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The problem with water hyacinth November 17th, 2019 by

The Pantanal wetland, shared by Bolivia and Brazil, is the size of a small sea. In the Pantanal it rains for six months, followed by a half year drought. During the rainy season the rivers overflow their banks, creating a seemingly endless sheet of shallow water reaching to the horizon. In the dry season the water retreats to the river courses. There are few trees in the Pantanal, but there are dense stands of a delicate-looking purple flower, the water hyacinth.

In the twentieth century, gardeners innocently spread the water hyacinth to Asia, Africa and elsewhere. Water hyacinth has striking blue flowers and was used to adorn ornamental fountains. But it escaped and was soon clogging lakes, ponds and municipal water supplies.

Water hyacinth is such a survivor that you can drain ponds, let the plants dry out and burn them – then watch them grow again when the pond is refilled. It’s not surprising that control options are limited, particularly in open water, such as lakes and rivers.

The plants can be hand removed, by people willing to do heavy labor in the mud, cutting and dragging water hyacinth to the shore. Even this drudgery only works if you repeat it every year.

When the water hyacinth is removed, people tend to leave it in heaps at the edge of the water, where it is unsightly and gets in the way.

I recently saw another solution for water hyacinth in Benin, in West Africa. At Songhai, a training center in Porto Novo, they harvest water hyacinth, chop it, mix it with manure and use it to make methane (biogas) for cooking. Songhai also keeps a large tank of methane to run an electrical generator when the power is out.

Making biogas isn’t for everyone, as we saw in a previous blog. The Moreno family in Peru has trained people for years to make biogas from guinea pig manure, but few if any of the trainees later made biogas at home. For this to happen you need to buy equipment, provide labor, and pay close attention to managing the microorganisms that ferment the organic matter and give off the gas.

I liked the Songhai method because they don’t just remove the water hyacinth. They treat it like raw material and they make something with it.  But I wondered if using it to make biogas was profitable. A more detailed study is needed to gauge its potential to make money. The Songhai solution has one key advantage: the water hyacinth does not need to be dried, a plus because the big heaps of flesh plants hold retain a lot of water.

Water hyacinth is a water thief in some of the thirstier parts of the world. Finding uses for it may help to defray the costs of weeding it out.

Related blog story

The guinea pig solution

The juice mobile

Harsh and healthy

Floating vegetable gardens

Videos

Learn how to use water hyacinth to make a floating garden

Floating vegetable gardens

Learn how to make biogas

Zero-grazing and biogas

Scientific name

Water hyacinth is Eichhornia crassipes.

The dialect devil November 10th, 2019 by

Formal education has stifled local languages and dialects for years, but there are signs of change.

A Belgian friend, Dirk, recently told me how in the 1970s, one of his primary school teachers used a little doll or “Devil´s Puppet” (Dutch: Duivels Pop) to discourage children from speaking their local dialect of Dutch, in favor of what the school system called “civilized” Dutch. If the teacher caught an 11-year old speaking the local dialect, even at play, the kid would be loaned the Devil’s Puppet. The plan backfired, however, and the boys were soon competing to get the puppet as often as possible. The teacher lost that battle, but the schools won the war, and within a generation most dialects had seriously eroded.

The Devil’s Puppet reminded me of an experience I had about the same time in Samoa. At Mapusaga High School some teachers made a chart with a line for each student’s name. If a kid was caught speaking the Samoan language, the teacher would shame him or her by putting a pair of “black lips”, cut from stiff paper, next to the student’s name. Different tool but same aim:  designed to shame children for speaking the language of their parents and grandparents.

In North America, native children were removed far from their parents and held in “ Indian boarding schools” created with the express purpose of stamping out native languages. “Killing the Indian, but saving the man (sic)” as it was put by Richard Henry Pratt, the US Army officer who founded Carlisle Indian Industrial School, the first off-reservation boarding school, in 1879. But the tide is starting to turn as many lament the loss of native languages and cultural identity. In Peru, enlightened educators are trying new ways to teach children to be proud of their communities, their native Quechua language, farming skills and food culture. Faculty members of the Universidad Nacional Agraria La Molina, and staff from the Instituto de Desarrollo y Medio Ambiente and other NGOs work with selected schools to set up a “seed house”. Known by its Quechua name of muru wasi, the seed house is a classroom with books, posters, videos and other educational materials about local farming and culture. The kids plant a garden together on the school grounds, under the guidance of experienced community members, who also work with local teachers and parents to hold events where they can share traditional meals, made with Andean crops. Quechua is spoken at every opportunity. It’s an excellent innovation: using plants to sow the seeds of self-esteem in the minds of the children

It is too soon to say if such an approach will help to save local languages or to slow the flow of youth to the cities, but the educators are optimistic.

The global languages taught at school and the local languages and dialects acquired at home can and do co-exist. It is normal for people to speak several languages. When schools discourage local languages they also – often inadvertently – teach kids to be ashamed of their parents. When this happens, the real devils are intolerance, ignorance and indifference towards rural people, their culture and their ways of life. There are no excuses for letting this happen and it’s good to see people reclaiming and reviving local dialects and languages.

