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Eating bricks June 14th, 2020 by

In Belgium we have an expression: “all Belgians are born with a brick in their stomach”, meaning that all citizens aspire to build their own house someday. But when bricks are literally eaten, something has gone seriously wrong.

Some 25 years ago, during one of my first projects in Sri Lanka, news came out that chilli powder was mixed with ground up bricks. Some crooks were trying to make a dishonest profit. Ground chilli and powdered bricks are of a similar colour and consistency. Few buyers taste the chilli powder when they buy it, and as chilli is typically added to sauces, never eaten straight, a cheating dealer supplying to regional or international markets for customers he would never see again at times could get away with such a scam.  

Fortunately, in Europe we have a long history of food safety standards, regulations and government institutes safeguarding the quality of the food that enters the market and ends up on our plates. But such systems are absent, dysfunctional or just getting started in many developing countries.

Yet many developing countries have an advantage when it comes to food safety: short food chains. Control measures on food safety are less important when one relies on short food chains. In Sri Lanka, for instance, I used to patronize spice gardens where urban people would stock up on black pepper, chilli or cardamom. Over the years the customers would establish a relationship based on trust with the family running the spice garden. Even in the markets, most vendors know their regular customers, and would never risk selling them a fake product. Suppliers are motivated to sell high-quality products to their valuable, steady customers.

I had forgotten about this incidence of adulterated chilli until recently. While reading the book The True History of Chocolate, I was struck by one particular paragraph on food adulteration. Cacao had spread from Latin America to Portuguese, Spanish, English and French colonies across Africa and Asia in the 19th century.

In 1828, the Dutch chemist Coenraad Van Houten took out a patent on a process to make powdered chocolate with a very low fat content. The Industrial Revolution was in full swing and entrepreneurs in England and America established their first companies to make chocolate for the masses. For centuries, chocolate had only been known as a foamy drink, consumed mainly by the royalty, aristocracy and clergy.

Already in 1850, the British medical journal The Lancet mentioned the creation of a health commission for the analysis of foods. According to the journal suspicions about the quality of the mass-produced chocolate proved correct: in 39 out 70 samples, chocolate had been adulterated with red brick powder. Similar results were obtained from samples of chocolate seized in France. The investigations led to the establishment of the British Food and Drug Act of 1860 and the Adulteration of Food Act of 1872.

A similar trend took place in the milk industry.

In Belgium, starting in 1900, machines were deployed to scale up butter production. Just two years later, the Belgian farmers’ organisation, the Boerenbond (Farmers’ League) decided to employ food consultants to check the administration, hygiene and quality of the dairies. In 1908, the Boerenbond established a food laboratory which it deemed necessary to help curb the increase in butter adulteration.

Now, more than a century later, the Covid-19 pandemic has exposed once more the vulnerability of a globalised food system with long supply chains. Slightly more than 50% of all food produced in Belgium is exported, including milk. As the demand from China dropped, this left farmers unable to sell dairy, meat and potatoes. Belgian dairy cooperatives also struggled to have sufficient packaging material, as this relied on imports of certain materials.

Such troubles are triggering people to rethink how to make our food system more sustainable. For a long time, food safety regulations were assumed to be the main pillar of a safe food system, but the pandemic has revealed that the complexity of a global food system makes it prone to breaking down, leaving producers and consumers vulnerable. Over the years, overly rigid food safety standards in Belgium have discouraged farmers from adding value to their own produce and selling it on their farm. Triggered by the crisis, the Belgian Minister for Agriculture, Denis Ducarme, has just reduced the stringency on food safety control for farm-made cheese. More will hopefully be done in the near future to encourage farmers to process and sell food on their farm. In these short food chains, farmers will be motivated to make clean, healthy products.

The food in Europe is reasonably safe and healthy, but Covid-19 has shown us how modern food systems are fragile. Burdensome regulations oppress smallholders until they are not even able to make a cheese for their neighbours. By investing in shorter food chains, we can make our food systems more resilient, and bring back the distinctive flavours of local foods.  Shorter, more adaptable food chains will build trust, while leaving the bricks to those who are building houses.

