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Spineless cactus February 2nd, 2020 by

I wrote in last week’s blog, Her mother’s laugh, that famed plant breeder (and showman), Luther Burbank, bred the spineless cactus. But there is more to the story.

The prickly pear cactus is native to Mexico and spread to the Caribbean and possibly to the Andes in pre-Colombian times. Columbus took the plant, with its delicious fruit, back to Europe on his first voyage. The hardy cactus was soon grown around the Mediterranean, and quickly found its way to arid lands from South Africa to India.

While ancient Mexicans domesticated this cactus, farmers in India selected varieties without thorns.

By 1907, Luther Burbank was promoting his spineless cactus, a hybrid of Mexican and Indian varieties. In his catalogues he wrote that the cactus which would grow with no irrigation, little care, and it would make ideal cattle fodder for the arid western USA.

In the USA, Burbank’s spineless cactus never quite lived up to its hype. While it lacked the large, needle-like thorns, it still grew small, hair-like thorns, which are brittle and can be painful when they lodge into a person’s hands or an animal’s mouth. Burbank’s spineless cactus required some irrigation and more management than other varieties, and under stress, the cactus tended to grow its spines. The thorn-free cactus also had to be fenced to protect it from hungry livestock and wildlife.

Burbank’s American cactus bubble burst by the 1920s, when ranchers grew disappointed with prickly pear. But there was already a long tradition of growing spineless cactus in India, where smallholder farmers had perfected the art of growing the prickly pear for fruit, and to feed the leaves to their livestock. Now you can learn from them, in a new video that tells how to plant, and grow the cactus, and use it as animal fodder.

Watch the video

Spineless cactus for fodder

Related blog stories

Her mother’s laugh

Kiss of death in the cactus garden

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Read more

Ewbank, Anne 2019 The Thorny Tale of America’s Favorite Botanist and His Spineless Cacti https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/spineless-cactus

Griffith, M. P. 2004 The origins of an important cactus crop, Opuntia ficus‐indica (Cactaceae): new molecular evidence. American Journal of Botany91(11), 1915-1921.

Remembering an American king December 22nd, 2019 by

My mom was born in Moab, Utah, an area of outstanding natural beauty, famed for its mountains and red sandstone canyons. Long before Moab became one of the world’s top tourist destinations, Mom took me to visit another attraction, one that is much less well known. She drove me just north of the town to see the “King of the World”, a large stone relief sculpture, carved into a sandstone boulder. I vividly remember the sculpture. The boulder sat at the base of the cliff, down a dirt road, not too far from the highway. Mom explained that the sculpture was a self-portrait of the sculptor, and his horse.

I’ve recently learned more about sculptor. His name was Aharron Andeew and he came to Moab in the 1930s, during the height of the Depression, a gloomy era in American history when jobs were scarce and rural poverty widespread. After his arrival, Andeew spent 15 months doing odd jobs while gardening and tending his small herd of goats. Andeew camped north of town on the ranch of a kind family, the Parriotts. This is where he carved his sculpture. It is so well done that he must have had formal training, but no one knows where. Andeew spoke with a foreign accent and my brother Scott remembers the old-timers calling him “the mad Russian.”

The stone carving bears the following inscription:

1935

M.C.F. Hhaesus

America

Aharron Andeew

King America

King World

I have no idea what M.C.F Hhaesus means, but the self-portrait shows a man with a curved beak of a nose, wearing a Cossack’s fur hat, with a map of the world carved into it. His coat has two buttons, one carved in the shape of North and South America, while the other one represents the Old World.

Andeew had some odd behaviors. On Sundays he used to march up and down the road near his camp, carrying a rifle, with a sword in a scabbard. He was dressed in a great coat, bearing brass medals he had made himself. Andeew never threatened anyone, but in 1936 the townspeople firmly suggested that he leave town. When he got to Provo, Utah, he introduced himself as the King of the World, and he landed in a psychiatric hospital, where this gentle eccentric later died.

