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Against or with nature February 14th, 2021 by

Ask any tourist what comes to mind when they think of the Netherlands and there is a good chance they will say “windmills”. Ask any agricultural professional what the Netherlands is known for and they may mention “water management” and “dairy” (you know, the big round cheeses). Few people may realize how these are all intricately interwoven, and how their interaction over time has created an environmental disaster.

In his thought-provoking book Against the Grain, James Scott draws on earlier work of anthropologists and archaeologists to provide some insights into how early humans changed their environment to source food from closer to home. Through controlled fires, certain plants and wildlife species were favoured, while cooking enabled our ancestors to extract more nutrients from plants and animals than was previously possible. The very act of domesticating plants, animals and fire, in a sense also domesticated us as a species. While modern cows and many of our crops can no longer survive without us, we can no longer survive without them. Besides fire, people also relied heavily on water. In fact, everywhere in the world, ancient peoples first settled near rivers or at the fringes of wetlands which, along with the nearby forests, provided a rich variety of food.

Agricultural technology was fairly stable for centuries, but slowly began to change in medieval times, which brings us back to the windmill. While fixed windmills were found in Flanders by the 11th century, they were mainly used to grind grain. In the 1600s a Dutchman, Cornelis Corneliszoon van Uitgeest, added a crankshaft, an Arab invention, to convert the rotating movement of a windmill into an up-and-down one. Windmills could now also be used to saw wood, and to pump water. Soon the landscape was dotted with thousands of windmills. The now so typical Dutch landscape of peat grasslands and ditches is a manmade ecosystem shaped through drainage by windmills. The new pastures with lowered groundwater tables were especially apt for dairy farming, serving what became the world-renown Dutch dairy sector.

The drainage of the wetlands sounds like a great agronomic achievement, but a Dutch veterinarian Katrien van ‘t Hooft, director of Dutch Farm Experience, recently showed me the other side of the coin. The continuous drainage of surface water and lowered groundwater table, combined with modern dairy farming and use of tractors, has caused a drop in the peatland. The land has been sinking several centimeters per year for a long time, faster than the rise in sea level. Projections are that under current management the peat soils will further sink 2 meters before 2050, and become a major threat to the country. Although the Dutch government is taking urgent measures to restore the groundwater table, the challenges do not stop there.

As drained peat releases CO2, the Dutch government has set up a scheme to reward farmers who help raise the groundwater table. But wet pastures require a very different management, as farmers are now beginning to learn. When collecting hay on wet pasture, overloaded machines risk getting stuck. Maize cannot be grown, because this water-loving crop lowers the groundwater level in the peat land. The typical Holstein-Friesian cow, commonly used in the Netherlands for its high milk production, requires maize and concentrated feed. In the peat lands it is therefore now being crossed with ‘old fashioned’ local cattle breeds, such as Blister Head (Blaarkop) and MRY (Maas-Rijn-Ijssel breed). These so-called dual purpose cows yield milk and meat, perform well on plant-rich pastures and have the benefit that they can produce milk with minimal use of concentrated feed.

However, as the peat pastures need to become wetter again, these cows are increasingly suffering from some ‘old diseases’, including intestinal worms and the liver fluke, which spends part of its life cycle in mud snails. Farmers are using anthelmintics (anti-worm chemicals) to control this, but the anthelmintics to control liver fluke are forbidden in adult cows, for milk safety reasons. Moreover, just as with antibiotics, the internal parasites are quickly building up resistance against anthelminitics, and the dairy sector is forced to rethink its position of always trying to control nature.

Now here comes a twist in the story. As Katrien explained to me, these common animal diseases used to be managed by appropriate grassland management, use of resilient cattle breeds and strategic use of (herbal) medicines.  But most of this traditional knowledge has been lost over the past decades. With a group of passionate veterinary doctors and dairy farmers, Katrien has established a network with colleagues in the Netherlands, Ethiopia, Uganda and India to promote natural livestock farming. Inspired by ethnoveterinary doctors from India, Dutch veterinary doctors and dairy farmers have gained an interest in looking at herbs, both for animal medicine and for enriching grassland pastures to boost the animals’ immune system. Together they have developed the so-called NLF 5-layer approach to reduce the use of antibiotics, anthelmintics and other chemicals in dairy farming.

