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A history worth its salt February 9th, 2020 by

Mark Kurlansky’s well-written and inspiring book Salt: A World History, shows how crucial salt has been throughout our history.

Salt was at the very core of Chinese, Mayan and Roman civilization, as it was a key source of revenue for the State. Some ancient civilizations were conquered by destroying the opponent’s access to salt. An army without salt was almost as easily conquered as one without weapons.  A soldier’s daily ration often contained dried and salted meat. Horses would come to a standstill if they lacked a regular intake of salt.

Marco Polo’s economic intelligence was important in part because of his ideas about salt. The son of an established trader in Venice, Marco Polo travelled to China in the 13th century A.D. to establish trade relations. When he returned to Venice after a second, 20-year long visit to China, Marco Polo brought back knowledge of how a salt administration can fill the treasury and that a state can make more profit from trading salt than from producing it. Venice was able to dominate Mediterranean commerce after 1380, thanks to their salt trade, along with their smaller vessels that were more easily converted into war ships than the larger, less versatile Genoese ships. Venetian power lasted for about a century, until the Genoese Christopher Columbus and the Portuguese Vasco da Gama opened the Atlantic Ocean as the main body of water for trade, by-passing the Mediterranean. While Vasco da Gama sailed around Africa to India to avoid the Mediterranean, Columbus tried to beat him by going straight west, where the Americas blocked his route to India, but eventually led to new salt works in the Caribbean.

Having understood the political importance of salt, the British colonial power also adopted a salt administration. In 1600, Queen Elisabeth I granted the East India Company powers almost equal to those of a state: The East India Company was allowed to mint its own money, govern its employees, raise an army and navy, and declare war against rivals. To keep India under control, one of the first things the East India Company aimed for was to neutralise local structures of salt production and marketing.

Centuries later, Mahatma Gandhi broke the British monopoly on salt by encouraging the Indian people to take up local salt production again, usually by evaporating seawater near the coast, eventually leading to Indian independence in 1947.

But salt making soon slipped away from craft producers. Nowadays, salt in India, as in most other countries, is in the hands of a few powerful companies. As an irony of history, British Salt, a company established in 1969 in the U.K. has since 2011 been taken over by Tata Chemicals Europe, which is part of the Tata Group, an Indian multinational holding company.

The six leading salt producers in the world, Australia, Canada, China, Germany, Pakistan and the United States, account for more than half of the worldwide production. In all six countries, apart from China, salt is in the hands of large corporations.

Currently, China Salt is a state-owned enterprise that has a national monopoly over the management and production of edible salt, employing some 50,000 people and controlling assets worth about 7 billion Euro. According the law, salt cannot be sold across different regions, and private citizens are banned from selling their own manufactured salt. 

Just as large corporations have taken over much of the global production of food, agro-chemicals and seed, oligarchies have also dominated the salt supply. It is unlikely that revenues generated from the sales of salt and minerals still benefit states and the well-being of its citizens. Large corporations after all are known for finding clever ways to evade taxes.

Today much of our commercial salt comes from deep, mechanized mines. Salt has become so cheap that we routinely add it to animal feeds, and leave salt blocks for the livestock to lick at their leisure. Salt is now so abundant that we have to be cautioned that eating too much of it is bad for our heart. But it was not always so. Kurlansky invites us to imagine a world, not long ago, when salt was one of the most expensive foods that people bought. While the price of salt has dropped tremendously, the sheer volume of global consumption still makes it a powerful commodity.

Suggested reading

Mark Kurlansky (2002) Salt:A World History. Penguin Books, pp. 484

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Eating an old friend December 15th, 2019 by

Last year in Bangladesh, in the village of Begati Chikerbath, I visited Shamsur Naheris, an energetic extensionist in a bright orange sari. She had organized an exchange visit so that local women can tell their stories about making money and changing their lives by the simple means of raising chickens.

A year and a half earlier, the village had hosted an FFS (farmer field school) on poultry, where the women learned to vaccinate their chickens and ducks with eye drops and to keep the hens in small coops. When the hen has a clutch of eggs, she sits on them in a nest, called a hazol, which the villagers make themselves, a technique they learned in the FFS. The hazol is a kind of earthen bowl with two small cups on one side for feed and water. Because the hazol is big and heavy, the hens are less likely to upset and spill their food. The hen sits on straw in the hazol and broods her eggs with water and food handy. The hazol and the hen are placed inside a small chicken coop.

