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Wicked seed January 5th, 2020 by

A recent story in The Economist (28 September 2019, page 18) highlights the low maize yields in Africa, and urges for greater use of hybrid maize seed. The Economist also has harsh words for NGOs: “African governments have mostly ignored the arguments from some charities, that old-fashioned farming is best and that wicked, profit-seeking seed firms should be barred.”

This caricature is misleading in two ways: many NGOs promote modern seed; and seed companies have more serious enemies than any “charity”.

Cassava is a big staple food in Africa, like maize. Unlike maize, which is planted using true seed, cassava is propagated with stem cuttings. Seed companies rarely sell stems or other vegetative planting material, even for major crops, other than potato. This is mainly for practical reasons; cuttings, vines and roots are bulky, and perishable. Farmers usually trade for cassava stems, get them from friends for free, or buy them from producers or traders.

Donor-funded projects, such as UPOCA and the Great Lakes Cassava Initiative, have also played an important part in making cassava planting material available, worked closely with NGOs to distribute the stems of new, disease-resistant varieties of cassava to farmers in various African countries. This progressive and modern system is neither old-fashioned nor wicked.

It’s not just cassava where such initiatives have helped make planting material available.  In Kenya, public research, like the 3G Seed Strategy, supported the production of high-quality seed potatoes (not true seed, but the small tubers that farmers plant). The project purposefully channeled the production and sale of the little seed potatoes through private companies and commercial farms, to promote sustainable business.

The real enemies of private seed companies include crooks who sell fake seed. To its credit, The Economist did mention counterfeit seed as a problem, but it is worse than the newspaper let on. In a visit to Premier Seed, a Nigerian company, I was impressed by their expertise and competence. They had a professional plant breeder, a tidy lab growing maize seedlings in rows of dishes, and an orderly warehouse stacked with bags of seed. I never heard Premier or other Nigerian seed enterprises complain about NGOs or “charities”.  The real problem was counterfeit seed. Criminals would buy cheap maize grain in the market, dye it to make it look like treated seed, and package it in bags printed to look like those of a real company. Farmers only realized they’d been sold a dud at harvest time. Counterfeit seed smeared the good name of the legitimate companies, whose packaging had been copied.

Life is difficult for seed companies trying to survive, especially the smaller ones. Even when the Nigerian government buys large amounts of seed from private companies to distribute to smallholders, as it does from time to time, there’s a twist. The government can be slow to pay its bills, with the result that a small company’s capital cash flow is blocked and capital is tied up for a year or more. Bigger firms with deeper pockets can more easily wait to be paid.

Few NGOs argue that old-fashioned farming is best. Most promote a sensible blend of tradition and innovation in agricultural practices and respect the pioneering.

There is a reason why seed companies may be seen as wicked. As Paul and colleagues recently explained in two videos (one from Guatemala and one from Malawi), some seed laws threaten farmers’ right to use their own seed.

African seed enterprises do have real problems, but “charities” are not among them. Governments should help national seed companies by arresting the fake seed sellers, and paying for seed on time. Farmers have a right to keep their own seed, but they need modern seed as well. NGOs and research centers often work together to provide such seed, especially for crops that private companies ignore.  

Further reading

For Nigerian seed enterprises see:

Bentley, Jeffery W., Olupomi Ajayi and Kehinde Adelugba 2011 “Nigeria: Clustered Seed Companies,” pp. 38-64. In, P. Van Mele, J.W. Bentley & R. Guéi (eds.) African Seed Enterprises: Sowing the Seeds of Food Security. Wallingford, UK: CABI. 236 pp.

For projects in Africa that have promoted modern seed of cassava, potatoes (and other crops) see:

Andrade-Piedra, Jorge, Jeffery W. Bentley, Conny Almekinders, Kim Jacobsen, Stephen Walsh, and Graham Thiele (eds.) 2016. Case Studies of Roots, Tubers and Bananas Seed Systems. CGIAR Research Program on Roots, Tubers and Bananas (RTB), Lima: RTB Working Paper No. 2016-3. ISSN 2309-6586. 244 p.

Watch the videos

Farmers’ rights to seed – Guatemala

Farmers’ rights to seed – Malawi

And this one on the benefits of good, commercial cassava stems

Quality cassava planting material

The problem with water hyacinth November 17th, 2019 by

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Related blog story

The guinea pig solution

The juice mobile

Harsh and healthy

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Zero-grazing and biogas

Scientific name

Water hyacinth is Eichhornia crassipes.

Biological pest control in the Galapagos forest July 14th, 2019 by

Agronomy is a kind of applied biology, but conservation biologists are now starting to apply some of the tricks from agriculture, as I saw on a recent visit to the Charles Darwin Research Station in the Galapagos Islands. The campus is tucked discretely into one of the world’s strangest forests, where some of the plants that were able to reach these remote islands have evolved into trees. Prickly pear cactus is usually a low-lying plant with paddle-like pads, but in the Galapagos, it has evolved a tall, straight trunk. The Scalesia trees evolved from a daisy-like flower.

Then in 1982, these rare trees were threatened when the cottony scale insect, originally from Australia, invaded the islands and began to feed on its odd collection of forest species, causing the dieback and death of trees. By 1996 the scale insect was attacking 80 plant species in the Galapagos, including 19 threatened ones.

Displays at the Darwin Station proudly explained their efforts to control the Australian scale insect by bringing in one of its natural enemies, a ladybird beetle, also from down under, that preys on the scale. In 1999, the British Embassy funded an insect containment center, where the ladybird was intensively studied before being released on 11 islands in 2003 and 2004. By 2009 the ladybird had hunted the cottony cushion scale down to a much lower population level. The forest was safe. 

