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Show farmers and real innovators February 17th, 2019 by

Fellow anthropologist Glenn Stone has written a charming story about the ‚Äúshow farmer,‚ÄĚ one who uses a technology proposed by a project, and is always ready to give visitors a glowing account of it. Stone once visited a show farmer who was growing organic cotton with help from a project in Andhra Pradesh. Eight years later, Stone‚Äôs student, Andrew Flachs, visited the same farmer, but by then the project had ended and the farmer had given up on organic cotton. As Stone says, ‚ÄúIt usually takes a lot of external support to function as a show farmer.‚ÄĚ

Stone’s story rings true. I’ve seen many show farmers over the years.

I recall one such farmer in Chuquisaca, Bolivia, years ago, that I visited for a project evaluation. He had a small barn, built with wood, cement and other hardware donated by a well-funded project. At the time I doubted if rural people would make these livestock shelters on their own, because the materials were expensive and had to be trucked in from town. The farmer clearly liked his barn, and was happy to spend time answering my questions. Perhaps he saw my visit as part of his payment for getting a valuable structure.

The same NGO that built the barn in Chuquisaca was also encouraging people to establish group gardens with imported vegetable seed. The project encouraged the villagers to plant lettuce and carrots, ostensibly because local people were eating no vegetables. The solutions offered to the farmers transferred the model of a backyard garden from suburban USA to the sandstone canyons of Chuquisaca. But, unnoticed by the project, the farm families had been growing nutritious vegetables all along. They had patches of chilli and they grew squash between their rows of maize. Both of these vegetables were stored and available during the off-season.

As a benefit of living in Bolivia, and working on a lot of projects, I have been able to go back to this part of Chuquisaca several times. As I have returned to the area over the years, I have always been curious about the vegetables and looked to see if they caught on.  Once I saw a single row of cabbage as a dividing line in a field planted half in maize and half in potatoes, but this never caught on. I also saw a family growing a few lettuce plants in the moist soil near their outdoor water faucet. For some years a few families kept their sheep and goats inside the chicken-wire fences the NGOs built had built around the old gardens, but the backyard vegetable garden died out and the Chuquisaque√Īos continued to grow chilli and squash.

But some innovations do keep going even after the outsiders leave.

For example, in the 2000s, researchers at ICRISAT (International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics) in Mali created simple techniques for controlling Striga, the parasitic weed. Over several years, ICRISAT taught ideas like crop rotation and organic fertilizer in farmer field schools from Mali to Tanzania. In 2010 they invited Paul Van Mele and Agro-Insight to make videos with some of the farmer field school graduates. These were not show farmers; they hadn’t just copied what they learned at the FFS, but had adapted the ideas to suit their own conditions. Years after learning about these innovations, farmers were still using them.

Later, ICRISAT and others showed the Striga videos to thousands of farmers. In 2013 and 2014 I visited farmers who had not participated in the farmer field schools, but had seen the videos. They were still experimenting with control methods, years after watching the videos. They did this on their own, without project support, for example inventing new ways to intercrop legumes and cereals. Women who had seen the videos banded together in groups to pull Striga weeds for other farmers, for a fee.

Show farmers give time and labor to a project, and often loan a bit of land. In return, the show farmer usually receives some goods, such as a bit of seed, but they also get a chance to learn new ideas, which is a motivation for some farmers. And sometimes these new ideas do mature enough to become practical solutions to real problems, especially when the farmers engage with competent agricultural scientists. Even so, it may take years of research and adaptation to make the innovations affordable, practical and functional. Such ideas are too good for a show; they can be made into a 15-minute video of the real.

Further reading

Bentley, Jeffery, Paul Van Mele, Sidi Tour√©, Tom van Mourik, Samuel Guindo and G√©rard Zoundji 2017 ‚ÄúSeeds of the devil weed: Local Knowledge and Learning from Videos in Mali,‚ÄĚ pp 75-85. In Paul Sillitoe (Ed.) Indigenous Knowledge: Enhancing its Contribution to Natural Resources Management. Wallingford, UK: CAB International. 227 pp.

