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A convincing gesture January 31st, 2021 by

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

In last week’s blog (We think with our hands), I wrote that people use gestures intentionally to convey meaning, while many other hand movements are unconscious. Moving our hands helps us to grasp the right words. But human speech is also much more than words and hand gestures.

Tone and volume of voice (screaming, whispering), facial expression, head movements (like nodding) and body language (slouching vs standing ramrod straight) all help to reinforce meaning and to convey emotion. We also make humming and clicking noises, which are sounds, but not speech. This non-verbal communication is convincing because it’s natural. We can spot the difference; a phony smile is made with the lips only, while you use your whole face for a sincere one.

At Agro-Insight, when we make videos with farmers, we never tell them what to say. We ask them questions, and film their answers, which we transcribe and translate into other languages. For example, if the farmer is speaking Arabic, we will use her voice in the Arabic version of the video, but we will dub over her voice for the English, French and other versions.

In these learning videos, the farmers’ non-verbal communication is typical of unscripted, sincere speech. For example, in a video filmed in India, farmer Maran explained that he had a problem with the neighbors’ turtles coming into his fish pond to eat their feed. As he said that, he moved his hands as if to suggest movement from one place to another. After hiring professional turtle catchers to remove the unwanted guests, everything was fine, an idea he reinforced by patting both hands downwards in a comforting gesture. The film crew didn’t tell him to do that. Unless you watch the Tamil version of the video, you will hear a voice artist dubbing Mr. Maran’s words, but you can still tell that his gestures go with his narrative.

In the final cut of the video, we usually leave in some of farmers‚Äô original voice, before starting the voiceover. This lets the audience hear some of the emotion. For instance, in our video on feeding dairy goats, Teresia Muthumbi explains that when she gives her goats banana stems with sweetpotato vines and a little grass, ‚ÄúThey give a lot of milk.‚ÄĚ She is speaking from experience: you can hear the sound of authority in her voice, even if you don‚Äôt understand Swahili.

In one video from Togo, farmer Filo Kodo tells how the maize harvest had increased a lot after rotating the corn with velvet bean (mucuna). One neighbor even asked her what magic she had used. ‚ÄúI told him it was with mucuna magic,‚ÄĚ she said, and you can see the smile in her eyes as well as on her lips.

I‚Äôve written before how smallholders in Malawi called people on the farmer learning videos their ‚Äúfriends‚ÄĚ, even though they had never met (Friends you can trust). Farmers in Uganda referred to their ‚Äúbrothers and sisters‚ÄĚ in West Africa, who they had only seen on the videos.

When people speak from the heart, their tone, gestures, expressions and body language convey conviction, even if the words themselves are translated into another language, and spoken by another person. Non-verbal communication adds a richness, a sincerity that is hard to fake. This is one reason why realistic farmer-to-farmer training videos are a far richer experience than fully animated videos.

Further reading

Bentley, Jeffery, Paul Van Mele, and Grace Musimami 2013. The Mud on Their Legs ‚Äď Farmer to Farmer Videos in Uganda. Agro-Insight. MEAS Case Study # 3.

Watch the videos mentioned in this blog

Stocking fingerlings in a nursery pond

Dairy goat feeding

Reviving soils with mucuna

GESTOS QUE CONVENCEN

Por Jeff Bentley, 31 de enero del 2021

En el blog de la semana pasada (Pensamos con las manos), escribí que las personas usan los gestos a propósito para transmitir un significado, mientras que muchos otros movimientos de las manos son inconscientes. Mover las manos nos ayuda a captar las palabras que buscamos. Pero la comunicación humana es también mucho más que palabras y gestos con las manos.

El tono y el volumen de la voz (gritos, susurros), la expresión facial, los movimientos de la cabeza (como para asentir) y el lenguaje corporal (ponerse cómodo o mantenerse erguido) ayudan a reforzar el significado y a transmitir emociones. También emitimos zumbidos y chasquidos, que son sonidos, pero no son palabras. Esta comunicación no verbal es convincente porque es natural. Podemos notar la diferencia; una sonrisa falsa se hace sólo con los labios, mientras una sincera es con toda la cara.