Resistance to chemical drugs used in livestock, whether against bacteria, fungi, ticks or intestinal worms, will have a dramatic effect on people. For example, the bacteria that gain resistance to antibiotics in animals become ‘superbugs’, that are also resistant to antibiotics in human patients. The abuse of antibiotics in livestock can ruin these life-saving drugs for people.

James Scott describes in his book that when we started intensifying our food production thousands of years ago, we lost an encyclopaedia of knowledge based on living with and from nature. In the same vein, traditional knowledge of agriculture has been eroding since the mid twentieth century, with intensification brought on by machinery and chemicals, like the Dutch dairy farmers who lost most of their folk knowledge about plants and the ‘old’ cattle diseases.

While the challenges are rising, it is fortunate that the 21st century humans are able to learn from each other’s experiences at a scale and speed unseen in history. Dutch dairy farmers are not the only ones to have lost traditional knowledge. It has happened across the globe, and more efforts are needed to help make such worthwhile initiatives of knowledge-sharing go viral (as a matter of speaking).

Credit

Katrien van ‘t Hooft kindly reviewed earlier drafts of this blog and provided photographs.

Related Agro-Insight blogs

Veterinarians and traditional animal health care

Watching videos to become a dairy expert

Trying it yourself

Stuck in the middle

Kicking the antibiotic habit

Why people drink cow’s milk

Big chicken, little chicken

Further information

James C. Scott. 2017. Against The Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States. New Haven: Yale University Press, pp. 312.

The Foundation for Natural Livestock Farming. https://www.naturallivestockfarming.com/

Dutch Farm Experience – Lessons learnt in Dutch Dairy Farming https://www.dutchfarmexperience.com/

Groen Kennisnet wiki: Herbs and herbal medicines for livestock (in Dutch) https://wiki.groenkennisnet.nl/display/KGM/Kruiden+voor+landbouwhuisdieren

https://www.natuurlijkeveehouderij.nl/kennisbank/

Watch Access Agriculture videos on herbal medicine in animal healthcare

Keeping sheep healthy

Deworming goats and sheep with herbal medicines

Herbal treatment for diarrhoea

Herbal medicine against fever in livestock

Herbal medicine against mastitis

Natural ways to manage bloat in livestock

Managing cattle ticks

Keeping milk free from antibiotics

Of fertilizers and immigration February 7th, 2021 by

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further reading

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

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

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

Related Agro-Insight blogs

Stuck in the middle

Reviving soils

A revolution for our soil

Gardening against all odds

Encouraging microorganisms that improve the soil

Farming with trees

Out of space

Offbeat urban fertilizer

Related Access Agriculture videos

Organic biofertilizer in liquid and solid form

Good microbes for plants and soil

Human urine as fertilizer

Using sack mounds to grow vegetables

Living Soil: A film review December 20th, 2020 by

Written with Paul Van Mele

In the opening scenes of the film, “Living Soil,” we see the Dust Bowl: the devastated farmland of the 1930s in the southern plains of the USA. Thirty to fifty years of plowing had destroyed the soil, and in times of drought, it drifted like snow.

As the rest of this one-hour film shows, there is now some room for optimism. Nebraska farmer Keith Berns starts by telling us that most people don’t understand the soil, not even farmers. But this is changing as more and more farmers, large and small, organic and conventional, begin to pay attention to soil health, and to the beneficial microbes that add fertility to the soil. Plants produce carbon, and exchange it with fungi and bacteria for nutrients.