Watch videos in local languages

Access Agriculture has a large collection of agricultural videos in local languages of Africa, Asia and Latin America, which you can download for free.

Acknowledgements

Information about the Seed Houses in Peru is courtesy of Ana Dorrego CarlĂłn, and Aldo Justino Cruz Soriano of UNALM and Wilmar Fred LeĂłn Plasencia of IDMA.

Blocking out the food November 3rd, 2019 by

As alternative food systems develop, they may also be the most vulnerable, as I saw after the disastrous elections in Bolivia of this past 20 October. Many people suspected that the election had been rigged, and that the president had not actually won a fourth term.

In protest, the major cities began erecting barricades on all major streets, and many smaller ones. This is protest by self-inflicted economic wound. Many people cannot get to work. Many close their shops and hardly anyone will take their kids to school. The macro-economy takes a nose-dive.

On Friday, six days into the protests, the protest leaders announced on social media that the roadblocks would be lifted in the morning so people could buy food. So I went shopping.

One NGO I know runs a “solidarity basket”, like a subscription service. They pick up fresh vegetables from peri-urban farmers and sell them on certain Saturdays. This weekend the roadblocks had kept the NGO from collecting the produce from the farmers. I met the NGO in a city park, where they had two pickups, offering just onions, yoghurt and mogochinchi (dried peaches) produced by small-scale entrepreneurs, but not the vegetables. My friends understood the importance of the protest, but they were visibly upset that they couldn’t collect the vegetables, which is a way of helping poorer farmers, mostly women, to sell to sympathetic members of the middle class.

Every Saturday, an alternative shop I patronize brings vegetables from farms in the valley. They also bake bread. The owner, Paula, joked that her assistant had not been able to come in, so Paula had baked the bread herself. It fell when rising. She also quipped not to mind if the asparagus was a bit smashed. “I had to go get it on my bike”, she explained (to ride around the roadblocks).

That same Saturday the regular markets and the supermarkets were overwhelmed with people shopping for what was going to be a difficult week for everyone. Every shopping cart was in use, and the lines stretched from the cash register half way through the store.

While a few items sold out, like tuna fish in water, most foods were still in stock. Supermarkets can last for a few days without being resupplied.  

Government supporters added to the tension by announcing that they would counter the protests in the city by blockading the national highways, with the stated purpose of keeping food out.

Food suppliers and shoppers all have a vested interest in trading with each other. As the week wore on, the supermarkets closed their doors. The food dealers that stayed open were the oldest ones: family-owned shops, and open-air markets.

Unfortunately, this past week I was really looking forward to attending a seed exchange, where people would meet and trade their own local varieties of tree and crop seed. No money would exchange hands, just gifts and trade in seed. This was an innovative, even experimental addition to the alternative food system. Unfortunately, that was cancelled entirely. The newest parts of the food system can also be the weakest. Cities are vulnerable to a break in food supplies, and experiences like this one may be a wake-up call to strengthen local food systems.

Keep your cows in the family October 27th, 2019 by

In the 1980s, the Portuguese farmers I lived with kept two or three cows per household. Instead of hosing down the barns—the greatest use of water on dairy farms—the cows were stabled in a large room on the ground floor of the farm house. Every couple of days, farmers would lay down a clean bed of gorse, fern, heather and other wild plants. Instead of creating toxic lagoons of manure, the families would dig the manure out of the barns and spread it on their fields as organic fertilizer.

The parish of Pedralva, near Braga, Portugal, had four milking parlors. Twice a day the farmers (almost all women) would walk their cows down the lane to the milking parlor, where the operator, also a young woman, would milk the cows mechanically, record the amount of milk (clearly visible in a large, glass jar) and pipe the milk into a cold storage tank, to be picked up later by the dairy.

The milking parlor became a place where the farmers would chat and exchange ideas as they stood in line with their cows. I realize now that it was also a chance for the cows to get out of the house and take a stroll. The cows were not pets, but they all had names, enough to eat and drink, and they were never caged. The cows were usually fed on leftover maize stalks and pasture grass, although a handful of farmers with a dozen cows were starting to make silage. So, most of the feed was a byproduct of food production, rather than a diversion of human food to livestock.

The documentary film “Cowspiracy,” by Kip Anderson and Keegan Kuhn, tells of the complacency of Greenpeace, the Sierra Club, Surfrider Foundation, Rainforest Action Network, and Oceana: large, environmental organizations that ignore animal farming as a leading cause of climate change. Livestock account for 51% of global greenhouse emissions, while the whole transportation sector makes up just 13%. Cows make greenhouse gas as they fart out methane while the tractors and fertilizer factories all burn fossil fuel.

Livestock in the USA produce 30 times more feces than people. Fecal slurry from cows and pigs is kept in “lagoons” that often leak into rivers. In tropical countries forests are cleared to make pastures. Much of the forest burned in Bolivia this year was being cleared to graze cows for beef exports to China.

In Eat for the Planet, journalists Nil Zacharias and Gene Stone raise similar concerns, especially about the use of water. In the USA it takes 2000 liters of water to make a liter of milk, 15,000 liters of water to produce a kilo of meat. More corn, soybeans and wheat is produced to feed animals than humans, requiring vast amounts of water, energy and land.