Stone, Glenn, 2014, Theme park farming in Japan

Zoundji, G√©rard C., Simplice D. Vodouh√™, Florent Okry, Jeffery W. Bentley & Rigobert C. Tossou 2017 ‚ÄúBeyond Striga Management: Learning Videos Enhanced Farmers‚Äô Knowledge on Climate-Smart Agriculture in Mali.‚ÄĚ Sustainable Agriculture Research 7(1): 80-92. https://www.accessagriculture.org/publications

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Videos Striga videos: https://www.accessagriculture.org/search/striga/all/

ÔĽŅMobile slaughterhouses February 3rd, 2019 by

A recent article on the BBC News reminded me of how policy-makers can look at narrow technical solutions (how to kill an animal) while ignoring broader, yet largely undebated issues about how we organise our food system. I will illustrate this by giving an example of my former neighbour, René, a farmer who lives in the east of Belgium.

René inherited the farm from his father. EU subsidies in the 1980s encouraged farmers to increase the number of livestock, so by the time his father handed over the farm there were around 1000 pigs. But René of course had to pay his brothers for their share of the inheritance. By the time he was in his early 50s he was still paying off loans to the bank. With the low price he got from selling to supermarkets, René realised he had to find a way to earn more money. He decided to take a butchery course and soon after he started selling meat products directly to the public on his farm.

By 2010, Ren√© had reduced his herd to some 200 pigs. He still sells some pigs to supermarkets, but his main income is now derived from selling meat from his own animals to people who visit his farm butchery. Every Monday morning Ren√© takes 2 pigs to the slaughterhouse, spends the week processing the meat into more than 20 products ranging from salamis to smoked hams and p√Ęt√©s, and then he and his wife Marij open the shop from Friday to Sunday.

With a great sense of pride, René told me a few years back that he had finally paid off all his debts. But just a year later, the farm family had to take another main decision. The nearest slaughterhouse in Genk, some 20 kilometres from his farm, had closed down, so René was forced to drive over 50 kilometres to have his animals slaughtered.

Regulations required that for longer distances live and slaughtered animals had to be transported in special vehicles. René told me this would cost the family around 10,000 Euro, not counting the extra distance to be traveled each week. One has to sell a lot of sausages to pay for this extra cost. Closing the farm and going to work in a factory was not an option, so they kept their heads high, invested in a trailer and the family continued with their farm and food business.

It seemed that the slaughterhouse in Genk that René relied on had closed down under pressure of certain lobby groups in favour of more industrial agriculture. When supermarkets rule the food system, policies change to reflect the concerns of consumerss. Little thought is given to how changes work to the detriment of smallholder farmers and local food initiatives.

At least for the red meat sector, mobile abbatoirs could offer a great alternative to centralised slaughterhouses. Under the supervision of the farmer and the professional slaughterer who drives the mobile abattoir, animals can be spared the stress of long transport and be slaughtered humanely at home. We can learn from countries where such initiatives are in use, such as those in Scandinavia, France, Australia and New Zealand.

Food is power, and a democratic food system is one that is owned and controlled by as many people as possible instead of by a few giant companies. While community-supported agriculture can give people a sense of ownership over their food, more is required to fundamentally change our food system with due respect given to the people who produce the bulk of our food: professional and passionate smallholder farmers. Mobile abattoirs deserve more attention to enhance the welfare of animals and to keep farmers crafting food in a business they are proud to run.

Further reading

BBC News. Research into benefits of mobile abattoirs. 23 January 2019. https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-scotland-highlands-islands-46958906

Related blog

In an earlier blog I wrote about the challenges of regulating the slaughtering of animals, with public debates in Belgium mainly focusing on how to deal with religious rituals (see: Forgotten food rites).

Wind erosion and the great quinoa disaster December 30th, 2018 by

vea la versi√≥n en espa√Īol a continuaci√≥n

Bolivian agronomist Genaro Aroni first told me how quinoa was destroying the southwest Bolivian landscape some 10 years ago, when he came to Cochabamba for a writing class I was teaching. Ever since then I wanted to see for myself how a healthy and fashionable Andean grain was eating up the landscape in its native country.

