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What counts in agroecology August 18th, 2019 by

Vea la versi√≥n en espa√Īol a continuaci√≥n

Measuring the costs and benefits of a small farm can be harder than on a large one, especially if the small farm includes an orchard and makes many of its own inputs, as I saw on a recent visit to Sipe Sipe, near Cochabamba, Bolivia, where a faith-based organization, Agroecología y Fe (Agroecology and Faith) is setting up ecological orchards.

The director of Agroecology and Faith, Germ√°n Vargas, explained that a forest creates soil, gradually building up rich, black earth under the trees, while agriculture usually exposes the soil to erosion. A farm based on trees, with organic fertilizer, and with vegetables growing beneath the trees, should be a way to make a profit while conserving the soil. 

Extensionist Marcelina Alarcón showed us the apple trees that she and local farmers planted in August, 2018. They started by terracing the one hectare of gently sloping land. In one week of hard work they built a 200,000 liter, circular water reservoir of stone and concrete (gravity-fed with stream water) to irrigate the terraces and three additional hectares. The cost was 64,000 Bs. ($9,275), which seems like a big investment, but similar reservoirs built 30 years ago are still working.

Lush beds of lettuce, cabbage, broccoli, wheat, onions (some plants grown for their seed) are thriving beneath the apple trees. When one crop is harvested another takes its place, in complex rotations over small spaces. No chemicals are used, but the group makes calcium sulphate spray and liquid organic fertilizers to improve the soil, prevent crop diseases and enhance the production and quality of the apples and vegetables.

The group has harvested vegetables four times and sold them directly to consumers at fairs organized by Agroecology and Faith for a total gross receipt of 4,380 Bolivianos ($635).

I was visiting the farm at Sipe Sipe with a small group organized by Agroecology and Faith and some of their allies. Some of the lettuce, onions and tomatoes from the farm end up in a tub during our visit, to make a salad for the visitors‚ÄĒpart of a fabulous lunch (complete with fresh potatoes and mutton cooked underground) offered at a modest cost. Produce cooked on site and sold informally on the farm are probably not counted when estimating profitability. After the tour of the farm and before the lunch, Marcelina set up a table with some vegetables for sale. She was kept quite busy writing down each transaction as we bought small bags of tomatoes and other produce for amounts less than a dollar each.

The sale of half a kilo of tomatoes is as much work to document as the sale of twenty tons of rice. A small farm has many more sales than a large farm and it takes a lot of administrative work to keep track of produce that is not sold because it goes into seed, feed or onto the family table.

The cost:benefit of a conventional field is simpler to tabulate: so much labor, machinery, seed and chemicals, all purchased, and single crop yields measured with relative ease. Yet this doesn‚Äôt tell the whole story. Loss of soil due to erosion, or carbon and nitrogen to the atmosphere, or pollution from fertilizer run-off all have a cost, even if they are often dismissed as ‚Äúexternalities.‚ÄĚ

An agroforestry system like the hectare of apples and vegetables we visited starts with a large investment in irrigation and terracing. Many of the inputs are labor, or home-made fertilizers, and their cost is not always counted. The apple trees have not yet borne fruit, and some of the vegetables may escape the bookkeeper‚Äôs tally. Yet here the ‚Äúexternalities‚ÄĚ have a positive and valuable contribution: soil is being created, chemical pollution is nil, and livelihoods are enriched as local farmers, mostly women, learn to work together to produce healthy food to sell. Classical economic comparisons with conventional farms fail to take account of these benefits.

Even a small farm can have a lot to consider in estimating returns, with many crops and activities and environmental services. Until we learn to measure the environmental efficiency as well as financial profitability of agroforestry or agroecological farms properly, they will never look as good as they really are.

Further reading

A recent report from the FAO (the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization) concludes that yield data is too poor a parameter to compare conventional (over-plowed, chemical intensive) agriculture with agroecology, a beyond-organic agriculture with soil conservation and respect for local communities.

HLPE Report on Agroecological and other innovative approaches for sustainable agriculture and food systems that enhance food security and nutrition. Extract from the Report: Summary and Recommendations (19 June 2019). Rome: FAO http://www.csm4cfs.org/summary-recommendations-hlpe-report-agroecology-innovations/

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LO QUE CUENTA EN LA AGROECOLOG√ćA

Por Jeff Bentley, 18 de agosto del 2019

Medir los costos y los beneficios de una peque√Īa finca puede ser m√°s dif√≠cil que en una grande, especialmente si la peque√Īa incluye √°rboles y produce muchos de sus propios insumos, como vi en una reciente visita a Sipe Sipe, cerca de Cochabamba, Bolivia, donde la organizaci√≥n eclesial ‚ÄúAsociaci√≥n Agroecolog√≠a y Fe‚ÄĚ (AAF) est√° estableciendo huertos ecol√≥gicos agroforestales.

