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An exit strategy April 4th, 2021 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación

Development projects often die when the money runs out. Many of these efforts often have no exit strategy in mind, but that’s changing, as I saw on a recent visit to Villa Taquiña, on the mountain slopes above Cochabamba, Bolivia.

Once an independent peasant community, Villa Taquiña has now largely been swallowed by the city of Cochabamba, but until recently, many farmers still managed to grow small plots of cut flowers.

When I lived in Villa Taquiña, years ago, if I caught the bus before dawn I would share the ride with older women taking huge bundles of carnations, gladiolas, and chrysanthemums to sell in the central market. But on my recent visit a local farmer, doña Nelly, explained that when Covid put a stop to big weddings and funerals, it wiped out the demand for cut flowers. Adaptable as ever, the smallholders turned to fresh vegetables, but there was a catch. The flowers had been grown with lots of pesticides. Now the farmers hoped to produce in a more environmentally friendly way, “so we can leave something for our children and grandchildren,” doña Nelly explained.

Two agronomists, Ing. Alberto Cárdenas and Ing. Alexander Espinoza, from Fundación Agrecol Andes, are helping a dozen farm families transition to agroecology. The farmers plant broccoli, cabbage and other vegetables with seeds they buy at the shop. The seeds come dusted in pink fungicide, but the farmers harvest seeds from some of the plants they grow, and are now producing 80% of their own seed. If they need a fungicide, they can make sulfur-lime or Bordeaux mix, which are accepted by most organic agricultural programs. The farmers also plant basil, quilquiña and other aromatic plants among their vegetables to discourage insect pests. Many different plants are grown together; this is called intercropping and it also keeps the pests away. The farmers are also bringing their soils back to life by incorporating compost.

Although the plots are tiny (some farmers have as little as 700 square meters) with hard work even a small piece of land can produce a lot of vegetables. Then the problem becomes where to sell it. Folks could take their produce to the big market in the city, but they would have to compete with conventionally-grown vegetables brought in by the truck load. Alberto and Alex have organized the farmers to work together. They often meet at doña Nelly’s house to package the produce with attractive labels. Besides saving on the costs of agrochemicals, these organic farmers have a close link with consumers, so they listen to what their clients want, and try to offer them a rich diversity of vegetables.

Belonging to a group also helps the farmers to reach customers who appreciate organic produce. In Bolivia the niches for organic food are still in their infancy, so producers and consumers need a little help finding each other. Alberto and Alex have organized the farmers with their consumers. Every week a group of consumers (including my family) gets a WhatsApp message with this week’s menu of what is on offer. We order what we want, everything from crisp vegetables to a perfect whole wheat flour to the best cactus fruit I’ve ever had. Two days later Alberto and Alex cheerfully arrive at our door with the produce.

Unfortunately, this is not sustainable marketing. Vegetable growers can’t always depend on the good graces of a project to sell their produce for them, but Alberto and Alex have an exit strategy.  They are organizing volunteer farmers and consumers to meet occasionally and inspect the farms, to guarantee that they are agroecologically sound. It is called the “participatory guarantee system,” (SPG) a kind of people’s organic certification. With time, Alberto hopes to make the marketing profitable enough that someone, perhaps the farmers themselves, will take it over as a private enterprise.  To that end, the farmers are organizing themselves into a legally-recognized association. Letting the farmers and the consumers get to know each other is also an innovation to make sure that we keep buying and selling.

I visit Villa Taquiña with two-dozen mask-wearing consumers, who were delighted to meet some of the farmers who grow the food we eat. One of those farmers, Elsa Bustamante, has an exit strategy of her own. She is feeding guinea pigs on the vegetable waste from her small plot, and she plans to start a restaurant featuring organic vegetables and homegrown guinea pigs. “You will all be my customers,” Elsa tells us. And then she serves up golden brown quarters of fried guinea pig on a bed of rice, potatoes and salad. The consumers love it.

