Most recent stories ›
AgroInsight RSS feed

Organic agriculture and mice December 9th, 2018 by

Some practices are harder to introduce to farmers than others. In Europe, environmental degradation caused by industrial agriculture has given rise to new forms of subsidies for farmers to provide specific environmental services, such as planting hedgerows or keeping wild flower strips around their fields. In developing countries, however, environmental subsidies are non-existent and hence curbing environmental degradation can be extra challenging.

Recent developments in the global quinoa trade have devastated the fragile ecosystem of the Bolivian Altiplano. As quinoa production intensified, farmers ploughed up large sections of native vegetation, which left the soil prone to wind erosion. With the thin fertile top soil being blown away and young quinoa plants being covered with sand, many farmers abandonned their land and moved to the cities. The loss of native vegetation also limited the forage available for the llamas and vicuñas.

To address this problem, the research organisation Proinpa is trying hard to re-introduce native plants. If native plants could be grown as live barriers around quinoa fields, they would provide fodder and at the same time reduce wind erosion. But some farmers are reluctant to adopt this technology. Planting live barriers costs money, labour and takes up part of their land.

Many of the farmers who plant barriers belong to associations that market organic quinoa. Organic certification ensures that farmers get higher prices, as long as they follow certain practices (such as planting hedges) that contribute to a better social and natural environment. Subsidies for organic farming are rare in developing countries, premiums from certification schemes can partly make up for missing government subsidies, unless pests also like organic crops.

Farmers who grow live barriers told Proinpa that the hedges attract mice who can destroy young quinoa seedlings. Mice are also attracted to the harvested grain as it dries in the field, before threshing. If the quinoa is not stored properly, mice often get into the warehouses. When droppings foul the grain, the crop is rejected for organic trade.

Organic agriculture can be a blessing to boost the income of smallholder farmers and to protect the environment. But as this example shows, organic farmers are prone to additional challenges. Farmers on the Bolivian Altiplano set traps by burying cans partly filled with water to drown the mice. Frustrated quinoa growers also stomp on mice burrows in thie fields or leave quinoa chaffe at the entrance of mice holes, so they eat this and leave the young quinoa untouched.

Every new technology has unintended consequences. Perhaps no one anticipated that live barriers would protect mice, and the soil. Yet farmers who have planted the barriers see their benefit and are willing to find new ways to take on the mice.

Watch and download videos

The video from Bolivia on live barriers against wind erosion will be published early next year on the Access Agriculture video platform .

The video on Grass strips against soil erosion made in Thailand and Vietnam is available in 10 languages, including English, Spanish, Ayamara and Quechua

The many farmer training videos on organic agriculture

Related blogs

Waiting for rats

Quinoa, lost and found


The video on live barriers in Bolivia is developed with funding from the McKnight Foundation’s Collaborative Crop Research Program (CCRP). Thanks to Milton Villca, Eliseo Mamani and colleagues at Proinpa for background on this story.

To see the future October 7th, 2018 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación

When Francisco Condori stopped working as a bricklayer in La Paz, Bolivia, he returned as a 23-year old to his home village of Cutusuma, near Lake Titicaca. He felt that because of his years in the big city he was missing some agricultural knowhow. So he consulted with the older people of Cutusuma.

More than anything, the elders taught Francisco what are now called “the indicators” that is, the signs of nature that tell when to plant and if it will be a good year. This is indispensable information in a place like the Altiplano, generally good land for farming, but sometimes hostile.  Frost, hail and drought can destroy crops at any time. That is why forecasting the weather is a specialty on the Altiplano.

For example a bird, the quiri quiri, makes nests like little ovens in the totora reeds of Titicaca and the small lake of Cutusuma. The bird seems to know how high the water will rise. In dry years it builds its nest low, and in rainy years it makes a nest high on the totora plant. Francisco learned to take a raft into the lake and seek out the nests. The height of the nest in the dry season indicates the level that the water will reach in the rainy season.

Don Francisco also learned to look for the sank’ayu cactus. If it bears fruit early, one should plant potatoes early, in October. If it fruits late, one should plant in November.

Besides looking for his own indicators, Francisco also listened to the weather forecast on the radio and on the TV, but it wasn’t always reliable. He and his friend Antonio remember that once the radio announced that there was going to be a frost and the farmers should “take care of their potato crop.” Francisco and Antonio just laughed, because it was June—winter and the dry season—and nobody had potatoes in the field.