Mimo Davis and Miranda Duschack have a one-acre city farm in Saint Louis, Missouri. The plot used to be covered in houses, and it was a jumble of brick and clay when the urban farmers took it over. They trucked in soil, but it was of poor fertility, so they rebuilt it with compost, and cover crops, like daikon radishes. Now they are successful farmer-florists—growing flowers without pesticides so that when customers bury their noses in the bouquet, it will be as healthy as can be.

A few scientists also appear in the film. Kristin Veum, USDA soil scientist, says that soil organisms are important because they build the soil back up. Most people know that legumes fix nitrogen, but few know that it’s the microbes in association with the plants’ roots that actually fix the nitrogen from the air.

Indiana farmer Dan DeSutter explains that mulch is important not just to retain moisture, but also to keep the soil cool in the summer. This helps the living organisms in the soil to stay more active. Just like people, good microbes prefer a temperature of 20 to 25 degrees Celsius. When it gets either too hot or too cold, the micro-organisms become less active. Cover crops are also important, explains DeSutter, “Nature abhors a mono-crop.” DeSutter plants cover crops with a mix of three to 13 different plants and this not only improves the soil, but keeps his cash crops healthier.

Nebraska’s Keith Berns plants a commercial sunflower crop in a mulch of triticale straw, with a cover crop of Austrian winter pea, cowpeas, buckwheat, flax, squash and other plants growing beneath the sunflowers. This diversity then adds 15 or 20 bushels per acre of yield (1 to 1.35 tons per hectare) to the following maize crop. Three rotations per year (triticale, sunflower and maize), with cover crops, build the soil up, while a simple maize – soy bean rotation depletes it.

Adding carbon to the soil is crucial, says DeSutter, because carbon is the basis of life in the soil. In Indiana, half of this soil carbon has been lost in just 150 to 200 years of farming, and only 50 years of intensive agriculture. No-till farming reduces fertilizer and herbicide costs, increases yield and the soil improves: a win-win-win. This also reduces pollution from agrochemical runoff.

As Keith Berns explains, the Holy Grail of soil health has been no-till without herbicides. It’s difficult to do, because you have to kill the cover crop to plant your next crop. One option is to flatten the cover crop with rollers, and another solution is to graze livestock on the cover crop, although he admits that it’s “really hard” to get this combination just right.

USDA soil health expert Barry Fisher, says “Never have I seen among farmers such a broad quest for knowledge as I’m seeing now.” The farmers are willing to share their best-kept secrets with each other, which you wouldn’t see in many other businesses.

Many of these farmers are experimenting largely on their own, but a little State support can make a huge difference. In the 1990s in Maryland, the Chesapeake Bay had an outbreak of Pfiesteria, a disease that was killing the shellfish. Scientists traced the problem to phosphorous, from chemical fertilizer runoff. Maryland’s State Government began to subsidize and promote cover crops, which farmers widely adopted. After 20 years, as Chesapeake Bay waterman James “Ooker” Eskridge explains, the bay is doing better. The sea grass is coming back. The blue crab population is doing well, the oysters are back and the bay looks healthier than it has in years.

Innovative farmers, who network and encourage each other, are revolutionizing American farming. As of 2017, US farmers had adopted cover crops and other soil health measures on at least 17 million acres (6.9 million hectares), a dramatic increase over ten years earlier, but still less than 10% of the country’s farmland. Fortunately, triggered by increased consumer awareness, these beneficial practices are catching on, which is important, because healthier soil removes carbon from the atmosphere, reduces agrochemical use, retains moisture to produce a crop in dry years, and grows more food. The way forward is clear. Measures like targeted subsidies to help farmers buy seed of cover crops have been instrumental to help spread agroecological practices. Experimenting farmers must be supported with more public research and with policies that promote healthy practices like mulching, compost, crop rotation and cover crops.

