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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

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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

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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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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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