I recently got my chance, when Paul and Marcella and I were making videos for Agro-Insight. Together with Milton Villca, an agronomist from Proinpa, we met Genaro in Uyuni, near the famous salt flats of Bolivia. Genaro, who is about to turn 70, but looks like he is 55, told us that he had worked with quinoa for 41 years, and had witnessed the dramatic change from mundane local staple to global health food. He began explaining what had happened.

When Genaro was a kid, growing up in the 1950s, the whole area around Uyuni, in the arid southern Altiplano, was covered in natural vegetation. People grew small plots of quinoa on the low hills, among native shrubs and other plants. Quinoa was just about the only crop that would survive the dry climate at some 3,600 meters above sea level. The llamas roamed the flat lands, growing fat on the native brush. In April the owners would pack the llamas with salt blocks cut from the Uyuni Salt Flats (the largest dry salt bed in the world) and take the herds to Cochabamba and other lower valleys, to barter salt for maize and other foods that can‚Äôt be grown on the high plains. The llama herders would trade for potatoes and chu√Īo from other farmers, supplementing their diet of dried llama meat and quinoa grain.

Then in the early 1970s a Belgian project near Uyuni introduced tractors to farmers and began experimenting with quinoa planted in the sandy plains. About this same time, a large-scale farmer further north in Salinas also bought a tractor and began clearing scrub lands to plant quinoa.

More and more people started to grow quinoa. The crop thrived on the sandy plains, but as the native brushy vegetation grew scarce so the numbers of llamas began to decline.

Throughout the early 2000s the price of quinoa increased steadily. When it reached 2500 Bolivianos for 100 pounds ($8 per kilo) in 2013, many people who had land rights in this high rangeland (the children and grandchildren of elderly farmers) migrated back‚ÄĒor commuted‚ÄĒto the Uyuni area to grow quinoa. Genaro told us that each person would plow up to 10 hectares or so of the scrub land to plant the now valuable crop.

But by 2014 the quinoa price slipped and by 2015 it crashed to about 350 Bolivianos per hundredweight ($1 per kilo), as farmers in the USA and elsewhere began to grow quinoa themselves.

Many Bolivians gave up quinoa farming and went back to the cities. By then the land was so degraded it was difficult to see how it could recover. Still, Genaro is optimistic. He believes that quinoa can be grown sustainably if people grow less of it and use cover crops and crop rotation. That will take some research. Not much else besides quinoa can be farmed at this altitude, with only 150 mm (6 inches) of rain per year.

Milton Villca took us out to see some of the devastated farmland around Uyuni. It was worse than I ever imagined. On some abandoned fields, native vegetation was slowly coming back, but many of the plots that had been planted in quinoa looked like a moonscape, or like a white sand beach, minus the ocean.

Farmers would plow and furrow the land with tractors, only to have the fierce winds blow sand over the emerging quinoa plants, smothering them to death.

Milton took us to see one of the few remaining stands of native vegetation. Not coincidentally, this was near the hamlet of Lequepata where some people still herd llamas. Llama herding is still the best way of using this land without destroying it.

Milton showed us how to gather wild seed of the khiruta plant; each bush releases clouds of dust-like seeds, scattered and planted by the wind. Milton and Genaro are teaching villagers to collect these seeds and replant, and to establish windbreaks around their fields, in an effort to stem soil erosion. I’ve met many agronomists in my days, but few who I thought were doing such important work, struggling to save an entire landscape from destruction.

Acknowledgement

Genaro Aroni and Milton Villca work for the Proinpa Foundation. Their work is funded in part by the Consultative Crop Research Program of the McKnight Foundation.

