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Of fertilizers and immigration February 7th, 2021 by

Chemical or mineral fertilizers have long been touted by agro-industry and by governments as a necessity to feed the growing world population. Sixty years after the start of the Green Revolution, the damage caused to farmland, surface water and groundwater, biodiversity and farmers’ livelihoods has forced policy-makers in India and in the European Union to curb the over-use of fertilizers and encourage more environmentally-friendly ways of farming. But fertilizers have also affected immigration in various ways.

Immigration can be triggered by political suppression or economic hardship, often aggravated by climate change. But rural folks across the globe are also under increased pressure due to the rising costs of agricultural inputs, such as chemical fertilizers and animal feed. While recently some European farmers have decided to migrate to other countries, the high rate of suicides among farmers in both Europe and India is shocking. Despite these alarming events, the promotion of fertilizers in Africa goes on. As with the dumping of obsolete pesticides banned in Europe because of their high toxicity, the agro-industry has also turned to Africa to further increase their profits from selling fertilizers.

One of the problems is that for far too long researchers have been focusing on yields instead of on farmers’ profits and building healthy soils that can sustain farming in the long run. At a recent virtual conference organized by the European Commission, researchers from the Swiss Research Institute on Organic Agriculture (FiBL) presented results from a 12-year study looking at various cropping systems in tropical countries. Soil organic carbon was on average 20-50% higher in organic farms compared to conventional farms. While the yields of organic systems can match or outperform conventional systems, proper use of N-fixing legumes, organic manure and good agricultural practices is key to improve productivity.

Fertilizer promotion by governments or development projects have mostly benefited local elites and better-off farmers thereby adding to social inequality. Modern cereal varieties have been bred for responsiveness to chemical fertilizer. At the beginning of the Green Revolution in the 1960s, rice, maize and wheat farmers who opted for the full package (modern high-yielding crop varieties, fertilizer and pesticides) initially were able to boost their yield. But while the increased production led to lower market prices, they also became increasingly indebted to moneylenders and banks.

International researchers have now turned their attention to roots and tubers. The poor person’s crop, cassava, could yield up to 50 tons per hectare, about four to five times the current average yield, if chemical fertilizers were used. Again, it will be mainly the larger farmers who stand to benefit as they capture the market. Smallholders stand to lose and, along with their children, turn to seek other livelihood options.

Cities in Africa are bursting and offer few economic opportunities, so it is of little wonder that people seek greener horizons. Regional migration is a common strategy to survive. According to the latest report of the International Organization for Migration (IOM 2020 report, page 318), land degradation, land tenure insecurity and lack of rainfall are major drivers of environment-induced migration for people from West and North Africa. The European narrative framing migration as primarily “economic” often overlooks key factors, such as climate and environmental drivers of migration.

But environmental damage does not only happen where chemical or mineral fertilizers are used. It also happens where fertilizers are produced, but this remains often hidden.

The site of secondary mining of Phosphate rock in Nauru, 2007. Photo: Lorrie Graham

Nauru, a Pacific island, was a good place to live when it gained independence from Australia in 1968. However, in just three decades of surface-mining, the island was stripped of its soil, to get at the rock phosphate (for fertilizer). Now there is no place to grow crops. Ironically, Nauru’s entire population has become dependent on imported fast food from Australia. More than 70 percent of Nauruans are obese, and the country struggles to reinstall backyard gardening and encourage young people to eat plants. The mining of fertilizer and bad governance turned the smallest and once richest republic in the world into the most environmentally ravaged nation on earth: Nauru had little choice but to accept Australia’s offer to host ousted asylum seekers, often immigrants from Indonesia, in return for money.

While some people and donors are still convinced that a Green Revolution industrial model of agriculture is the way forward for Africa, one should pause and look at the consequences of mining and using chemical (mineral) fertilizer. If we want to keep people on their land, we have to support healthy food systems that nurture the soil and keep it healthy and productive.

