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Principles matter July 18th, 2021 by

In this age of restricted travel, when webinars have taken the place of conferences, at first I missed face-to-face meetings a lot. But virtual events do allow one to get exposed to far more ideas than before. This is also the case when digital learning is introduced to farmers. Farmers are increasingly getting information online, like videos. But the videos have to be properly designed. Unlike following a cooking recipe on a Youtube video, in agriculture, recipes must be accompanied by basic principles, so that farmers can decide how to experiment with the new ideas.

I was reminded of this recently during a webinar on the Community-Based Natural Farming Programme in Andhra Pradesh, India. One of the speakers was Vijay Kumar, one of the driving forces behind the programme, which aims to scale up agroecology to millions of farmers in Andhra Pradesh. Vijay is a humble, highly-respected former civil servant. He is much in demand, so meeting him in person would be a challenge, but introduced by a mutual colleague, I was fortunate to have already met him several times on Zoom. Vijay appreciates that Access Agriculture stands for quality training videos that enable South-South learning. According to him, the collaboration with Access Agriculture offers opportunities to help scale community-based natural farming from India to Africa and beyond. It is fortunate to have strong allies who understand the challenges of scaling and that to be cost-effective, one cannot simply visit all the world’s farmers in person.

Still, many people think that farmers can only learn from fellow farmers who live nearby and speak the same language, and that training videos are only useful when they are made locally. The many experiences from local partners with Access Agriculture training videos show that farmers do learn from their peers across cultures, on different continents. Farmers are motivated when they see how fellow farmers in other parts of the world solve their own problems. Access Agriculture videos are effective across borders in part because they explain the scientific principles behind technologies, and not just show how to do things. Vijay is convinced that scientific knowledge and farmer knowledge need to go hand in hand to promote agroecology.

The second speaker at the natural farming conference was Walter Jehne, a renowned Australian soil microbiologist, who talked about the need to build up soil organic matter and micro-organisms as a way to revive soils and cool the planet. I was pleased that he also stressed the importance of principles. When one of the Indian participants asked Walter if he could provide the recipe, he smilingly and patiently explained: “We should focus on the underlying principles, as principles apply across the globe, irrespective of where you are. You need organic matter, you need to build up good soil micro-organisms and make use of natural growth promotors. If a recipe tells you to use cow dung, but you don’t have cows, what can you do? If for instance you have reindeer, their dung will work just as well. You don’t have to be dogmatic about it.”  In two of my earlier blogs (Trying it yourself and Reviving soils) I did exactly do that back home: use ingredients that were available to me: sheep dung, leaves of oak trees in the garden, wheat straw, and so on, but building on ideas from Indian farmers.

Farmers have creative minds and this creativity is fed by basic principles: while recipes surely help, a better understanding of underlying scientific principles are what matter most when it comes down to adaptation to local contexts. We, at Access Agriculture are thrilled to join Andhra Pradesh’s efforts to spread Community-Based Natural Farming across the globe.

Related webinars

365 Days Green Cover & Pre-Monsoon Dry Sowing (PMDS) – Walter Jehne – Streamed on 6th July 12:30 pm

Restoring the water cycles to cool the climate

Related blogs

Trying it yourself

Reviving soils

Effective micro-organisms

Friendly germs

Earthworms from India to Bolivia

A revolution for our soil

Damaging the soil and our health with chemical reductionism

Related videos

Good microbes for plants and soil

Organic biofertilizer in liquid and solid form

Coir pith

Mulch for a better soil and crop

Vermiwash: an organic tonic for crops

Making a vermicompost bed

Inspiring video platforms

Access Agriculture: hosts over 220 training videos in over 90 languages on a diversity of crops and livestock, sustainable soil and water management, basic food processing, etc. Each video describes underlying principles, as such encouraging people to experiment with new ideas.

EcoAgtube: a social media video platform where anyone from across the globe can upload their own videos related to natural farming and circular economy.

Coconut coir dust July 4th, 2021 by

Many years ago, I wrote one of my first articles, on “Coconut Coir Dust Mulch in the Tropics” and published it in Humus News, a trilingual (Dutch, French, English) magazine from Comité Jean Pain, a Belgian non-profit association that has trained people from across the globe on compost making since 1978.