El director de la AAF, Germ√°n Vargas, explic√≥ que un bosque crea suelo, acumulando gradualmente tierra negra y rica bajo los √°rboles, mientras que la agricultura suele exponer el suelo a la erosi√≥n. Una finca basada en √°rboles, con abonos org√°nicos, y con hortalizas que crecen debajo de los √°rboles, deber√≠a ser una forma de obtener beneficios al mismo tiempo que se conserva el suelo. 

La extensionista Marcelina Alarc√≥n nos mostr√≥ los manzanos que ella y la gente local plantaron en agosto del 2018. Comenzaron haciendo terrazas en una hect√°rea en suave pendiente. En una semana de trabajo duro construyeron un reservorio circular de agua de 200.000 litros de piedra y concreto (llenado por gravedad de agua de riachuelo) para regar las terrazas y tres hect√°reas adicionales. El costo fue de 64.000 Bs. ($9,275), que parece una inversi√≥n grande, pero reservorios similares construidos hace 30 a√Īos siguen funcionando.

Camellones exuberantes de lechuga, repollo, br√≥coli, trigo, cebollas (algunas cultivadas para su semilla) prosperan bajo los manzanos. Cuando se cosecha un cultivo, otro ocupa su lugar, en complejas rotaciones sobre peque√Īos espacios. No aplican productos qu√≠micos, pero el grupo fabrica caldo mineral sulfoc√°lcico y abonos org√°nicos l√≠quidos para mejorar el suelo, prevenir las enfermedades de los cultivos y mejorar la producci√≥n y calidad de los manzanos y de las hortalizas.

El grupo ha cosechado verduras cuatro veces y las ha vendido directamente a los consumidores en ferias organizadas por la AAF (en una canasta solidaria y saludable) por un total de 4.380 bolivianos (635 dólares).

Yo visitaba la finca agroforestal de Sipe Sipe con un peque√Īo grupo organizado por la AAF y algunos de sus aliados. Algunas de las lechugas, cebollas y tomates de la finca terminaron en una ba√Īera durante nuestra visita, para hacer una ensalada para los visitantes, parte de un fabuloso almuerzo (con papas frescas y cordero cocido bajo tierra en un pampaku) ofrecido a un precio modesto. Los productos cocinados en el sitio y vendidos informalmente en la finca probablemente no se contabilizan. Despu√©s del recorrido por la finca y antes del almuerzo, Marcelina organiz√≥ una mesa para vender algunas verduras. Se mantuvo ocupada apuntando cada transacci√≥n mientras compr√°bamos peque√Īas bolsas de tomates y otros productos por cantidades menos de un d√≥lar cada una.

La venta de medio kilo de tomates es tanto trabajo como la venta de veinte toneladas de arroz. Una finca peque√Īa tiene muchas m√°s ventas que una grande y se requiere mucho trabajo administrativo para hacer un seguimiento de los productos que no se venden porque van a parar como semilla, para alimentar a los animales o a la mesa de la familia.

El costo:beneficio de un campo convencional es m√°s simple de tabular: tanta mano de obra, maquinaria, semillas y productos qu√≠micos, todos comprados, y el rendimiento de un solo cultivo medido con relativa facilidad. Sin embargo, esto no cuenta toda la historia. La p√©rdida de suelo debido a la erosi√≥n, o el carbono y nitr√≥geno a la atm√≥sfera, o la contaminaci√≥n por la escorrent√≠a de los fertilizantes, todos ellos tienen un costo, aunque a menudo se desestimen como “externalidades”.

Un sistema agroforestal, como la hect√°rea de manzanas y hortalizas que visitamos comienza con una gran inversi√≥n en riego y terrazas. Muchos de los insumos son mano de obra, o abonos caseros, y su costo no siempre se cuenta. Los manzanos a√ļn no han dado fruto, y algunas de las verduras pueden escaparse de la cuenta del contable. Sin embargo, aqu√≠ las “externalidades” tienen una contribuci√≥n positiva y valiosa: se est√° creando el suelo, la contaminaci√≥n qu√≠mica es nula y los medios de subsistencia se enriquecen a medida que los agricultores locales, en su mayor√≠a mujeres, aprenden a trabajar juntas para producir alimentos saludables para vender. Las comparaciones econ√≥micas cl√°sicas con las explotaciones convencionales no tienen en cuenta estos beneficios.

