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Formerly known as food January 27th, 2019 by

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further reading

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

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

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

Related blogs

Chemical attitude adjustment

Effective micro-organisms

Forgotten vegetables

Related videos

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

Organic agriculture and mice December 9th, 2018 by

Some practices are harder to introduce to farmers than others. In Europe, environmental degradation caused by industrial agriculture has given rise to new forms of subsidies for farmers to provide specific environmental services, such as planting hedgerows or keeping wild flower strips around their fields. In developing countries, however, environmental subsidies are non-existent and hence curbing environmental degradation can be extra challenging.

Recent developments in the global quinoa trade have devastated the fragile ecosystem of the Bolivian Altiplano. As quinoa production intensified, farmers ploughed up large sections of native vegetation, which left the soil prone to wind erosion. With the thin fertile top soil being blown away and young quinoa plants being covered with sand, many farmers abandonned their land and moved to the cities. The loss of native vegetation also limited the forage available for the llamas and vicuñas.

To address this problem, the research organisation Proinpa is trying hard to re-introduce native plants. If native plants could be grown as live barriers around quinoa fields, they would provide fodder and at the same time reduce wind erosion. But some farmers are reluctant to adopt this technology. Planting live barriers costs money, labour and takes up part of their land.

Many of the farmers who plant barriers belong to associations that market organic quinoa. Organic certification ensures that farmers get higher prices, as long as they follow certain practices (such as planting hedges) that contribute to a better social and natural environment. Subsidies for organic farming are rare in developing countries, premiums from certification schemes can partly make up for missing government subsidies, unless pests also like organic crops.

Farmers who grow live barriers told Proinpa that the hedges attract mice who can destroy young quinoa seedlings. Mice are also attracted to the harvested grain as it dries in the field, before threshing. If the quinoa is not stored properly, mice often get into the warehouses. When droppings foul the grain, the crop is rejected for organic trade.

Organic agriculture can be a blessing to boost the income of smallholder farmers and to protect the environment. But as this example shows, organic farmers are prone to additional challenges. Farmers on the Bolivian Altiplano set traps by burying cans partly filled with water to drown the mice. Frustrated quinoa growers also stomp on mice burrows in thie fields or leave quinoa chaffe at the entrance of mice holes, so they eat this and leave the young quinoa untouched.

Every new technology has unintended consequences. Perhaps no one anticipated that live barriers would protect mice, and the soil. Yet farmers who have planted the barriers see their benefit and are willing to find new ways to take on the mice.

Watch and download videos

The video from Bolivia on live barriers against wind erosion will be published early next year on the Access Agriculture video platform .

The video on Grass strips against soil erosion made in Thailand and Vietnam is available in 10 languages, including English, Spanish, Ayamara and Quechua

The many farmer training videos on organic agriculture

Related blogs

Waiting for rats

Quinoa, lost and found

Acknowledgement

The video on live barriers in Bolivia is developed with funding from the McKnight Foundation’s Collaborative Crop Research Program (CCRP). Thanks to Milton Villca, Eliseo Mamani and colleagues at Proinpa for background on this story.

Marketing something nice April 15th, 2018 by

vea la versión en español a continuación

I’ve always been impressed by the way Bolivians adapt creatively to new situations. The other day Ana and I went to a farmers’ fair in the small town of Colcapirhua, near Cochabamba. The fair was due to be held in the charming main square of the town. Paved in flagstones, closed to through traffic and with steps leading up to a small church it would have been a delightful venue. But local townspeople were already there, angrily but peacefully protesting about alleged corruption in their town council.

The protesters were there to stay, so the farmers moved their fair two blocks south, where they strung out their stands on an empty side lane along the main highway between Cochabamba and La Paz. It was less picturesque, but there were more potential customers passing by.

The farmers selling goods represented organized groups from all regions of Bolivia. The fair was actually part of the annual meeting of the National Soils Platform, which had chosen “fair trade” as its annual theme. As we moved up the line of stalls, the farmers were keen to sell us a wide range of goods that were not only high quality, but also unique, such as strawberries from the valleys of Santa Cruz, oven dried to sweet perfection.

Coffee growers from the Amazon (parts of which are cool enough for coffee) had brought little plastic bags of coffee seed. “Ready to plant!” they exclaimed, eager to encourage other farmers to start growing their own coffee. Cacao farmers from the Beni had bitter, white and milk chocolate. There was real pleasure in buying chocolate from the people who had made it from the cacao beans that they grew themselves.