In 1998 Francisco met Edwin Yucra, an agronomist with an interest in climate and in local knowledge. Edwin worked in Prosuko, a project that was supporting the development of sukukollus (planting beds inspired by the agriculture of the ancient civilization of Tiwanaku).

Edwin collaborated for years with Francisco and Antonio and their neighbors. In recent years, Edwin taught them that there was a free app on the Internet that farmers could download to predict the weather with the help of satellites and weather stations. Many farmers have smart phones nowadays which give them access to apps like this one, called Weather Underground.

By 2017 Edwin, now a professor at the Public University of San Andrés, worked in seven communities, including Cutusuma. They managed to build a small weather station in Cutusuma to register the weather, including temperature, wind and rain.

Francisco and Antonio go over the data from the station constantly. They log onto Weather Underground every day on their cell phones. They still listen to the forecast on the radio and on TV and they still make their own forecast based on the indicators, which their write on their Pachagrama (see blog story Predicting the weather), so they can track the weather over the year.

Don Francisco and don Antonio are conducting a deep study of the weather. They combine local knowledge with modern science. Thanks to this, Francisco has become a sort of expert and celebrity. His neighbors frequently ask him what the weather will be like. When don Francisco goes to market in the town of Batallas, the people there recognize him and ask him about the weather. In recent years Francisco has appeared on several TV channels explaining the weather, the indicators and describing climate change.

It is an example of how one can respect local, even ancestral knowledge, while still appreciating modern science.


Por Jeff Bentley, 7 de octubre del 2018

Cuando don Francisco Condori dejó de trabajar como albañil en La Paz, Bolivia, volvió a sus 23 años a su aldea natal de Cutusuma, cerca del Lago Titicaca. Sintió que debido a sus años en la gran ciudad le hacía falta saber de la agricultura. Así que se fue consultando con la gente mayor de Cutusuma.

Los ancianos más que nada le enseñaron a Francisco lo que se llaman los “indicadores” o sea los señales de la naturaleza que dicen cuándo sembrar y si va a ser un año bueno. Esa información es indispensable en un lugar como el Altiplano, tierra productiva para el agro, pero a veces también hostil.  Heladas, granizadas y sequías pueden destruir los cultivos en cualquier momento. Por eso el pronóstico del tiempo es una especializad en el Altiplano.

Por ejemplo, una pájaro, el quiri quiri, hace sus pequeños nidos como hornito en las totoras de Titicaca y de la pequeña Laguna de Cutusuma. El pájaro parece que sabe dónde llegará el agua. En años secos hace su nido bajo, y en años lluviosos hace su nido en la parte alta de la planta de totora. Francisco aprendió a entrar en balsa a la laguna y buscar los nidos. La altura del nido en la época seca indica el nivel que el agua llegará en la época lluviosa.

Don Francisco también aprendió a revisar el cactus sank’ayu. Si daba fruto temprano habría que sembrar la papa temprano, en octubre. Si daba su fruto tarde, habría que sembrar en noviembre.

Además de buscar sus propios indicadores, Francisco también miraba el pronóstico de tiempo en la radio, y en la tele, pero no era siempre confiable. El y su amigo Antonio recuerdan que una vez la radio anunció que iba a haber helada y que los agricultores deberían “cuidar su papa.” Francisco y Antonio solo se reían, porque era junio—invierno y época seca—y nadie tenía papa sembrada.

In 1998 Francisco conoció a Edwin Yucra, ingeniero agrónomo con interés en el clima y el conocimiento local. Edwin trabajaba en Prosuko, un proyecto que apoyaba en desarrollar a los sukukollus (camellones agrícolas, inspiradas por el agro del antiguo imperio de Tiwanaku).

Edwin colaboró durante años con Francisco y Antonio y sus vecinos. Edwin, en los últimos años, les enseñó que había una aplicación gratis en el Internet que los agricultores podrían bajar y pronosticar el tiempo en base a satélites y estaciones meteorológicas. Muchos agricultores tienen smart phones hoy en día que les da acceso a estas aplicaciones como este, llamado el Weather Underground.

Para el año 2017 Edwin, ahora catedrático en la Universidad Mayor de San Andrés, trabajaba con siete comunidades, incluso Cutusuma. Lograron poner una pequeña estación meteorológica en Cutusuma para medir el tiempo, como la temperatura, viento y lluvia.