Further reading

Bhullar, G.S., Bautze, D., Adamtey, N., Armengot, L., Cicek, H., Goldmann, E., Riar, A., Rüegg, J., Schneider, M. and Huber, B. (2021) What is the contribution of organic agriculture to sustainable development? A synthesis of twelve years (2007-2019) of the “long-term farming systems comparisons in the tropics (SysCom)”. Frick, Switzerland: Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FiBL).

LoFaso, Julia (2014) Destroyed by Fertilizer, A Tiny Island Tries to Replant. Modern Farmer. https://modernfarmer.com/2014/03/tiny-island-destroyed-fertilizer-tries-replant/

International Organization for Migration (2020). Migration in West and North Africa and across the Mediterranean. International Organization for Migration, Geneva.

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Grocery shops and farm shops December 6th, 2020 by

Few people realize how our food system is structured and how we consumers have a crucial influence. Exercising our food rights is as important as being politically active.

My dad ran a successful grocery store on the village market square, just across from the church. I still vividly remember the day when he took out an advertisement leaflet from the letter box. A year earlier a supermarket had opened in the village, accompanied by aggressive marketing. “They sell the same orange juice cheaper than I can buy it from the wholesaler,” my dad turned to my mum, “if this continues, I will have to close soon.” Customers from the neighbourhood suddenly started to pass by our shop on their way to the supermarket, heads down, embarrassed because they no longer dared to greet my dad, with whom they had joked and chit-chatted for over 30 years.

Local entrepreneurs are resilient and creative. I am still amazed when I think of all the different goods my dad had on offer in his small shop, from fresh fruit to ice cream, from birdseed and toys to stockings for women. Along with my mum, he paid special attention to making the shop window as attractive as it could be during special occasions like Sinterklaas (6 December), Christmas and Easter. It was real art that no supermarket could beat.

But shops need more than high quality goods and services, and loyal customers. One day, the wholesaler who had sold produce to my dad for years, bluntly announced that he could no longer supply us, as the wholesaler made more profit selling directly to the supermarkets and said it was not worthwhile continuing to supply independent retailers. By then, a second supermarket had already opened in the village. And so, dad closed his shop. That was in the early 1990s. Dad was also a skilled printer, so he found other work. But he had loved his shop, because he said it let him make other people happy. Now that was gone. 

Currently, in Belgium 95% of the food we eat is purchased from supermarkets, which continue to put local entrepreneurs out of business. Supermarkets also harm local farmers by driving prices so low that farmers can barely cover their costs, as we described in an earlier blog Stuck in the middle.

Over the years, my wife Marcella and I have become good friends with Johan and Vera, who grow organic vegetables and fruits and sell them in a farm shop they started about a decade ago. Each time we meet, they have some interesting stories to share. “We sell some of our produce to Biofresh,” Vera said, “but they always pay the lowest possible price for our produce and prices have never gone up over the years.” I was already familiar with such practices that can really put the knife to farmers’ throats, but had not expected this to happen in the organic food system, which I thought was fairer.

In 2019, Biofresh merged with the Dutch company Udea, after which economics started to overrule its philosophy. “Now Biofresh no longer allows retailers to enter its premises to see what fruit and vegetables is on offer if the amount they buy each week is below 1,000 Euro,” Johan shared, “so many small farm shops like us have started to look for alternatives, but it is not easy.” Every Thursday, the day before their farm shop opens, Johan and Vera drive through half of Belgium to sell and buy fresh produce. Besides Biofresh, they now also buy from Sinature, BioVibe and directly from various farmer friends.

Thirty years after my dad closed his village shop, the nascent farm shops which are to be celebrated and nurtured for providing healthy, fresh and fair food, especially during these times of corona, are in the same stranglehold as the grocery shops in the 1990s. When profits overrule ethics, wholesalers decide under which conditions people can still buy from them, and may cut off sales to small shops, just because the wholesaler wants even more money.

