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Black fire ants July 11th, 2021 by

The surest way to tell if you have black fire ants in your garden is to accidentally stand on or near their nest. The ants will crawl through your clothes first and then start stinging you all at once. You may have to go inside and take off your trousers to find all of the ants in your pants. A second diagnostic test of black fire ants is to plant a vegetable seedbed, and wait for it to come up, but it never does. The ants have eaten all your seeds.

These ants love seeds and they will dig up every one you plant in their foraging area.

You can try dousing their nest with boiling water, insecticide or gasoline (and then lighting it). I’m just kidding, but it may not even work; these ants are pretty tough. Or you can take Rachel Carson’s suggestion, and fight pests with biology, not chemistry.

Years ago, while working with my student Eloy Gonz√°lez on his entomology thesis at El Zamorano, Honduras, by total serendipity we learned that fire ants can be perfectly controlled with raw grains of rice.

Here’s how it works. Plant your vegetable seedbed any way you like. Then sprinkle a handful of raw rice over the surface. The black fire ants are omnivorous, but they prefer dense food packages like seeds or other insects. The ants also know a bargain when they see one. The ants will haul off your rice grains and ignore your smaller, harder-to reach soil-covered vegetable seeds.

Once your vegetables come up, the black fire ants will lose interest in them. However, the ants will continue to patrol your vegetable patch, looking for insect pests to drag back to their nest, to eat.

If you don’t want to use rice, try bread crumbs, bits of stale tortillas or other food scraps.

In our garden, we have had no insect pests, except for the Mediterranean fruit flies. Our patchwork of many species of trees and vegetables confuses most insect pests. And because we have never applied insecticides, we have many beneficial insects that kill most of the herbivorous ones before they can become pests. We manage our black fire ants with the rice trick, and by not standing on their nests. They repay us by helping to keep our vegetables pest-free.

If you live outside of tropical Central or South America, you may never have to deal with black fire ants. But wherever you live, you can always look for ways to live with insects, with biology, not chemistry.

Further reading

Paul has his own story about Vietnamese farmers who educate weaver ants, to protect their orchards from insect pests.

Ants as friends.

Related Agro-Insight blog stories

Ants in the kitchen

Sugar sweet ants

The smell of ants

When ants and microbes join hands

Videos about insects that hunt and control insect pests, from Access Agriculture

The wasp that protects our crops

Promoting weaver ants in your orchard

Weaver ants against fruit flies

Scientific names

The black fire ant, also called the tropical fire ant, is Solenopsis genimata. The red fire ant, the so-called ‚Äúimported‚ÄĚ one is Solenopsis invicta. The red fire ant is native to Argentina, and slipped into the USA, possibly as a stowaway on a ship, after 1933. in Silent Spring, Rachel Carson tells the story of how the US Department of Agriculture lost its chemical war against the red fire ant. That red ant is still thriving in North America. Unlike the black fire ant, which builds discrete, ground-level nests, the red one builds, a tall, conspicuous entrance to its burrow.

Zoom to Titicaca June 6th, 2021 by

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

Covid may be the world’s most spectacular emerging disease, but agriculture has its own new pests and diseases. Fortunately, collaboration between agronomists and farmers can offer solutions, as I saw in a recent meeting on the shores of Lake Titicaca.

This is 2021, so we met on Zoom, but I was struck by how much the meeting resembled others I have attended in person with farmers and agronomists.

Ing. Sonia Laura, a researcher from Prosuco who works closely with farmers, had driven out to the village of Iquichachi, a couple of hours from La Paz. Sonia set up the call on her laptop, and the farmers (Sra. Cristina, Sra. Arminda, Sr. Juan, Sr. Paulino, Sr. Zenobio, and Sr. Fidel) all managed to squeeze onto the screen. Bundled up in coats and hats against the high Andean cold, they explained how several years ago, they noticed a new worm eating the potatoes they store at home.

The moth lays its eggs on stored potatoes, and on potato plants in the field. The eggs hatch into caterpillars that go back and forth: from field to home in the harvest, and from storage to field with the seed.

The farmers showed some graphs of data they had been collecting with Sonia, under advice from Ing. Reinaldo Quispe, an agronomist from Proinpa, who joined the call from his office in La Paz. Reinaldo and the farmers had been using the sex scent (pheromone) of female moths to attract and trap the male moths. Each moth species has its own unique sex pheromone. Reinaldo had identified the pests, two related species of tuber moths, native to the Andes, but usually found in the lower, warmer valleys. Both species belong to a moth family that specializes in infesting stored foods.

The agronomist Ra√ļl Ccanto joined us from Peru, from the NGO Yanapai. Ra√ļl explained that Peruvian farmers had suffered from these two moths for many years. Over the years of working with the farmers, Yanapai and others had developed some practical solutions.

As Ra√ļl explained, select the seed carefully. When you take seed from the house to plant in the field, make sure that you only plant healthy tubers, not the ones full of worms.

Also rotate your crops. ‚ÄúThis is something you farmers have always done, but it‚Äôs important to say that it is a good thing.‚ÄĚ Growing potatoes one year, followed by other roots and tubers (such as oca and papalisa, which are not of the potato family), and then other legumes and cereals, helps to keep the soil free of potato pests.

Ra√ļl‚Äôs PowerPoint included the results of experiments, done in collaboration with Peruvian farmers, where they tried various ways to manage the moths in stored seed potato. One idea that worked well, and was also cheap, was to dust healthy seed potatoes with talc, which keeps the moths from laying their eggs in potatoes. The talc worked almost as well as malathion, the insecticide.