Related Agro-Insight blog stories

The next generation of farmers

Strawberry fields once again

Further reading

Bentley, Jeffery W. 2015 “Flowers Watered with Beer.” Agriculture for Development 26:20-22.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Nelly Camacho, Elsa Bustamante, and her brother Pastor for letting us into their homes and their fields. Doña Nelly is the representative of the SPG Cercado. (Cercado is a province in the Department of Cochabamba. Cercado has only one municipality, which is also called Cochabamba, and it is the Department’s capital). The SPG Cercado is backed up by Law 3525, “Regulation and promotion of ecological production of agriculture, livestock and non-timber forest products” and by the National Technical Norm (NTN) which supports the participatory guarantee systems (SPG) which is used to accredit urban, peri-urban and rural groups of ecological farmers. The SPG Cercado works via an MOU with the municipal government of Cochabamba and the Fundación Agrecol Andes, with funding from the Italian Agency for Development Cooperation. Ing. Alberto Cárdenas and Ing. Alexander Espinoza work for the Fundación Agrecol Andes, in Cochabamba. A big thanks to them for organizing this visit, and thanks as well to Alberto for his comments on an earlier version of this story.

Scientific name

Quilquiña (Porophyllum ruderale) is a pungent herb used for making salsas.

Videos on the agroecological way to produce vegetables

Using sack mounds to grow vegetables

Managing black rot in cabbage

Managing vegetable nematodes

Insect nets in seedbeds

ESTRATEGIA DE SALIDA

Jeff Bentley, 4 de abril del 2021

Los proyectos de desarrollo suelen morir cuando se acaba el dinero. A muchos de estos esfuerzos les falta una estrategia de salida, pero eso está cambiando, como vi hace poco en una visita a Villa Taquiña, al pie de la cordillera andina, en Cochabamba, Bolivia.

Villa Taquiña, que era una comunidad agrícola independiente, hoy en día ha sido prácticamente tragada por la ciudad de Cochabamba, pero hasta hace poco, muchos agricultores cultivaban pequeñas parcelas de flores cortadas para vender.

Cuando yo vivĂ­a en Villa Taquiña, hace algunos años, si salĂ­a antes del amanecer compartĂ­a el micro (bus) con mujeres mayores de edad que llevaban enormes bultos de claveles, gladiolos y crisantemos para vender en el mercado central. Pero en mi Ăşltima visita, una agricultora local, doña Nelly Camacho, me explicĂł que cuando el Covid acabĂł con las bodas y los funerales bien asistidos, dio fin a la demanda de flores cortadas. Tan bien adaptables como siempre, los pequeños agricultores empezaron a producir verduras frescas, pero habĂ­a un problemita. Las flores se cultivaban con muchos plaguicidas. Ahora los agricultores esperan producir de forma más ecolĂłgica, “porque queremos dejar algo para nuestros hijos, y nietos”, explica doña Nelly.

Los ingenieros agrónomos Alberto Cárdenas y Alexander Espinoza, de la Fundación Agrecol Andes, les están ayudando a una decena de familias en la transición a la agroecología. Los agricultores siembran brócoli, repollo lechugas, vainas y otras hortalizas con semillas que compran en la agropecuaria. Las semillas vienen recubiertas con un fungicida rosado, pero los agricultores guardan algunas de las semillas de las plantas que cultivan, y ahora están produciendo el 80% de sus propias semillas. Si necesitan un fungicida, pueden hacer sulfocálcico o caldo bordelés, que son aceptados por la mayoría de los programas de agricultura orgánica. Los agricultores también siembran albahaca, quilquiña y otras plantas aromáticas entre sus hortalizas para ahuyentar a las plagas insectiles. Cultivan una mezcla de muchas plantas diferentes; esto se llama policultivo y también evita tener plagas. Además, los agricultores están recuperando sus suelos, incorporando compost.

A pesar de que las parcelas que quedan son pequeñas (alguna gente cultiva sólo 700 metros cuadrados), con trabajo se puede producir muchas verduras. Luego viene el problema de dónde venderlas. Los agricultores podrían llevar sus productos al gran mercado, la Cancha de Cochabamba, pero tendrían que competir con las camionadas de hortalizas convencionales. Alberto y Alex han organizado a los agricultores para que trabajen juntos. A menudo se reúnen en la casa de doña Nelly para embolsar los productos con etiquetas atractivas. Además de ahorrarse los costos de los agroquímicos, estos agricultores orgánicos tienen un estrecho vínculo con los consumidores, y saben lo que sus clientes quieren y tratan de ofrecerles una rica diversidad de verduras.