Few recall the people who ran Andeew out of town, but his presence is still felt through his unique piece of art. Art is often seen as a sublime form of communication, better than mere talk at revealing feelings and emotions. But art can also make a message last longer than simple verbal communication. Ancient peoples who lived off the land often left us art that depicts themselves and their animals, from cave paintings in Lascaux, to realistic stone carvings of cattle in Egypt and India, and the pre-Colombian big-horn sheep carved into boulders all around Moab itself.  Today, a stone sculpture in Moab reminds us that an immigrant sculptor, gardener and goat herder named Aharron Andeew was here 85 years ago, and that he had a grand imagination.

Visit the King

The King sculpture is no longer on the old Parriott Ranch. In 2009, the new land owner, Jennifer Speers, decided that she did not want the stone, but that it should be preserved. Speers donated the 30-ton rock to Grand County (the county that includes Moab). The sculpture was moved to the lawn of the Seniors Center, near the Allen Memorial Hospital, in Moab, Utah.

Further reading

Barker, Vicki 2010 Relocating Rock Art, A Moving Experience https://www.moabhappenings.com/Archives/historic1003RelocationRockArt_AMovingExperience.htm

Dudek, Robert 1986 The King of the World. http://www.riverguides.org/SDG/SDG1-4.pdf

Stiles, Jim 2015 Albert Christensen & Aharron Andeew: Eccentric Sculptors…& Kindred Spirits? https://www.canyoncountryzephyr.com/2015/04/01/albert-christensen-aharron-andeew-eccentric-sculptors-kindred-spirits-by-jim-stiles/

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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 Carlón, and Aldo Justino Cruz Soriano of UNALM and Wilmar Fred León Plasencia of IDMA.

Out of space July 28th, 2019 by

Celebrating 50 years after landing on the moon, a series of weekly TV broadcasts nicely illustrates the spirit of the time. One interview with a man on a New York City street drew my particular attention. The interview showed why so many people supported the NASA programme: “We have screwed up our planet, so if we could find another planet where we can live, we can avoid making the same mistakes.”

History has shown over and over again how the urge to colonise other places has been a response to the declining productivity of the local resource base. In his eye-opening book “Dirt. The Erosion of Civilizations”, Professor David Montgomery from the University of Washington made me better understand the global and local dynamics of land use from a social and historical perspective.

Out of the many examples given in his book, I will focus on the most recent example: the growth of industrial agriculture, as the rate of soil erosion has taken on such a dramatic proportion that it would be a crime against humanity not to invest all of our efforts to curb the trend and ensure food production for the next generations.

The Second World War triggered various changes affecting agriculture. First, the area of land cultivated in the American Great Plains doubled during the war. The increased wheat production made more exports to Europe possible. Already aware of the risks of soil erosion, in 1933 the U.S. government established an elaborate scheme of farm subsidies to support soil conservation, crop diversification, stabilize farm incomes and provide flexible farm credit. Most farmers took loans to buy expensive machinery. Within a decade, farm debt more than doubled while farm income only rose by a third.

After the Second World War, military assembly lines were converted for civilian use, paving the way for a 10-fold increase in the use of tractors. By the 1950s several million tractors were ploughing American fields. On the fragile prairy ecosystem of the Great Plains, soil erosion rapidly took its toll and especially small farmers were hit by the drought in the 1950s. Many farmers were unable to pay back their loans, went bankrupt and moved to cities. The few large farmers who were left increased their farm acreage and grew cash crops to pay off the debt of their labour-saving machinery. By the time the first man had put his foot on the moon, 4 out of 10 American farms had disappeared in favour of large corporate factory farms.

At the same time that the end of the Second World War triggered large-scale mechanization, the use of chemical fertilizer also sharply increased. Ammonia factories used to produce ammunition were converted to produce cheap nitrogen fertilizer. Initial increase in productivity during the Green Revolution stalled and started to decline within two decades. By now the sobering figures indicate that despite the high yielding varieties and abundant chemical inputs, productivity in up to 39% of the area growing maize, rice, wheat and soya bean has stagnated or collapsed. Reliance on purchased annual inputs has increased production costs, which has led in many cases to increased farmer debt, and subsequent farm business failures. At present, agriculture consumes 30% of our oil use. With the rising oil and natural gas prices it may soon become too expensive to use these dwindling resources to produce fertilizer. 