Ra√ļl skipped lightly over the malathion, barely mentioning it, and for good reason. He had included the chemical treatment in the experiment as a comparison, but he was not promoting it. As Reinaldo explained, farmers often prefer insecticides and use them even in stored potatoes, which one should not do.

In fact, medical schools in Bolivia teach their third-year students to diagnose and treat malathion poisoning, because it is common. ‚ÄúThis is something you‚Äôll see,‚ÄĚ the older doctors tell their students.

With any new pest or disease, it‚Äôs important to know where it came from. Ra√ļl explained that the moths may have recently colonized the cold Altiplano, not just because of climate change, but also because people are bringing wormy seed in from fairs in distant parts of the country. And they are growing more potatoes. As more of the land is planted more often and over larger areas, to meet market demand, a more attractive environment is created for potato pests.

Yes, the farmers agreed, potatoes are being grown more often. And that is why it is crucial for scientists and farmers to put their heads together, to confirm useful ideas, from different perspectives.

The farmers wanted to know if there was something they could apply to their potatoes, to kill the moth. Ra√ļl and Reinaldo both explained that there is no one thing that will manage the pest. It will have to be managed by rotating crops, and by selecting healthy seed. Other ideas like dusting the potatoes with talc will also help. The good news is that the moths can be managed.

It may be in human nature to yearn for simple solutions. Many of us have simply wished that Covid would go away, and that things would go back to normal. Like Covid, managing the tuber moth will require several good ideas, well explained, widely shared and applied.

In this case, the new information motivated the farmers to set up their own experiments. Sonia told me that after our call, the farmers met to reflect and take action. They decided that each one of them would select their seed, clean their potato storeroom, and sprinkle talc on the selected seed. They will keep using the pheromone traps, among other things. Later, they will explain these practices to their other community members, to take action as a group.

Scientific names

The tuber moths are Phthorimaea operculella and Symmetrischema tangolias (Lepidoptea: Gelechiidae).

Oca (Oxalis tuberosa) and papalisa (Ullucus tuberosus) are native Andean crops, not widely grown outside the region. The papalisa is also called ‚Äúolluco‚ÄĚ in Peru.

Talc is a clay mineral, magnesium silicate, a natural stone that is ground to make a powder.

Acknowledgements

Sonia Laura works with María Quispe at Prosuco (Promoción de la Sustentabilidad y Conocimientos Compartidos) in La Paz.

Ra√ļl Ccanto works at Grupo Yanapai (meaning ‚Äúto help‚ÄĚ in Quechua), in Peru.

Reinaldo Quispe works at Proinpa (Fundación para la Promoción e Investigación de Productos Andinos), Bolivia.

The work with the Andean tuber moths is supported by the McKnight Foundation’s CCRP (Collaborative Crop Research Program).

Thanks to Sonia Laura and to Paul Van Mele for reading a previous version of this story.

Photos

Thanks also to Sonia Laura for her beautiful photographs.

ZOOM AL TITICACA

Por Jeff Bentley, 6 de junio del 2021

El Covid-19 podría ser la enfermedad nueva más espectacular del mundo, pero la agricultura tiene sus propias plagas y enfermedades emergentes. Afortunadamente, la colaboración entre agrónomos y agricultores puede ofrecer soluciones, como vi en una reciente reunión a orillas del Lago Titicaca.

Estamos en el 2021, así que nos reunimos por Zoom, pero me sorprendió lo mucho que se parecía la reunión a otras a las que he asistido en persona con agricultores y agrónomos.

La Ing. Sonia Laura, una investigadora de Prosuco, que trabaja estrechamente con los agricultores, hab√≠a ido en camioneta hasta la comunidad rural de Iquicachi, a un par de horas de La Paz. Sonia organiz√≥ la llamada en su laptop, y los agricultores (las y los se√Īores Cristina, Arminda y Juan, Paulino, Zenobio, Fidel,) se hicieron entrar todos en la pantalla. Abrigados con chompas y gorros contra el fr√≠o altoandino, explicaron que hace pocos a√Īos se dieron cuenta de que un nuevo gusano se com√≠a las papas que almacenaban en sus casas.

La polilla de papa pone sus huevos en las papas almacenadas y en las plantas de papas en el campo. De los huevos nacen gusanos del campo, que van a casa en la cosecha, y del almacén regresan a la chacra con la semilla.

Los agricultores mostraron algunos gráficos de datos que habían estado recopilando con Sonia, bajo la orientación del Ing. Reinaldo Quispe, de Proinpa, quien se unió a la llamada desde su oficina en La Paz. Sonia y los agricultores habían estado usando el olor sexual (feromona) de las polillas hembras para atraer y atrapar a las polillas macho. Cada especie de polilla tiene su propia feromona sexual. Reinaldo había identificado las plagas, dos especies relacionadas de polillas del tubérculo, nativas de los Andes, pero que suelen encontrarse en los valles más bajos y cálidos. Ambas especies pertenecen a una familia de polillas especializada en infestar alimentos almacenados.

Desde Per√ļ nos acompa√Ī√≥ el agr√≥nomo Ra√ļl Ccanto, de la ONG Yanapai. Ra√ļl explic√≥ que los agricultores peruanos hab√≠an sufrido estas dos polillas durante muchos a√Īos. A lo largo de sus a√Īos de trabajo con los agricultores, Yanapai y otros han desarrollado algunas soluciones pr√°cticas.

Como explic√≥ Ra√ļl, hay que seleccionar la semilla con cuidado. Cuando saques la semilla de la casa para sembrarla, aseg√ļrate de plantar s√≥lo los tub√©rculos sanos, no los que est√°n llenos de gusanos.

