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Formerly known as food January 27th, 2019 by

In a recent book, Formerly Known as Food, Kristin Lawless cautions readers about the risks of eating processed food produced by industrial farming. For example, maize and soybeans are widely used in animal feeds and edible oils. In the USA corn and soy beans have been genetically modified to withstand massive applications of glyphosate herbicide. Glyphosate is reported by the WHO to be an endocrine disrupting chemical (EDC)Although more research is needed to show how these chemicals impact our health,  an  EDC interferes with the normal working of hormones, the chemical messengers of our bodies. Glyphosate is just one of an increasing number of chemicals for which health concerns are mounting, with authors like Lawless calling for stronger action.

A chemical used in plastic packaging, BPA (bisphenol A), has recently been classified as an EDC, and is slowly being removed, albeit on a voluntary basis. BPA is found in everything from plastic milk jugs to the linings of cans of food, where the BPA leaches into the food. Some companies now offer plastics made from BPS, cynically advertised as “BPA free”, even though BPS is similar to BPA and is also an EDC.

While some industrial foods are tainted by chemicals, other food products are a health risk in their own right because of what has been removed from them. For example, the industrial vegetable oils, shortenings, and margarine have been heated to such high temperatures that their naturally occurring molecules have been broken down and oxidized; their nutritional properties diminished. These factory-made oils are often advertised as “heart safe”, but they actually damage the walls of one’s arteries.

Lawless  also offers valuable suggestions for healthier eating. For example, cook at home; eat less fast food, and skip processed food. Eat whole foods like whole milk, and real eggs). She advocates joining a food coop that works with concerned family farmers who provide healthy food that goes beyond organic.

On the down side, this book dismisses the role of exercise and of calorie intake, almost as though we could simply eat our way to health with organic food. Having said this, Formerly Known is well written and is based on ten-years of study and interviews with key food researchers. The book educates the readers to take control over what we put in our mouths. While reading it I was inspired to make several lifestyle changes. For example, I finally read the ingredients label on the salad dressing I loved, and realized that it was full of processed oils, other goop and chemicals. I’ve since started making my own dressing.

I would also add that it is time to respect smallholder, family farmers. They have been bombarded over the past few decades with advertisements to buy agrochemicals, often subtly enabled by agricultural policies that favor the agrochemical multinationals and often pay less attention to the effect of mass-produced food on public health. Farmers (and the rest of us) deserve more technical alternatives for managing pests and nourishing the soil. The videos hosted by Access Agriculture provide family farmers with such alternatives, presented in an engaging manner.

Further reading

Lawless, Kristin 2018 Formerly Known as Food: How the Industrial Food System Is Changing Our Minds, Bodies, and Culture. New York: St. Martin’s Press. 317.

Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals https://www.who.int/ceh/risks/cehemerging2/en/

Recognition of BPA as an EDC https://chemsec.org/recognition-of-bpa-as-an-edc-for-human-health-will-increase-the-protection-of-consumers/

Related blogs

Chemical attitude adjustment

Effective micro-organisms

Forgotten vegetables

Related videos

For alternatives to industrial, chemical-intensive agriculture, see some of the almost 200 training videos hosted on www.accessagriculture.org.

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

Acknowledgement

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.

Alligators in your vegetables October 28th, 2018 by

Something caught my eye recently when I was reading a video script. Crawling insects that look like little alligators are actually the offspring of ladybird beetles. I thought nothing of this the first time I read the script by some colleagues in Bangladesh. But the second time I read it, it occurred to me how strange this was, comparing a common, garden insect with an alligator, an animal not found in Bangladesh and which few people have seen.

Years ago, colleagues in Honduras used the same alligator analogy to familiarize farmers with the red and black ladybird larvae, which eat aphids in vegetable gardens. The Honduran farmers knew what alligators looked like, even if they had never seen the reptiles in real life, and the analogy worked. There are no alligators in Bangladesh, but I’m sure that the analogy will work, for a couple of reasons.

First, humans are inherently interested in large vertebrates. Even children that grow up in big cities know the names of African wildlife before they can name the electrical appliances in their own home. Second, the increasing reach of mass media has made animals familiar to people who don’t see them in the wild. I remember years ago, sitting with an elderly Portuguese farmer engrossed in a TV show about walruses. She had never been to the Arctic, but was fascinated by the strange creatures. Today Animal Planet, the Discovery Channel and others have regular programming in Bengali, Portuguese, Spanish and other major languages, bringing large (and often threatened) species into our homes.

So smallholders in the tropics watch TV, engage with images of large, strange animals, which then become common knowledge, while the creatures running around in one’s own garden need some explaining. So you can indeed tell a rural audience that ladybird larvae look like alligators. Oddly enough, the analogy works.

And analogies really do help to make the strange seem familiar. Ladybird larvae lack the powerful tail and the long head of alligators. But like the alligator, ladybird larvae do have a long body and small legs. When all is said and done, ladybird larvae do look a bit more like alligators that like their parents, the shiny, round ladybird beetles.

Not sold in stores October 14th, 2018 by

I love supermarkets; whenever I visit a new country I think of the local supermarket as a kind of interactive food museum, with its own unique groceries on display.

But the supermarket also has a stranglehold on what we eat and grow, as I learned last week when I heard a talk by Lauren Chappell, a plant pathologist at the University of Oxford. Dr. Chappell explained that carrots come in white, pink and even purple varieties, in a rich diversity of sizes and shapes. We only think of the long, tapered orange varieties as the one and only true carrot because supermarkets will only buy varieties like Nairobi and Nantes, the stereotypical carrots. Some British chefs love the white and purple “heritage carrots,” but you won’t find them at the supermarket.

It’s the same with apples. Supermarkets only stock a handful of varieties, so that limits what even small-scale commercial farms can grow. On a recent visit to the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) gardens at Wisley, in southern England, I was delighted to see a whole orchard filled with 40 different kinds of apples. There was a large, bright pink variety, Rubinola, with a marvelous, spicy flavor, and a green Russet with a lumpy, almost toad-like skin, but an amazing, tart clean taste. These varieties, curated by the RHS, are rarely sold in stores, but keeping them alive is an important safeguard of our planet’s biodiversity. This rich gene pool is crucial for future efforts to breed fruit and vegetables that are adapted to tomorrow’s climate and to upcoming pests and diseases.

Preserving diverse food crops is also essential for a rich and varied diet. Gardens and small farms help to preserve our edible biodiversity.

Various institutions also encourage people to conserve genetic resources, for example by promoting farmers’ rights to seed, as we will see in next week’s blog story.

Other related blogs

Bolivian peanuts

From uniformity to diversity

Innovative processing (such as an apple juice factory on a truck) can help people to save time, and to maintain their orchards of local fruit trees (see The juice mobile).

Videos on farmer rights to seed

Farmers’ rights to seed: Malawi

Farmers’ rights to seed: Guatemala

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.

Acknowledgement

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).

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