There were tiny puffed grains of amaranth (ready to eat like cold cereal), fresh cherimoyas (a native fruit—but of a small, sweet variety that is now hard to find). Some farmers from Chuquisaca had a local variety of chilli that was so hot, it is called “la gran putita (the great little whore)”. We had to buy some.

There was traditional food, like an aged cow’s cheese from the warm valley of Comarapa. It tasted marvelous, but the smell of cow was not for beginners.

What struck me the most was how many of the products were new, and inventive. Things you wouldn’t find in the supermarket in Cochabamba, such as dried apples, preserved peaches still on the stone (moist and sweet but with no sugar added). Quinoa and wheat were packed in neat plastic bags, with labels, ready to make into soup.

We have said in a previous blog that smallholders with attractive products struggle to produce equally attractive labels, which by law often have to list ingredients. Here, the chocolate was wrapped in handsome paper with a printed label.

My favorite was the apple vinegar, in recycled Mexican beer bottles. The farmers had covered the beer label with a new paper one, proudly explaining that this vintage was made from just three ingredients: organic apples, raw cane sugar with no additives, and water. The bottles were neatly sealed with bright yellow bottle caps.

Most of these farmers’ associations have received support, often from their parish priest or from Church-sponsored NGOs, some with volunteers from Europe and elsewhere. Outside help in manufacturing and packaging had clearly contributed to the quality of the goods, but the farmers were self-motivated to sell their goods. Agriculture is in large measure about producing something to sell.

Although this was an event on fair trade, there was no mention of being certified as fair trade. One speaker the first day had mentioned some of the hurdles that keep smallholders from being able to qualify for fair trade certification, and this group had readily agreed with her.

This group of smallholders certainly understood one basic idea, marketing means you must have something nice to sell: attractive, high quality and well presented. Farmers across the globe deserve a fair price for their products, and smart marketing helps to achieve this.

Related blogs

Food for outlaws (on labels for homemade products)

And some stories on chocolate:

Chocolate evolution

Congo cocoa

Out of the shade

Farewell coca, hello cocoa

Related videos

Coffee: group organization

 

ALGO BONITO PARA VENDER

por Jeff Bentley, 15 de abril del 2018

Los bolivianos siempre me han impresionado con su habilidad de adaptarse creativamente a las nuevas situaciones. El otro día fui con Ana a una feria agrícola en el pueblito de Colcapirhua, cerca de Cochabamba. La feria tenía que realizarse en la linda plaza del pueblo. Enlozada, cerrada al tráfico de autos y con una capilla sobre una colina, hubiera sido un lugar encantador. Pero algunos vecinos del pueblo ya estaban allí, protestando pacíficamente pero molestos contra la supuesta corrupción de sus concejales.

La protesta no se movía, así que los agricultores trasladaron su feria dos cuadras al sur, donde colocaron sus carpas en una fila en un camino vacío al lado de la carretera principal entre Cochabamba y La Paz. El lugar no era tan pintoresco, pero sí había más compradores que pasaban a pie.

Los agricultores representaban a grupos organizados de todas las regiones de Bolivia. En realidad, la feria era parte de la reunión anual de la Plataforma Nacional de Suelos, que había escogido a “comercio justo” como su tema anual. Al caminar por los puestos, los agricultores estaban con ganas de vender una amplia gama de productos que no solamente eran de buena calidad, pero también únicos, como las frutillas (fresas) de los valles de Santa Cruz, secadas a la perfección en horno.

Caficultores de la Amazonía (partes de la cual son tan frescas que se puede cultivar café) habían traído bolsitas de semilla de café. “¡Listo para el almácigo!” exclamaron, felices de animar a otros a producir su propio café. Productores del Beni tenían chocolate amargo, blanco y con leche. Dio gusto comprar chocolate de la gente que lo hizo, a partir de granos de los cacao que ellos mismos cosecharon.

Habían pipocas de amaranto. Habían chirimoyas (un fruto nativo—pero de una dulce variedad pequeña que cuesta encontrar). Algunos de Chuquisaca tenían una variedad local de ají tan picante que le llamaban “la gran putita”. Había que comprar un poco.

También había comida tradicional, como un queso añejo de leche de vaca del valle bajo de Comarapa. El sabor era maravilloso, pero el olor a vaca no era para principiantes.

Lo que más me impresionó era que muchos de los productos eran nuevos e innovadores. Cosas que no se encuentran en el supermercado de Cochabamba, como manzanas secas, duraznos preservados con la pepa (húmedos y dulces sin azúcar agregado). Quinua y trigo en bolsas impresas con etiquetas ya estaban listos para hacer sopa.