Tambi√©n hay que rotar los cultivos. “Esto es algo que ustedes los agricultores siempre han hecho, pero es importante decir que es bueno que lo hagan”. Lo que ayuda a mantener el suelo libre de plagas de la papa es cultivarlas solo un a√Īo, seguido de otras ra√≠ces y tub√©rculos (como la oca y la papalisa, que no son de la familia de la papa), y luego sembrar leguminosas y cereales.

La presentaci√≥n de Ra√ļl incluy√≥ los resultados de los experimentos, realizados en colaboraci√≥n con agricultores peruanos, en los que se probaron varias formas de controlar las polillas en los almacenes de semillas de papa. Una idea que funcion√≥ bien, y que adem√°s era barata, fue rociar la papa seleccionada con talco, que impide que las polillas pongan sus huevos en las papas. El talco funcionaba casi tan bien como el malati√≥n, el insecticida.

Ra√ļl pas√≥ por alto el malati√≥n; apenas lo mencion√≥, y con raz√≥n. Hab√≠a incluido el tratamiento qu√≠mico en el experimento como comparaci√≥n, pero no lo promov√≠a. Como explic√≥ Reinaldo, los agricultores suelen preferir los insecticidas y los usan incluso en las papas almacenadas, lo cual no se debe hacer.

De hecho, las facultades de medicina de Bolivia ense√Īan a sus estudiantes de tercer a√Īo a diagnosticar y tratar la intoxicaci√≥n por malati√≥n, porque es algo com√ļn. “Esto es algo que van a ver”, dicen los doctores a sus alumnos.

Con cualquier plaga o enfermedad nueva, es importante saber de d√≥nde viene. Ra√ļl explic√≥ que las polillas pueden haber colonizado recientemente el fr√≠o Altiplano, no s√≥lo por el cambio clim√°tico, sino tambi√©n porque la gente est√° trayendo semillas agusanadas de ferias en otras partes del pa√≠s. Y est√°n cultivando m√°s papas sobre mayor superficie. A medida que se siembra m√°s seguido y en m√°s √°rea, para satisfacer la demanda del mercado, se crea un ambiente m√°s atractivo para las plagas de la papa.

S√≠, los agricultores reconocieron que hoy en d√≠a las papas se cultivan m√°s seguido. Y por eso es crucial que cient√≠ficos y agricultores compartan sus ideas, para confirmar las que son √ļtiles.

Los agricultores quer√≠an saber si hab√≠a algo que pudieran aplicar a sus papas para matar la polilla. Ra√ļl y Reinaldo explicaron que no hay una sola cosa que la pueda manejar. Habr√° que controlar la plaga mediante la rotaci√≥n de cultivos y la buena selecci√≥n de semillas. Otras ideas, como aplicar talco a las papas, tambi√©n ayudar√°n. La buena noticia es que las polillas s√≠ tienen soluci√≥n.

Tal vez algo en la naturaleza humana anhela las soluciones sencillas. Muchos hemos deseado que el Covid desaparezca de una sola vez, y que las cosas vuelvan a la normalidad. Al igual que el Covid, el manejo de la polilla de la papa requerir√° varias buenas ideas, bien explicadas, ampliamente compartidas y competentemente aplicadas.

En este caso, la nueva información motivó la gente a armar sus propios experimentos. Sonia me informa que se reunieron para reflexionar y tomar acuerdos. Decidieron que cada persona del grupo haría la selección de semilla. Limpiaría su almacén de papas, y pondría talco en las papas seleccionadas. Seguirán con las trampas con feromonas, entre otras cosas. Luego comunicarán estas prácticas en una reunión con toda la comunidad para tener un trabajo comunal en el control de esta plaga.

Nombres científicos

Las polillas de la papa son Phthorimaea operculella y Symmetrischema tangolias (Lepidoptea: Gelechiidae).

La oca (Oxalis tuberosa) y la papalisa (Ullucus tuberosus) son cultivos nativos andinos, poco cultivados fuera de la regi√≥n. La papalisa tambi√©n se llama “olluco” en el Per√ļ.

El talco es silicato de magnesio. Es una piedra natural que se muele para obtener el polvo. Como explica Ra√ļl Ccanto, es un ‚Äúmineral no met√°lico‚ÄĚ.

Agradecimientos

Sonia Laura trabaja con María Quispe en Prosuco (Promoción de la Sustentabilidad y Conocimientos Compartidos) en La Paz.

Ra√ļl Ccanto trabaja en el Grupo Yanapai (que significa “ayudar” en quechua), en el Per√ļ.

Reinaldo Quispe trabaja en Proinpa (Fundación para la Promoción e Investigación de Productos Andinos), en Bolivia.

El trabajo con las polillas de la papa está apoyado por el CCRP (Programa Colaborativo de Investigación de Cultivos) de la Fundación McKnight.

Gracias a Sonia Laura y a Paul Van Mele por leer una versión previa de este relato.

Fotos

Gracias también a Sonia Laura por sus hermosas fotos.

Our threatened farmers May 9th, 2021 by

Supermarkets in the USA bulge with everything from strawberries to steak, but this generous supply is threatened by a destructive agro-industry. In the recent book Perilous Bounty, Tom Philpott outlines looming disasters in California and the Midwest.

The Central Valley of California produces an astounding 80% of the world’s almonds and half of the pistachios, besides a lot of the fresh fruits and vegetables eaten in the USA. This phenomenal production is irrigated with water that is mined, and can never be replaced. The Central Valley used to be a vast wetland. From 1930 to 1970 a network of dams and canals were built to capture snowmelt from the Sierra Madre mountains, for irrigation.