Incluso una peque√Īa granja puede tener mucho que considerar al estimar los rendimientos, con muchos cultivos y actividades y servicios ambientales. Hasta que no aprendamos a medir la eficiencia ambiental y la rentabilidad financiera de las granjas agroforestales o agroecol√≥gicas de manera adecuada, nunca se ver√°n tan bien como realmente son.

Para leer m√°s

Un informe reciente de la FAO (Organización de las Naciones Unidas para la Alimentación y la Agricultura) concluye que los datos sobre el rendimiento son muy pobres para poder comparar la agricultura convencional (sobre arado, con uso intensivo de químicos) con la agroecología, una agricultura que vas más allá de la orgánica, con conservación del suelo y respeto para las comunidades locales.

Resumen y recomendaciones del informe del GANESAN sobre Agroecología y otras innovaciones (19 de junio 2019). Roma: FAO. http://www.csm4cfs.org/es/summary-recommendations-hlpe-report-agroecology-innovations/

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Enlightened Agroecology August 4th, 2019 by

Vea la versi√≥n en espa√Īol a continuaci√≥n

Francisco ‚ÄúPacho‚ÄĚ Gangotena grew up in the countryside of Ecuador and decided that the best way to help smallholder farmers was to get an education. So, he went abroad for a Ph.D. in anthropology. He came home feeling like ‚Äúthe divine papaya‚ÄĚ, he says, thinking that he could change the world with his doctorate.

After a year of teaching at the university, Pacho wanted do something more practical, so he and his wife Maritza sold the house and the car and bought four hectares of land for farming not too far from Quito. But making this work was going to be a huge challenge. The land had no trees and the soil was degraded.

From day one, the family decided that they would use no agrochemicals. They gradually improved the soil by recycling the crop residues and manure back into the soil. Pacho estimates that in this way the family has applied the equivalent of 4000 truckloads of compost since he first began farming here over 35 years ago.

I met Pacho recently on his farm in Puembo, in the Ecuadorian Andes, where he happily showed me and a few other visitors his four dairy cows. He puts sawdust in their stall to absorb their manure and urine. Each cow eats 90 kilos of feed daily and produces about 70 kilos of waste every day, equivalent to 25 tons of organic fertilizer each year for every cow. A single cow can fertilize one hectare of crops. All the manure goes onto the farm, along with all of the composted crop residues.

Pacho rotates his vegetable crops on his four-hectare farm. Potatoes are followed by broccoli, lettuce, radishes and green beans. He employs ten people and is proud that his small farm can give jobs to local families by producing healthy vegetables to sell direct to consumers in the local markets.

His grown son and daughter have also found work on the farm. Pacho jokes that he has retired and that now his daughter is his boss‚ÄĒand a pretty demanding one.

Besides recycling organic matter, Pacho also has some more unusual strategies for building up the soil. He enriches it with wood ash from pizzerias and with powdered rock from quarries. As the quarries cut stone, they leave behind a lot of powdered rock, as waste, which Pacho collects. Rocks are rich in minerals (with up to 80 elements) and are one of nature’s main components of soil.

Pacho is up front about his limitations, which adds to his credibility. A new phytoplasma disease (punta morada) is sweeping Ecuador, wiping out potato fields, including his. He also has to import vegetable seed from the USA and Europe.

But Pacho‚Äôs vegetable fields are lush, like gardens, and now surrounded by trees that the family has planted ‚Äúproviding room, board and employment for the birds and for beneficial insects,‚ÄĚ Pacho explains. An ornithologist friend counted 32 bird species on the farm, including 22 insectivores. Pacho is convinced that the birds help him to control pests without the need for insecticides. Predatory insects also provide a natural biological control of pests.

He also thinks that it is important to share what he has learned, welcoming around 32,000 smallholders to visit his farm over the years. It helps that he was the director of Swiss Aid in Ecuador for 20 years and has built a large network of collaborating farmers. Many come in groups, and some stay for several days to learn about organic farming and agroecology.

The farm’s family and staff feed us a big lunch of kale salad, potato soup and a lasagna made with green leaves instead of pasta. All vegetarian and delicious. The farm has a clear emphasis on nutritious food and produces lots of it. By intercropping and rotating crops, they get 92 tons of vegetables and other crops per hectare each year, a more than respectable yield by any standard. Since buying the farm, the organic matter, or carbon held in the soil has increased from 2% to 12% or more. In a hectare that is at least 500 tons of carbon.