Watch the film

Living Soil directed by Chelsea Wright, Soil Health Institute

Related Agro-Insight blog stories

A revolution for our soil

Reviving soils

The intricacies of mulching

Stop erosion

What counts in agroecology

The big mucuna

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Videos on soil health practices

Organic biofertilizer in liquid and solid form

Vermiwash: an organic tonic for crops

Living windbreaks to protect the soil

Good microbes for plants and soil

Mulch for a better soil and crop

Making a vermicompost bed

Grass strips against soil erosion

Intercropping maize with pigeon peas

Intercropping pineapples

The wonder of earthworms

Reviving soils with mucuna

Old know-how, early warning November 22nd, 2020 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación

In the Bolivian Andes, some officials are starting using local knowledge to improve their early warning systems for natural disasters.

For centuries, local farmers have used the signs of nature (clouds, stars, the behavior of plants and animals) to predict disasters like hail, floods and droughts, and to forecast the welcome rains that make crops grow.

Then, starting in 2004, Prosuco (a Bolivian organization) began to organize farmers with an interest in weather and organic farming. These expert farmers, called Yapuchiris, were encouraged to teach other farmers.

In southwest Bolivia, high on the Altiplano, the local government and the Technical University in Oruro are collaborating with some of these organized Yapuchiris to provide early warning, as Professor Gunnar Guzmán explained in a recent webinar. As he put it: the Yapuchiris, using local knowledge of nature, are excellent at making long-term predictions, three to four months in advance. Meteorologists cannot make such predictions, although they are quite accurate at about 4 days in the future.

Olson Paravicini of the Risk Management Unit of the government of Oruro added that the Yapuchiris’ knowledge is local, so that each one forecasts the weather for his or her own community. This matters in a place as big as Oruro. At 53,558 square kilometers, Oruro is about the size of New York state, bigger than the Netherlands. To apply local knowledge of weather over such a large area, Paravicini and colleagues are collaborating with groups of Yapuchiris, gathering their predictions to compile a departmental level forecast to provide early warnings of floods and other nasty weather.

One of the Yapuchiris, Bernabé Choquetopa, also had a slot on the webinar, explaining several of the signs he looks for. For example, when the leque leque (Andean lapwing) migrates back into Oruro in September, don Bernabé looks at its wing. If the patch on the bird’s wing is green, the rains will be good. Green eggs also mean good rain, and dark eggs mean drought. The signs reinforce each other, so after explaining that the ayrampu cactus was bearing lots of fruit and that the foxes had healthy coats, don Bernabé predicted that this would be a good, normal year for rains in his part of Oruro.

Professional weather observers are now paying attention to the Yapuchiris, who are increasingly organized and well respected. Guzmán thinks that some of the local signs of nature are 90% accurate, a probability that increases as several are used together.

Plants and animals that have evolved in a harsh landscape may have behaviors that reflect the coming weather. Observant local people have the wisdom to pay attention to the local patterns of life. I’m optimistic when I see local scientists who have respect for this knowledge. That alone is a good sign for the future.

Related blog stories

Cultivating pride in the Andes

Reading the mole hills

To see the future

Related videos

Recording the weather

Forecasting the weather with an app

Scientific names

Ayrampu: Opuntia soehrensii

Andean lapwing: Vanellus resplendens

Andean fox: Lycalopex culpaeus

Further reading

Unfortunately, I can’t find a recording of the webinar (16 November 2020), but the seminar, the speakers and the titles of their presentations were:

Seminario Virtual Saberes Ancestrales de Bioindicadores Naturales para la Reducción de Riesgos Agropecuarios

Ing. Naida Rufino Challa, SEDAG-GAD ORU (Servicio Departamental de Agricultura y Ganadería, Gobierno Autónomo Departamental de Oruro). Mejoramiento del sistema de alerta temprana del sector agropecuario en el departamento de Oruro.

M.Sc. Ing. Gunnar D. Guzmán Vega, FCAN-UTO (Facultad de Ciencias Agrarias y Naturales, Universidad Técnica de Oruro). Efectividad de los indicadores naturales en la predicción climática en las comunidades.

Bernabé Choquetopa Rodríguez. Informante local. Pronósticos locales 2020-2021 del sur de Oruro.