But the rainfall out west is erratic and some years there is not enough snow to irrigate all the nut trees, so well water makes up the difference. So much water has been pumped that the ground level has fallen by 29 feet (8.8 meters). As the subsoil shrinks, it loses capacity; it can now hold less water than before.

The Midwest used to be a home for diversified family farms, rotating crops of corn, wheat, oats and rye, and even growing fruits and vegetables. Cattle ate fodder produced on the farm itself. Since the 1960s, this integrated system has been replaced by a simpler one, of just maize (corn) and soybeans, while the livestock have been sent to factory farms. Crops and animals are now grown on separate farms. The hog mega-barns are so far from the grain farms that the pig manure cannot be used as fertilizer. Instead, the manure finds its way to the Mississippi River and on to the Gulf of Mexico, where it has created a dead zone the size of New Jersey, destroying a thriving fish and shrimp industry. The soil is now eroding at an estimated rate of 5.4 tons per acre per year (13.5 tons per ha). The rich black soil is vanishing fast.

A handful of corporations buy meat (Tyson Foods, Cargill, JBS, and Smithfield Foods‚ÄĒowned by the Chinese WH Group) and just four companies make most of the chemical fertilizer in the USA, so farmers are forced to take the prices offered by these few buyers and sellers. This price squeeze forces many family farmers out of business. Between 1940 and 2018, the number of farms in Iowa declined from 213,000 to 86,000, a loss of 60%.

Much of this chemical-intensive farming system operates at a loss, but is made profitable by Federal Crop Insurance, operated by private companies, but subsidized by the US government.

Agriculture does make money for big companies. Monsanto, a corporation that made agrochemicals, saw its value rise from $5 billion in 2000 to $66 Billion in 2018, when Bayer bought the company. During these years, Monsanto consolidated its hold on the seed and pesticide industry. Almost all of the maize, soybean and cotton in the USA is now grown from varieties that have been genetically modified to withstand herbicides, especially glyphosate, sold under the brand name Roundup. At first, farmers loved it. They could plant the genetically modified ‚ÄúRoundup Ready‚ÄĚ seed and then spray the emerging plants with herbicides, killing all the weeds and leaving the maize or soybeans fresh and green.

The problem is that weeds invariably evolve resistance to the herbicides. So, seed companies engineer new crop varieties that can withstand more herbicides. Then the weeds become resistant to those herbicides. And farmers have to spend more on seeds and chemicals.

There is a way out. In California, agroecologist Stephen Gliessman grows grapes without irrigation. In the Midwest, farmer-innovators like David Brandt and Tom Frantzen work with researchers to create integrated livestock-cereal farms where cover crops rebuild the soil with organic matter.

I was heartened to read about these inventive farmers. But there are other things we can all do, to live better and eat better. We can:

Plant a garden.

Buy locally, from family farmers.

Eat organic food.

Vote for lawmakers who support anti-trust legislation.

Push for more research on organic farming and agroecology.

Further reading

Philpott, Tom 2020 Perilous Bounty: The Looming Collapse of American Farming and How We Can Prevent It. New York: Bloomsbury Publishing. 246 pp.

Related Agro-Insight blogs

Out of space

Stuck in the middle

A revolution for our soil

Living soil: a film review

Against or with nature

The next generation of farmers March 28th, 2021 by

Whether in Europe or in the global South, young farmers, unless they are born into a farm family, often lack three key things: land, finance and knowledge. But a new breed of farmers has risen, fuelled by passion to produce food in a healthy way, free from agrochemicals. Their journeys are often difficult, but with support from the community and by helping each other, they are heading towards a fairer and brighter future, as I learned this week on a revealing road trip.

Recently, I joined my farmer friends Johan Hons and Vera Kuijpers on their weekly trip to deliver and buy organic produce from wholesalers and fellow farmers to stock up their farm shop that opens from Friday afternoon until Saturday noon. Johan and Vera have been pioneer organic farmers in north-eastern Belgium.

‚ÄúWhen we started some 30 years ago, it was just us and one other family who had a basic food packaging machine. Whenever needed, we could use their machine,‚ÄĚ Johan said. In the meantime, the number of organic farmers has grown, and an amazing informal network is coming to life.

The back of the van is loaded with freshly harvested potatoes, a few crates of cabbages and leek seedlings that Johan and Vera had reared for the new season. Having left their farm before 6 am, by 8 o’clock we finished our first delivery. Biofresh, a main organic retailer, bought their potatoes. At the same time, we collect the produce they had ordered online a few days earlier. Vera guides me through the warehouse, explaining how the whole system works.

I see crates of organic pineapples from C√īte d‚ÄôIvoire, bright mangoes from Ghana, ginger from Peru, fava beans, artichokes and oranges from Italy, and various local products, including their potatoes, amongst other things.

‚ÄúAt first, our name was mentioned on the label,‚ÄĚ Vera says, ‚Äúbut they have now replaced our name with a number, so people no longer know who has produced them. I think it is to protect themselves from their competitors.‚ÄĚ This may well be the case, but as we continue our road trip it dawns on me that the effectiveness of this strategy may only be short-lived.

As we load the van in the parking lot, Floriaan D’Hulster, a young fellow organic farmer whom we had met indoors 10 minutes earlier arrives. He has come to buy Johan and Vera’s crates of cabbages and hands over a little carton box. My curiosity triggered, Johan proudly opens it and shows little seed packages.

‚ÄúThis is from our group of farmers with whom we started to produce vegetable seed. The seed has been cleaned, nicely labelled and packaged at the premises of Akelei, the organic farm where Floriaan works, and will be available in our farm shop as of tomorrow,‚ÄĚ Johan smiles. Their non-profit association ‚ÄúVitale Rassen‚ÄĚ was formalised in 2019 and regroups organic farmers across Flanders who produce seed under EU organic standards.