En Agro-Insight, cuando hacemos videos con agricultores, nunca les decimos lo que tienen que decir. Les hacemos preguntas y filmamos sus respuestas, que transcribimos y traducimos a otros idiomas. Por ejemplo, si la agricultora habla en árabe, usamos su voz de ella en la versión árabe del video, pero la doblamos para las versiones en inglés, francés y otras.

En estos videos de aprendizaje, la comunicaci√≥n no verbal de los agricultores es la t√≠pica del habla sincera y sin guion. Por ejemplo, en un video grabado en la India, el agricultor Maran explic√≥ que ten√≠a un problema con las tortugas de los vecinos que entraban en su estanque de peces para comer su alimento. Mientras lo dec√≠a, mov√≠a las manos como si quisiera sugerir un movimiento de un lugar a otro. Despu√©s de contratar a cazadores profesionales para eliminaran a las tortugas, todo estaba bien, idea que reforz√≥ dando palmaditas con ambas manos hacia abajo en un gesto de satisfacci√≥n. El equipo de filmaci√≥n no le dijo que hiciera eso. A menos que se vea la versi√≥n en tamil del video, se oir√° a un locutor doblando las palabras del Sr. Maran, pero aun as√≠ se nota que sus gestos realmente acompa√Īan su narraci√≥n.

En la edici√≥n final del v√≠deo, solemos dejar algo de la voz original de la gente, antes de empezar el doblaje. Esto permite al p√ļblico escuchar parte de la emoci√≥n. Por ejemplo, en nuestro video sobre la alimentaci√≥n de las cabras lecheras, Teresia Muthumbi explica que cuando da a sus cabras tallos de pl√°tano con hojas de camote y un poco de pasto, “Dan mucha leche”. Habla por experiencia: se puede o√≠r el sonido de la autoridad en su voz, aunque no se entienda el suajili.

En un video de Togo, la agricultora Filo Kodo cuenta c√≥mo la cosecha de ma√≠z ha aumentado mucho despu√©s de rotar el ma√≠z con el frijol terciopelo (mucuna). Un vecino incluso le pregunt√≥ qu√© magia hab√≠a usado. “Le dije que era con la magia de la mucuna”, dijo, y se puede ver la sonrisa en sus ojos adem√°s de en sus labios.

Ya he escrito antes c√≥mo los campesinos de Malawi llamaban “amigos” a las personas que aparec√≠an en los v√≠deos de aprendizaje, aunque no se conocieran (Amigos confiables). Los agricultores de Uganda se refer√≠an a sus “hermanos y hermanas” de √Āfrica Occidental, a los que s√≥lo hab√≠an visto en los videos.

Cuando la gente habla con el coraz√≥n, su tono, sus gestos, sus expresiones y su lenguaje corporal transmiten convicci√≥n, aunque las palabras mismas est√©n traducidas a otro idioma y sean pronunciadas por otra persona. La comunicaci√≥n no verbal a√Īade una riqueza, una sinceridad que es dif√≠cil de fingir. Esta es una de las razones por las que los videos realistas de agricultor-a-agricultor son una experiencia mucho m√°s rica que los videos de pura animaci√≥n.

Lectura adicional

Bentley, Jeffery, Paul Van Mele, y Grace Musimami 2013. The Mud on Their Legs ‚Äď Farmer to Farmer Videos in Uganda. Agro-Insight. MEAS Case Study # 3.

Vea los videos mencionados en este blog

Estanque vivero para criar alevines

Alimentando a cabras lecheras

Revivir el suelo con la mucuna

The fate of food August 2nd, 2020 by

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

In The Fate of Food, Amanda Little (professor of journalism and science writing at Vanderbilt University) takes us on a strange journey to the cutting edge of agricultural research. Little has an astonishing knack for getting quality face time with some of the most innovative (and busy) people in the science of food.

She takes us to Shanghai to meet Tony Zhang, an entrepreneur who dreamed of being the Whole Foods (grocery store chain) of China. Zhang was so enraged when he found out that his vegetable farmers were growing special plots of organic produce just for their own families, while selling produce tainted with pesticides, that he created his own 4,000 hectare farm where he monitored his crops with electronic soil sensors that captured data on soil moisture and temperature, humidity, acidity and light absorption. The cost of managing the data and cleaning the heavily polluted soil eventually led Zhang to quit farming, but other companies continue to improve his idea of the digitalized soil sensors.

