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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.

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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

Videos sobre la soya

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

Growing annual crops in cashew orchards

Making a condiment from soya beans

Harvesting and storing soya bean seed

Soya sowing density

Enriching porridge

The village hunter June 28th, 2020 by

I recently ran into our village hunter, Pol Gielen, which is always a good occasion to get to know the village history a little better, and to learn about the changing challenges of hunters and farmers alike. In our village, Erpekom, in north eastern Belgium, with only 300 odd citizens, Pol Gielen is one of the two people allowed to hunt on the village grounds. The license has been passed on from generation to generation. While hunting in Europe is a centuries-old occupation, it has not always had the same social relevance.

The first hunting laws stem from the time of William the Conqueror, the Norman King who reigned England from 1066 until his death in 1087. A decade earlier, William allied himself with Flanders, now part of Belgium, by marrying Matilda, daughter of Count Baldwin of Flanders. William was a fervent hunter who loved being in the woods, observing animals, yet he despised the common people. A peasant caught hunting could be thrown into prison or, just as likely, publicly executed. For centuries to follow, hunting became a stylized pastime of the aristocracy.

In contemporary Europe, hunting is no longer confined to the rich. While hunting licenses are to ensure that only well-trained persons are allowed to hunt, the right to hunt is also linked to the duty to care for all animals listed in the hunting laws. For various species, such as deer, wild boars, hares and pheasants, hunters and authorities have to develop plans, detailing, how many animals may or must be killed during the hunting season. Some pest species, such as pigeons, can be shot with little restriction.

In an earlier blog, Bullets and birds, I wrote how pigeons can be a real challenge for organic farmers, who do not use seed that the factories coat with chemicals to repel birds, and how local hunters can come to the rescue if need be. My recent encounter with Pol, our village hunter, showed me how changing pesticide regulations in Europe continue to influence the relationships between hunters, farmers and the environment.

In 2018, the European Commission banned three neonicotinoids (synthetic nicotinoids, toxins originally derived from tobacco). The ban covers all field crops, because these pesticides harm domesticated honey bees and wild pollinators. Neonics, as they are commonly called, are often coated onto seeds to protect them from soil pests. These pesticides are systemic, meaning they spread through the plant‚Äôs tissue. The toxin eventually reaches pollen and nectar, where it harms pollinators. According to a study by Professor Dave Goulson in the UK, most seeds and flowers marketed as ‚Äúbee-friendly‚ÄĚ at garden centres, supermarkets and DIY centres, like Aldi and Homebase, are contaminated with systemic pesticides. In fact, in his study in 2017 70% of the plants contained neonics commonly including the ones banned for use on flowering crops by the EU. Birds, bees, butterflies, bats and mammals are indiscriminately poisoned when they forage on contaminated plants.

The dramatic decline of bees and other pollinators due to the use of neonics and other pesticides is threatening the sustainability of the global food supply. Of the 100 crop species that provide 90% of global food, 71 are pollinated by bees.

To further reduce the negative impact of agriculture on the environment, more restrictions have been imposed because of mounting evidence that pesticide-coated seed are also harmful to birds, including partridges, a favourite game bird for a thousand years that has now become a rarity. Apart from subsidies for installing and maintaining hedgerows around farmers’ fields to serve as food and nesting habitat for birds, the European Commission recently banned methiocarb, a toxic insecticide used as a bird repellent, often used to coat maize seed.

With the new EU regulations limiting seed coatings, conventional dairy farmers got worried that birds would damage their maize crop, and have begun looking for alternatives. That is the reason why one of our farmer neighbours decided to call upon Pol, the village hunter. It was on his way back from that farmer that I ran into Pol when he said: ‚ÄúWell, the farmer asked me to come and shoot pigeons, but I told him: ‚ÄėI would be happy to help you, but where do you want me to hide, you have removed all the hedges in your fields!‚Äô‚ÄĚ

Regulations to curb the indiscriminate and dangerous use of pesticides on seed and in fields must go hand in hand with other measures, such as promoting hedgerows that fulfil important ecological functions for birds and pollinators. Also, environmentally-friendly alternatives could be further investigated and promoted. Green, innovative technologies, such as clay coating, is likely to become increasingly important. Clay is perceived by insects and birds as soil and offers a natural protection of the seeds. The clay can even be enriched with other natural additives to repel birds and insects.

Hunting has come a long way in the past 1,000 years. No longer the pastime of kings, hunting can be part of an enlightened programme to manage bird pests, without the use of chemicals, while saving the bees.