The sign at the Darwin Station said that this was an example of biological pest control, but the display failed to mention that this was the second time that the Australian ladybird beetle had come to the rescue of trees. The first time was in California in 1888, when the ladybird was imported to successfully control scale insects in citrus.

So, conservation biology has learned a lesson from agriculture, specifically from biological pest control. It’s only fair: ecology has provided many key insights to agriculture. For example, Darwinian natural selection explains how pests evolve resistance to pesticides. Gene mapping has helped plant breeders to develop new crop varieties faster.

The Darwin Station is now working on other projects to control pests. For example, an introduced fly is attacking the emblematic finches in their nests, and the Darwin Station is taking eggs from the nests of the mangrove finch (the most endangered of the Galapagos finch species) and rearing the chicks by hand, safe from the flies. The Darwin Station is also rearing several tortoise species, protecting them from introduced rats that eat the tortoise eggs. When the tortoises are two-years old they are released, each species to its own home island.

Agriculture has much experience reproducing plants and animals, and controlling pests in ecologically-sound ways. In the future, plant and animal species can be brought back from the brink of extinction, but it will take more than just conserving their habitat. Individual animals will have to be nurtured, helped to breed in higher numbers, and protected from pests. Conservation biology is becoming more hands on, more like farming and ranching. In the future, other lessons from agriculture may also of use to wildlife conservationists.

Scientific names

The finch-killing fly, Philornis downsi

The ladybird beetle, Rodolia cardinalis

The cushiony cotton scale insect: Icerya purchase

Prickly pear, Opuntia echios

MMangrove finch, Camarhychus heliobatis

When ants and microbes join hands June 23rd, 2019 by

When I recently attended the 1st International Conference on Agroecology – Transforming Agriculture & Food Systems in Africa, one of the research posters on display drew my attention. Effective microorganisms® are a commercial mix of beneficial bacteria, yeast and other living things. A team in Mozambique had found that the microorganisms not only controlled Oidium, a serious fungal disease in cashew, but also managed the devastating sap-sucking bug that deforms nuts and causes their premature fall. Or at least that is what the title said.

Professor Panfilo Tabora had been working for many years with cashew. Not knowing that I was an avid fan of the weaver ant, Oecophylla, a tree-dwelling predator, Panfilo gently explained to me that the microorganisms attracted the weaver ant to the cashew trees. “The ants were a bonus,” he said with a smile. I knew that weaver ants effectively control bugs, but now I was completely intrigued: how on earth would microorganisms attract ants?

“Earlier, farmers helped the weaver ants to colonize new trees by putting ropes between trees so the ants could colonise new trees and attack bugs and other pests,” Panfilo explained me. “But when farmers started spraying fungicides the ants disappeared.”

For several years, Panfilo and his colleagues began to teach villagers to make their own liquid molasses from dried and stored cashew apples as a source of sugar, minerals and amino acids to feed and multiply the microorganisms. So the farmers made molasses to feed the effective microorganisms, which controlled the Oidium. But even when the fermented solution was ready to spray on the trees it was still sweet. “When farmers spray their trees with the solution, the sweet liquid and amino acids attracts the ants.”

Although the poster did not tell the full story, there was still truth in saying that microorganisms controlled the fungal disease and the pest, in reality it was the fermented solution that attracted the ants, which controlled the bugs. Still, even such a roundabout pest control is worth having.  

I felt reassured to know that valuable ancient technologies of biological control, such as weaver ant husbandry, have a future when combined with modern agroecological technologies that restore rather than kill ecosystems.

“And we discovered a few more unintended benefits,” Professor Panfilo continued. “By spraying the tree canopies with microorganisms, farmers are no longer exposed to pesticides and can reduce the cost of pruning.” As pesticides are expensive and harmful, farmers need to move quickly from one tree to the next to spray the outside canopy of the trees, or else they will get covered with chemicals. But as these effective microorganisms are safe for people, farmers can actually spray the under-canopies from below. The tree canopies often touch one another, which also helps the ants to move between trees. Instead of pruning every year, Prof Panfilo’s team tells farmers to just prune once every other year, or even every three years so as to have more terminals for flowering and fruiting and to let the ants move from tree to tree. All of this adds up to more yield.

At that stage, I was so impressed that I had a hard time absorbing yet another unintended benefit of this organic technology. In Mozambique, as in many other countries, farmers use the fallen cashew apples to make cashew apple juice. “By spraying cashew trees with effective microorganisms, it acts as an anti-oxidant so the juice retains its clear colour for at least 2 months,” said Panfilo.

Quite a few of the presentations at the conference had nicely illustrated the benefits of organic agriculture to people and the environment, but Prof Panfilo and his team stood out because they illustrated how the introduction of even a single, modern eco-technology can have such a wide range of benefits.

Not all microorganisms are bad, as people in the industry, schools and media often wants us to make believe. Thanks to the work of practical researchers, we learn that this healthy mix of microscopic flora can cure mildew, attract ants that kill pests, provide a safe alternative to pesticides and stop cashew fruit juice from oxidizing for months.

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Preparing cashew apple juice

Apple futures June 2nd, 2019 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación

Lap’iya means “dahlia” in Quechua. It’s 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’iya recently to learn about a farmer who is seeking alternative crops, ones that don’t require spraying with pesticides. Concerns are growing about the use of pesticides in flowers.

We met BenjamĂ­n Vargas, a farmer, and his friend SerafĂ­n 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.

BenjamĂ­n and SerafĂ­n have grafted the varieties onto dwarf rootstock, so they can plant the trees closer together. BenjamĂ­n and SerafĂ­n 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, Benjamín has placed nets over the apples to keep out the birds. “Be careful not to step on my other plants,” he tells us. It’s 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: “This is not combat agriculture, but one where we try to get along.”

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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