So recently, when one of our Indian video partners decided to make a training video on composting coir dust, I dug up my old article, and was pleasantly surprised to see that it still contained useful information.

Coconut coir dust or coir pith is the material that is left over after the fibres have been removed from the coconut husk. Coconut factories often have no idea what to do with this waste, so in many coastal areas in the humid tropics one can find heaps of this natural resource.

Whether economical or ecological motives are the driving force, in low external input agriculture systems in the tropics, farmers often use biowaste for soil conservation and sustainable land use.

While coir dust has negligible amounts of nitrogen, phosphorous, calcium and magnesium, making it a poor source of nutrients, it can store up to 8 times its dry weight in water. By applying a 15 cm thick layer of coir dust mulch around coconut seedlings in Sri Lanka, irrigation needs could be reduced by up to 55 %. In a pineapple coconut intercrop during the dry season, my coir paper reported that the top soil layer had a moisture content of 49 % under the mulch, compared to 10 % under a sandy ridge of the same height.

When coir dust mulch is applied to salt-sensitive plants care, has to be taken that the concentration of salt is not too high. The highest salt concentrations, though still low, are mainly observed in coir dust which is fresh and from coastal coconut trees. This salt concentration can be reduced by leaving the material in the rain, before applying the mulch in the field or nursery.

In a commercial tree nursery in Kenya, germination of cashew seeds is enhanced by applying a coir dust mulch. Besides, roots are not damaged after transplanting, thanks to the loose structure of the coir dust. Weeds in cashew plantations in India are suppressed by applying a layer of 7.5 cm of mulch in a 1.5 m radius around the trees. In Sri Lanka, this kind of mulch is mainly used in semi-perennial crops like pineapple and ginger. Coir dust mulch suppressed some of the world’s worst weeds, namely goatweed, purple nutsedge and the sensitive mimosa plant.

Besides suppressing weeds, coir dust mulch also helps to establish cover crops. Herbaceous legumes are often used as cover crop under coconut in Sri Lanka, but they are suppressed by weeds in dry weather. Applying coir dust tackles the weeds, but favors the leguminous cover crop during the dry season.

Coir dust consists mainly of lignin, a woody substance which is poorly biodegradable. About 90 % is organic matter and the C/N ratio is extremely high (> 130). The low pH of 4.5 – 5.5 offers an extra protection against biodegradation, as many micro-organisms do not survive once the pH drops below 4. Slow biodegradation of organic mulches has been recently more and more looked for, especially in the humid and sub-humid tropics, where fast mineralization of the organic matter and leaching of minterals are big problems. While coir dust can easily be applied as a mulch, the recently produced video suggests that it is better to compost the coir dust first when one wants to use it to improve the soil structure. The video shows how one can easily make one’s own organic decomposer that is rich in good microbes to break down the lignin.

Coir dust, being important to control weeds, improve soil physical conditions and increase water retention capacity, should be regarded as an important resource for soil conservation and sustainable land use in integrated cropping systems, and not as waste. The use of coir dust in the tropics, however, is not only hindered by a lack of knowledge, which the video aims to share, but is also seriously threatened as coir dust is increasingly exported to Europe where it is used as an horticulture substrate.

Further reading

Van Mele, P. 1997. Utilization of Coconut Coir Dust Mulch in the Tropics. Humus News, 13(1), p. 3-4.

Related blogs

Reviving soils

A revolution for our soil

Damaging the soil and our health with chemical reductionism

Related video

Coir pith – from waste to wealth

Inspiring platforms

Access Agriculture: hosts over 220 training videos in over 90 languages on a diversity of crops and livestock, sustainable soil and water management, basic food processing, etc. Each video describes underlying principles, as such encouraging people to experiment with new ideas.

EcoAgtube: a social media video platform where anyone from across the globe can upload their own videos related to natural farming and circular economy.

Our valuable garbage June 27th, 2021 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación

Bolivia may have the world’s only singing garbage men. Three times a week, a garbage truck pulls up to our corner blaring the tune: Viva Cochabamba! That’s our signal that all the neighbors should take out the trash.