On to the next destination. Like Biofresh, Sinature is a wholesaler, but they also have their own greenhouses behind their warehouse. ‚ÄúWe like to buy as much locally produced food as possible,‚ÄĚ Vera says, ‚Äúas that is in line with our philosophy and many clients also ask me about this.‚ÄĚ

As we walk through the warehouse, Vera carefully goes over various lists. I learn that they are at the same time buying produce for other fellow farmers. ‚ÄúMany of us have started to sell our produce ourselves directly to consumers, whether at farm markets or farm shops,‚ÄĚ Vera says, ‚Äúand it is good to be able to offer clients a rich diversity of food on top of your own produce. As we have a van and a trailer, we provide this service to our fellow farmers against a small fee to cover our costs.‚ÄĚ

At Bernd Vandersmissen’s farm I am excited to see how even in greenhouses, they successfully integrate crops and livestock. Two pigs are happily sleeping under a trailer in an area secured by a temporary electric fence. While the pigs feed on the green manure (a mixture of rye and phacelia), they keep the soil loose and fertile.

Many of the new generation of farmers have managed one way or the other to secure some land. To gain knowledge and become professional growers, the non-profit organisation Landwijzer has been offering both short and two-year long courses on organic and biodynamic farming for the past 20 years.

The remainder of the day we make various stops to buy and deliver fresh produce at some inspiring farms. As Johan and Vera are pioneers, they know everyone involved in the organic food system. Many of the new generation of farmers have also done their internship with them as part of their Landwijzer course, so they have a strong bond. By providing this weekly service, they also get a chance to chat with their colleagues and exchange ideas and recent news.

When I ask Johan how the new generation of farmers is coping with the purchasing power of large buyers that push down prices, he explains that price formation and market diversification are key aspects covered in the courses offered by Landwijzer.

A few days earlier I had an online meeting with one of the coordinators of the Fairtrade Producers’ Organisation from Latin America. To secure a living income, cocoa and coffee growers are also forced to increasingly look at income and market diversification. While the food industry may gradually come to realize that paying a fair price for food is needed to keep farmers in business, it is reassuring to see that farmers continue to innovate by pro-actively strengthening ties between themselves and the community of consumers. Belonging to a network may make a vital difference for new farmers, who often lack land and a family connection to agriculture.

Related blogs

Grocery shops and farm shops

Forgotten vegetables

Marketing something nice

Inspiring platforms

Access Agriculture: hosts over 220 training videos in over 85 languages. Each video describes underlying principles, as such encouraging people to experiment with new ideas.

EcoAgtube: a new social media platform where anyone can upload their own videos related to natural farming and circular economy.

GMOs by hook and by crooks October 4th, 2020 by

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

In the midst of a deep ecological, economic and political crisis, the Bolivian government is being pushed by multinational companies to open up the country to GMOs, genetically modified crops.

Since 1996, Bolivia has been clearing about 200,000 hectares of tropical forest per year, one of the highest rates per capita in the world. Public forests are converted to private farmland, to plant subsidized soy beans, mostly for the benefit of large-scale export growers, who control vast areas (10,000 to 20,000 hectares each), according to Gonzalo Colque of the Fundación Tierra.

Colque adds that the first and only GMO crop to be approved in Bolivia was Monsanto‚Äôs Roundup Ready¬ģ soy, in 2005 (by presidential decree, during the brief, interim presidency of Eduardo Rodr√≠guez Veltz√©). Roundup Ready soya is resistant to glyphosate (to encourage the use of this herbicide). Soon after being approved, all the soy planted in Bolivia was GMO.

GMO crops that are resistant to herbicide can be sprayed with large doses of glyphosate, allowing farmers to easily control weeds in their crop, at least for a few years. Meanwhile, the farm supply companies make money on the weed-killer and on the seed that tolerates it. But within a few years, weeds evolve resistance to glyphosate, starting an arms race that the farmers will lose.

In 2012, after several years of debate and analysis, Evo Morales, the first indigenous president of Bolivia, signed a law with the remarkable title ‚ÄúFramework Law for the Mother Earth and Integrated Development to Live Well‚ÄĚ (Ley Marco de la Madre Tierra y Desarrollo Integral para Vivir Bien). The law outlawed GMOs, although Roundup Ready was still legal.

In April 2019, Morales walked back his earlier, anti-GMO position. According to Opinión (a respected newspaper) Morales authorized the evaluation (a prerequisite for approval) of two GMO soy varieties (HB4 and Intacta Pro, both resistant to glyphosate) at the request of the Bioceres company. HB4 soya had just been released in Argentina on 28 February 2019, in collaboration with Bioceres and the Beijing Da-Bei-Nong Technology Group. Shortly after, Brazil approved a similar GMO soy. Bioceres is headquartered in Argentina; investors include Monsanto and Syngenta AG, a global company that produces agrochemicals and since 2018 has been owned by ChemChina, a Chinese state-owned enterprise.

In mid-2019, when the massive forest fires in the Brazilian Amazon caught the world’s attention, Bolivian citizens’ groups struggled to let the world know that primary, tropical dry forest was also ablaze in the Bolivian Chiquitania. To satisfy exporters’ demands for frozen, deboned beef, parts of the forest had been cleared to make room for cattle. Some forest had been selectively logged, drying it out and making it more fire-prone. According to the Ministry for Rural Development and Land, 2,526 tons of frozen beef were exported in 2019, mostly to China, not bad for a business that had essentially not existed the year before.