As transaction costs to stock up are larger for small-scale retailers, supermarket chains have ousted local entrepreneurs. They are now buying up closed village shops to start specialty shops and as irony would have it “be closer to the customer”. Some supermarkets have even gone a step further, buying up organic farms and fishing grounds to gain full control over the food we eat. Supervised by managers, the real farmers and fisher folks with a passion for their profession risk becoming mere employees devoid of any decision-making power.

The European Green Deal provides an action plan to boost the efficient use of resources by moving to a circular economy, restore biodiversity and cut pollution. Yet it remains to be seen what measures will be put in place to support our small-scale farmers, farm shops and community-initiatives such as weekly boxes of fresh local produce procured through group purchasing associations.

Without appropriate measures, organic farming risks becoming a variation of industrial agriculture with emerging opportunities captured by a few dominant food chain actors, who further consolidate their power, wealth and decision-making over what food we get on our table.

In the meantime, we consumers should not underestimate our influence. As Johan said: “consumers have the market in their hands.” Buy local from farm shops, farmers’ markets and small-scale retailers as much as you can. The supermarkets’ claim that they are local serves the wrong purpose and pushes those with a passion for their profession out of business.

Further reading

https://allesoverbio.be/artikels/hoe-bio-uitgroeide-tot-een-professionele-landbouwmethode

IPES-Food (2016) From Uniformity to Diversity: A paradigm shift from industrial agriculture to diversified agroecological systems.

IPES-Food (2018) Breaking away from industrial food and farming systems: Seven case studies of agroecological transition.

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Reviving soils November 8th, 2020 by

Globally an estimated 20 to 60 million hectares of land in developing countries are acquired by foreign companies and investors. This so-called “land grabbing” has taken place for various reasons. The most obvious one is the hunger for maximising profit. The devastating effects on deforestation for the expansion of biofuels, sugar cane, palm oil and soya bean for animal feed are well known. A less visible reason is to secure food by those who have seen large areas of land in their home country become unsuitable for farming. This is particularly the case for India and China, where the Green Revolution model of industrial farming has been promoted for decades. Today, due to this industrial model of farming about a third of China’s total cultivated area is seriously eroded by wind and water. According to Dave Montgomery in his book Growing a Revolution, half of the soil carbon in the midwestern USA has been lost. At EU level, soil erosion affects over 12 million hectares of land – about 7.2% of the total agricultural land – and leads to €1.25 billion loss in crop productivity.

As people have seen the soil as a warehouse full of chemical elements that could be replenished at will to feed crops, they ignored the microorganisms that help plants to take up the nutrients in organic matter, and soil minerals. Microorganisms do not have chlorophyll to do photosynthesis, like plants do, and require organic matter to feed on.

While acquiring land in other countries as a strategy to secure domestic food supplies has created its own problems, it is hopeful to see that more sustainable initiatives triggered by civil society are gaining momentum, and receiving support from their governments. President Xi Jinping recently announced on television that China wants to stop destroying natural resources and instead become a global leader for green technologies. Through his speech he formalised the rising aspirations of Chinese civil society for healthy food.

For several years, the central government in India has strongly advocated “zero budget natural farming,” a form of regenerative agriculture that restores the health of soils without external inputs. By ending the reliance on purchased inputs and loans for farming, natural farming also aims to solve extreme indebtedness and suicides among Indian farmers. Many Indian states have adopted policies that support various forms of agroecology.

When one of our Indian partners produced a farmer training video on how soils can be revived with good microbes, a traditional practice that is now being widely promoted, I thought this would be helpful for our garden as well. When we moved into our house in north-eastern Belgium, some of the land had been under intensive cultivation for decades. The soil was hard and dead. Even though I had mixed some cow manure into the planting pits before planting my fruit trees 4 years ago, they have struggled during summers that seem to have become dryer and hotter year after year.

I watched the good microbes video from the Access Agriculture video platform and downloaded the factsheet. All I needed was fresh cow dung, cow urine, molasses and chickpea flour. But we don’t have cows, only a few sheep, and to have cow dung loaded with good microbes one would have to approach an organic farmer. So, I decided to collect fresh dung from our sheep and give it a try.