Further reading

Belgische Boerenbond. 1990. 100 Jaar Boerenbond in Beeld. 1890-1990. Dir. Eco-BB – S. Minten, Leuven, 199 pp.

Sophie D. Coe and Michael D. Coe. 1996. The True History of Chocolate. Thames and Hudson Ltd, London, 280 pp.

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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

Learn by eating

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.

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 wolf comes calling December 8th, 2019 by

After moving to a Flemish farm village two years ago, we settled three sheep into the small pasture by our house to keep the grass short under our newly planted fruit and nut trees. The sheep weren’t pets, but they would come to meet us when we took them the kitchen waste or gave them a handful of acorns. So imagine my shock when I found one killed by a wolf last week.

In the thin blueish winter light, I saw our sheep in a pool of blood, its belly opened, intestines oozing out and half of its ribs eaten. Around the sheep I could see a circle of around 3 meters diameter where the frozen morning dew had disappeared. A little overwhelmed by emotions I woke up Marcella. We had heard a wolf had been spotted some 10 kilometres away, but there are so many fields with sheep, that I found it hard to believe it had come all the way to our house, just to kill our sheep. Perhaps it was a renegade dog, I wondered. But whatever had killed the sheep must have been really strong, I thought, as it has dragged the poor animal around while finishing it off.

Marcella quickly found out on the internet what to do when one believes one has been the victim of a wolf. This top predator had arrived in Flanders just a few years ago, and as a protected species, government had quickly established various services, including an information platform. In less than two hours, two government officials from the Nature and Forestry Agency arrived. As with crop pests, when one can only see the damage and the causal agent is no longer present, one needs to rely on knowledge and diagnostic tools.

The two men looked at the bite in the neck of the dead sheep, and took DNA samples to confirm that it was killed by a wolf. We have a solid fence 1.30 meters high around the pasture. One of the men went around and quickly found 4 places where the animal had tried to dig an entry under the fence. Obviously with the night frost the soil was hard, but the wolf had managed to dig at least one place to get in. “We need to confirm with a DNA test,” one of the men said, but in all our cases we have never seen a wolf jump over a fence. If it had managed to make a bigger entry, it would have bitten the spine of the sheep in half, and taken the hind part to a quiet place in the forest, to eat it without the risk of being disturbed.”

As the men shared their knowledge of the wolf’s behaviour, my first emotions of unbelief and sadness over the loss of our favourite of the 3 sheep, gradually mixed with a certain level of admiration for this clever top predator. Wild pigs are a main problem for farmers and hunters fail to keep their population down. “Wolves prey on wildlife, but to catch wild pigs wolves need to be in a pack. As there is now just one wolf in Flanders, sheep are an easy prey,” the official continued.

Wolves were exterminated from most of Europe in early modern times, but they have recently been making a comeback. When visiting a wolf exhibition in a nearby nature centre, we learned that in Europe (mainly Eastern Europe, including Poland) there are currently an estimated 12,000 wolves. Some are starting to make their way back to the more populated part of Western Europe.

In tropical countries, farmers who live near wildlife refuges sometimes complain about elephants eating their banana plants, and similar problems. Such conflicts now start to play out in Western Europe as well.

This wolf issue is highly controversial. Conservationists point out that humans have driven wild animals to the edge of extinction, and it is only right to provide habitat for them. On the other hand, farmers say that wild predators are a risk to livestock.

I don’t pretend to have a solution to this potential conflict, but since this is Belgium, our government has quickly come up with a range of measures. Farmers and even people like us who have just a few sheep, can get 80% subsidies to make their fences wolf-proof. Also, a financial compensation scheme for sheep killed has been put in place.

At the same time, nature conservation organisations are trying their best to change public opinion in favour of the wolf through exhibitions, radio and TV talks, and so on.

The wolf stirs up such powerful emotions that it was recalled in European popular culture for generations after most people had lost all personal contact with the animal.