In Silicon Valley, Indian cardiologist Uma Valeti leads a startup that is culturing meat in the lab. It’s real meat, just grown in a Petri dish, not in an animal’s body. Little finds the duck meat tasty, although at over $100,000 a serving, it’s still not commercial. But costs are falling.

In Norway, commercial salmon grower Alf-Helge Aarskog is growing the fish in cages in the seawater of a fjord. Fish farmers are racing to invent technology fast enough to solve their emerging problems. Captive salmon were once fed wild sea creatures, but the diet is now 75% grain, with the goal of creating a completely vegetarian, cultivated fare. The dense populations of penned fish are a breeding ground for ‚Äúsea lice,‚ÄĚ a crustacean parasite of salmon. Aarskog is using a robot that can spot the sea lice and zap them with a laser as the fish dart through the water.

Robots are the newest farm workers on dry land as well. Peruvian engineer Jorge Heraud and colleagues in California have invented a ‚Äúlettuce bot‚ÄĚ that can thin a field by recognizing when seedlings are too dense, and kill the extra plants with a precision over-dose of chemical fertilizer. John Deere sees enough promise in the idea that the corporation recently bought Heraud‚Äôs company for $305 million.

In the USA, most lettuce is grown in California in the summer, and around Yuma, Arizona in the winter, a continent away from the big consumer markets of the East Coast. Former Cornell professor Ed Harwood and colleagues have solved this problem by growing aeroponic lettuce in an old building in Newark, New Jersey, where the plants grow under LED lights, without soil. The lettuce is marketable after 12 to 16 days instead of 30 or 45, and the plants yield four times as much as in the open field. The lettuce is grown on trays stacked high, so the yield per hectare can be 390 times as high as in a conventional farm.

The book is crowded with insights. For example, drip irrigation was invented in the 1930s by Simcha Blass, an Israeli engineer, after he observed a tree growing big and lush in the desert, thanks to a nearby, overlooked leaking faucet. Little is also cautious about some recent innovations; 90% of the maize, soy and cotton grown in the USA now is genetically modified, mostly to be grown with high doses of herbicides. Pigweed has now evolved resistance to the herbicides and infests 70 million acres (28 million hectares) in the United States.

As we learned from professor Calestous Juma, earlier in this blog (The enemies of innovation), innovations often look awkward at first; it took years for the farm tractor to become agile enough to really compete with horses. It’s hard to tell which of the innovations that Little describes will produce the food of the future. But big data, robots and more indoor farming may all be here to stay. Little starts and closes her book with a vignette about Chris and Annie Newman, a young couple in Northern Virginia raising pigs and chickens, and fruit and nut trees, with permaculture. The Newmans are pro-environment and pro-technology; they look forward to the day when they can use weeding robots on their farm. It’s just possible that digital technology of the future might tempt more young people to invest in highly productive, organic family farming.

Further reading

Little, Amanda 2019 The Fate of Food: What We’ll Eat in a Bigger, Hotter, Smarter World. New York: Harmony Books. 340 pp.

EL PORVENIR DE NUESTRA COMIDA

2 de agosto del 2020, por Jeff Bentley

En The Fate of Food (El Destino de los Alimentos), Amanda Little (profesora de periodismo y de redacci√≥n cient√≠fica en la Universidad de Vanderbilt) nos lleva por un extra√Īo viaje a la vanguardia de la investigaci√≥n agr√≠cola. Little tiene un incre√≠ble don para lograr reunirse con algunas de las personas m√°s innovadoras (y m√°s ocupadas) en la ciencia de los alimentos.

Nos lleva a Shanghai para conocer a Tony Zhang, un empresario que so√Īaba ser el Whole Foods (cadena de supermercados) de China. Zhang se enfureci√≥ tanto cuando se enter√≥ de que sus productores de hortalizas cultivaban parcelas org√°nicas especiales s√≥lo para alimentar a sus propias familias, mientras vend√≠an productos contaminados con plaguicidas, que cre√≥ su propia funca de 4.000 hect√°reas donde supervisaba sus cultivos con sensores electr√≥nicos del suelo que captaban datos sobre la humedad y la temperatura del suelo, la acidez y la absorci√≥n de la luz solar. Al final de cuentas, el costo de manejar los datos y limpiar el suelo bien contaminado llev√≥ a Zhang a dejar de cultivar, pero otras empresas siguen mejorando su idea de los sensores digitalizados del suelo.