Jeff wrote in an earlier blog that farmers and farmer trainers in Bolivia mix dung with their hands without any reservations. Likewise, I have often witnessed during my interactions with farmers in South Asia how respectful they treat dung, as if it were gold. Hence, I started to mix the ingredients. The days before setting up my experiment I had collected my own urine, and because I didn’t have molasses to feed the good microbes I settleed for what we had in the house, brown sugar.

Farmers in India also mix leaves of the neem tree into the solution to help control insect pests and diseases. I replaced neem with a strong-smelling medicinal plant that we have in our garden, called “boerenwormkruid”. After having added all in 10 litres of water, I placed the drum in the shade, as good microbes don’t like direct sunlight.

For 10 days, I let the mixture ferment to increase the number of good microbes, stirring it twice a day to release the gases that could inhibit fermentation. The sweet-sour smell was a good indication that fermentation was successful. The result was a home-made variation of commercially available effective microorganisms, and an Indian recipe adapted to Belgian conditions. I kept the filtered solution in recycled plastic milk bottles. Every 2-3 weeks I mixed one of the bottles into 100 litres of water to then pour the solution around my 30 something fruit trees with a watering can, each tree receiving just enough to moisten the mulch around their base.

Seeing is believing. And doing it yourself adds conviction. In just 6 months the soil around our fruit trees has become black, soft and crumbly, keeping rainwater much better. I am confident that the humus and rich soil life will help the trees cope much better with the changing climate.

While we have destroyed much of our farm land for decades, the solutions to revive our soils are available. Green technologies spread faster when there is political goodwill and when farmers have the opportunity to learn from their peers, across borders. That is what Access Agriculture tries to achieve through its rich video library.

Scientific name

Boerenwormkruid is Tanacetum vulgare. The English common name is tansy.

Credit

The top photo from soil erosion in Ethiopia is by Pascal Boeckx.

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Some 200 farmer training videos on ecological farming in 85 languages can be found on the Access Agriculture video-sharing platform:  www.accessagriculture.org

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Further reading

GRAIN — GRAIN releases data set with over 400 global land grabs”. www.grain.org.

Montgomery, David R. 2017 Growing a Revolution: Bringing Our Soils Back to Life. New York: Norton. 316 pp.

Panos Panagos et al. 2018. Cost of agricultural productivity loss due to soil erosion in the European Union: From direct cost evaluation approaches to the use of macroeconomic models. Land Degradation & Development, 29(3), https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/ldr.2879.

Repurposing farm machinery September 20th, 2020 by

Many farmers in Europe and North America are burdened with debts due to the heavy investments they have made over the years to buy farm machinery. A new tractor easily costs 100,000 Euro or more. New agricultural policies often force farmers to change as well. When environmental policy outlawed the spread of liquid manure on the surface of the field, manufacturers quickly adapted: manure is now directly injected into the soil. But this may oblige farmers to get rid of machinery that still works. What solutions can research offer to repurpose farm equipment? These thoughts have gradually come to my mind, living in a farming village in north-eastern Belgium and observing the various changes.

Farmers creatively adapt in many ways. Our friend, Johan Hons, uses a leek planter to transplant sweet maize seedlings on his organic farm to reduce the need for weeding. Like many farmers, Johan has his own workshop where he adjusts equipment to suit his needs.

American and European farmers see the soaring prices of equipment as one of their key challenges. Besides, equipment has become so complicated and repair is stymied by proprietary software and a lack of available parts. As a response, many farmers are now buying simpler, and much cheaper second-hand tractors from the 1970s and ’80s.

Also, local service providers have repositioned themselves and taken over many of the farm operations. And the fewer local service providers there are, the more pressure they can put on farmers, often charging fees that further eat into farmers’ meagre profit margins. Many machines, like the ones that inject liquid manure into the soil, have become so big that they are often wider than the country lanes, damaging them and forcing cyclists to jump off the road to save their lives whenever these machines roar by.