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Khiruta is Parastrephia lepidophylla

DESTRUYENDO EL ALTIPLANO SUR CON QUINUA

Jeff Bentley, 30 de diciembre del 2018

El ingeniero agr√≥nomo boliviano Genaro Aroni me cont√≥ por primera vez c√≥mo la quinua estaba destruyendo los suelos del suroeste boliviano hace unos 10 a√Īos, cuando vino a Cochabamba para una clase de redacci√≥n que yo ense√Īaba. Desde aquel entonces quise ver por m√≠ mismo c√≥mo el af√°n por un sano grano andino podr√≠a comer el paisaje de su pa√≠s natal.

Recientemente tuve mi oportunidad, cuando Paul, Marcella y yo hac√≠amos videos para Agro-Insight. Junto con Milton Villca, un agr√≥nomo de Proinpa, conocimos a Genaro en Uyuni, cerca de las famosas salinas de Bolivia. Genaro, que est√° a punto de cumplir 70 a√Īos, pero parece que tiene 55, nos dijo que hab√≠a trabajado con la quinua durante 41 a√Īos, y que hab√≠a sido testigo del cambio dram√°tico de un alimento b√°sico local y menospreciado a un renombrado alimento mundial. Empez√≥ a explicar lo que hab√≠a pasado.

Cuando Genaro era un ni√Īo en la d√©cada de 1950, toda el √°rea alrededor de Uyuni, en el √°rido sur del Altiplano, estaba cubierta de vegetaci√≥n natural. La gente cultivaba peque√Īas parcelas de quinua en los cerros bajos, entre arbustos nativos (t‚Äôolas) y la paja brava. La quinua era casi el √ļnico cultivo que sobrevivir√≠a al clima seco a unos 3.600 metros sobre el nivel del mar. Las llamas deambulaban por las llanuras, engord√°ndose en el matorral nativo. En abril los llameros empacaban los animales con bloques de sal cortados del Salar de Uyuni (el m√°s grande del mundo) y los llevaban en tropas a Cochabamba y otros valles m√°s bajos, para trocar sal por ma√≠z y otros alimentos que no se pueden cultivar en las altas llanuras. Los llameros intercambiaban papas y chu√Īo de otros agricultores, complementando su dieta con carne de llama seca y granos de quinua.

Luego, a principios de la década de 1970, un proyecto belga cerca de Uyuni introdujo tractores a los agricultores y comenzó a experimentar con quinua sembrada en las pampas arenosas. Por esa misma época, un agricultor a gran escala más al norte, en Salinas, también compró un tractor y comenzó a talar los matorrales para sembrar quinua.

Cada vez más gente empezó a cultivar quinua. El cultivo prosperó en las llanuras arenosas, pero a medida que la vegetación nativa de arbustos se hizo escasa, había cada vez menos llamas.

A lo largo de los primeros a√Īos de la d√©cada de 2000, el precio de la quinua aument√≥ constantemente. Cuando lleg√≥ a 2500 bolivianos por 100 libras ($8 por kilo) en 2013, muchas personas que ten√≠an derechos sobre la tierra en esta pampa alta (los hijos y nietos de los agricultores viejos) retornaron a la zona de Uyuni para cultivar quinua. Genaro nos dijo que cada persona araba hasta 10 hect√°reas de t‚Äôola para plantar el ahora valioso cultivo.

Pero para el 2014 el precio de la quinua comenzó a bajar y para el 2015 se colapsó a cerca de 350 bolivianos por quintal ($1 por kilo), a medida que los agricultores en los Estados Unidos y en otros lugares comenzaron a cultivar quinua ellos mismos.

Muchos bolivianos dejaron de cultivar quinua y regresaron a las ciudades. Para entonces la tierra estaba tan degradada que era dif√≠cil ver c√≥mo podr√≠a recuperarse. Sin embargo, Genaro es optimista. √Čl cree que la quinua puede ser cultivada de manera sostenible si la gente la cultiva menos y usa cultivos de cobertura y rotaci√≥n de cultivos. Eso requerir√° investigaci√≥n. No se puede cultivar mucho m√°s que adem√°s de la quinua a esta altitud, con s√≥lo 150 mm de lluvia al a√Īo.