President Morales refused to sign a state of emergency, which would have let French firefighters and other allies come help. The fire torched 200,000 hectares of trees and killed an estimated two million wild animals, and it tarnished President Morales’ reputation, contributing to the collapse of his government in November, 2019.

To the surprise of everyone in Bolivia, and following two chaotic days in which the country had no president at all, on 12 November 2019, Jeanine √Ā√Īez (the second vice-president of the Senate), emerged as president, promising to hold elections as soon as possible.

√Ā√Īez, a 52-year old lawyer and a former TV news reporter, came across fairly well in her press conferences. Her rhetoric was conciliatory, and she appointed some indigenous people to cabinet positions. Many people gave her a chance, even after she called out the army to quell some violent protests. Crucially, √Ā√Īez presented herself as a caretaker president, an honest broker overseeing fair elections. But she squandered that asset when, in 24 January 2020, she declared that she too would run for president.

Even after she started campaigning, √Ā√Īez enjoyed mild public support. Then in mid-March, she locked Bolivia down. This may have slowed the spread of Covid, but it crippled the economy. Her popularity and legitimacy were further weakened by allegations of corruption and by reports that she had ties to the international cocaine trade, through a drug-dealing ex-husband in Colombia and an incarcerated nephew. 

Then on 7 May 2020, √Ā√Īez, the accidental president, surprised the long-suffering Bolivian people with a presidential decree (number 4232) allowing genetically modified crops to be evaluated (and rapidly approved). According to the newspaper Opini√≥n, this decree was, like Morales‚Äôs decree a year earlier, also made on behalf of Bioceres, the seed and agrochemical company.

The Bolivian public saw through the GMO arguments. An opinion survey by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation in June, selected to include a broad cross-section of society by region, gender and political orientation, disapproved of the √Ā√Īez government and 79% said they were opposed or very opposed to genetically modified crops.

There was little movement on the GMO issue for three months, until on 17 September, √Ā√Īez withdrew from the October elections. She had been slipping in the polls, and her candidacy had split the vote so that there was now a risk that Morales‚Äô party could win the elections.

Once she was out of the electoral race, A√Īez lost little time supporting GMOs. On 22 September, just five days after quitting her campaign, she signed a new presidential decree (4348) allowing for hard yellow maize from ‚Äúany technology‚ÄĚ (i.e. GMO) to be grown in areas with local varieties, as long as the two crops were planted on different dates and separated (the decree does not say by how far) to avoid cross pollinating native and GMO maize. Such regulations will be impossible to enforce in a country where 50,000 to 70,000 hectares are already sown to illegal GMO maize. √Ā√Īez clearly intended to benefit large-scale growers, as hard yellow maize is the type used for export and for animal feed.

Bolivian laws have to be passed by parliament; the Mother Earth law specifically prohibits GMOs, but presidential decrees, like the ones √Ā√Īez has signed, come from the chief executive alone. They can also be revoked by the next president.

The biggest winners in legalizing GMO seed are the multinational companies who use government approval as leverage to enforce patents and oblige farmers to buy seed from the dealer every year.

Complicated technical and scientific issues like GMOs should be thoughtfully discussed by academic, scientific, consumer and farmer representatives, and then laws that govern these technologies should be passed by congress, not forced by a fragile, unelected president, backed by the export agricultural lobby. Multinationals pushing their GMO seed show their true colors when they take advantage of weak governments in moments of crisis.

Photo credits

GMO soy seed and a soy field cleared from forest in Bolivia, photos by Eric Boa.

Further reading

Bioceres 2019. Prospectus. https://www.sec.gov/Archives/edgar/data/1769484/000110465919033172/a19-9851_1f1.htm)

eFarmNews 2019 Argentina, the first country in the world authorizing a Chinese soybean transgenic trait. https://efarmnewsar.com/2019-02-28/argentina-the-first-country-in-the-world-authorizing-a-chinese-soybean-transgenic-trait.html

Colque, Gonzalo 2020 Vulneración de los Derechos Humanos y de la Naturaleza por la Introducción de Transgénicos en Bolivia. Paper read at the Foro: Nuevos Retos para la Agroecología en Bolivia. The talk is available on the Facebook page of Fundación Tierra. https://www.facebook.com/101332713279511/videos/2813006752357621. (The talk starts 27 minutes into this version of the recording).

Friedrich Ebert Stiftung 2020 Proyecto de An√°lisis Prospectivo y Di√°logo. Informe No. 2. Cuestionario Delphi (segunda ronda): Escenarios prospectivos 2020. https://drive.google.com/file/d/1KA7f3Q0n_DoVnDsY4em0NVB2VsKGjQdr/view

Ministry of Rural Development and Land 2020 Plan Nacional de Respuesta y Rehabilitación para el Sector Agropecuario ante los Efectos del Covid-19. Government of Bolivia, Ministerio de Desarrollo Rural y Tierras (with FAO, IFAD and IICA).

Opini√≥n 2020 ¬ŅQu√© respondieron Evo y √Ā√Īez a los pedidos de evaluar semillas de soya transg√©nica? https://www.opinion.com.bo/articulo/pais/respondieron-evo-anez-pedidos-evaluar-semillas-soya-transgenica/20200516234355768011.html

Reuters 2019 Brazil approves new soy seed that resists drought, two herbicides. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-brazil-soybeans-idUSKCN1SU244

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TRANSG√ČNICOS A LA FUERZA

Jeff Bentley, 4 de octubre del 2020

En medio de una profunda crisis ecológica, económica y política, las empresas multinacionales están manipulando al gobierno boliviano a abrir el país a los cultivos transgénicos.