But there are also positive changes in the development of new machinery, which are not about making them bigger and heavier. Until last year, our local machine provider needed three tractors to collect grass for silage. One tractor raked up the grass and filled a wagon pulled by a second tractor. Meanwhile, a third tractor hauled the grass to the farmstead, to fill the silo, before running back to the field so the second tractor could empty its load. No time was wasted. This year, I noticed a single machine picking up the cut grass. This meant that the tractor then needed to drive to the farm where the silage was made, but to finish this entire field with just one tractor only took an hour longer than with three tractors and drivers, a big savings in labour, machinery and fuel.

Due to tillage and use of agrochemicals, many soils have become depleted of organic matter and soil life. As agricultural policies for decades have supported industrial agriculture, all farmers own their own pesticide spraying equipment. So, will these become obsolete when farming transitions to more sustainable models? Or could pesticide spraying machines be used to spray the soils and crops with Effective Microorganisms or other natural biofertilizers, to bring life back into our soils and boost crop health in a natural way?

To enable the transition to more sustainable farming, appropriate machines will be required. In the Netherlands, Wageningen University & Research (WUR) has been studying intercropping for several years, involving conventional and organic farmers. By growing a variety of crops in narrow strips they were able to attract beneficial insects and slow the spread of crop disease. The researchers also found that yields are similar to those found in monocultures and labour requirements are comparable too. Reading their study, I immediately thought how intercropping would work in a highly mechanised setting. Adjusting machinery will likely be part of the solution.

With the action plan laid out in the European Green Deal, the EU aims to be climate neutral by 2050. Different sectors of society each have a responsibility to make this happen. For agriculture, the ‘Farm to fork strategy’ stipulates that by 2030 pesticide use has to be reduced by 50% and chemical fertilizers by 20% in order to make food systems more sustainable.

Clearly, equipment manufacturers will continue to adjust the design of machinery, but this also comes at a cost. To keep as many farmers in business as possible, some creative thinking will be required on how to strike a balance between supporting industry to innovate and finding ways to repurpose the already available machinery park that farmers have already invested in. European family farmers are ready to adapt, but they are also being run out of business. Policy and research should lend them a hand, by inventing and promoting appropriate small machinery that can be used to serve multiple purposes. 

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Read more

More nature in fields through strip cropping. https://weblog.wur.eu/spotlight/more-nature-in-fields-through-strip-cropping/  

The European Green Deal: https://ec.europa.eu/info/strategy/priorities-2019-2024/european-green-deal_en  

Credit: The photo on harvesting an intercrop is from Wageningen University & Research. The bottom photo of intercropped field with flowers is by Fogelina Cuperus.

The village hunter June 28th, 2020 by

I recently ran into our village hunter, Pol Gielen, which is always a good occasion to get to know the village history a little better, and to learn about the changing challenges of hunters and farmers alike. In our village, Erpekom, in north eastern Belgium, with only 300 odd citizens, Pol Gielen is one of the two people allowed to hunt on the village grounds. The license has been passed on from generation to generation. While hunting in Europe is a centuries-old occupation, it has not always had the same social relevance.

The first hunting laws stem from the time of William the Conqueror, the Norman King who reigned England from 1066 until his death in 1087. A decade earlier, William allied himself with Flanders, now part of Belgium, by marrying Matilda, daughter of Count Baldwin of Flanders. William was a fervent hunter who loved being in the woods, observing animals, yet he despised the common people. A peasant caught hunting could be thrown into prison or, just as likely, publicly executed. For centuries to follow, hunting became a stylized pastime of the aristocracy.

In contemporary Europe, hunting is no longer confined to the rich. While hunting licenses are to ensure that only well-trained persons are allowed to hunt, the right to hunt is also linked to the duty to care for all animals listed in the hunting laws. For various species, such as deer, wild boars, hares and pheasants, hunters and authorities have to develop plans, detailing, how many animals may or must be killed during the hunting season. Some pest species, such as pigeons, can be shot with little restriction.