En el Valle del Silicio, el cardiólogo Uma Valeti (originalmente de la India) dirige una empresa nueva que cultiva carne en el laboratorio. Es carne de verdad, que crece en una placa de Petri, no en el cuerpo de un animal. La Profesora Little prueba la sabrosa carne de pato, aunque a más de 100.000 dólares la porción, todavía no es comercial. Pero los costos están bajando.

En Noruega, el criador comercial de salm√≥n, Alf-Helge Aarskog, cultiva peces enjauladas en el agua salina de un fiordo. Los piscicultores inventan tecnolog√≠a r√°pidamente para resolver los problemas a medida que emerjan. Hace pocos a√Īos, el salm√≥n en cautiverio se alimentaba con mariscos capturados del mar, pero actualmente su dieta es 75% de granos, con la meta de llegar a un alimento completamente vegetariano. Las jaulas llenas de peces son un caldo de cultivo para los “piojos del salm√≥n”, un crust√°ceo par√°sito. Aarskog est√° usando un robot que detecta los piojos de salm√≥n y los mata con un l√°ser mientras los peces nadan velozmente.  

Los robots son los m√°s recientes trabajadores agr√≠colas en la tierra firme tambi√©n. El ingeniero peruano Jorge Heraud y sus colegas de California han inventado un “robot de lechuga” que puede ralear un campo, reconociendo cuando los plantines son demasiado densos, y matar los que sobran con una sobredosis de fertilizante qu√≠mico, puesto con precisi√≥n quir√ļrgica. La empresa John Deere ve tanta promesa en la idea que ha comprado la compa√Ī√≠a de Heraud por 305 millones de d√≥lares.

En los Estados Unidos, la mayoría de la lechuga se cultiva en California en el verano, y alrededor de Yuma, Arizona en el invierno; la hortaliza tiene que atravesar todo el continente para llegar a los grandes mercados de la Costa Este. El ex profesor de Cornell, Ed Harwood y sus colegas han acortado esta distancia, cultivando lechuga aeropónica en un edificio viejo de Newark, Nueva Jersey, donde las plantas crecen bajo luces LED, sin suelo. La lechuga se puede vender después de 12 a 16 días en lugar de 30 o 45, y las plantas rinden cuatro veces más que en campo abierto. La lechuga se cultiva en bandejas apiladas una sobre otra, por lo que el rendimiento por hectárea puede ser 390 veces mayor que en una granja convencional.

El libro está lleno de ideas. Por ejemplo, el riego por goteo fue inventado en la década de 1930 por Simcha Blass, un ingeniero israelí, al observar un árbol que crecía grande y frondoso en el desierto, gracias a un grifo que goteaba a sus raíces. Little observa algunas innovaciones con cautela; el 90% del maíz, la soja y el algodón que se cultivan en los Estados Unidos está ahora modificado genéticamente, en su mayor parte para ser cultivado con altas dosis de herbicidas. El amaranto silvestre ha desarrollado resistencia a los herbicidas e infesta 28 millones de hectáreas en los Estados Unidos.

Como hemos aprendido del profesor Calestous Juma (vea el blog The enemies of innovation), muchas innovaciones son impr√°cticas al principio; tom√≥ a√Īos para que el tractor se volviera tan √°gil como el equipo jalado por caballos. Es dif√≠cil decir cu√°l de las innovaciones que Little describe producir√° el alimento del futuro. Pero los datos en computadora, los robots y la agricultura aerop√≥nica de repente han llegado para quedarse. Little comienza y cierra su libro con una vi√Īeta sobre Chris y Annie Newman, una pareja joven del norte de Virginia que cr√≠a cerdos y pollos, frutales y nueces, con permacultura. Los Newman quieren cuidar el medio ambiente mientras fomentan la tecnolog√≠a nueva; esperan el d√≠a en que puedan usar robots para deshierbar su finca. Tal vez la tecnolog√≠a digital del futuro pueda tentar a m√°s j√≥venes a invertir en la agricultura familiar org√°nica de alta productividad.

Lectura adicional

Little, Amanda 2019 The Fate of Food: What We’ll Eat in a Bigger, Hotter, Smarter World. Nueva York: Harmony Books. 340 pp.