Ing. Olson C. Paravicini Figueredo, UGR-GAD ORU (Unidad de Gestión de Riesgos, Gobierno Autónomo Departamental de Oruro). Bioindicadores y tecnología informática como sistema integrado de alerta temprana.

SABERES ANTIGUOS, ALERTA TEMPRANA

Por Jeff Bentley, 22 de noviembre del 2020

En los Andes bolivianos, algunas autoridades han empezado a usar los conocimientos locales para mejorar sus sistemas de alerta temprana de desastres naturales.

Durante siglos, los agricultores locales han leído los signos de la naturaleza (las nubes, las estrellas, el comportamiento de las plantas y los animales) para predecir desastres como la granizada, las riadas y las sequías, y para pronosticar las queridas lluvias que nutren a los cultivos.

Luego, a partir de 2004, Prosuco (una organización boliviana) comenzó a organizar a los agricultores interesados en el clima y la agricultura orgánica. Se les alentó a estos agricultores expertos, llamados Yapuchiris, a que enseñaran a los demás.

En el Altiplano del sudoeste de Bolivia, el gobierno local y la Universidad Técnica de Oruro están colaborando con algunos de estos Yapuchiris organizados para dar una alerta temprana, como explicó el Ingeniero Gunnar Guzmán hace poco en un webinar. Según él, los Yapuchiris, con su conocimiento local de la naturaleza, hacen acertadas predicciones a largo plazo, con tres o cuatro meses de anticipación. A cambio, los meteorólogos no pueden hacer eso, aunque hacen buenos pronósticos a unos 4 días en el futuro.

Olson Paravicini, de la Unidad de Gestión de Riesgos del Gobierno Autónomo Departamental de Oruro, añadió que el conocimiento de los Yapuchiris es local, de modo que cada uno pronostica el tiempo para su propia comunidad. Esto es importante en un lugar tan grande como Oruro. Con 53.558 kilómetros cuadrados, Oruro es el tamaño del Costa Rica, más grande que los Países Bajos. Para aplicar el conocimiento local del tiempo en una zona tan grande, Paravicini y sus colegas están colaborando con grupos de Yapuchiris, aprendiendo sus pronósticos para compilar un sistema de alerta temprana a nivel departamental para predecir riadas y otros desastres climáticos.

Uno de los Yapuchiris, Bernabé Choquetopa, también habló en el webinar, explicando varias de los indicadores que él busca. Por ejemplo, cuando el leque rebinar vuelve a Oruro en septiembre, don Bernabé mira su ala. Si es verduzca, las lluvias serán buenas. Los huevos verdes también significan buena lluvia, pero los huevos oscuros significan sequía. Los signos se refuerzan mutuamente, así que después de explicar que el cactus ayrampu estaban cargados de frutos y que los zorros tenían buen pelaje, don Bernabé predijo que este año sería bueno y normal para las lluvias en su sector de Oruro.

Ahora algunos meteorólogos profesionales prestan atención a los Yapuchiris, que son cada vez más organizados y respetados. Guzmán cree que algunos de los signos locales de la naturaleza tienen una precisión del 90%, probabilidad que aumenta a medida que se usan varios indicadores juntos.

Las plantas y los animales que han evolucionado en una tierra inhóspita pueden tener comportamientos que reflejan el tiempo y el clima. La gente local tiene la sabiduría de observar cuidadosamente a los patrones locales de vida. Soy optimista cuando veo que los científicos locales ganan respeto por este conocimiento. Eso sí es una buena señal para el futuro.

Related blog stories

Cultivando orgullo en los Andes

Leyendo el nido del topo

Conocer el futuro

Videos sobre el tema

Hacer un registro del clima

Pronosticar el clima con una aplicación

Nombres científicos

Ayrampu: Opuntia soehrensii

Leque leque: Vanellus resplendens

Zorro andino: Lycalopex culpaeus

Lectura adicional

Infelizmente, no ubico una grabación del webinar (16 de noviembre del 2020), pero el seminario virtual, los discursantes y sus presentaciones eran:

Seminario Virtual Saberes Ancestrales de Bioindicadores Naturales para la Reducción de Riesgos Agropecuarios

Ing. Naida Rufino Challa, SEDAG-GAD ORU (Servicio Departamental de Agricultura y Ganadería, Gobierno Autónomo Departamental de Oruro). Mejoramiento del sistema de alerta temprana del sector agropecuario en el departamento de Oruro.