Armed with fertilizers, farmers thought that manure was no longer needed to fertilize the land. A decline in organic matter in soils further aggravated the vulnerability of soils to erosion. As people saw the soil as a warehouse full of chemical elements that could be replenished ad libitum to feed crops, they ignored the microorganisms that provided a living bridge between organic matter, soil minerals and plants. Microorganisms do not have chlorophyll to do photosynthesis, like plants do, and require organic matter to feed on.

A 1995 review reported that each year 12 million hectares of arable land are lost due to soil erosion and land degradation. This is 1% of the available arable soil, per year. The only three regions in the world with good (loess) soil for agriculture are the American Midwest, northern Europe and northern China. Today, about a third of China’s total cultivated area is seriously eroded by wind and water.

While the plough has been the universal symbol of agriculture for centuries, people have begun to understand the devastating effect of ploughing on soil erosion. By the early 2000s, already 60% of farmland in Canada and the U.S.A. were managed with conservation tillage (leaving at least 30% of the field covered with crop residues) or no-till methods. In most other parts of the world, including Europe, ploughing is still common practice and living hedges as windbreaks against erosion are still too often seen as hindrance for large-scale field operations.

In temperate climates, ploughing gradually depletes the soil of organic matter and it may take a century to lose 10 centimetres of top soil. This slow rate of degradation is a curse in disguise, as people may not fully grasp the urgency required to take action. However, in tropical countries the already thinner top soil can be depleted of organic matter and lost to erosion in less than a decade. The introduction of tractor hiring services in West Africa may pose a much higher risk to medium-term food security than climate change, as farmers plough their fields irrespective of the steepness, soil type or cropping system. In Nigeria, soil erosion on cassava-planted hillslopes removes more than two centimetres of top soil per year.

Despite the overwhelming evidence of the devastating effects of conventional agriculture, the bulk of public research and international development aid is still geared around a model that supports export-oriented agriculture that mines the soils, and chemical-based intensification of food production that benefits large corporations. Farm subsidies and other public investments in support of a more agroecological approach to farming are still sadly insufficient, yet a report from The High Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition published this month concludes that the short-term costs of creating a level playing field for implementing the principles suggested by agroecology may seem high, but the cost of inaction is likely to be much higher.

With the reserves of oil and natural gas predicted to become depleted before the end of this century, changes to our industrial model of petroleum-based agriculture will happen sooner than we think. And whether we are ready for it is a societal decision. With all attention being drawn to curbing the effects of climate change, governments, development agencies and companies across the world also have a great and urgent responsibility to invest in promoting a more judicious use of what many see as the cheapest resource in agriculture, namely land. We are running out of space and colonising other planets is the least likely option to save our planet from starvation.

Further reading

David R. Montgomery. 2007. Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations. Berkeley: University of California Press, 285 pp.

HLPE. 2019. Agroecological and other innovative approaches for sustainable agriculture and food systems that enhance food security and nutrition. A report by The High Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition. www.fao.org/fileadmin/user_upload/hlpe/hlpe_documents/HLPE_Reports/HLPE-Report-14_EN.pdf

IPES-Food. 2016. From uniformity to diversity: a paradigm shift from industrial agriculture to diversified agroecological systems. International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food systems. www.ipes-food.org

Pimentel, D.C., Harvey, C., Resosudarmo, I., Sinclair, K., Kurz, D., M, M., Crist, S., Shpritz, L., Fitton, L., Saffouri, R. and Blair, R. 1995. Environmental and Economic Cost of Soil Erosion and Conservation Benefits. Science 267, 1117-23.