Further reading

Goulson, Dave. 2017. Pesticides in ‚ÄúBee-Friendly‚ÄĚ flowers. www.sussex.ac.uk/lifesci/goulsonlab/blog/bee-friendly-flowers. Original research describing in detail the pesticides was published in the journal Environmental Pollution, May 2017 and can be found here: www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0269749117305158  

Malone, Katy. 2018. Beeware! ‚ÄėBee-friendly‚Äô garden plants can contain bee-harming chemicals. https://www.bumblebeeconservation.org/beeware-bee-friendly-garden-plants-can-contain-bee-harming-chemicals/

Stokstad, Erik. 2018. European Union expands ban of three neonicotinoid pesticides. Science, April 27.

The European Green Deal: https://ec.europa.eu/info/strategy/priorities-2019-2024/european-green-deal_en

Related blogs

Bullets and birds

Banana birds in the bean patch

Birds: farmers’ blessing or curse

From Uniformity to Diversity

The bird cliffs

Related videos

Managing birds in climbing beans

Soya sowing density (this video talks about hunters providing services to farmers in Benin)

Wicked seed January 5th, 2020 by

A recent story in The Economist (28 September 2019, page 18) highlights the low maize yields in Africa, and urges for greater use of hybrid maize seed. The Economist also has harsh words for NGOs: ‚ÄúAfrican governments have mostly ignored the arguments from some charities, that old-fashioned farming is best and that wicked, profit-seeking seed firms should be barred.‚ÄĚ

This caricature is misleading in two ways: many NGOs promote modern seed; and seed companies have more serious enemies than any ‚Äúcharity‚ÄĚ.

Cassava is a big staple food in Africa, like maize. Unlike maize, which is planted using true seed, cassava is propagated with stem cuttings. Seed companies rarely sell stems or other vegetative planting material, even for major crops, other than potato. This is mainly for practical reasons; cuttings, vines and roots are bulky, and perishable. Farmers usually trade for cassava stems, get them from friends for free, or buy them from producers or traders.

Donor-funded projects, such as UPOCA and the Great Lakes Cassava Initiative, have also played an important part in making cassava planting material available, worked closely with NGOs to distribute the stems of new, disease-resistant varieties of cassava to farmers in various African countries. This progressive and modern system is neither old-fashioned nor wicked.

It‚Äôs not just cassava where such initiatives have helped make planting material available.  In Kenya, public research, like the 3G Seed Strategy, supported the production of high-quality seed potatoes (not true seed, but the small tubers that farmers plant). The project purposefully channeled the production and sale of the little seed potatoes through private companies and commercial farms, to promote sustainable business.

The real enemies of private seed companies include crooks who sell fake seed. To its credit, The Economist did mention counterfeit seed as a problem, but it is worse than the newspaper let on. In a visit to Premier Seed, a Nigerian company, I was impressed by their expertise and competence. They had a professional plant breeder, a tidy lab growing maize seedlings in rows of dishes, and an orderly warehouse stacked with bags of seed. I never heard Premier or other Nigerian seed enterprises complain about NGOs or ‚Äúcharities‚ÄĚ.  The real problem was counterfeit seed. Criminals would buy cheap maize grain in the market, dye it to make it look like treated seed, and package it in bags printed to look like those of a real company. Farmers only realized they‚Äôd been sold a dud at harvest time. Counterfeit seed smeared the good name of the legitimate companies, whose packaging had been copied.

Life is difficult for seed companies trying to survive, especially the smaller ones. Even when the Nigerian government buys large amounts of seed from private companies to distribute to smallholders, as it does from time to time, there’s a twist. The government can be slow to pay its bills, with the result that a small company’s capital cash flow is blocked and capital is tied up for a year or more. Bigger firms with deeper pockets can more easily wait to be paid.

Few NGOs argue that old-fashioned farming is best. Most promote a sensible blend of tradition and innovation in agricultural practices and respect the pioneering.

There is a reason why seed companies may be seen as wicked. As Paul and colleagues recently explained in two videos (one from Guatemala and one from Malawi), some seed laws threaten farmers’ right to use their own seed.

African seed enterprises do have real problems, but ‚Äúcharities‚ÄĚ are not among them. Governments should help national seed companies by arresting the fake seed sellers, and paying for seed on time. Farmers have a right to keep their own seed, but they need modern seed as well. NGOs and research centers often work together to provide such seed, especially for crops that private companies ignore.  