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 ‚Äď then watch them grow again when the pond is refilled. It‚Äôs 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‚Äôt 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.

Robbing land from the sea March 25th, 2018 by

The low-lying Netherlands is famous for its polders, the land behind the dikes, reclaimed from the sea. Beginning about 1000 AD, people made dikes, or earthen dams, to protect communities from flooding. At first the water was simply drained through canals, but with time the land in the polders subsided, and by the 1400s water was being pumped out with windmills. Thanks to hard work, investment and some clever engineering, people still live in and farm the polders.

Much of Bangladesh is also right at sea level and densely populated. So why doesn’t Bangladesh have polders too? I wondered out-loud during a recent visit last October.

‚ÄúBut we do! Bangladesh has many polders,‚ÄĚ my colleague Salahuddin retorted. He explained that there was a string of some 123 polders over much of southern Bangladesh, an area where several large rivers cut the delta into finger-like strips of lowland.

The polders were built between the 1960s and the 1980s, first by the provincial government of East Pakistan, and later by the Government of Bangladesh, after independence from Pakistan in 1971.

Each polder is ringed by a low earthen embankment (basically a dike), sometimes just two meters high and made by hand. The roughly oval-shaped polders are dozens of kilometers in circumference.

The Bangladeshi polders are drained by an ingenious network of canals, radiating like veins from the center of the polder to the edge, where the flow of water is controlled by a sluice gate in the embankment.The sluice gate is a concrete structure with metal doors that can be raised by a hand-crank to let the water out during the rainy season, and lowered during the dry season to keep out the saltwater.

Originally the wetlands of the delta region had been sparsely populated by fisher-farmers who grew low yielding rice varieties that tolerated brackish water. The polders soon became attractive places to live and settlers trickled in. The people who were born in the polders tended to stay there and so populations increased.

Some of the polders have benefited from some sort of project, and have been reasonably well managed. By 2018 the better polders are like gardens, with comfortable farm houses surrounded by shimmering green rice fields.

The polders have had their share of troubles. Sometimes one of the rivers changes course, depositing a bank of silt next to the sluice gate, so the water inside the polder cannot drain out.  Other problems are man-made. Loggers float timber down the canals, and when the logs reach the sluice gates, the workers take the easy route to the river. Instead of hoisting the logs around the sluice gate, the loggers force the timber through the delicate metal gates, twisting and denting them so they no longer open and close. Wealthy, powerful people sometimes block the drainage canals to raise fish in them. Or they string nets over the canal to catch fish. But this slows down the flow of water, allowing silt to settle and eventually block the canal. The canals are as wide as a highway, and can be just as difficult to maintain. So once the drainage canal stops working, villagers are unable to open them up again without help from outsiders.

The polders are essentially a government mega-project, which sounds at first like a recipe for disaster. But as one drives along the top of a polder embankment, the muddy river on one side and the tidy green fields and villages on the other, it is hard to ignore the fact that the government got something right.

Ironically, country that is flooded during the rainy season may be completely dry a few months later. Various initiatives are now promoting dry-season irrigation for high value crops besides rice, and the farmers in the polders are avidly buying motorized pumps. In many places the rich, black earth inside the polders is now producing two or three crops a year of rice, mung beans, mustard, watermelon and vegetables.

Such changes in the farming system are creating more wealth for the farmers in those polders that are well run. But it will take collaboration, for local government to protect the canals and embankments, for the private sector to provide farm supplies and buy the produce and especially for innovative farmers, to continue re-inventing the agriculture of this marvelous, human-made environment.

Further reading

In characteristic modesty it was some time before my friend Salahuddin told me that he had written his masters’ thesis on the polders of Bangladesh.

Salahuddin, Ahmad 1995 Operation and Maintenance of Small Scale Flood Control Projects: Case of Bangladesh Water Development Board. Master’s Thesis: Institute ofSocial Studies, The Hague.

See also Paul’s blog from last week on coastal Bangladesh: Floating vegetable gardens.

Acknowledgement

I am indebted to Md. Harun-ar-Rashid, Guy Jones and many others for enlightening me about polders on a recent trip to Bangladesh, supported by the Blue Gold Program, with funding from the Embassy of the Netherlands. Thanks to Harun-ar-Rashid, Ahmad Salauddin, Paul Van Mele and Eric Boa for reading and remarking on previous versions.