This bit of fun hides a serious problem. There’s nowhere to take all of that garbage. The landfill at Q’ara Q’ara, south of the city, is full, and is becoming a tower of sculpted refuse. Neighborhood organizations often block the road into the landfill (in protest of any number of grievances, not all of which are even related to the garbage). When that happens, trash piles up in mounds on Cochabamba’s streets.

There is not really another good site for a new landfill, since the valley is prime farmland, rapidly being paved over for streets and houses. Land is too expensive for the city to buy another big chunk to make another trash dump.

Some citizen’s groups are offering a solution. For example, Denis de la Barra has recently made a video, suggesting that people stop thinking of their organic refuse as garbage. Instead, Denis urges us to think of it as valuable raw material to make compost.

To make a motivational video, Denis wanted to interview people in Cochabamba and surrounding municipalities who had made compost for years and applied it to their gardens. He found some of these gardeners in the outer municipalities, but fewer in the city of Cochabamba, which has about a million people. Not everyone in town has space for a garden. Those who do, tend to have a manicured lawn and ornamental plants.

Ana and I have always made compost and several years ago we turned most of our front lawn into a vegetable garden, so Denis filmed part of his video at our house.

As Denis and colleagues explained later, on a radio panel discussion:

  • We all generate refuse, and local governments and citizens should take some responsibility for it.
  • Everything organic, from apple cores to lawn trimmings, can be recycled as valuable compost, and used as fertilizer, to grow healthy vegetables.
  • Citizens should share their experiences on composting and gardening.
  • Separate plastics from organic waste and only discard the non-organics, saving space in landfills.
  • We can all stop bringing home one-use plastic bags from the shops.

When people’s ideal garden is flowers around a smooth, green lawn (fertilized with chemicals), it may take a while to give compost and vegetables a chance. But this new video will get some people to start thinking about the connections between garbage, gardening and healthier food.

Related Agro-Insight blog story

Municipal compost: teaching city governments

Watch Denis’s video

Hacia una cultura de compostaje. Produced by the Grupo de Trabajo Cambio Climático y Justicia (CTCCJ—Working Group on Climate Change and Justice), Cochabamba. 2021.

Panel discussion

Denis discussed the video in a panel on Radio CEPRA, a community radio station in Cochabamba, hosted by Arnold Brouwer, featuring Tania Ricaldi, of the local public university (Universidad Mayor de San SimĂłn), and Ana Gonzales, agronomist and home gardener.

Access Agriculture Videos on making compost

Composting to beat striga

Compost from rice straw

NUESTRA BASURA VALIOSA

Por Jeff Bentley 27 de junio del 2021

Puede que Bolivia tenga los únicos basureros cantantes del mundo. Tres veces por semana, un carro basurero llega a nuestra esquina haciendo sonar la canción: ¡Viva Cochabamba! Es nuestra señal para que todos los vecinos saquemos la basura.

Este momento divertido esconde un grave problema. No hay dĂłnde llevar toda esa basura. El botadero de Q’ara Q’ara, al sur de la ciudad, está lleno y se está convirtiendo en una torre de basura. Las organizaciones vecinales suelen bloquear la carretera de acceso al basurero (en protesta por cualquiera demanda no satisfecha, no siembre relacionada con la basura). Cuando eso ocurre, la basura se amontona en las calles de Cochabamba.

En realidad, no hay otro lugar adecuado para un nuevo botadero, ya que el valle es tierra agrícola de primera, que se está pavimentando rápidamente para construir calles y casas. El terreno es demasiado caro para que la ciudad compre otro pedazo grande para hacer otro basurero.

Algunos grupos de ciudadanos ofrecen una solución. Por ejemplo, Denis de la Barra ha realizado recientemente un video en el que sugiere que la gente deje de considerar sus residuos orgánicos como basura. En su lugar, Denis nos insta a pensar en ella como una valiosa materia prima para hacer compost.

Para hacer un video motivador, Denis quiso entrevistar a personas de Cochabamba y de los municipios cercanos que habían hecho compost ya hace varios años y que lo habían aplicado a sus huertos. Encontró a algunos de estos jardineros en los municipios exteriores, pero menos en la ciudad de Cochabamba, que tiene cerca de un millón de habitantes. No todos los habitantes de la ciudad tienen espacio para un huerto. Los que lo tienen, suelen tener pasto y plantas ornamentales.