Milton Villca nos llevó a ver algunas de las parcelas devastadas alrededor de Uyuni. Fue peor de lo que jamás imaginé. En algunas parcelas abandonados, la vegetación nativa regresaba lentamente, pero muchas de las chacras que habían sido sembradas en quinua parecían la luna, o una playa de arena blanca, menos el mar.

Los agricultores araban y surcaban la tierra con tractores, sólo para que los fuertes vientos soplaran arena sobre las plantas emergentes de quinua, ahogándolas y matándolas.

Milton nos llev√≥ a ver uno de los pocos manchones de vegetaci√≥n nativa que queda. No por casualidad, esto estaba cerca de una peque√Īa comunidad de llameros, que queda en Lequepata. El pastoreo de llamas sigue siendo la mejor manera de usar esta tierra sin destruirla.

Milton nos mostr√≥ c√≥mo recolectar semillas silvestres de la planta khiruta; cada arbusto libera nubes de semillas parecidas al polvo, dispersas y sembradas por el viento. Los Ings. Milton y Genaro est√°n ense√Īando a los comuneros a recolectar estas semillas y replantar, y a establecer barreras contra el viento alrededor de sus campos, en un esfuerzo por detener la erosi√≥n del suelo. He conocido a muchos agr√≥nomos a trav√©s de los a√Īos, pero pocos que en mi opini√≥n hac√≠an un trabajo tan importante en comunidades remotas, luchando para salvar un paisaje entero de la destrucci√≥n.

Agradecimiento

Genaro Aroni y Milton Villca trabajan para la Fundación Proinpa. Su trabajo es auspiciado en parte por el Programa Consultativo de Investigación de Cultivos de la Fundación McKnight.

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Veterinarians and traditional animal health care August 19th, 2018 by

It is unfortunate that not more is done to safeguard and value traditional knowledge.

In Pune, Maharastra, the Indian NGO Anthra has devoted a great part of its energy in documenting traditional animal health knowledge and practices across India. Dr. Nitya Ghotge along with a team of women veterinarians founded Anthra in 1992 to address the problems faced by communities who reared animals, particularly peasants, pastoralists, adivasis (indigenous peoples of South Asia), dalits (formerly known as untouchables ‚Äď people outside the caste system), women and others who remained hidden from the gaze of mainstream development.

In their encyclopaedia Plants Used in Animal Care, Anthra has compiled an impressive list of plants used for veterinary purposes and fodder.

To ensure that local communities across the global south benefit from this indigenous knowledge, Anthra started collaborating with one of Access Agriculture’s trained video partners (Atul Pagar) to gradually develop a series of farmer-to-farmer training videos on herbal medicines (see: the Access Agriculture video category on animal health).

While Indian cities are booming and the agro-industry continues its efforts to conquer lucrative markets, many farmers and farmer organisations across the country treasure India’s rich cultural and agricultural heritage. Unfortunately, this is not the case everywhere. In many countries, local knowledge is quickly eroding as the older generation of farmers and pastoralists disappear.

 

A few years ago, I was thrilled to work with traditional Fulani herders in Nigeria, only to discover that none of them still made use of herbal medicines. Even to treat something as simple as ticks, the young herders confidently turned to veterinary drugs. Although the elder people could still readily name the various plants they used to treat various common animal diseases, the accessibility and ease of application of modern drugs meant that none of the herders still used herbal medicines. The risks of such drastic changes quickly became apparent. As we were making a series of training videos on quality milk, which should have no antibiotics or drug residues, we visited a hospital to interview a local doctor.

‚ÄúIf people are well they are not supposed to take antibiotics. If such a person is sick in the future and the sickness requires the use of antibiotics, it would be difficult to cure because such drugs will not work. It can even make the illness more severe,‚ÄĚ doctor Periola Amidu Akintayo from the local hospital confided in front of the camera.

Later on, we visited a traditional Fulani cattle market. For years, these markets have been bustling places where the semi-nomadic herders meet buyers from towns. People exchange news on latest events and the weather, but above all assess the quality of the animals and negotiate prices. Animals that look unhealthy or have signs of parasites obviously fetch a lower price. Given that the cattle market is where the Fulani herders meet their fellow herders and clients, I quickly realized why the entire market was surrounded by small agro vet shops. Competition was fierce, and demand for animal drugs was high.