In European folklore the bear is a strong, kindly character, like the three bears that frightened Goldilocks, but did not harm her. In contrast, the wolf is not only cruel, but devious, like the one that ate Little Red Riding Hood’s grandmother. And even now we guard against metaphorical “wolves in sheep’s clothing.”

Stuck in the middle September 29th, 2019 by

In my blog, Out of space, I talked about how the energy crisis may make chemical fertilizers unaffordable to farmers in the foreseeable future. Modern agriculture will need to become less dependent on expensive external inputs such as animal feed and fertilizer, and make better use of knowledge of the ecological processes that shape the interplay between soil, nutrients, microorganisms and plants. But whether farming will remain a viable business for European farmers in the next decade, will not only depend on new knowledge.

A recent radio broadcast on Radio 1 mentioned that in Belgium since 1980 two thirds of the farmers have abandoned this profession, with currently only some 30,000 farmers remaining in business. And many see a bleak future. With large corporations and supermarkets keeping the price of commodities at rock bottom, and at times even below the production cost, it comes as no surprise that few young people still see a future in farming. A neighbouring dairy farmer in Belgium told me once that the difference of 1 Euro cent per litre of milk he sells can make or break his year. In 2016, around 30% of French farmers had an income below €350 per month, less than one third of the minimum wage.

One French farmer (often a dairy farmer) commits suicide every two days, according to a survey conducted by the French national public health agency. The suicide rate among Swiss farmers is almost 40% higher than the average for men in rural areas. The reasons include financial worries and inheritance problems related to passing the farm on to their children. The EU farmers’ union said this alarming situation should be addressed immediately, emphasising that the farming community deserves better recognition.

How has it come so far? And is there still time to change the tide?

While reading a book on the history of the Belgian farmers’ organisation, called the Boerenbond (Farmers’ League), I was struck by how deeply engrained our food crisis is and how much history has shaped our agricultural landscape and food crisis.

As the steam engine made it possible to transport food much faster and over longer distances, from 1880 onwards large amounts of cheap food from America, Canada, Russia, India and Australia flooded the European markets. This resulted in a sharp drop in food prices and many farmers were forced to stop or expand, others migrated to Canada, the USA, Argentina, and Brazil.

From the early 1890s Belgian farmers began organising into a cooperative to make group purchases of chemical fertilisers, seed, animal fodder, milking machines and other equipment. Milk adulteration was one dubious strategy some farmers used to make a living.

As early as 1902 the Boerenbond started providing administrative support to its members. Basically, consultants were recruited, subsidised by the Ministry of Agriculture, to keep an eye on the financial books of farmers, and of the quality of their milk. The Ministry also invested in mobile milking schools to teach farm women about dairy and milk processing. Along with milking competitions this boosted the attention to quality and hygiene.

The Boerenbond increasingly tried to bring various regional farmer organisations and milk cooperatives under its wing. In between the two World Wars they had representatives in Parliament, and they had their own oil mills, warehouses, laboratories and animal feed factory (made, for instance from waste chaff from the flax industry). The Boerenbond didn’t risk manufacturing their own chemical fertilizer, but bought shares in some of the large chemical companies. Group marketing, education, social security, credit and insurance were all managed in-house to support its members.

It all seemed so progressive, but by the 1930s, deepened by the stock market crash in 1929, the organisation was in a dire financial situation. After the crash of the potato and milk prices in 1936, the government realised that the Boerenbond was no longer capable of providing all these services, so the government set up its own credit and marketing institutions for milk, grain and horticultural crops.

Shortly after the Second World War, the Marshall Plan provided food aid and contributed to the reconstruction of Europe, under the condition that Western Europe subscribe to international free trade. While economic cooperation and integration gradually took shape, the economic advisors of the Boerenbond pleaded to keep a certain level of national autonomy for matters related to agriculture. But as food and milk production increased, the need for export markets grew and the Boerenbond became a strong advocate of European integration.