M.Sc. Ing. Gunnar D. Guzmán Vega, FCAN-UTO (Facultad de Ciencias Agrarias y Naturales, Universidad Técnica de Oruro). Efectividad de los indicadores naturales en la predicción climática en las comunidades.

Bernabé Choquetopa Rodríguez. Informante local. Pronósticos locales 2020-2021 del sur de Oruro.

Ing. Olson C. Paravicini Figueredo, UGR-GAD ORU (Unidad de Gestión de Riesgos, Gobierno Autónomo Departamental de Oruro). Bioindicadores y tecnología informática como sistema integrado de alerta temprana.

Flying pest control robots September 13th, 2020 by

My friend Steve Peck is a novelist and a professor of evolutionary ecology, whose work on mathematical models of insect populations led him to the topic of one of his short stories, about a tiny flying robot, modelled after a dragonfly. The robots would cruise the countryside, looking for insect pests, which it killed, while sparing the beneficial insects. The story seemed pretty far-fetched when it was published in 2012.

I recently told the dragonfly robot story to another friend, Keith Andrews, an entomologist with years of experience in pest control in Central America. Keith immediately seized on the robot idea. “How did it run, on photovoltaic cells? Did it collect its prey in a kind of stomach or just kill them?”

The story doesn’t say what powered the dragonflies, just that they snipped off bits of their prey to store in a mechanical stomach, so that researchers could identify the bugs later from their DNA.

Real life dragonflies do hunt and kill other insects, to eat. But once a predatory insect is full it rests. A robot wouldn’t need to pause and digest, and could be programmed to just keep up the slaughter all day.

“A robot would be great for that plague of locusts in Africa,” Keith said. “It wouldn’t have to damage an insect much to disable it. A good zap right between the eyes or even to the thorax or abdomen would put a grasshopper out of business.”

A pest control robot could be instructed to target only the pest species of interest, and not kill anything else. It would be the ultimate ecological pest control strategy.

Since Steve published his story eight years ago, the pieces for a dragonfly robot have started to come together.

For starters, flying robots are getting better.

In The Fate of Food, Amanda Little writes that inventors already have a prototype weed-killing robot called See & Spray, that uses a large set of digital photos to distinguish cotton seedlings from weeds. As a tractor pulls See & Spray across the field, the device spots the weeds and squirts them with herbicide. (No doubt future generations of the technology may invent alternatives to herbicide; the point is that the robot can recognize weeds).

Little also describes a robot, already in commercial use, that kills sea lice, parasites of farmed salmon, by zapping the pests with a laser (in the recent blog The Fate of Food).

If you’re wondering if digital software could work to identify pests on small farms, it’s already being done. Researchers at IITA (International Institute of Tropical Agriculture) in Kenya have invented an app called Nuru (Swahili for “light”) that instantly compares thousands of photos of diseased and healthy plants to distinguish between cassava brown streak disease, cassava mosaic disease and cassava green mite damage. The app is already being tested by 28,000 farmers in Kenya.

Art can inspire technology ahead of its time. Novels fueled the idea of space travel, but engineers made it happen. I can only hope that some young robotics designers will read Steve Peck’s story.

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.

Peck, Steven L. 2012 Dragonfly Miscalculations. The Journal of Unlikely Entomology.

RTB 2019 Smarter farming: Using apps to diagnose crop health problems. In RTB 2019 Building for better science. Annual Report 2019. Lima, Peru. CGIAR Research Program on Roots, Tubers and Bananas. Available online at: www.rtb.cgiar.org/2019-annual-report

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