Modern drugs come with an enclosed instruction sheet, but as with pesticides nobody in developing countries reads this advice. To keep costs down, many herders and farmers administer drugs to their own animals, to avoid spending money on a veterinary doctor. Perhaps even more worrying: few people are aware of the risks that modern drugs pose to human health, whether it be from developing resistance to antibiotics or drug residues in food. In organisations like Anthra, socially engaged veterinary doctors merge local knowledge with scientific information, thus playing an undervalued role that deserve more attention. The training videos made with these veterinarians and their farmer allies will hopefully show more people that it is important to bring the best of both worlds together.

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Big chicken, little chicken April 22nd, 2018 by

vea la versi√≥n en espa√Īol a continuaci√≥n

In her 2017 book Big Chicken, Maryn McKenna tells the story of antibiotic abuse in agriculture. In the 1940s the US military used antibiotics to treat soldiers suffering from infectious disease, one of the first large-scale uses of these drugs. Penicillin had been placed in the public domain, and the world was in an optimistic mood at having a widely available treatment for common infections. Soon after the war, in 1948, British-American scientist Thomas Jukes, working at Lederle Laboratories in New Jersey, showed that chickens gained more weight when their food included antibiotics, even on a poor diet. This was a crucial discovery for industrializing chicken rearing. Until then, poultry in the USA were mostly reared in small batches, allowed to range freely in fields, where they scratched a natural diet of plants and bugs, sometimes supplemented with fish meal. Chickens are by nature highly omnivorous. Discovering that antibiotics helped to fatten chickens meant that the birds could be fed cheap, low-grade maize and soybean.

The FDA (Food and Drug Administration) approved antibiotics as a growth regulator in the USA in 1951. By the 1950s, a successful chicken farmer in Georgia, Jesse Dixon Jewell, began to expand his operation by selling chicks and feed to other farmers, and buying their finished birds. The feed was laced with antibiotics, partly to boost growth but also to control bacterial diseases. Industry would soon follow this twin example of farming out the birds to contract growers, and including the antibiotics in their prepared rations.

By 2001, Americans were taking 3 million pounds (1.4 million kilos) of antibiotics, while US livestock was being dosed with 24.6 million pounds (11.2 million kilos).

For many years there were few if any concerns about this unprecedented use of a human drug to boost food production, and cheap meat was certainly popular. But this relaxed attitude began to change when research showed that much of the antibiotics ended up in the meat and eggs that consumers ate. This widespread use meant that once valuable drugs began to be compromised as bacteria that caused disease in humans became resistant to the antibiotics.

Under pressure from pharmaceutical companies, the US government was slow to restrict antibiotics as animal growth promotors. Finally, the large poultry companies began to self-regulate. By about 2009 they realized that they could produce birds without antibiotics, simply by using vaccines and improving farm hygiene. By 2014 some of the largest producers in the US, like Foster Farms and Perdue Farms, had stopped feeding antibiotics to chickens. Various grocery stores and fast food chains soon banned chicken raised on antibiotics.

In September 2016 the UN moved to curb non-prophylactic antibiotic use in animals, which was linked to an estimated 700,000 human deaths worldwide, per year. In North America and Western Europe antibiotic abuse was by then largely solved, thanks to improved industry standards, government regulations and public awareness. But McKenna cautions that livestock antibiotic abuse remains a worrying problem in much of South America, South Asia and China.

As soon as I finished reading Big Chicken, Ana and I visited La Cancha, the vast, open air market that still functions in Cochabamba, where we bought a little grey hen and a big red one.

Feeding the hens was a chance to learn what smallholder farmers have always known: that chickens are as omnivorous as people. Chickens prefer meat to vegetables. Ours preferred the smaller, denser grains like sorghum to corn.

Chickens especially like sow bugs, the little roly-poly crustaceans that live in leaf litter worldwide. Our hens learned to knock the seeds off of amaranth plants and then eat the seeds from the ground. Chickens also like table scraps, including meat, but especially eggs.