Not everyone is in favor of organic, biological agriculture. For example, in an otherwise excellent book, Enlightenment Now, Steven Pinker argues that organic agriculture is not sustainable, because it supposedly uses more land that conventional agriculture.

In fact, in developing countries organic agriculture yields 80% more than conventional agriculture, but without the yield stagnation or decline that occurs with the high use of external inputs (see Uniformity in Diversity by IPES Food).

But Pinker, in his characteristic optimism, also writes that even though climate change is the world’s most serious problem, it can be solved if we really work on it.

That brings us back to the Gangotena family farm, which is providing jobs, and lots of healthy food, while removing carbon from the air where it is harmful and putting it underground where it is useful.  Organic agriculture may be one of the world‚Äôs greatest techniques for sequestering carbon from the atmosphere, storing in the soil as rich, black earth for productive farming.

Further reading

Pinker, Steven 2018 Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress. London: Penguin Books.

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.

Related blog story

Out of space

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Pacho Gangotena and his family for their generosity of spirit and for the example they set, to Ross Borja and Pedro Oyarz√ļn of EkoRural for organizing the visit to the farm. EkoRural is supported in part by the McKnight Foundation. Thanks to Ross Borja, Pedro Oyarz√ļn, Claire Nicklin, Pacho Gangotena, Paul Van Mele and Eric Boa for reading an earlier draft of this story.

LA LUZ DE LA AGROECOLOG√ćA

Por Jeff Bentley, 4 de agosto del 2019

Francisco “Pacho” Gangotena creci√≥ en el campo en Ecuador y decidi√≥ que la mejor manera de ayudar a los campesinos era obtener una educaci√≥n. As√≠ que, se fue al exterior para hacer un doctorado en antropolog√≠a. Lleg√≥ a casa sinti√©ndose como “la divina papaya “, dice, pensando que podr√≠a cambiar el mundo con su doctorado.

Despu√©s de un a√Īo de ense√Īar en la universidad, Pacho quer√≠a hacer algo m√°s pr√°ctico, as√≠ que √©l y su esposa Maritza vendieron la casa y el auto y compraron cuatro hect√°reas de tierra cerca de Quito. Pero la agricultura iba a ser un gran desaf√≠o. La tierra no ten√≠a √°rboles y el suelo estaba degradado.

Desde el primer d√≠a, la familia decidi√≥ que no usar√≠a agroqu√≠micos. Poco a poco mejoraron el suelo volviendo a incorporar los rastrojos y el esti√©rcol. Pacho estima que de esta manera la familia ha aplicado el equivalente a 4000 camiones de compost desde que empezaron a trabajar la tierra hace 35 a√Īos.

Conoc√≠ a Pacho hace poco en su finca en Puembo, en los Andes ecuatorianos, donde con toda felicidad √©l mostr√≥ a m√≠ y a algunos otros visitantes sus cuatro vacas lecheras. Pone aserr√≠n en su establo para absorber el esti√©rcol y la orina. Cada vaca come 90 kilos de alimento al d√≠a y produce unos 70 kilos de esti√©rcol al dia, unas 25 toneladas de abono org√°nico por vaca, al a√Īo. Cada vaca fertiliza una hect√°rea. Todo el esti√©rcol fertiliza el suelo junto con los rastrojos del campo convertidos en compost.

Pacho rota sus cultivos en sus cuatro hect√°reas de cultivo que constituyen su finca. Despu√©s de las papas pone br√≥coli, lechuga, r√°banos y arvejas. Emplea a diez personas y est√° orgulloso de que su peque√Īa finca d√© empleo a las familias locales, produciendo verduras sanas para venderlas directamente a los consumidores en los mercados locales.

Su hijo y su hija también traban en la finca. Pacho bromea que se ha jubilado y que ahora su hija es su jefa, y que es muy dura.

Adem√°s de reciclar la materia org√°nica, Pacho tambi√©n tiene algunas estrategias m√°s originales para crear suelo. La enriquece con ceniza de le√Īa de pizzer√≠as y con el polvo de roca de las canteras. Como las canteras cortan piedra, dejan mucha roca en polvo, como desecho, que Pacho recoge. La rocas son ricas en minerales (hasta 80 elementos) y constituyen uno de los principales componentes naturales del suelo.