Pertenecer a un grupo también ayuda a los agricultores a encontrar los clientes que aprecian los productos orgánicos. En Bolivia, los nichos de los alimentos orgánicos todavía están en pañales, entonces los productores y consumidores necesitan un poco de ayuda para encontrarse. Alberto y Alex han organizado a los agricultores con sus consumidores. Cada semana, un grupo de consumidores (incluyendo a mi familia) recibe un mensaje de WhatsApp con la oferta semanal. Pedimos lo que queremos, desde verduras súper frescas, una perfecta harina integral, y la mejor tuna que jamás he probado. Dos días después, Alberto y Alex puntualmente nos dejan una “bolsa saludable” (Bolsaludabe) de productos en la puerta.

Lastimosamente, este tipo de comercialización no es sostenible. Los horticultores no siempre pueden depender de la buena voluntad de un proyecto para vender sus productos, pero Alberto y Alex tienen una estrategia de salida. Están organizando a agricultores y consumidores voluntarios para que se reúnan de vez en cuando e inspeccionen las parcelas, a fin de garantizar que son agroecológicas de verdad. Se llama “sistema participativo de garantías” (SPG), y es una especie de certificación orgánica popular. Con el tiempo, Alberto espera que la comercialización sea lo suficientemente rentable como para que alguien, tal vez los mismos productores, se haga cargo de vender la producción de manera particular. Para hacer eso, los productores se están organizando en una asociación con personería jurídica. El hacer que los agricultores y los consumidores nos conozcamos es también una innovación para asegurar que sigamos comprando y vendiendo.

En mi visita a Villa Taquiña Ă©ramos dos docenas de consumidores con barbijos, que estábamos encantados de conocer a algunos de los agricultores que producen los alimentos que comemos. Una de esas agricultoras, Elsa Bustamante, tiene su propia estrategia de salida. Ella está alimentando a cuys con los residuos vegetales de su pequeña parcela, y planifica abrir un restaurante con verduras ecolĂłgicas y cuys producidos en casa. “Todos ustedes serán mis clientes”, nos dice Elsa. Y luego sirve cuartos de cuy fritos y dorados y aĂşn calientes sobre un lecho de arroz, papas y ensalada. A los consumidores les encanta.

ArtĂ­culos relacionados del blog de Agro-Insight

The next generation of farmers

En el frutillar de nuevo

Lectura adicional

Bentley, Jeffery W. 2015 “Flowers Watered with Beer.” Agriculture for Development 26:20-22.

Agradecimientos

Gracias a Nelly Camacho, Elsa Bustamante, y su hermano Pastor por recibirnos en sus hogares y sus parcelas. Doña Nelly es la representante del SPG Cercado. (Cercado es una provincia del Departamento de Cochabamba. Cercado tiene un solo municipio, que también se llama Cochabamba, el cual es la capital del Departamento). El SPG Cercado es respaldado por la Ley 3525, “Regulación y promoción de la producción agropecuaria y forestal no maderable ecológica” y por la Norma Técnica Nacional (NTN) que apoya a los sistemas participativos de garantía (SPG) a través de la cual se acredita grupos de productores ecológicos a nivel urbano, periurbano y rural. El SPG Cercado trabaja a través de un convenio entre el gobierno municipal de Cochabamba y la Fundación Agrecol Andes, con financiamiento de la Cooperación Italiana. Los Ing. Alberto Cárdenas y Alexander Espinoza trabajan para la Fundación Agrecol Andes, en Cochabamba. Gracias a ellos por organizar el viaje, y gracias a Alberto por sus comentarios sobre una versión anterior de este blog.

Vocabulario

El cuy es el conejillo de las Indias.

La quilquiña es una hierba con un fuerte olor usada para hacer salsas, Porophyllum ruderale.

Videos sobre la forma agroecolĂłgica de producir hortalizas

Producir hortalizas en maceta de saco

Managing black rot in cabbage

El manejo de nematodos en hortalizas

Insect nets in seedbeds

Redes contra insectos en almácigo

Staying grounded while on the air in Ghana March 21st, 2021 by

It’s a simple matter to play a soundtrack about farming on the radio. The tricky part is making sure that the program connects with the audience, as I learned recently from Gideon Kwame Sarkodie Osei at ADARS FM, a commercial station in Kintampo, a town in central Ghana.