Desde 1996, Bolivia ha talado unas 200.000 hect√°reas de bosques tropicales por a√Īo, una de las tasas m√°s altas per c√°pita del mundo. Los bosques en tierras fiscales se convierten en tierras particulares, para sembrar soya subvencionada, principalmente en beneficio de los que producen para la exportaci√≥n, que controlan grandes √°reas (10.000 a 20.000 hect√°reas cada una), seg√ļn Gonzalo Colque de la Fundaci√≥n Tierra.

Colque agrega que el primer y √ļnico cultivo transg√©nico que se aprob√≥ en Bolivia fue la soya Roundup Ready¬ģ de Monsanto, en 2005 (por decreto presidencial, durante la breve presidencia interina de Eduardo Rodr√≠guez Veltz√©). La soya Roundup Ready es resistente al glifosato (para fomentar el uso de este herbicida). Poco despu√©s de su aprobaci√≥n, toda la soya sembrada en Bolivia fue transg√©nica.

Los transg√©nicos resistentes a los herbicidas pueden ser fumigados con altas dosis de glifosato, lo que permite a los agricultores controlar f√°cilmente las malezas, al menos durante unos pocos a√Īos. Mientras tanto, las empresas agropecuarias ganan dinero con el herbicida y con la semilla que lo tolera. Pero en pocos a√Īos, las malezas desarrollan resistencia al glifosato, iniciando una carrera de armas que los agricultores perder√°n.

En 2012, despu√©s de varios a√Īos de debate y an√°lisis, Evo Morales, el primer presidente ind√≠gena de Bolivia, firm√≥ una ley con el impresionante t√≠tulo de “Ley Marco de la Madre Tierra y Desarrollo Integral para Vivir Bien”. La ley prohib√≠a los transg√©nicos, aunque Roundup Ready segu√≠a siendo legal.

En abril de 2019, Morales cambi√≥ a su anterior posici√≥n anti transg√©nicos. Seg√ļn Opini√≥n (un respetado peri√≥dico) Morales autoriz√≥ la evaluaci√≥n (un prerrequisito para la aprobaci√≥n) de dos variedades de soya transg√©nica (HB4 e Intacta Pro, ambas resistentes al glifosato) a petici√≥n de la empresa Bioceres. La soya HB4 acababa de ser lanzada en la Argentina el 28 de febrero de 2019, en colaboraci√≥n con Bioceres y el Beijing Da-Bei-Nong Technology Group. Poco despu√©s, el Brasil aprob√≥ una soya transg√©nica similar. Bioceres tiene su sede en Argentina; sus inversionistas incluyen Monsanto y Syngenta AG, una empresa mundial que produce agroqu√≠micos y que desde el 2018 es propiedad de ChemChina, una empresa estatal china.

A mediados de 2019, cuando los enormes incendios forestales en la Amazonia brasile√Īa llamaron la atenci√≥n del mundo, grupos de ciudadanos bolivianos lucharon por hacer saber al mundo que el bosque seco tropical primario tambi√©n ard√≠a en la Chiquitania boliviana. Para satisfacer la demanda de los exportadores de carne de res congelada y deshuesada, se hab√≠an talado partes del bosque para dar lugar a m√°s ganado. Algunos bosques hab√≠an sido talados selectivamente, hasta que se volvieron m√°s secos y m√°s propensos al fuego. Seg√ļn el Ministerio de Desarrollo Rural y Tierras, en 2019 se exportaron 2.526 toneladas de carne de res, casi todo a China, nada mal para un negocio que esencialmente no exist√≠a el a√Īo anterior.

El presidente Morales se neg√≥ a firmar el estado de emergencia, lo que habr√≠a permitido a los bomberos franceses y otros aliados venir a ayudar. El incendio destruy√≥ 200.000 hect√°reas de √°rboles y mat√≥ a dos millones de animales salvajes, y empa√Ī√≥ la reputaci√≥n del Presidente Morales, contribuyendo al colapso de su gobierno en noviembre de 2019.

Para sorpresa de todos en Bolivia, y despu√©s de dos d√≠as ca√≥ticos en los que el pa√≠s no tuvo ning√ļn presidente, el 12 de noviembre de 2019, Jeanine √Ā√Īez (la segunda vicepresidente del Senado), sali√≥ como presidenta, prometiendo celebrar elecciones lo antes posible.

√Ā√Īez, abogada de 52 a√Īos y ex presentadora de noticias de televisi√≥n, sali√≥ bien en sus conferencias de prensa. Su ret√≥rica fue conciliadora, y nombr√≥ a algunos ind√≠genas en puestos del gabinete. Mucha gente le dio una oportunidad, incluso despu√©s de que llamara al ej√©rcito para reprimir algunas protestas violentas. Crucialmente, √Ā√Īez se present√≥ como una presidenta provisional, una intermediaria honesta que supervisar√≠a unas elecciones justas. Pero desperdici√≥ ese activo cuando, el 24 de enero de 2020, declar√≥ que ella tambi√©n se presentar√≠a como candidata a la presidencia.

Incluso despu√©s de empezar la campa√Īa, √Ā√Īez disfrut√≥ de un leve apoyo p√ļblico. Luego, a mediados de marzo, cerr√≥ Bolivia. Esto puede haber frenado la propagaci√≥n de Covid, pero paraliz√≥ la econom√≠a. Su popularidad y legitimidad se debilitaron a√ļn m√°s por las denuncias de corrupci√≥n y las revelaciones de que ten√≠a v√≠nculos con el traficante internacional de coca√≠na, a trav√©s de un ex marido narcotraficante en Colombia y un sobrino encarcelado. 