The longer we keep these birds, now named Oxford and Cambridge, the bigger their eggs get. They both lay an egg every day; clearly the hunter-gatherer diet agrees with them.

The problem, as McKenna explains, is that factory farming made chicken as cheap as bread in the USA and Europe. People living in low income countries now want their chance at cheap meat. Chicken is cheap in Bolivia and easily affordable. In the open air market it sells for just 10 Bs. ($1.40) per kilo and fried chicken restaurants have sprung up all over the city.

Rearing chickens has become a new industry in Bolivia. Farmers can make a barn with cheap lumber and plastic sheeting, buy the day-old chicks and purchase the feed by the bag or the ton. No doubt many of the poultry producers in Bolivia are careful and conscientious. But many growers raise their birds on feed blended with antibiotics, labelled as a growth promotor, and there is little public awareness of the risk of antibiotics in animal feed. While there are compelling reasons to reduce the cost of food in low income countries, the global South also needs to consider the risks of animal antibiotics.

Further reading

Maryn 2017 Big Chicken: The Incredible Story of how Antibiotics Created Modern Agriculture and Changed the Way the World Eats. Washington DC: National Geographic. 400 pp.

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BIG CHICKEN, POLLO GRANDE

por Jeff Bentley, 22 de abril del 2018

En su libro Big Chicken de 2017, Maryn McKenna cuenta la historia del abuso de antibi√≥ticos en la agricultura. En la d√©cada de 1940, el ej√©rcito de los Estados Unidos us√≥ los antibi√≥ticos para tratar a los soldados que se padec√≠an de enfermedades infecciosas, uno de los primeros usos a gran escala de estas drogas. La penicilina se hab√≠a colocado en el dominio p√ļblico, y el mundo estaba optimista de tener un tratamiento ampliamente disponible para infecciones comunes. Poco despu√©s de la guerra, en 1948, el cient√≠fico brit√°nico-americano Thomas Jukes, que trabajaba en Lederle Laboratories en Nueva Jersey, demostr√≥ que los pollos ganaban m√°s peso cuando sus alimentos inclu√≠an antibi√≥ticos, incluso con una dieta pobre. Este fue un descubrimiento crucial para la industrializaci√≥n de la crianza de pollos. Hasta entonces, las aves de corral en los Estados Unidos se criaban principalmente en peque√Īos lotes; se les permit√≠a ir libremente a los campos, donde ara√Īaban una dieta natural de plantas e insectos, a veces complementada con harina de pescado. Los pollos son por naturaleza altamente omn√≠voros. Descubrir que los antibi√≥ticos ayudaban a engordar pollos significaba que las aves podr√≠an ser alimentadas con ma√≠z y soya baratos.

La FDA (Administración de Alimentos y Medicamentos) aprobó los antibióticos como un regulador de crecimiento en los Estados Unidos en 1951. En la década de 1950, un exitoso granjero de pollos en Georgia, Jesse Dixon Jewell, comenzó a expandir su operación vendiendo pollos y alimento concentrado a otros granjeros, y comprando sus aves terminadas. El concentrado se mezclaba con antibióticos, en parte para estimular el crecimiento, pero también para controlar las enfermedades bacterianas. La industria pronto seguiría este doble ejemplo de criar las aves por contrato e incluir los antibióticos en sus raciones preparadas.

En 2001, los estadounidenses tomaron 1,4 millones de kilos de antibióticos, mientras que el ganado estadounidense se dosificó con 11,2 millones de kilos.

Durante muchos a√Īos hubo poca o ninguna preocupaci√≥n sobre este uso sin precedentes de una droga humana para impulsar la producci√≥n de alimentos, y sin duda la carne barata fue popular. Pero esta actitud relajada comenz√≥ a cambiar cuando la investigaci√≥n mostr√≥ que gran parte de los antibi√≥ticos quedaban en la carne y los huevos que consum√≠an los consumidores. Este uso generalizado signific√≥ que las bacterias que causan enfermedades humanas se volvieron resistentes a los antibi√≥ticos por su uso excesivo en los animales.