En un blog previo hemos dicho que los campesinos luchan para hacer etiquetas dignas de sus lindos productos. Por ley las etiquetas tienen que describir los ingredientes. Por ejemplo el chocolate estaba envuelto en un papel hermoso con una etiqueta impresa.

Mi favorito era el vinagre de manzana, en botellas recicladas de cerveza mexicana. Los agricultores habían tapado la etiqueta original con una de papel, orgullosamente explicando que esta vendimia se hacía únicamente a partir de tres ingredientes: manzanas orgánicas, chancaca pura, y agua. Las botellas llevaban una tapa metálica de amarillo brillante.

La mayorĂ­a de esas asociaciones rurales han recibido apoyo, a menudo de su parroquia o de ONGs vinculados a la Iglesia, algunos con voluntarios de Europa y otros lados. La ayuda de forasteros en la manufactura y el envase sĂ­ habĂ­a contribuido a la calidad de los bienes, pero los agricultores estaban auto-motivados a vender sus productos. La agricultora en gran medida se trata de producir algo para vender.

A pesar de que el evento se trataba del comercio justo, no había mención de hacerse certificar como comercio justo. Una expositora el primer día mencionó varios de los obstáculos que previenen que los campesinos puedan certificarse, y este grupo había estado plenamente de acuerdo con ella.

Estos campesinos organizados tenĂ­an bien claro que el comercio consiste en tener algo bonito para vender: atractivo, de alta calidad y bien presentada. Las familias campesinas en todo el mundo merecen un precio justo por sus productos, y el mercadeo inteligente les ayuda a lograrlo.

Blogs relacionados

Comida contra la ley (sobre etiquetas para productos populares)

Y algunos relatos sobre el chocolate:

Chocolate evolution

Congo cocoa

Out of the shade

Farewell coca, hello cocoa

Videos relacionados

El café: constitución de agrupaciones

From Uniformity to Diversity March 18th, 2018 by

Industrial agriculture has so damaged our farmland that the survival of future generations is at risk, reveals Professor Emile Frison in his report “From Uniformity to Diversity”, but there is a way forward.

Frison’s conclusions are staggering. The indiscriminate use of synthetic fertilisers has destroyed the soil biota and its nutrient-recycling potential. The combination of monocultures with highly mechanized farming and fertiliser abuse has caused historical land degradation on over 20% of the Earth’s agricultural land.

High yielding varieties and abundant chemical inputs increased global crop yields in the early decades of the “green revolution”, but by now the sobering figures indicate that productivity in 24% to 39% of the areas growing maize, rice, wheat and soya bean has stagnated or collapsed.

The productivity of industrial agriculture has systematically degraded the environment on which it relies. The use of pesticides in agriculture has caused a global decline in insect pollinators, threatening the very basis of agriculture. Some 35% of global cultivated crops depend on pollination by insects.

Pests, diseases and weeds are adapting to chemical pest management faster than ever. Genetically modified soya bean and maize that are herbicide-tolerant have led to an indiscriminate use of glyphosate-based herbicides such as Roundup and 2,4D. Some 210 species of weeds have now evolved resistance to herbicides. Clearly, this flawed, industrial model has mainly benefitted corporate interests and the wealthiest farmers.

Of equally great concern to our future generations, industrial agriculture significantly reduces the agrobiodiversity of livestock and crops. Underutilized or minor crops such as indigenous leafy vegetables, small-grained African cereals, legumes, wild fruits and tree crops are disappearing in the face of competition with a limited number of industrially produced varieties of rice, maize and wheat.

Greenhouse gases, water pollution, over-exploited aquifers, soil erosion, loss of agrobiodiversity and epidemics such as the Avian influenza and the foot-and-mouth disease are all signs that we need to urgently re-think the way we produce, source and consume food.

A study covering 55 crops grown on five continents over 40 years found that organic agriculture was significantly more profitable (22–35%) than conventional agriculture.

In developed countries, yields of organic agriculture were 8% lower than conventional agriculture, but they were 80% higher in developing countries where the negative impacts of industrial agriculture on food and nutrition security are felt much stronger.

So, diversified systems have shown the capacity to raise productivity in places where additional food is desperately needed.

Yet corporate lobby groups, some donors and development agencies continue to push governments towards unsustainable production models. In many developing countries, the general switch towards specialized, export-oriented systems has eroded the diverse farming economy, causing a gradual loss of local food distribution systems.

With rapid shifts in global and regional competitiveness this has destabilised national food supply, not only jeopardising the very livelihoods on which rural people depend, but also putting the economic and political stability of developing countries at risk.