More chicks live to maturity with this system, and when they are six weeks old, they can be let loose to find their own food, which lowers costs and saves space in the chicken coop. Then the hen can start another brood. This way she gets five or six broods in a year, over a useful life of some five years, until she ends up in the family cooking pot.

“How can you stand to eat your old friend?” one visitor asked, concerned that the women might have become too attached to the hens to eat them.

“It’s easy, we just soften the meat first with green papaya,” one of the chicken farmers explains.

While there may be little sentimentality attached to the birds, the women are all keen to raise them. Every house has a small chicken coop in the back yard and all of the little structures are filled with healthy birds.

In a meeting with visitors from other villages, five local women told how raising chickens has improved not just their income, but also their self-esteem. The audience was clearly moved. The visitors were farmers and their husbands, 25 couples from six local community-based, water management groups. Having the husbands attend was a touch of inspiration. It would ensure that the men would be convinced and would support their wives as they started small-scale commercial poultry.

Even a simple technical innovation, such as a chicken coop and an improved nest, may require some training and clever community organizing.

Acknowledgements

The extensionists mentioned in this paper were Community development facilitators (CDF) for the Blue Gold Project, which is financed by the government of the Netherlands to improve water management in Bangladesh.

A related video

Watch this video on Taking care of local chickens

The dialect devil November 10th, 2019 by

Formal education has stifled local languages and dialects for years, but there are signs of change.

A Belgian friend, Dirk, recently told me how in the 1970s, one of his primary school teachers used a little doll or “Devil´s Puppet” (Dutch: Duivels Pop) to discourage children from speaking their local dialect of Dutch, in favor of what the school system called “civilized” Dutch. If the teacher caught an 11-year old speaking the local dialect, even at play, the kid would be loaned the Devil’s Puppet. The plan backfired, however, and the boys were soon competing to get the puppet as often as possible. The teacher lost that battle, but the schools won the war, and within a generation most dialects had seriously eroded.

The Devil’s Puppet reminded me of an experience I had about the same time in Samoa. At Mapusaga High School some teachers made a chart with a line for each student’s name. If a kid was caught speaking the Samoan language, the teacher would shame him or her by putting a pair of “black lips”, cut from stiff paper, next to the student’s name. Different tool but same aim:  designed to shame children for speaking the language of their parents and grandparents.

In North America, native children were removed far from their parents and held in “ Indian boarding schools” created with the express purpose of stamping out native languages. “Killing the Indian, but saving the man (sic)” as it was put by Richard Henry Pratt, the US Army officer who founded Carlisle Indian Industrial School, the first off-reservation boarding school, in 1879. But the tide is starting to turn as many lament the loss of native languages and cultural identity. In Peru, enlightened educators are trying new ways to teach children to be proud of their communities, their native Quechua language, farming skills and food culture. Faculty members of the Universidad Nacional Agraria La Molina, and staff from the Instituto de Desarrollo y Medio Ambiente and other NGOs work with selected schools to set up a “seed house”. Known by its Quechua name of muru wasi, the seed house is a classroom with books, posters, videos and other educational materials about local farming and culture. The kids plant a garden together on the school grounds, under the guidance of experienced community members, who also work with local teachers and parents to hold events where they can share traditional meals, made with Andean crops. Quechua is spoken at every opportunity. It’s an excellent innovation: using plants to sow the seeds of self-esteem in the minds of the children

It is too soon to say if such an approach will help to save local languages or to slow the flow of youth to the cities, but the educators are optimistic.

The global languages taught at school and the local languages and dialects acquired at home can and do co-exist. It is normal for people to speak several languages. When schools discourage local languages they also – often inadvertently – teach kids to be ashamed of their parents. When this happens, the real devils are intolerance, ignorance and indifference towards rural people, their culture and their ways of life. There are no excuses for letting this happen and it’s good to see people reclaiming and reviving local dialects and languages.

Watch videos in local languages

Access Agriculture has a large collection of agricultural videos in local languages of Africa, Asia and Latin America, which you can download for free.