Pacho admite francamente sus limitaciones, lo cual le da m√°s credibilidad. Un nuevo fitoplasma (una enfermedad‚ÄĒpunta morada) est√° arrasando con las papas del Ecuador, incluido las suyas. Tambi√©n tiene que importar varias de sus semillas de hortalizas de los Estados Unidos y Europa.

Pero las hortalizas de Pacho son exuberantes, como jardines, y ahora est√°n rodeados de √°rboles que la familia ha plantado “para dar ‚Äėroom and board‚Äô y trabajo a los p√°jaros e insectos ben√©ficos”, explica Pacho. Un amigo ornit√≥logo cont√≥ 32 especies de aves en la granja, incluyendo 22 insect√≠voros. Pacho est√° convencido de que las aves le ayudan a controlar las plagas sin necesidad de usar insecticidas. Los insectos depredadores tambi√©n hacen un control biol√≥gico natural de las plagas.

Tambi√©n cree que es importante compartir lo que ha aprendido y 32.000 campesinos han visitado su granja a lo largo de los a√Īos. Es una ventaja haber sido director de Swiss Aid en Ecuador durante 20 a√Īos y ha creado una amplia red de agricultores colaboradores. Muchos vienen en grupos, y algunos se quedan varios d√≠as para aprender sobre la agricultura org√°nica y la agroecolog√≠a.

La familia y el personal de la granja nos alimentan con un gran almuerzo de ensalada de col rizada, sopa de papas y una lasa√Īa de hojas verdes sin pasta. Todo vegetariano y delicioso. La finca tiene un claro √©nfasis en la comida nutritiva, la cual produce en abundancia. A trav√©s del policultivo y la rotaci√≥n de cultivos, obtienen 92 toneladas de hortalizas y productos agr√≠colas por a√Īo en las cuatro hect√°reas, por a√Īo, m√°s que respetables bajo cualquier sistema. Desde que compr√≥  la finca, la materia org√°nica o carbono retenido en el suelo ha subido del 2% al 12% o m√°s. En una hect√°rea de al menos 500 toneladas de carbono.

No todos están a favor de la agricultura orgánica y biológica. Por ejemplo, en un libro por lo demás excelente, Enlightenment Now, Steven Pinker argumenta que la agricultura orgánica no es sostenible, porque supuestamente usa más tierra que la agricultura convencional.

De hecho, en los países en desarrollo la agricultura orgánica rinde un 80% más que la agricultura convencional, pero sin los rendimientos estancados o en disminución que sucede con el alto uso de insumos externos (véase Uniformity in Diversity por IPES Food).

Pero Pinker, con su caracter√≠stico optimismo, a√Īade que aunque el cambio clim√°tico es el problema m√°s grave del mundo, puede resolverse si realmente trabajamos en eso.

Esto nos lleva de nuevo a la granja de la familia Gangotena, que crea puestos de trabajo y produce abundantes alimentos saludables, a la vez que extrae el carbono del aire donde hace da√Īo y lo pone bajo tierra donde hace bien.  

Leer m√°s

Pinker, Steven 2018 Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress. London: Penguin Books.

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.

Historia de blog relacionada

Out of space

Agradecimientos

Gracias a Pacho Gangotena y su familia por su esp√≠ritu generoso y por el ejemplo que nos dan, a Ross Borja y Pedro Oyarz√ļn de EkoRural por organizar la visita a la granja. EkoRural recibe apoyo de la Fundaci√≥n McKnight. Gracias a Ross Borja, Pedro Oyarz√ļn, Claire Nicklin, Pacho Gangotena, Paul Van Mele y Eric Boa por leer una versi√≥n anterior de esta relaci√≥n.

Out of space July 28th, 2019 by

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further reading

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

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

IPES-Food. 2016. From uniformity to diversity: a paradigm shift from industrial agriculture to diversified agroecological systems. International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food systems. www.ipes-food.org

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

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Over 100 farmer training videos on organic agriculture can be found on the Access Agriculture video-sharing platform:  Organic agriculture

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Good fungus for healthy groundnuts June 9th, 2019 by

Diseases need to be cured; this is true for people, animals and plants. In plant protection, fungicides are probably more readily seen as acceptable than insecticides, which are well known to harm the ecosystem, bees, birds and people. But plants can be protected without chemicals, as people from the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation in India are showing in their gradually growing series of farmer training videos.