Related videos

Over 100 farmer training videos on organic agriculture can be found on the Access Agriculture video-sharing platform:  Organic agriculture

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A brief history of soy April 7th, 2019 by

It was only a century ago that one of the oldest and most nutritious of human food crops began evolving into a global commodity, along the way becoming implicated in problems with genetic engineering, deforestation, and water pollution.

In an engaging world history of soy, Christine Du Bois tells how the bean was gathered and eaten in Manchuria, in northeastern China, at least 9000 years ago, and has been domesticated for at least 5000 years. Ancient (or at least medieval) recipes include tofu (from China), the intriguing, heavily fermented temprah (from Indonesia) and soy sauce (from Japan, but sold in Britain by the 1600s).

Henry Ford was one of the first to grasp the industrial potential of the crop and promoted it to make engine oil and plastics. His motor company was making plastic car parts from soy, and today we might have vegetal automobiles, had DuPont not created plastic from petroleum. DuPont’s plastics might have left American soy farmers with extra beans on their hands, if not for people like Gene Sultry, who started the first soy mill in Illinois in 1927, to crush the beans and extract oil (e.g. for margarine), leaving the crushed beans as animal feed. Sultry travelled the midwestern US with a six-car soy information train, complete with a lecture hall and two theater cars, where farmers watched films explaining how and why they should grow the new crop.

In one of the ironies of post-World War II economics, the USA began exporting large quantities of soy back to its Asian center of origin, first as relief food, but soon Japanese farmers learned to factory farm chickens and pigs on the US model, and feed them with imported, American soy.

This important new trade was upset by Richard Nixon, who in 1973, in the face of rising food prices, briefly banned the export of soy. This startled the Japanese into seeking supplies elsewhere. They began to support the research and development of soy in Brazil, a country that previously grew very little soy. The Japanese and Brazilian researchers were soon breeding locally adapted varieties and learning how to add lime to acidic soils, so that the dense forests of Mato Grosso could be felled for soy.

Photo by E. Boa

The crop soon spread to neighboring Argentina, Paraguay and Bolivia. This vast soy-producing area in South America is the size of a large country, and is sometimes sarcastically called “the Republic of Soy”. Besides habitat destruction, soy displaced native peoples and smallholders as industrial farmers moved onto their land, sowing thousands of hectares. Soy can, of course, be grown by smallholders; Eric Boa and I were fortunate enough to visit some family farmers in 2007 who were happily growing soy on 20 to 30-hectare plots in Bolivia.

It is the large scale of soy that shows its nastier side. The bean has been genetically modified to make it resistant to Monsanto’s herbicide Roundup (glyphosate). Almost all soy now grown in North and South America is genetically modified. Runoff from chemical fertilizer has created a large, dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. In the midwestern USA, soy-fed pigs create mass amounts of liquified manure that builds up in “hog lagoons”, frequently spilling over into rivers. The logical solution would be to use the manure as fertilizer, cutting back on chemicals, but this would entail keeping water out of the manure while cleaning barns, and then hauling the organic fertilizer over long distances.

The US government subsidizes the insurance industry to the tune of $30 billion a year, buffering American soy farmers from risk—a type of farm welfare that benefits those with the most soy, and the most land. These subsidies depress the world price for soy, making it harder for farm families in Africa and elsewhere to get the best prices for their soy.

Yet soy is a versatile food crop that can be made into thousands of tasty and nutritious dishes. It fixes nitrogen from the air, allowing less use of chemical urea as fertilizer. It can be grown profitably by smallholders, if they are protected from land-grabbers, and if governments do not subsidize large-scale farmers.

Brazil is now making efforts to limit further deforestation for soy. Other steps could be taken to rationalize soy’s fertilizer cycle and alternatives for weed control. A crop which has been implicated in so much damage could still be farmed and eaten in environmentally sound ways.

Further reading

Du Bois, Christine M. 2018 The Story of Soy. London: Reaktion Books. 304 pp.

Videos on soy

Soya sowing density

Making soya cheese

Harvesting and storing soya bean seed

Making a condiment from soya beans

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