Ana y yo siempre hemos hecho compost y hace varios años convertimos la mayor parte de nuestro césped en un huerto, por lo que Denis filmó parte de su video en nuestra casa.

Como explicaron Denis y sus colegas más tarde, en una mesa redonda de la radio:

– Todos generamos residuos, y los gobiernos locales y los ciudadanos deberĂ­an asumir alguna responsabilidad al respecto.

– Todo lo orgánico, desde las cáscaras de las manzanas hasta el pasto cortado, puede reciclarse como valioso compost, y usarse como abono, para cultivar verduras sanas.

– Los ciudadanos deberĂ­an compartir sus experiencias sobre compostaje y jardinerĂ­a.

– Separar los plásticos de los residuos orgánicos y desechar sĂłlo los no orgánicos, para ahorrar espacio en los botaderos.

– Todos podemos dejar de llevar a casa bolsas de plástico de un solo uso de las tiendas.

Cuando el jardín ideal de la gente son las flores en torno a un césped liso y verde (abonado con productos químicos), puede ser difícil dar una oportunidad al compost y las verduras. Pero este nuevo video hará que algunas personas empiecen a pensar en las conexiones entre la basura, el huerto y los alimentos más saludables.

Previamente en el blog de Agro-Insight

Compost municipal: una escuela para las alcaldĂ­as

Vea el video de Denis

Hacia una cultura de compostaje. Producido por el Grupo de Trabajo Cambio Climático y Justicia (CTCCJ), Cochabamba. 2021.

Panel

Denis hablĂł sobre su video en un panel en Radio CEPRA, una radio comunitaria en Cochabamba, moderado por Arnold Brouwer, con Tania Ricaldi de la Universidad Mayor de San SimĂłn y Ana Gonzales, ingeniero agrĂłnomo que tiene su huerto casero.

Videos de Access Agriculture sobre el hacer compost

Composting to beat striga

Compost from rice straw

Our threatened farmers May 9th, 2021 by

Supermarkets in the USA bulge with everything from strawberries to steak, but this generous supply is threatened by a destructive agro-industry. In the recent book Perilous Bounty, Tom Philpott outlines looming disasters in California and the Midwest.

The Central Valley of California produces an astounding 80% of the world’s almonds and half of the pistachios, besides a lot of the fresh fruits and vegetables eaten in the USA. This phenomenal production is irrigated with water that is mined, and can never be replaced. The Central Valley used to be a vast wetland. From 1930 to 1970 a network of dams and canals were built to capture snowmelt from the Sierra Madre mountains, for irrigation.

But the rainfall out west is erratic and some years there is not enough snow to irrigate all the nut trees, so well water makes up the difference. So much water has been pumped that the ground level has fallen by 29 feet (8.8 meters). As the subsoil shrinks, it loses capacity; it can now hold less water than before.

The Midwest used to be a home for diversified family farms, rotating crops of corn, wheat, oats and rye, and even growing fruits and vegetables. Cattle ate fodder produced on the farm itself. Since the 1960s, this integrated system has been replaced by a simpler one, of just maize (corn) and soybeans, while the livestock have been sent to factory farms. Crops and animals are now grown on separate farms. The hog mega-barns are so far from the grain farms that the pig manure cannot be used as fertilizer. Instead, the manure finds its way to the Mississippi River and on to the Gulf of Mexico, where it has created a dead zone the size of New Jersey, destroying a thriving fish and shrimp industry. The soil is now eroding at an estimated rate of 5.4 tons per acre per year (13.5 tons per ha). The rich black soil is vanishing fast.

A handful of corporations buy meat (Tyson Foods, Cargill, JBS, and Smithfield Foods—owned by the Chinese WH Group) and just four companies make most of the chemical fertilizer in the USA, so farmers are forced to take the prices offered by these few buyers and sellers. This price squeeze forces many family farmers out of business. Between 1940 and 2018, the number of farms in Iowa declined from 213,000 to 86,000, a loss of 60%.