Their latest farmer training video on root and stem rot in groundnut nicely shows how beneficial fungi like Trichoderma can control root and stem rot diseases without the need for chemical fungicides. Indian farmer Govindammal shows the viewer how she carefully coats the groundnut seed with Trichoderma, using some water to make the powder stick to the seed. She mixes it on a jute bag without using her hands, to avoid breaking the seed.

Some farmers add Trichoderma directly to the soil by mixing it in the manure. For one hectare of land, they mix two kilograms of Trichoderma with 10 baskets of farmyard manure. They leave the mix for a day in the shade before applying it to the field. The good fungi will grow faster with the manure. By broadcasting this mix on their field before sowing, farmers will grow abundant, healthy groundnuts.

Biological pest control was long restricted to insects, so when doing a Google Scholar search on root and stem rot in groundnut, I was pleasantly surprised to see that many top articles are on biological control with beneficial fungi such as Trichoderma. Indian scientists have dominated this research and hence it comes as no surprise that in India Trichoderma has become widely available as a commercial product.

Apart from their own videos, MSSRF staff have also translated farmer-to-farmer training videos that were produced in Bangladesh and Africa. MSSRF makes the Tamil versions of the videos available to farmers through its rural plant clinics and farmer learning centres.

In an earlier blog, Jeff wrote that ‚ÄúExtension agents can and do make a difference in farmers‚Äô attitudes about agrochemicals, even if it takes time.‚ÄĚ This is true, but videos can speed up this process. Besides, quality training videos will not only change the behaviour of farmers, but also extension staff, and some researchers.

Hopefully in future, we will see more research and extension in support of organic agriculture and more organic technologies will become available to farmers. As we have seen with other technologies such as drip irrigation (read: To drip or not to drip), farmer training videos can create a real demand for green technologies and trigger rural entrepreneurs to invest in them.

Watch or download the videos from the Access Agriculture video platform in English, French or Tamil

Managing mealybugs in vegetables

Managing tomato leaf curl virus

Managing bacterial leaf blight in rice

Managing aphids in beans and vegetables

Root and stem rot in groundnut (will be published in coming week)

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Apple futures June 2nd, 2019 by

Vea la versi√≥n en espa√Īol a continuaci√≥n

Lap‚Äôiya means ‚Äúdahlia‚ÄĚ in Quechua. It‚Äôs an apt name for a village of commercial flower growers, tucked into a steep canyon in the Andes, high above the city of Cochabamba. Ana and I visited Lap‚Äôiya recently to learn about a farmer who is seeking alternative crops, ones that don‚Äôt require spraying with pesticides. Concerns are growing about the use of pesticides in flowers.

We met Benjamín Vargas, a farmer, and his friend Serafín Vidal, an extension agent who are developing an agroforestry system based on apples. They are perhaps the first ones in the area to mix apples with forestry trees. They hope this combination will hold the soil on the steep slope while also providing a reliable income. Apples do well in this part of Bolivia, with a wide range of varieties that are smaller than the imported ones, but tasty. They also sell for less.

Benjamín and Serafín have grafted the varieties onto dwarf rootstock, so they can plant the trees closer together. Benjamín and Serafín wait until the apples are a few years old before planting other trees in between them, such as khishwara and pine. They prune these trees so they grow straight and tall, with fewer lower branches to cast shade on the apples.

In another small orchard, Benjam√≠n has placed nets over the apples to keep out the birds. ‚ÄúBe careful not to step on my other plants,‚ÄĚ he tells us. It‚Äôs only then that I spot the peas and cabbages, and the seedlings of forest trees, all growing between the apples.

Benjamín and Serafín go on to explain that they make and spray four different natural products on the apples. One they call a biofertilizer, another is biol (a fermented cow dung slurry), a third is a product that is rich in micro-organisms, and finally they use a sulfur-lime brew. The men say that all of these are fertilizers, although I think of the sulfur-lime spray as more of a homemade pesticide). Benjamín said that his kids run in and out of the trees, picking vegetables to eat, and he doesn’t want to spray anything unhealthy on the trees.

These innovators say that their idea was to control pests by keeping the trees well fertilized. The men say that they are not out to fight insect pests: ‚ÄúThis is not combat agriculture, but one where we try to get along.‚ÄĚ

Benjamín and Serafín said that they learn from each other; they did seem more like partners than like teacher-student. They are intercropping apples with vegetables and with forest trees to sell produce and to help conserve the soil. It will take years to see if their innovations work. Trees take a long time to grow, but I’d like to come back in a few years to see if the apples found a market, if the pests stayed at bay, and if the soil stayed firm on the mountainside.

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