In an earlier blog, Bullets and birds, I wrote how pigeons can be a real challenge for organic farmers, who do not use seed that the factories coat with chemicals to repel birds, and how local hunters can come to the rescue if need be. My recent encounter with Pol, our village hunter, showed me how changing pesticide regulations in Europe continue to influence the relationships between hunters, farmers and the environment.

In 2018, the European Commission banned three neonicotinoids (synthetic nicotinoids, toxins originally derived from tobacco). The ban covers all field crops, because these pesticides harm domesticated honey bees and wild pollinators. Neonics, as they are commonly called, are often coated onto seeds to protect them from soil pests. These pesticides are systemic, meaning they spread through the plant’s tissue. The toxin eventually reaches pollen and nectar, where it harms pollinators. According to a study by Professor Dave Goulson in the UK, most seeds and flowers marketed as “bee-friendly” at garden centres, supermarkets and DIY centres, like Aldi and Homebase, are contaminated with systemic pesticides. In fact, in his study in 2017 70% of the plants contained neonics commonly including the ones banned for use on flowering crops by the EU. Birds, bees, butterflies, bats and mammals are indiscriminately poisoned when they forage on contaminated plants.

The dramatic decline of bees and other pollinators due to the use of neonics and other pesticides is threatening the sustainability of the global food supply. Of the 100 crop species that provide 90% of global food, 71 are pollinated by bees.

To further reduce the negative impact of agriculture on the environment, more restrictions have been imposed because of mounting evidence that pesticide-coated seed are also harmful to birds, including partridges, a favourite game bird for a thousand years that has now become a rarity. Apart from subsidies for installing and maintaining hedgerows around farmers’ fields to serve as food and nesting habitat for birds, the European Commission recently banned methiocarb, a toxic insecticide used as a bird repellent, often used to coat maize seed.

With the new EU regulations limiting seed coatings, conventional dairy farmers got worried that birds would damage their maize crop, and have begun looking for alternatives. That is the reason why one of our farmer neighbours decided to call upon Pol, the village hunter. It was on his way back from that farmer that I ran into Pol when he said: “Well, the farmer asked me to come and shoot pigeons, but I told him: ‘I would be happy to help you, but where do you want me to hide, you have removed all the hedges in your fields!’”

Regulations to curb the indiscriminate and dangerous use of pesticides on seed and in fields must go hand in hand with other measures, such as promoting hedgerows that fulfil important ecological functions for birds and pollinators. Also, environmentally-friendly alternatives could be further investigated and promoted. Green, innovative technologies, such as clay coating, is likely to become increasingly important. Clay is perceived by insects and birds as soil and offers a natural protection of the seeds. The clay can even be enriched with other natural additives to repel birds and insects.

Hunting has come a long way in the past 1,000 years. No longer the pastime of kings, hunting can be part of an enlightened programme to manage bird pests, without the use of chemicals, while saving the bees.

Further reading

Goulson, Dave. 2017. Pesticides in “Bee-Friendly” flowers. www.sussex.ac.uk/lifesci/goulsonlab/blog/bee-friendly-flowers. Original research describing in detail the pesticides was published in the journal Environmental Pollution, May 2017 and can be found here: www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0269749117305158  

Malone, Katy. 2018. Beeware! ‘Bee-friendly’ garden plants can contain bee-harming chemicals. https://www.bumblebeeconservation.org/beeware-bee-friendly-garden-plants-can-contain-bee-harming-chemicals/

Stokstad, Erik. 2018. European Union expands ban of three neonicotinoid pesticides. Science, April 27.

The European Green Deal: https://ec.europa.eu/info/strategy/priorities-2019-2024/european-green-deal_en

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Banana birds in the bean patch

Birds: farmers’ blessing or curse

From Uniformity to Diversity

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Soya sowing density (this video talks about hunters providing services to farmers in Benin)

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