Much of this chemical-intensive farming system operates at a loss, but is made profitable by Federal Crop Insurance, operated by private companies, but subsidized by the US government.

Agriculture does make money for big companies. Monsanto, a corporation that made agrochemicals, saw its value rise from $5 billion in 2000 to $66 Billion in 2018, when Bayer bought the company. During these years, Monsanto consolidated its hold on the seed and pesticide industry. Almost all of the maize, soybean and cotton in the USA is now grown from varieties that have been genetically modified to withstand herbicides, especially glyphosate, sold under the brand name Roundup. At first, farmers loved it. They could plant the genetically modified “Roundup Ready” seed and then spray the emerging plants with herbicides, killing all the weeds and leaving the maize or soybeans fresh and green.

The problem is that weeds invariably evolve resistance to the herbicides. So, seed companies engineer new crop varieties that can withstand more herbicides. Then the weeds become resistant to those herbicides. And farmers have to spend more on seeds and chemicals.

There is a way out. In California, agroecologist Stephen Gliessman grows grapes without irrigation. In the Midwest, farmer-innovators like David Brandt and Tom Frantzen work with researchers to create integrated livestock-cereal farms where cover crops rebuild the soil with organic matter.

I was heartened to read about these inventive farmers. But there are other things we can all do, to live better and eat better. We can:

Plant a garden.

Buy locally, from family farmers.

Eat organic food.

Vote for lawmakers who support anti-trust legislation.

Push for more research on organic farming and agroecology.

Further reading

Philpott, Tom 2020 Perilous Bounty: The Looming Collapse of American Farming and How We Can Prevent It. New York: Bloomsbury Publishing. 246 pp.

Related Agro-Insight blogs

Out of space

Stuck in the middle

A revolution for our soil

Living soil: a film review

Against or with nature

Damaging the soil and our health with chemical reductionism April 11th, 2021 by

For 150 years, much of the public has become alienated from our food, often not knowing how it was produced, or where. Single-nutrient research papers (Vitamin C cures the common cold! Omega-3 fatty acids reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease!) have eroded our perception of food and provided the basis for food companies to get us to eat more highly processed foods touted as healthier than the real food. The work of a few reductionist chemists has had an outsized influence on industrial food production, with devastating effects on soil health and human health.

In 1840, the German scientist Justus von Liebig observed that nitrogen (N), phosphorous (P) and potassium (K) were responsible for crop growth. Later in life, Liebig realized that these macronutrients were far from adequate. He even argued vehemently against the use of nitrogen-based fertilizers for many years, but his progressive insights were largely ignored by the fertilizer industry, which quickly understood that more money can be made by keeping things simple. Occasionally, some micronutrients such as Zinc (Zn), Magnesium (Mg) or Sulphur (S) have been added to blends of fertilizer, but the overreliance of these chemicals has had a devastating effect on soil ecology, air and water pollution.

Healthy soils are complicated systems, with a host of micro- and macro-organisms, from earthworms to beneficial fungi and bacteria, interacting with each other to create a living soil. Many universities have shied away from this complex ecology, creating departments of soil physics and soil chemistry, but not ones for soil biology or ecology. Marketing people also favour simplicity. Telling farmers how to apply 120 kg of NPK to grow a crop is easier than educating them on soil ecosystems with all their complex interactions. And these simple recommendations sell more fertilizer.

The nascent food industry was also quick to latch onto simplistic, chemical reductionism. The same Liebig, who promoted nitrogen as plant food, proposed that animal protein (which contains nitrogen) was the fertilizer that makes humans grow.

By 1847 Liebig had invented a beef-based extract, and he went into business with an entrepreneur who bought cheap land in the pampas of Uruguay. From the new port town of Fray Bentos, about 100 miles up the Uruguay River from Buenos Aires, Liebig’s extract, as thick as molasses, was shipped across the world.