Francisco y Antonio revisan los datos de la estación constantemente. Chequean el Weather Underground cada día en sus celulares. Siguen escuchando el pronóstico en la radio y la tele y todavía hacen su propio pronóstico en base a los indicadores, lo cual apuntan en su Pachagrama (vea blog sobre Prediciendo el tiempo), para seguirlo durante el año.

Don Francisco y don Antonio están haciendo un estudio profundo del clima. Combinan el conocimiento local con la ciencia moderna. Gracias a eso Francisco se ha convertido en una especie de experto y celebridad. Sus vecinos frecuentemente le preguntan cómo va a ser el tiempo. Cuando don Francisco va al pueblo de Batallas para hacer mercado le reconocen los del pueblo y le preguntan sobre el tiempo. En los últimos años Francisco ha salido en la tele y en varios de los canales explicando el tiempo, los indicadores y que el clima está cambiando.

Es un ejemplo de que se puede respetar el conocimiento local y hasta ancestral, con amor a la ciencia moderna.

Battling the armyworm September 23rd, 2018 by

In the 1500s, when men on sailing ships were casually spreading crop plants from one continent to the next, maize came to Africa. Fortunately many of the maize pests stayed behind, in the Americas. But slowly, trade and travel are re-uniting maize with its pests. A caterpillar called the fall armyworm is the latest American pest to reach Africa, and in two years it has spread across the continent, threatening one of Africa’s staple food crops.

Just as maize originally came to Africa without its American pests, the fall armyworm arrived without its natural enemies, including a couple of dozen species of tiny parasitic wasps. This has helped the armyworm to spread faster.

Governments panicked over the arrival of the fall armyworm. Some tried massive campaigns to eradicate it manually, as in Rwanda, where large teams of people destroyed the caterpillars by hand. Others began widespread campaigns to spray farmers’ fields with insecticide. Fortunately, there are alternatives to insecticides, as explained in two new videos, directed by Paul Van Mele and beautifully filmed by Marcella Vrolijks, both of AgroInsight.

The videos explain that fall armyworm damage often looks worse than it really is. The caterpillars eat gaping holes in the maize leaves and defecate what looks like wet sawdust all over the plants. But the plants usually recover and produce a full ear, in spite of early damage to the young plant.

Conveniently for farmers, the fall armyworm is also a cannibal. Each one lives alone in the maize whorl and eats any smaller armyworm that comes in. So a maize plant rarely has to suffer more than one armyworm at a time.

Although the armyworm left its specialized natural enemies behind, once it arrived in Africa it met with generalist, native predators like ants, earwigs, ladybird beetles and other beneficial insects that soon began to attack and eat the caterpillars.

The FAO (the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization) organized farmer field schools to teach farmers armyworm ecology and control. Farmers who took these schools were soon using techniques from Latin America, such as applying soil to the maize whorls. But farmers in Kenya also created innovations of their own, such as rubbing cooking grease onto the maize plant to attract ants to kill armyworms, and sprinkling fine sand mixed with tobacco snuff into the maize whorls.

Farmer field schools are an excellent way to teach insect ecology, but field schools only reach a small percentage of the farmers who need the new information. Fortunately, the farmers who have not been able to take field schools will be able to learn from those who have, by watching the fall armyworm videos, which are available for free in English, French, Amharic, Kiswahili and Ki-Embu, with Arabic, Portuguese and Spanish versions coming soon. More translations will help to spread the word about non-chemical control of fall armyworm.

Watch or download the fall armyworm videos

Scouting for fall armyworms

Killing fall armyworms naturally

Related blogs

Armies against armies

Innovating with local knowledge

Further reading

Poisot, Anne-Sophie, Allan Hruska, Marjon Fredrix, and Koko Nzeza 2018 Integrated management of the Fall Armyworm on maize: A guide for Farmer Field Schools in Africa. FAO.

Our current knowledge of fall armyworm ecology owes a lot to earlier research in Latin America, including:

Andrews, Keith L. and José Rutilio Quezada 1989 Manejo Integrado de Plagas Insectiles en la Agricultura: Estado Actual y Futuro. El Zamorano, Honduras: Departamento de Protección Vegetal, Escuela Agrícola Panamericana.