Luego, el 7 de mayo de 2020, √Ā√Īez, el presidente accidental, sorprendi√≥ al pueblo boliviano con un decreto presidencial (n√ļmero 4232) que permit√≠a evaluar (y aprobar r√°pidamente) los cultivos gen√©ticamente modificados. Seg√ļn el peri√≥dico Opini√≥n, este decreto, tal como el de Morales el a√Īo anterior, se hizo a petici√≥n de la empresa multinacional Bioceres.

El p√ļblico boliviano no se dej√≥ enga√Īar. Una encuesta de opini√≥n realizada por la Fundaci√≥n Friedrich Ebert en junio, con una muestra representativa de la sociedad por regi√≥n, g√©nero y orientaci√≥n pol√≠tica, desaprob√≥ al gobierno de √Ā√Īez y el 79% se opon√≠a a los cultivos gen√©ticamente modificados.

Ah√≠ se quedaron los transg√©nicos durante tres meses, hasta que el 17 de septiembre, cuando √Ā√Īez se retir√≥ de las elecciones de octubre. Hab√≠a ido perdiendo en las encuestas y su candidatura hab√≠a dividido el voto, por lo que ahora hab√≠a la posibilidad de que el partido de Morales ganara las elecciones.

Una vez fuera de la carrera electoral, √Ā√Īez perdi√≥ poco tiempo apoyando a los transg√©nicos. El 22 de septiembre, s√≥lo cinco d√≠as despu√©s de abandonar su campa√Īa, firm√≥ un nuevo decreto presidencial (4348) que permit√≠a el cultivo de ma√≠z amarillo duro de “cualquier tecnolog√≠a” (es decir, transg√©nico) en zonas con variedades locales, siempre y cuando los dos cultivos se sembraran en fechas diferentes y con distancias entre un campo y el otro (no dice a cu√°nta distancia) para evitar la polinizaci√≥n cruzada de ma√≠z nativo y el transg√©nico. Ser√° imposible hacer cumplir esas normas en un pa√≠s en el que ya se han sembrado entre 50.000 y 70.000 hect√°reas de ma√≠z transg√©nico ilegal. √Ā√Īez ten√≠a claramente la intenci√≥n de beneficiar a los grandes empresarios, ya que el ma√≠z amarillo duro es el que se usa para la exportaci√≥n y para la alimentaci√≥n animal.

Las leyes bolivianas tienen que ser aprobadas por el parlamento; la ley de la Madre Tierra proh√≠be espec√≠ficamente los transg√©nicos, pero los decretos presidenciales, como los que ha firmado √Ā√Īez, provienen √ļnicamente del ejecutivo. Tambi√©n pueden ser revocados por el pr√≥ximo presidente.

Los mayores ganadores en la legalizaci√≥n de los transg√©nicos son las empresas multinacionales que usan la aprobaci√≥n del gobierno como palanca para hacer cumplir las patentes y obligar a los agricultores a comprar semillas al comerciante cada a√Īo.

Las cuestiones técnicas y científicas complicadas, como los transgénicos, deben ser discutidas cuidadosamente por los representantes académicos, científicos, consumidores y agricultores, y luego las leyes que rigen estas tecnologías deben ser aprobadas por el congreso, no forzadas por una frágil presidenta no elegida, beneficiando a un grupo de presión de la agricultura de exportación. Las multinacionales que trafican sus semillas transgénicas muestran sus verdaderas intenciones cuando se aprovechan de los gobiernos débiles en momentos de crisis.

Créditos de las fotos

Semilla transgénica de soya y un campo soyero en lo que era bosque en Bolivia, fotos por Eric Boa.

Lectura adicional

Bioceres 2019. Prospectus. https://www.sec.gov/Archives/edgar/data/1769484/000110465919033172/a19-9851_1f1.htm)

eFarmNews 2019 Argentina, the first country in the world authorizing a Chinese soybean transgenic trait. https://efarmnewsar.com/2019-02-28/argentina-the-first-country-in-the-world-authorizing-a-chinese-soybean-transgenic-trait.html

Colque, Gonzalo 2020 Vulneración de los Derechos Humanos y de la Naturaleza por la Introducción de Transgénicos en Bolivia. Trabajo presentado en el Foro: Nuevos Retos para la Agroecología en Bolivia. La ponencia está disponible en la página Facebook de la Fundación Tierra. https://www.facebook.com/101332713279511/videos/2813006752357621. (La charla empieza 27 minutos después del inicio de la grabación).

Friedrich Ebert Stiftung 2020 Proyecto de An√°lisis Prospectivo y Di√°logo. Informe No. 2. Cuestionario Delphi (segunda ronda): Escenarios prospectivos 2020. https://drive.google.com/file/d/1KA7f3Q0n_DoVnDsY4em0NVB2VsKGjQdr/view

Ministerio de Desarrollo Rural y Tierras 2020 Plan Nacional de Respuesta y Rehabilitación para el Sector Agropecuario ante los Efectos del Covid-19. Gobierno de Bolivia (con la FAO, IFAD e IICA).

Opini√≥n 2020 ¬ŅQu√© respondieron Evo y √Ā√Īez a los pedidos de evaluar semillas de soya transg√©nica? https://www.opinion.com.bo/articulo/pais/respondieron-evo-anez-pedidos-evaluar-semillas-soya-transgenica/20200516234355768011.html

Reuters 2019 Brazil approves new soy seed that resists drought, two herbicides. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-brazil-soybeans-idUSKCN1SU244

Antes en este blog

Viajes productivos

A long walk home

A brief history of soy

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La soya es un alimento nutritivo que se puede producir org√°nicamente, sin transg√©nicos. Le podr√≠an interesar estos videos para la agricultura familiar.  

Making soya cheese

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