Fishing changes November 12th, 2017 by

Two million years ago in East Africa, long before humans lived on any other continent, our ancestors followed the receding shorelines of shallow ponds and lakes, during each annual dry season, scooping up the stranded catfish and eels. People have eaten fish ever since, and fishing may have shaped humans more than big game hunting.

From Rome to China, early civilizations would have been impossible without fish, as renowned archaeologist Brian Fagan tells us in a new book, Fishing. Mesopotamians could always rely on fish, even when the flooding Tigris and Euphrates failed to water the crops. When the Nile flooded, it covered the land in fish, as well as water. The pyramids of Egypt were built by laborers fed on rations of beer, bread and dried catfish, caught every year in the shallow, receding flood waters of the Nile.

Ancient sailors in small boats could not carry enough provisions for long voyages. The mariners would never have been able to explore the Indian Ocean and create the trade routes that linked Europe and Asia, without settled communities of fisherfolk, who caught and dried fish to sell or trade.

Fishing would have been impossible without local knowledge. The Tahitians sailed sophisticated, deep-sea canoes to catch large, predatory fish. The big fish and the sea birds both followed dense schools of smaller fish. The Tahitians recognized that the big fish followed the birds to find the small fish. Fishers scanned the horizon for birds, and could tell by the species flying over the water what type of fish to expect there.

Commercial fishing began with herring in the North Sea in the 1300s. Dutch and Flemish crews caught the fish from deep-water wooden ships called busses, which required a large crew and started the season every year on the night of St. John, 24 June. The fish were salted, packed into standard-sized barrels, branded with the seals of the merchants who sold them, and traded all over Europe until 1810. By then the herring were becoming scarce, and salted cod from the Atlantic had captured the market. While there is still fishing in the North Sea, before the 1800s the herring were so abundant they were compared to ants.

As waters were fished out, fishers sailed farther and farther from home. The English were fishing off the shores of Iceland in 1420 and off the banks of Newfoundland in 1600. By about 1880, new technologies such as steam trawlers extended the reach of commercial fishing to deep ocean water. But some modern techniques are devastating, such as the large nets that drag the bottom, destroying the places where the fish spawn.

Many countries have reacted to over-fishing by creating 200-mile exclusion zones and limiting catches. The Canadian government closed the cod fishery in 1992 when stocks hit 1% of their peak. Thanks to the ban, the cod have since partially recovered.

Although subsistence fishing is ancient, it has never destroyed the fishery it depended upon. Salmon and sturgeon once swam up the Danube River to spawn. Communities of fishers had survived for thousands of years at the Iron Gates (on the Danube between Serbia and Romania), until nineteenth century pollution, dam-building and over-fishing destroyed the stocks.

But waters far from home, as in the Antarctic, are uncontrolled and fished recklessly, as though there were no tomorrow. Commercial fishing is now in a slow decline, while artisanal and subsistence fishing are both on the rise. Fish farming is increasing rapidly. By 2012, for the first time in history, more fish were farmed than caught wild.

I saw a glimpse of artisanal, peasant fishing recently in Bangladesh, where many villages have fields interspersed with fish ponds. Farmers throw nets and use various other techniques, bringing home one small bag of fish at a time for the supper pot.

On one especially rainy day, the ponds were over-flowing, and some people were setting up long, gently tapering nets over the drainage ditches, to catch any fish that may have escaped from the ponds. No fish was going to be wasted.

Subsistence fishers are often smallholder farmers. Fishing and farming combine easily. If fishing fed civilization, as Fagan explains, it is the smallholders who will keep fishing alive into the future. The fish ponds in Bangladesh are highly commercial, run by knowledgeable farmers. With the increasing demand for proteins, fish species will continue to feed humanity only with a good balance between open sea fishing that respects quotas (based on science and policy) and fish farming that will require stringent food safety measures, such as guarding against the abuse of antibiotics.

Further reading

Fagan, Brian 2017 Fishing: How the Sea Fed Civilization. New Have: Yale University Press. 346 pp.

Related blog stories

Cake for fish? hold the coconut, please

Fishing on a hill

Further viewing

Food for fish

Stocking fingerlings in a nursery pond

Preparing low-cost concentrate feed

Growing azolla for feed

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