Acknowledgements

Information about the Seed Houses in Peru is courtesy of Ana Dorrego CarlĂłn, and Aldo Justino Cruz Soriano of UNALM and Wilmar Fred LeĂłn Plasencia of IDMA.

Blocking out the food November 3rd, 2019 by

As alternative food systems develop, they may also be the most vulnerable, as I saw after the disastrous elections in Bolivia of this past 20 October. Many people suspected that the election had been rigged, and that the president had not actually won a fourth term.

In protest, the major cities began erecting barricades on all major streets, and many smaller ones. This is protest by self-inflicted economic wound. Many people cannot get to work. Many close their shops and hardly anyone will take their kids to school. The macro-economy takes a nose-dive.

On Friday, six days into the protests, the protest leaders announced on social media that the roadblocks would be lifted in the morning so people could buy food. So I went shopping.

One NGO I know runs a “solidarity basket”, like a subscription service. They pick up fresh vegetables from peri-urban farmers and sell them on certain Saturdays. This weekend the roadblocks had kept the NGO from collecting the produce from the farmers. I met the NGO in a city park, where they had two pickups, offering just onions, yoghurt and mogochinchi (dried peaches) produced by small-scale entrepreneurs, but not the vegetables. My friends understood the importance of the protest, but they were visibly upset that they couldn’t collect the vegetables, which is a way of helping poorer farmers, mostly women, to sell to sympathetic members of the middle class.

Every Saturday, an alternative shop I patronize brings vegetables from farms in the valley. They also bake bread. The owner, Paula, joked that her assistant had not been able to come in, so Paula had baked the bread herself. It fell when rising. She also quipped not to mind if the asparagus was a bit smashed. “I had to go get it on my bike”, she explained (to ride around the roadblocks).

That same Saturday the regular markets and the supermarkets were overwhelmed with people shopping for what was going to be a difficult week for everyone. Every shopping cart was in use, and the lines stretched from the cash register half way through the store.

While a few items sold out, like tuna fish in water, most foods were still in stock. Supermarkets can last for a few days without being resupplied.  

Government supporters added to the tension by announcing that they would counter the protests in the city by blockading the national highways, with the stated purpose of keeping food out.

Food suppliers and shoppers all have a vested interest in trading with each other. As the week wore on, the supermarkets closed their doors. The food dealers that stayed open were the oldest ones: family-owned shops, and open-air markets.

Unfortunately, this past week I was really looking forward to attending a seed exchange, where people would meet and trade their own local varieties of tree and crop seed. No money would exchange hands, just gifts and trade in seed. This was an innovative, even experimental addition to the alternative food system. Unfortunately, that was cancelled entirely. The newest parts of the food system can also be the weakest. Cities are vulnerable to a break in food supplies, and experiences like this one may be a wake-up call to strengthen local food systems.

Native potatoes, tasty and vulnerable September 8th, 2019 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación

Of well over 4000 potato varieties, the great majority only grow in the Andes, a cordillera of great heights (with farming up to 4500 meters above sea level) and tropical latitudes (with little variation in daylight hours between summer and winter). Potato varieties adapted to these special conditions can rarely survive outside the Andes.

The native varieties are endangered, and if they disappear, they will take with them the genes that breeders need to create the varieties adapted to a changing world.

But the Andean farmers fear the extinction of native potatoes for other reasons. Near Cusco, Santiago Huarhua and Ernestina Huallpayunca, with their children, tell us that native potatoes are much nicer to eat than the modern varieties. The native potatoes are of many colors, even red and blue. They are floury and tasty. Don Santiago and doña Ernestina produce them only with natural fertilizer, which they say helps to preserve the potato’s special flavor. The couple grows the potatoes on the high mountain slopes above their village, while the so-called improved potatoes are white and are produced with chemical fertilizer, on the valley bottom.

Even though the family preserves native potatoes, they grow more of the improved ones, because of market demand, to make fried potatoes and chips. The native potatoes tend to be smaller and too dry to fry, but perfect for boiling.