Since 2010 Gideon has been pleased to be part of an effort by Farm Radio International (FRI) that supported radio stations in Ghana, including ADARS FM, to reach out to farmers. With encouragement from FRI, Gideon started a weekly magazine show for farmers, where he plays Access Agriculture audio tracks. The magazine, Akuafo Mo, means “Thank You Farmers” in the Twi language. Before he started the show, Gideon (together with FRI) did a baseline study of the farmers in his audience. He found that they had more time on Monday evenings. Farm women do more work and have less time than most people, but they told Gideon that they were usually done with their chores by 8 PM, so that’s when he airs Akuafo Mo, every Monday for an hour.

The show starts with recorded interviews, where farmers explain their own knowledge of a certain topic, like aflatoxin, which is so important that Gideon had several episodes on this hidden toxin that can contaminate stored foodstuffs. After the interviews, Gideon plays an audio track, to share fresh ideas with his audience. Gideon has played Access Agriculture audios so often he can’t remember how many he has played. “It’s a lot more than 50,” he explains.

Gideon plays a portion of the audio in English, and then he stops to translate that part into Twi, the language of the Ashanti people. Every week there is a guest on the show, an extension agent who can discuss the topic and take questions from listeners who call in.

Gideon’s experience with the magazine inspired him to start listener groups, in coordination with FRI. Visiting listener communities, Gideon found that some did not have a radio set. So, with project support, he bought them one. “We give them radio sets so they can come together weekly and listen to the magazine,” Gideon told me. He has 20 groups, each with 12 to 30 people. Five groups are only for women, especially in areas where males and females don’t casually mingle. The other listener groups have men and women.

Gideon visits at least some of the groups every week. Because of these visits, Gideon is now downloading videos as well as audio from Access Agriculture. “Sometimes I see if they have electricity, and I rent a projector, to show them the video they have heard on the air.” Gideon says. “This is my initiative, going the extra mile.”

Some of the farmers are learning to sell their groundnuts, maize and other cereals as a group, netting them extra money and helping them to be self-sustaining.

Gideon is also a trainer for FRI. Before Covid, he would travel to other towns and cities in Ghana, meet other broadcasters, and go to the field with them to show them how to improve their interview skills and to craft their own magazine shows. Now he continues to train broadcasters, but online.

Working with the farmer listening groups gives Gideon insights into farmers’ needs and knowledge, making his magazine so authentic that 60,000 people tune in. That experience gives Gideon the confidence to train other broadcasters all over Ghana.

When I was in Ghana a few years ago, I met excellent extension agents who told me how frustrated they were to be responsible for reaching 3,000 farmers. It was impossible to have a quality interaction with all those farmers.

However, there are ways to communicate a thoughtful message with a large audience, for example with a good radio magazine.

Gideon has creatively blended his own expertise with resources from two communication-oriented non-profit organisations: Farm Radio International and Access Agriculture. Hopefully, his experience will inspire other broadcasters.

Videos in the languages of Ghana

Find videos and soundtracks in these languages of Ghana: Buli, Dagaari, Dagbani, Ewe, Frafra, Gonja, Hausa, Kabyé, Kusaal, Moba, Sisaala, Twi, Zarma and English.

The goldenberry January 17th, 2021 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación

The goldenberry, or Cape gooseberry, is a bright yellow-orange fruit, about the size of a grape, sweet and tangy, rich in vitamins A, B and C. It is enclosed in a sheath, or calyx, which hides the fruit from view and protects it from insect pests. Like a banana, you can open the wrapper and eat the fruit unwashed.

The golden berry was known to the Incas, but little else is known of its prehistory. In the Andes, the plant has many names, including: uchuva (Colombia), aguaymanto (Peru) and chilto (in Bolivia). Not a true berry, but a member of the tomato family (Solanaceae), the fruit was grown in England by 1774, and soon appeared from South Africa to Kenya, Australia, the Philippines and Hawaii, besides the Andes from Chile to Colombia, now the world’s top producer.

A minor crop everywhere it is grown, I had never seen the goldenberry until I moved to Cochabamba, where I learned to love its unique flavor. I never plant the goldenberry, but most years it appears somewhere in my garden, where it can grow to over a meter tall, especially if it can find another plant to lean on. It flowers and bears fruit for months on end.

As aptly described in Lost Crops of the Incas, the goldenberry is wild and weedy. In many places, such as Hawaii, where it is called poha, the plant is an invasive weed, choking out native vegetation. I gather that ancient Andean farmers did not domesticate the berry; they just tolerated the little shrub which popped up, in disturbed soil near houses, paths and in fields.