Ethical labels, such as Fairtrade, ensure that farmers in developing countries get more money for their produce, while at the same time ensuring social and environmental services are ploughed back into the rural communities, as explained by Nicolas Lambert, CEO of Fairtrade Belgium.

Emile Frison, and other outstanding scientists like Professor Olivier De Schutter, former UN special rapporteur on the right to food, have joined forces in the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems. There is indeed an urgent need to alert policy makers to the high risks related to short-term thinking and concentration of power in the hands of fewer, large-scale retailers and corporate agri-businesses.

It is re-assuring that eminent people have joined forces to protect global biodiversity and farmers’ rights to seed as key requirements for food systems that respect the farmers and their environment. The opponents are powerful, and motivated by greed, so the struggle is bound to be a long one.

Further reading

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

Related videos

Farmers’ rights to seed – Guatemala

Farmers’ rights to seed – Malawi

Succeed with seeds

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

Photo Credit: Soya beans are harvested in Brazil. Paulo Fridman/Corbis

Tomatoes good enough to eat November 5th, 2017 by

I was astounded years ago to learn that many farmers in Bangladesh had two completely different ways to grow vegetables. As my friend and colleague Harun-ar-Rashid told me, farmers sprayed pesticides as often as every other day on their commercial vegetables, yet grew a pesticide-free crop to eat with their families.

It’s not that I doubted Harun’s story. He’s a careful observer and an experienced Bangladeshi agricultural scientist, but I wanted to find out more about this odd contradiction. How could farmers simply do without pesticides on crops that usually required a lot of spraying? Harun’s explanation was that the farmers were worried about eating vegetables tainted with dangerous chemicals. But that assumed that there were viable alternatives to the intense use of pesticides.

Recently I got to see for myself how this double standard works. I was tagging along with some of my mature students, who were writing a video script on tomato late blight, the same vicious disease that also destroys potato crops. We were visiting family farmers who grew commercial vegetables in the village of Sordarpur, in the southwest of Bangladesh, near Jessore. The farmers had received a lot of training from extensionists and had thoughtfully blended the new information with their own experience.

On their commercial fields, as soon as the farmers see late blight symptoms on tomato, they begin spraying with fungicides. The growers monitor the tomato crop constantly and spray often, especially when foggy days are followed by sun, which is perfect weather for late blight.

Farmers go to their commercial fields every day to check their tomatoes and prune diseased leaves with scissors. Then they clean the scissors with disinfectant, to avoid spreading disease from plant to plant. Farmers can hire labor to do this in their commercial fields. They say that because of the fungicides, there are few diseased leaves in the commercial fields. The diseased leaves are collected in a bag or bucket to keep them from spreading disease to the healthy plants.

The farmers did confirm that they grow tomatoes differently in their small home gardens, where they grow around 10 plants and uproot the ones that get diseased instead of spraying them. The farmers said that about eight plants usually survive, enough to feed the family.

The farmers in Sordarpur graft their home garden tomatoes onto eggplant rootstock. Partly this gives the tomatoes a stronger stem, but the farmers also think that grafting protects the tomatoes from disease, although they are not sure why. (Grafting can provide disease-resistant rootstock for a disease like late blight which is transmitted in the soil and through the air).

Insect pests can also be a problem. In the home gardens, farmers control insect pests (such as aphids and fruit flies) by hanging up plastic pots painted yellow and coated with engine oil. The fruit flies are attracted to the color yellow and get stuck in the oil. The farmers are also starting to use sex pheromone traps, trying out this new practice mostly in the home gardens.

They make organic pesticides with mustard seed oil, which is used only or mainly in the home gardens. Store-bought chemical insecticides are used in the commercial fields.

Related blog

Read about the farmers in Abdulpur who sell seedlings to the folks in Sordarpur Specializing in seedlings.

For more on pheromone traps see The best knowledge is local and scientific.

Further reading

Lee, Jung-Myung 1994 “Cultivation of Grafted Vegetables I. Current Status, Grafting Methods, and Benefits.” Hortscience 29(4): 235-239.

Further viewing

Watch training videos on fruit flies and integrated pest management

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Abu Sharif Md. Mahbub-E-Kibria “Kibria” at the Christian Commission for Development in Bangladesh, and to Nazrin Alam (Practical Action Bangladeshesh) and Rakesh Khadka (Practical Action Nepal), for letting me go with them to Sordarpur. Kibria was kind enough to make valuable comments on two earlier versions of this story.

The photo of the pheromone trap is courtesy of Md. Mizanur Rahaman, Practical Action Bangladesh.

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