Liebig claimed that his extract contained fats and proteins and could cure typhus and all sorts of digestive disorders. Liebig enlisted physicians and apothecaries to sell his goo. As criticism mounted that there was little nutritional value in his concoctions, the Liebig company changed tack, marketing the product not as a medicine, but as a delicious palliative that could ease a troubled stomach and mind. This change in marketing proved shrewd. By the early 1870s the extract was a staple in middle-class pantries across Europe. Lest you think we are too smart to be fooled by such chicanery today, the original gooey extract is still sold by the Liebig Benelux company, and meat tea lives on as the bouillon cube. The next time you open a flavour packet that comes with a brick of ramen noodles, you have Liebig to thank.

Liebig and other chemists were influential in reducing food  ̶  and the focus of the agri-food industry  ̶  to a few, large, simple ingredients. But food is more than a mere combination of nutrients that can be easily measured and prescribed.

While the meat industry has continued to grow, in the early 20th century dieticians like John Harvey Kellogg strongly opposed eating meat, claiming that animal protein had a devastating effect on the colon. As he laid the foundation for the breakfast cereal industry, Kellogg in turn marketed his products in terms of simple food ingredients: carbohydrates and fibres. While the first packaged breakfast cereals were all whole grain, over the years they have evolved numerous additions, such as dried fruits, lots of refined sugar, and most are now made with white flour. However, they are still marketed as part of a nutritious breakfast.

In his book, In Defense of Food, Michael Pollan provides ample examples of how over the past 150 years consumers have been made to believe that food can be reduced to calories and simple nutrients. As highly processed foods are filling the shopping baskets of billions of people across the globe, cancers, diabetes and vascular diseases become ever more common.

But the food industry is a powerful one.

Although soya bean recipes like tofu have been part of a balanced diet for centuries in Asia and whole maize can be made into healthy food like tortillas, both crops are now being subjected to a new reductionism, as they are refined into fat and carbohydrates: 75% of the vegetal oil we use is from soya beans, while more than half of the sweeteners added to our processed food and drinks is high-fructose corn syrup, from maize. Crops that could be part of a healthy diet for people are now either fed to animals in factory farms, or turned into fats and sugar, contributing to the obesity epidemic.

Since the 1970s, the increased focus on maize and soya beans, with their patented varieties, has served three strongly interwoven industries of seed, fertilizer and food manufacturing. Just four companies now dominate seed and agro-chemicals globally (Bayer-Monsanto, DowDuPont/Corteva, ChemChina-Syngenta and BASF). While large corporations reap immediate profits, we the tax payers are left to solve the problems they cause in the form of soil erosion, air and water pollution, a drastic decline in biological and food diversity, and public health risks.

Fortunately, consumers across the globe are starting to awaken to the risks posed by industrial food production and eating chemically-processed food with refined ingredients and artificial substances.

The over-reliance of chemical fertilizer in agriculture and chemically-processed food are more than an analogy. They are part of an effort to simplify food systems to a few constituent parts, dominated by a few large players. It has taken society nearly two centuries to get into this trap, and it will take an effort to get out of it. Agroecology with its focus on short food supply chains is pointing the way forward for food that is healthy for the body, mind and society at large.

In March 2021, the European Commission approved an action plan that 30% of the public funds for agricultural research and innovation has to be in support of organic agriculture. The backlog is huge, so it is timely to see that research shall cover among other things, changing farmers’ and consumers’ attitudes and behaviours.

Further reading

Clay Cansler. 2013. Where’s the Beef? https://www.sciencehistory.org/distillations/wheres-the-beef

European Commission. 2021. Communication from the commission to the European Parliament, the council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the committee of the regions on an action plan for the development of organic production. https://ec.europa.eu/info/food-farming-fisheries/farming/organic-farming/organic-action-plan_en

Michael Pollan. 2009. In Defense of Food. An Eater’s Manifesto. Large Print Press.

Related blogs

Formerly known as food

Forgotten vegetables

Of fertilizers and immigration

Reviving soils

A revolution for our soil

A brief history of soy

The sugar palms of Angkor Wat

Grocery shops and farm shops

Related video

Making a condiment from soya beans

Inspiring platforms

Access Agriculture: hosts over 220 training videos in over 85 languages on a diversity of crops and livestock, sustainable soil and water management, basic food processing, etc. Each video describes underlying principles, as such encouraging people to experiment with new ideas.

EcoAgtube: a new social media platform where anyone from across the globe can upload their own videos related to natural farming and circular economy.

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