Don Santiago says that when he was a child, there were many native potato varieties, more than he can remember, but now there are only five. He shows us where he keeps his seed potato. He has three shelves, each about one by two meters, enough to plant about 1500 square meters of each variety; that makes one small plot for each kind of potato. The survival of these vulnerable varieties depends on a few kilos of seed, curated by relatively isolated households.

In recent years, Peruvians have started to appreciate these little gourmet potatoes, and buy them. This new demand for native potatoes helps to ensure their survival, but varieties are still being lost. Yet native potatoes do have one thing in their favor: farmers like them more than other varieties.  

A note on potato varieties

The International Potato Center curates 4354 native potato varieties. Genebank.

Acknowledgments

Thanks to Ing. RaĂşl Ccanto, of the Grupo Yanapai, and to Ing. Willmer PĂ©rez and Ing. Andrea Prado, both of the International Potato Center (CIP). They are writing a video script about native potatoes. I have learned a lot from them in a week of sharing and writing.  Our script writing course was generously supported by The McKnight Foundation’s Collaborative Crop Research Program (CCRP).

PAPAS NATIVAS, DELICIOSAS Y VULNERABLES

Por Jeff Bentley, 8 de septiembre del 2019

De las mucho más de 4000 variedades de papa, la gran mayoría solo viven en los Andes, una cordillera con grandes alturas (con agricultura hasta 4500 msnm) y latitudes tropicales (con poca variación de horas luz entre invierno y verano). Las variedades adaptadas a estas condiciones especiales raras veces sobreviven en otros lugares.

Las variedades nativas están en peligro de extinción, y si se desaparecen, llevarán consigo los genes que los fitomejoradores necesitarán para crear variedades aptas a un mundo cambiante.

Pero los agricultores andinos temen la extinción de la papa nativa por otras razones. Cerca de Cusco, Santiago Huarhua y Ernestina Huallpayunca, con sus hijos, nos explican que las papas nativas son mucho más ricas que las mejoradas. Las nativas son de muchos colores, hasta rojo y azul. Son harinosas y sabrosas. Don Santiago y doña Ernestina las producen solo con abono natural, que según ellos ayuda a preservar su sabor especial. Las cultivan en las alturas, en los cerros arriba de su comunidad, mientras las papas mejoradas son blancas, y se producen con fertilizante químico, en el piso del valle.

A pesar de que la familia preserva papas nativas, más producen papas mejoradas, porque es lo que el mercado demanda, para hacer papa frita. Las papas nativas tienden a ser pequeñas y no muy buenas para freír, pero perfectas para sancochar.

Don Santiago nos cuenta que cuando era un niño, había muchas variedades nativas. No se acuerda cuántas, pero ahora solo quedan cinco. Nos muestra donde guarda su papa, para semilla. Tiene tres estantes, cada uno de un metro por dos, suficiente para sembrar 1500 metros cuadrados de cada variedad; es una parcela pequeña para cada clase de papa. La sobrevivencia de estas variedades vulnerables depende de unos cuantos kilos de semilla, custodiadas por familias relativamente aisladas.

El preservar a las papas nativas será una actividad social. Nadie lo puede hacer solo. El público tendrá que aprender a apreciar estas papitas gourmet, y comprarlas. Los agricultores tendrán que tener acceso a la semilla de otros lugares cuando su papa se degenera y hay que cambiarla.

En los últimos años, los consumidores peruanos han empezado a querer a esas pequeñas papas gourmet. Esta nueva demanda para la papa nativa ayuda a asegurar su sobrevivencia, pero se siguen perdiendo variedades. Sin embargo, la mejor ficha que tienen las papas nativas es que los mismos agricultores las prefieren a las otras variedades.

Una nota sobre las variedades de papa

El Centro Internacional de la Papa conserva 4354 variedades de papa nativa. Genebank

Agradecimientos Agradezco al Ing. RaĂşl Ccanto, del Grupo Yanapai, y al Ing. Willmer PĂ©rez y la Ing. Andrea Prado, ambos del Centro Internacional de la Papa (CIP). Ellos están escribiendo un guion para un video sobre las papas nativas. En una semana de convivencia y redacciĂłn he aprendido bastante de ellos.  Nuestro curso de redacciĂłn de guiones recibiĂł el apoyo generoso del Programa Colaborativo de Investig

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