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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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Community seed producers February 24th, 2019 by

Smallholder farmers are clearly part of the private sector, along with agrodealers, traders, food processors and other actors on the value chain. Projects often encourage farmers to improve their livelhihoods by moving into other private sector roles, like seed production. But one project can easily undermine what another one is trying to create, as we recently learned in Tanzania.

For centuries farmers have developed their own plant varieties, kept their own seed and exchanged it with their neighbours. This has also been the case for cassava which is propagated by stem cuttings. Unlike cereal, legume and vegetable seed that can be stored for months if properly dried, cassava is a vegetatively propagated crop. Cassava is planted with stem cuttings that need to be as fresh as possible, or the cuttings may die. Cassava stems are also bulky. For half a hectare a farmer needs 25 bundles, each with 30 stakes of about a meter long. As with other vegetatively propagated crops, the short shelf life and bulkiness of cassava seed make it almost impossible to sell in shops, but farmer seed enterpreneurs who are close their clients could sell cassava stems.

In 2017, a regional cassava project invited Alli Abdalla Lugome from Mhaga village in Tanzania to become a community seed producer. Alli received training in good agronomic practices, bought certified cassava cuttings from the Kibaha research institute and had his field inspected by a TOSCI (Tanzania Official Seed Certification Institute) official who accredited him as a producer of “quality declared seed”. Alli now officially and legally sells cassava seed to his fellow farmers.

It is difficult to develop a market for something like cassava stems that farmers can easily produce themselves. Cassava stems also have no alternative use; they are abundant and can only be used as seed. So when a cassava garden is harvested, most farmers will happily give the leftover stems to neighbours in need of seed. But farmers will buy seed to get a new cassava variety. The improved variety that Alli multplies is resistant to the cassava brown streak disease that is caused by a virus and spread by whiteflies and by cassava cuttings. Cassava across Tanzania and many other African countries has been seriously affected by this disease. There is an urgent need to get seed of new varieties into farmers’ hands and Alli is well-placed to sell such seed to his neighbours.

But while one project was helping Alli to get into the cassava seed business, other projects were killing his market by giving free cassava seed to members of the farmer group to which Alli belongs. As I saw during my time at AfricaRice, you cannot establish farmer seed producers while at the same time handing out seed for free to the farming community. 

When development organisations are under pressure from donors to create impact at scale quickly, they can be successful in their project, but the speed and scale of success may at the same time undermine an emerging private sector of community-based seed enterprises. Running a cassava seed business is a challenge, but it would certainly help farmers like Alli if organisations would come to his village and buy his seed to distribute to other smallholders, instead of undercutting Alli by giving away free seed to his neighbours.

What is clear from this case is that two or more projects can work at cross-purposes with the same crop, in the same village as though the other project did not exist. Unfortunately, such “coordination breakdowns” are all too common in seed projects for vegetatively produced crops like cassava. But such mishaps can be avoided with better planning and communication.

Further reading

Van Mele, Paul, Jeffery W. Bentley and Robert Guéi (eds.) 2011 African Seed Enterprises: Sowing the Seeds of Food Security. Wallingford, UK: CABI. 236 pp. http://www.agroinsight.com/books.php

Bentley, Jeffery W., Jorge Andrade-Piedra, Paul Demo, Beloved Dzomeku, Kim Jacobsen, Enoch Kikulwe, Peter Kromann, P. Lava Kumar, Margaret McEwan, Netsayi Mudege, Kwame Ogero, Richardson Okechukwu, Ricardo Orrego, Bernardo Ospina, Louise Sperling, Stephen Walsh & Graham Thiele 2018 Understanding Root, Tuber, and Banana Seed Systems and Coordination Breakdown: A Multi-Stakeholder Framework. Journal of Crop Improvement.

Related video

The video Quality cassava planting material is available in English, French and Kiswahili on the Access Agriculture video platform. Soon, this video will also be available in Yoruba, Hausa, Igbo and Pigeon English.

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.

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