Add this all together and it makes sense that the livestock sector is responsible for 51% of human-caused greenhouse gases.

Food and Animal Welfare, a recent book by Henry Buller and Emma Roe, raises concerns about the cruelty inflicted on the animals themselves. Cows, pigs and chickens have inherited instinctive behaviors from their wild ancestors: chickens like to build nests for their eggs, pigs love to dig into the moist earth, and cows enjoy grazing in the sunshine. The animals become stressed when they are unable to act out these behaviors.

On small, family farms, animals are usually handled in kinder, more environmentally sound ways. Adopting this approach on factory farms is costly and easy to avoid where regulation of animal welfare is poor and consumers don’t know or don’t care about the stresses animals face when penned up all day, every day, unable to move.

Cruelty to animals, deforestation, fecal pollution, the extravagant waste of water and the use of food grains to feed animals are all real problems of agriculture if the animals are just seen as cogs in the factory. But I have seen family farms in Latin America, Africa and Bangladesh where animals are treated a bit like they were in Portugal in the 1980s. The animals are kept clean without big hoses of water. The manure is used as fertilizer instead of being stored in lakes of filth. The animals eat at least some crop residues and spend at some time outdoors. The cows do still fart on family farms, but most other environmental problems are mitigated. Governments and the public should be thinking of more ways to encourage shorter food chains, decent prices for family farmers, enforcement of better standards, and research on appropriate technologies.

Further reading

Bentley, Jeffery W. 1992 Today There Is No Misery: The Ethnography of Farming in Northwest Portugal. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

Buller, Henry, and Emma Roe 2018 Food and Animal Welfare. London: Bloomsbury Publishing. 222 pp.

Zacharias, Nil and Gene Stone 2018 Eat for the Planet: Saving the World One Bite at a Time. New York: Abrams Image. 160 pp.

Related blog stories

Stuck in the middle

It takes a family to raise a cow

Watching videos to become a dairy expert

Veterinarians and traditional animal health care

Salt blocks and mental blocks

The red bucket

A brief history of soy

Videos about caring for animals on smallholder, family farms

Hand milking of dairy cows

And many other livestock videos on Access Agriculture

Poisoning our friends October 20th, 2019 by

Except for entomologists, no one knows more about insects than farmers. Wherever researchers have bothered to talk to smallholders about insects, whether in Honduras, Nepal, or among the Dogon of Mali, or the KayapĂł of the Brazilian rainforest, we see that rural people know the names of hundreds of insects and spiders. This is especially true of critters that are conspicuous (such as the big ones that are active during the day) or those that make themselves important, e.g. by eating crops.  

However, a recent, quantitative global literature review by Kris Wyckhuys and colleagues confirms that farmers know little about beneficial insects, especially in industrialized countries. As we saw in this blog last week, it is fairly easy to notice toads and other relatively large animals eating insect pests. Many farmers know that birds, frogs and cats are natural enemies of pests. Yet Wyckhuys found that worldwide, farmers mention on average only 0.9 insects or spiders that help to control insect pests.

Farmers can have sophisticated knowledge of certain, individual insect species. For example, Paul Van Mele and colleagues have described Vietnamese farmers who used weaver ants to control pests in fruit orchards. Such cases are, however, disappointingly rare. Weaver ants are big, diurnal, and easy to spot in their treehouse nests sewn together from leaves. Farmers were also motivated to watch weaver ants because they prey on insects like fruit flies in high-value orchards.  Most other natural enemies of insect pests, “farmers’ friends” go unnoticed. Hardly any rural people know about other common natural enemies of pests, such as parasitic wasps, insect-eating fungi and nematodes.

Farmers tend to use more pesticides in cash crops, and know fewer natural enemies for these crops, than in food staples. The use of pesticides is growing worldwide, while the pest problems are as bad as ever. Farmers are born experimenters, but to find alternative to pesticides, they need to know more about the natural enemies of insect pests.

Wyckhuys suggests that some of the world’s half trillion-dollar subsidies for agriculture could be devoted to agro-ecological education. Farmers will never find alternatives to pesticides unless they understand that most insects are beneficial. As farmers use insecticides to kill pests, they unwittingly poison their friends, the insects that eat and kill those pests.

Further reading

Van Mele, P 2008 “The importance of ecological and socio-technological literacy in R&D priority setting: the case of a fruit innovation system in Guinea, West Africa.” International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability 6: 183–94.

Wyckhuys, K.A.G., K.L. Heong, F. Sanchez-Bayo, F.J.J.A. Bianchi, J.G. Lundgren and J.W. Bentley 2019 “Ecological Illiteracy Can Deepen Farmers’ Pesticide Dependency.” Environmental Research Letters 14: 093004

Related videos

Promoting weaver ants in your orchard

Weaver ants against fruit flies

The wasp that protects our crops

Killing fall armyworms naturally

See also the many other farmer learning videos about Integrated Pest Management on www.accessagriculture.org.

Related blog stories

Toads for watermelon

Battling the armyworm

Biological pest control in the Galapagos forest

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