As with any wild plant, goldenberry seed can plant itself with no help from humans. If left on the plant, the calyx gradually thins away, leaving just a net bag. Then the fruit decomposes, except for the seeds. As the wind moves the bag, it scatters the seeds on the ground.

There have been some recent suggestions to breed larger fruits, and to remove the slight, bitter aftertaste. But some of us savor that lingering flavor, and a bigger fruit might burst through its little paper envelope, spoiling the fruit’s visual appeal and exposing it to bugs, rot and dust.

I’m happy to have the goldenberry just as it is, a weed that makes itself welcome with a gift of fruit.

Scientific name

Physalis peruviana

Related Agro-Insight blog stories

Achojcha: An Inca vegetable

Eating bricks

Make luffa, not plastic

Forgotten vegetables

Further reading

National Research Council 1989 Lost Crops of the Incas: Little-Known Plants of the Andes with Promise for Worldwide Cultivation. Washington: National Academies Press.

For more on the goldenberry as an invasive weed, see CABI’s Invasive Species Compendium.

EL CHILTO, CULTIVO Y MALEZA

Por Jeff Bentley

17 de enero del 2021

Llamado “uchuva” en Colombia, “aguaymanto” en el Peú, el chilto tiene muchos otros nombres, como “goldenberry”, o “Cape gooseberry” en inglés. Es un fruto amarillo-anaranjado, más o menos el tamaño de una uva, dulce y ácido, rico en vitaminas A, B y C. Está envuelto en una cobertura, o un cáliz, que esconde el fruto y lo protege de plagas insectiles. Igual que un plátano, se lo puede pelar y comer sin lavarlo.

Los Incas conocieron el chilto, pero se sabe poco más de su prehistoria. Miembro de la familia del tomate (Solanaceae), la fruta se cultivaba en Inglaterra para el 1774, y rápidamente apareció de Sudáfrica a Kenia, Australia, Filipinas y Hawai, y en los Andes de Chile hasta Colombia, hoy en día el primer productor a nivel mundial.

Un cultivo menor en todos los lugares donde se cultiva, yo nunca había visto el chilto hasta que vine a Cochabamba, donde aprendí a amar su sabor único. Nunca planto la uchuva, pero casi cada año aparece en algún lugar de mi jardín, donde puede llegar a tener más de un metro de alto, especialmente si se apoya en una planta vecina. Florece y da frutos durante meses.

Como dicen en “Lost Crops of the Incas, el chilto es una planta silvestre, una maleza. En muchos lugares, como Hawai, donde se llama poha, la planta es una invasora, que ahoga la vegetaciĂłn nativa. Deduzco que los antiguos agricultores andinos no domesticaban la baya; sĂłlo toleraban el pequeño arbusto que aparecĂ­a en el suelo removido cerca de las casas, los caminos y en los campos.

Como con cualquier planta silvestre, la semilla de la uchuva puede plantarse a sí misma sin la ayuda humana. Si permanece en la planta, el cáliz se adelgaza gradualmente, dejando sólo una bolsa de red. Entonces el fruto se descompone, excepto por las semillas. El viento mueve la bolsa, dispersando las semillas en el suelo.

Actualmente algunos sugieren que los fitomejoradores deben crear un chilto bien domesticado, con frutos más grandes, y eliminar el sutil sabor amargo que el fruto deja en el paladar. Pero a algunos nos gusta ese dejo, y si la fruta fuera más grande podría reventar su pequeño sobre de papel, arruinando la belleza de la fruta y exponiéndola a los bichos, la pudrición y el polvo.

Estoy feliz de tener el chilto tal como es, una maleza que se hace bienvenida con un regalo de fruta.

Nombre cientĂ­fico

Physalis peruviana

Previos blogs de Agro-Insight

La achojcha: hortaliza inca

Eating bricks

Make luffa, not plastic

Forgotten vegetables

Lectura adicional

National Research Council 1989 Lost Crops of the Incas: Little-Known Plants of the Andes with Promise for Worldwide Cultivation. Washington: National Academies Press.

Para más información sobre la uchuva como maleza invasora, vea Invasive Species Compendium por CABI.

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

Farming with trees

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

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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