nutrition. A report by The High Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition. www.fao.org/fileadmin/user_upload/hlpe/hlpe_documents/HLPE_Reports/HLPE-Report-14_EN.pdf

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

Pimentel, D.C., Harvey, C., Resosudarmo, I., Sinclair, K., Kurz, D., M, M., Crist, S., Shpritz, L., Fitton, L., Saffouri, R. and Blair, R. 1995. Environmental and Economic Cost of Soil Erosion and Conservation Benefits. Science 267, 1117-23.

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Planting a wrong image July 7th, 2019 by

A picture says more than a thousand words. And pictures stick better in the mind. On a recent visit to the organic farm shop Eikelenhof, run by our friends Johan and Vera, I was reminded how easy it is for wrong images to become received knowledge.

Vera was talking to Peter, a plastic artist from the neighbourhood and one of the regular customers at the farm shop. The past few days we had had quite some severe storms and Peter was telling how the gusty winds had taken their toll with broken branches and uprooted trees as a result. Uprooted trees and heavy soil erosion are some of the few occasions when people get to see a glimpse of how the roots of mature trees look like. When they continued discussing about tree roots, both said that the roots are a mirror of the tree canopy. At that stage I intervened and started explaining how this image survived for centuries, but that this was absolutely wrong. Vera and Peter are both clever successful people, but like many of us, it is hard for them to shake off an image that has been impressed in their minds.

In the 19th century, Charles Darwin was making history with his research on how species had evolved over millions of years. The scientific revolution and the age of exploration ignited a growing interest in exotic plants and the economic potential they might have, leading to the boom of botanical gardens across Europe. These events also triggered a general interest in nature overall, and especially in England this passion for gardens has lived on until today.

When a 19th century graphic artist diverted from the botanical drawing style, which was based on accurate observations, he drew from imagination a stylistic tree with the roots being as a mirror of the canopy. He had no idea how it would impact on future generations. Helped by the technical breakthrough of offset printing and emerging media houses, this image made its way across Europe and firmy established in the minds of ordinary folks. Until today, hundreds of variations continue to be developed and spread, further feeding this misperception.

But my friends at the farm shop in Belgium are not the only people who accept the received wisdom that a tree’s roots mirror its branches. Even Thai farmers have taken the idea on board. When visiting a mango project in Thailand some 20 years ago, I recall visiting orchards where farmers had dug a trench just below the edge of the tree canopy to irrigate and put some organic fertilizer. It was explained to me that this was the zone where all the feeder roots of the trees could be found. Until today, tree roots are poorly studied, partly because they are hard to observe.

Fortunately, many of the 19th century illustrators painted accurate pictures of the natural world, which led to a greater understanding of natural history. Whether we illustrate with water colors or with video, it is important to get the picture right.

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