Bajo la presi√≥n de las compa√Ī√≠as farmac√©uticas, el gobierno estadounidense hizo poco para restringir los antibi√≥ticos como promotores del crecimiento animal. Finalmente, las grandes compa√Ī√≠as av√≠colas comenzaron a autorregularse. Alrededor de 2009 se dieron cuenta de que pod√≠an producir aves sin antibi√≥ticos, simplemente usando vacunas y mejorando la higiene de la granja. Para 2014, algunos de los productores m√°s grandes de Norteam√©rica, como Foster Farms y Perdue Farms, hab√≠an dejado de alimentar con antibi√≥ticos a los pollos. Varios supermercados y cadenas de comida r√°pida pronto prohibieron el pollo criado con antibi√≥ticos.

En septiembre de 2016, la ONU actu√≥ para frenar el uso de antibi√≥ticos no profil√°cticos en animales, lo que se relacion√≥ con unas estimadas 700,000 muertes humanas en todo el mundo, por a√Īo. En Am√©rica del Norte y Europa occidental, el abuso de antibi√≥ticos se resolvi√≥ en gran medida, gracias a la mejora de los est√°ndares de la industria, las regulaciones gubernamentales y la conciencia p√ļblica. Pero McKenna advierte que el abuso de antibi√≥ticos en los animales sigue siendo un problema preocupante en gran parte de Sudam√©rica, el sur de Asia y China.

Tan pronto como terminé de leer Big Chicken, Ana y yo visitamos La Cancha, el vasto mercado al aire libre que todavía funciona en Cochabamba, donde compramos una gallinita gris y una roja grande.

Alimentar a las gallinas fue una oportunidad de aprender lo que los peque√Īos agricultores siempre han sabido: que los pollos son tan omn√≠voros como las personas. Los pollos prefieren la carne a las verduras. Prefieren los granos m√°s peque√Īos y densos como el sorgo al ma√≠z.

A las gallinas les encantan los llamados chanchitos, los peque√Īos crust√°ceos redondos que viven en la hojarasca en todo el mundo. Nuestras gallinas aprendieron a sacudir las semillas de las plantas de amaranto y luego a comer las semillas del suelo. A los pollos tambi√©n les gustan los restos de comida, incluida la carne, pero especialmente los huevos.

Mientras más tiempo tengamos estas aves, ahora llamadas Oxford y Cambridge, más grandes son sus huevos. Cada una pone un huevo todos los días; claramente la dieta de los cazadores-recolectores les hace bien.

El problema, como explica McKenna, es que las granjas industriales hacían que el pollo fuera tan barato como el pan en los Estados Unidos y Europa. La gente en los países de bajos ingresos ahora quiere la carne barata; les toca. El pollo es barato en Bolivia y es fácilmente asequible. En la Cancha se vende por solo 10 Bs. ($ 1.40) por kilo y restaurantes de pollo frito han surgido por toda la ciudad.

La cr√≠a de pollos se ha convertido en una nueva industria en Bolivia. Los agricultores pueden hacer un granero con madera barata y hojas de pl√°stico, comprar los pollitos de un d√≠a y comprar el alimento por bolsa o por tonelada. Sin duda, muchos de los productores av√≠colas en Bolivia son cuidadosos y concienzudos. Sin embargo, muchos cr√≠an a sus aves con alimentos mezclados con antibi√≥ticos, vendidos como promotores del crecimiento, y hay poca conciencia p√ļblica sobre el riesgo de los antibi√≥ticos en la alimentaci√≥n animal. Si bien existen razones convincentes para reducir el costo de los alimentos en los pa√≠ses de bajos ingresos, el Sur Global tambi√©n debe considerar los riesgos de los antibi√≥ticos en los animales.

Lectura adicional

Maryn 2017 Big Chicken: The Incredible Story of how Antibiotics Created Modern Agriculture and Changed the Way the World Eats. Washington DC: National Geographic. 400 pp.

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