The videos on fall armyworm are developed in collaboration with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) with funding from the McKnight Foundation’s Collaborative Crop Research Program (CCRP).

Photos by Eric Boa.

The scientific name of the fall armyworm is Spodoptera frugiperda (Lepidoptera: Noctuidae).

The enemies of innovation August 26th, 2018 by

Sometimes even rational people fight innovation, as we learn in this recent book by the late Calestous Juma, a Kenyan scholar who taught at Harvard and who enjoyed the rare distinction of being elected as a fellow of the Royal Society of London and a foreign associate of the US National Academy of Science.

To condense Prof. Juma’s nuanced and complex thesis, there are two good reasons to oppose innovation, and one surprising outcome.

First, early versions of an innovation are often expensive, unwieldy and simply not very good at getting the job done. Thomas Edison’s first electrical wiring relied on noisy generators, was a fire hazard, and accidentally electrocuted 17 New Yorkers to death in two years between 1887 and 1889. These problems were eventually ironed out, but some of the failings of an innovation are never fully addressed. When tractors began to replace horses in the USA in the 1920s, three decades after they were invented by John Froelich in 1892, critics complained that the tractors (and automobiles) were wasteful and that buying, fueling and repairing them would place a financial burden on farmers,

Second, an innovation is opposed by the social network that uses and supports the incumbent technology. Electric lights were competing with a well-entrenched and profitable natural gas industry. Farriers, veterinarians and harness makers relied on horses for steady business and income. Older workers with the skills and experience to use an existing technology may resist an alternative. The Luddites were not a bunch of maniacs who liked to break things; they were skilled weavers in the 19th century who correctly realized that mechanized looms would replace experienced workers with unskilled ones.

Fortunately, the dynamic tension between the old and the new can be as creative as the original invention, refining the timeworn technology or promoting innovative social structures.

For example, margarine was invented in France in 1869 and was being manufactured in the USA by the 1880s. At the time American dairy farmers were poorly organized, but led by the butter factories, they eventually formed the National Dairy Council. This powerful lobby group harassed margarine makers, leading to legislation in five US states which required margarine to be dyed an unappetizing pink. They also spread disinformation, reporting bogus studies that claimed that margarine stunted children’s growth, for example. But nineteenth century butter was not the choice food that we know today; it was often rancid and adulterated with chemicals. Competition with margarine forced butter manufacturers to make a better product. And in the ultimate compromise, some spreads now blend butter and margarine.

In the end margarine’s saving grace was not technical, but social. In the 1940s US margarine makers switched from imported coconut oil to American soybean and cottonseed oil, acquiring farmer allies that allowed them to fend off the big dairy interests and find a permanent place at the table.

In the end, the innovation may never completely defeat the incumbent technology, which may settle into a competitive niche of its own. The gas industry fought electricity with all the imagination it had, creating gas-powered versions of every electrical appliance invented. There was even a gas radio in the 1930s (it had the added advantage of giving off a little extra heat). Electricity never completely replaced natural gas, which still provides heat and energy, but the rivalry lives on in the competition between gas ovens and electric models.

There are some clear lessons here for agricultural scientists, who are often dismayed when farmers do not immediately adopt ideas derived from research. As we learn from the optimistic Prof. Juma: your invention may have potential in the long run, but in the short term it may still have bugs that need to be fixed. Innovations often seek to replace existing technologies that have proven advantages, and are familiar to users; the struggle between old and new can lead to creative solutions.  Specifically, researchers can use farmer field schools (FFS) or other experiences to learn about the farmers’ point of view and work together to adapt innovations to meet their needs and circumstances.

Further reading

Juma, Calestous 2016 Innovation and Its Enemies: Why People Resist New Technologies. Oxford University Press. 416 pp.

Asking the right questions August 12th, 2018 by

I once saw a quantitative survey turn to dust, literally. I was a young graduate student in Tucson, Arizona when an older anthropologist asked me if I would like to write up the results of a survey she had conducted on the city’s largely Hispanic south side. She swung open the doors to her storage shed, revealing a large, cardboard box. When the anthropologist tried to lift some of the forms out of the box, they crumbled in her fingers. Tucson’s warm, dry climate is perfect for termites, which had carved their galleries throughout the sheets of paper.