In 1958, a year after the European Economic Community was established, member countries developed an agricultural policy meant to guarantee a decent income for farmers. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, productivity enhancement was considered a priority, but farmers found it hard to keep on investing in restructuring their farms to ever more specialised production units while over-production resulted in falling prices. In reality, farmers had to take larger loans and earned less and less. As in the USA, European farmers were buying more machinery, paying more for inputs, and falling deeper in debt.

In 1984, the European Community introduced production quotas to address the shocking situation of milk lakes and butter mountains. With very narrow profit margins set by a limited number of buyers, many farmers gave up.

For those who remained in business, the quotas lasted for about 30 years. By 2015 dairy farmers again could produce as much as they wanted.

The European Commission thought that this liberalisation would not bring back those lakes and mountains, because there was a growing market from developing countries, including China, and price monitoring had improved. In reality, in an attempt to prop up prices and curb the dairy crisis, Brussels has been buying up milk since 2015.

Stockpiled in warehouses, mainly in France, Germany and Belgium, the sacks of milk powder are a déjà vu of the milk lakes. Milk farmers and traders fear that these stockpiles are dragging down prices, as buyers expect the dried milk lakes to be sold off at any time.

Classical economics is based on the idea of many willing buyers and many willing sellers. In modern Europe there are many regulated farmers, buying agrochemicals, seed and animal feed from a few corporations and selling to just a few buyers. Farmers are forced to take prices for inputs set by large corporations, while prices of raw milk are fixed by supermarkets who have concentrated the power of the market. Whether they buy or sell, farmers are price takers, caught in the middle between monopolistic suppliers and a few powerful buyers. And farmers are paying a high price: input costs rose by 40% between 2000 and 2010.

The EU’s common agricultural policy (CAP) will shortly vote on new amendments including the support to protein crops to reduce dependence on imports (read “GMO soya”), and a mandatory introduction of leguminous crops in the rotation in Good Agricultural Environmental Practices.

While EU policies can contribute to protecting our farmers and our environment, consumers also have a crucial role to play. As consumers we have no idea how the continuous search for cheapest products is putting farmers in a stranglehold. While Fairtrade schemes are a nice thought, in reality all food sold anywhere should be fair for the people who produce it, including our own dairy farmers.

For more than a century, strong farmer organisations such as the Boerenbond have tried to protect farmers’ interests by promoting a model of industrial agriculture. How the Boerenbond will deal with farmers’ hard realities, the complexities of a changing climate, environmental degradation and economic pressure of corporations and supermarkets will determine its future relevance.  

Improved consumer awareness to buy local produce at a fair price, enhanced access to affordable animal feed and policies conducive to environmentally sound family farming will decide whether farmers will be able to survive or be replaced by new smart agriculture that can do without farmers, using machineries and investment funds.

Further reading

Belgische Boerenbond. 1990. 100 jaar Boerenbond in Beeld. 1890-1990. Dir. Eco-BB – S. Minten, Leuven, 199 pp

Ulmer, Karin. 2019. The Common Agricultural Policy of Europe: making farmers in the Global South hungry. In: Who is Paying the Bill. Report published by SDG Watch Europe, pp. 21-30. https://www.sdgwatcheurope.org/documents/2019/08/whos-paying-the-bill.pdf/

IPES-Food. 2019. Towards a Common Food Policy for the EU.
www.ipes-food.org/pages/CommonFoodPolicy  

Related blogs

Out of space

Why people drink cow’s milk

Roundup: ready to move on?

Fighting farmers

What counts in agroecology

From uniformity to diversity

Further viewing

Access Agriculture has a collection of videos for small-scale dairy farmers in developing countries.


Hydroponic fodder ; Pure milk is good milk ; Keeping milk free from antibiotics ;  Managing cattle ticks; Taking milk to the collection center ; Keeping milk clean and fresh ;  Hand milking of dairy cows; Herbal medicines against mastitis ; Making rennet ; Making fresh cheese ; Making yoghurt at home

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