For that anthropologist, going door-to-door with her questionnaire had been the fun part of the survey. Analyzing the results and writing up the conclusions were harder. In the end the termites benefited the most from the survey.

A few years later, I found myself in northern Portugal, on a questionnaire study of smallholder farmers. I was part of a team of anthropologists and economists who designed the survey form, a straightforward task – or so we thought at the time. But at 20 pages, the form took about two hours to fill out. To encourage farmers to take part, we said that their answers would make policy-makers more responsive to agriculture, which may not have believable.

After we surveyed six parishes in the Entre-Douro-e-Minho province I went to live in one of them, Pedralva. There I learned how much the survey had annoyed the farmers. One couple had missed their irrigation turn while answering questions. One prosperous farmer complained how long the survey took and said that: “They even counted the eyes of the chickens!” That was an exaggeration (we had asked how many rabbits and chickens people had) but a sign of how frustrating farmers found the lengthy, prying survey.

Even worse, the farmers mistrusted the survey’s intentions. The farmers assumed that the tax bureau would be informed of the results, so they claimed to have harvested a fraction of their real yields, inadvertently making their well-adapted farming systems appear unproductive.

Eventually I learned to write shorter, more focused surveys, and to enter the data every night on a spreadsheet. And prizes can help to take the sting out of lost time. Once in the Chapare, Bolivia my colleagues and I rewarded each farmer we interviewed with three kilos of mineral fertilizer, left over from an earlier project. They liked the gift so much that one of them took the survey twice.

Sometimes four or five questions are enough. In Bolivia I once worked with a project that gathered hundreds of farmers for three “technology fairs” to watch other farmers demonstrate new ideas such as metal plows or fertilized quinoa. At the end we simply asked the fair goers what ideas they liked and which ones they wanted to try. The questionnaire was so short that a dozen agronomists could administer it in a few minutes. We could get feedback from some 200 farmers before breaking for lunch.

Of course times have changed. Surveys in the city or in the villages can now be entered electronically on a tablet. The questionnaires being filled out today are immune to termites, and you can send them out on-line.

But one thing remains the same. People still don’t like to answer long questionnaires. When you fill out a questionnaire in person, the respondents may be too polite to break off the interview, but with an on-line version, fatigue sets in quickly. On-line surveys yield the best results when they are short. Some respondents are willing to share more during follow-up phone calls or emails (as we have seen in previous blog stories (Families, land and videos in Northern Uganda. Watching videos to become a dairy expert, and Drip irrigation saves water in South Sudan).

Whether on-line or in-person, a few simple questions may be as revealing as a long and tedious questionnaire that tries too hard to gather information. If do you need answers to lots of questions, consider rewarding people for the time they give you.

Further reading

The results of the first Portuguese survey eventually contributed to:

Pearson, S.R., F. Avillez, J.W. Bentley, T. J. Finan, R. Fox, T. Josling, M. Langworthy, E. Monke, & S. Tangermann 1987 Portuguese Agriculture in Transition. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

My community study in Entre-Douro-e-Minho:

Bentley, Jeffery W. 1992 Today There Is No Misery: The Ethnography of Farming in Northwest Portugal. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

The short survey in the Chapare (where people received a gift of fertilizer for answering our questions) contributed to:

Bentley, Jeffery W. 2003 Desarrollo Participativo de Tecnología en el Trópico de Cochabamba. Cochabamba: Development Alternatives, Inc.

The results from the questionnaire at the technology fairs:

Bentley, Jeffery W., Graham Thiele, Rolando Oros & Claudio Velasco 2011 “Cinderella’s Slipper: Sondeo Surveys and Technology Fairs for Gauging Demand,” pp. 276-301. In André Devaux, Miguel Ordinola & Douglas Horton (eds.) Innovation for Development: The Papa Andina Experience. 418 pp. Lima: International Potato Center. Originally published in 2004 as AgREN Network Paper No. 138.

Bentley, Jeffery W., Claudio Velasco, Félix Rodríguez, Rolando Oros, Rubén Botello, Morag Webb, André Devaux & Graham Thiele 2011 “Unspoken Demands for Farm Technology”. pp. 302-324. In André Devaux, Miguel Ordinola & Douglas Horton (eds.) Innovation for Development: The Papa Andina Experience. 418 pp. Lima: International Potato Center. Originally published in 2007 in International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability 5(1): 70-84.

Design by Olean webdesign