Further reading

For Nigerian seed enterprises see:

Bentley, Jeffery W., Olupomi Ajayi and Kehinde Adelugba 2011 ‚ÄúNigeria: Clustered Seed Companies,‚ÄĚ pp. 38-64. In, P. Van Mele, J.W. Bentley & R. Gu√©i (eds.) African Seed Enterprises: Sowing the Seeds of Food Security. Wallingford, UK: CABI. 236 pp.

For projects in Africa that have promoted modern seed of cassava, potatoes (and other crops) see:

Andrade-Piedra, Jorge, Jeffery W. Bentley, Conny Almekinders, Kim Jacobsen, Stephen Walsh, and Graham Thiele (eds.) 2016. Case Studies of Roots, Tubers and Bananas Seed Systems. CGIAR Research Program on Roots, Tubers and Bananas (RTB), Lima: RTB Working Paper No. 2016-3. ISSN 2309-6586. 244 p.

Watch the videos

Farmers’ rights to seed – Guatemala

Farmers’ rights to seed – Malawi

And this one on the benefits of good, commercial cassava stems

Quality cassava planting material

Gardening against all odds May 26th, 2019 by

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

All over the tropics, from Lima to Lagos, from Mumbai to Manila, the big cities are overflowing with migrants. In some regions, like the Andes, parts of the countryside are emptying out, with whole villages boarded up.

The new neighborhoods ringing the cities are often described as crowded eyesores. Ana and I visited one recently, on the edge of Cochabamba, a city that has long been divided into a fashionable north side, hemmed in by mountains, and by a working-class south side. But in the past 10 years or so the south side has mushroomed out of the valley bottom, to grow over the hills south of town. At night the lights on the hills are a reminder of how much the city has changed.

In one of the newest of these poor neighborhoods, we met some of the 80 members of a women’s group, Nueva Semilla (New Seed). Migration has been intense after the mining industry crumbled in the 1980s, but even in the past 10 years people have continued to leave villages in the provinces of Cochabamba and in Northern Potosí, the poorest region of Bolivia, to seek a better life in the city.

Nueva Semilla is in a tough neighborhood where people have to look after themselves. Families live on small plots of land, where they slowly build their brick and cement houses with their own hands, in their limited free time, usually just Sundays and national holidays. The streets are unpaved and dusty, laid out on square grids (or in curves on some of the steeper slopes). The government has built schools and hospitals. There is electricity, but no running water. People buy water from tanker trucks for a dollar a barrel.

The women’s group started in 2014, when some of them were taking a catechism class. They were impressed with the garden in the churchyard and this set them thinking. They had all been farmers in the places they had come from; why not establish their own gardens in their new homes?

But the women were used to growing potatoes, maize and barley, not garden vegetables. Fortunately, an NGO, the Agroecology and Faith Association, helped them with seed and some training, and some fabric to make semi-shade to protect the young plants against the fierce sun.

Do√Īa Betty, one of the leaders, showed us the plot with her house, a small square of rocky hillside with no soil. Do√Īa Betty bought a truckload of loamy soil, which she mixes with leaf-litter she collects from beneath mesquite trees on the surrounding hills. She puts the mixture in old tires, and irrigates with water she buys. She has created a delightful garden, with a dozen different vegetables, including healthy, organic tomatoes and celery which she is growing for seed to share with the members of her group.

A neighbor, do√Īa Ernestina, is also in the group, and she has a lush garden of about 10 by 10 meters. She has a small hydroponic garden of PVC tubes filled with thriving lettuce plants, an investment paid for by the local municipality. Agroecology and Faith has a strong organic ethos and frowns on the hydroponic gardens because they rely on mineral fertilizer. Yet the NGO is also flexible enough to tolerate the hydroponic gardens, which the women seem to genuinely like. The women‚Äôs group is also independent and free to make links with more than one institution.

We paid a small fee, along with a small group of other visitors, for lunch which the women made. They were eager to sell their vegetables. Four heads of lettuce went for about 65-dollar cents, cheaper than in the market. The families eat a lot of their own produce and the kids we saw appeared healthy and well-fed. The women’s small vegetable gardens are surprisingly productive, even if they have to make their own soil and buy their water. The families even have surplus produce to sell.

The NGO is planning a seed exchange fair to ‚Ķ Once a month they also have a solidarity fair, where the women sell ‚Äėsolidarity‚Äô baskets of vegetables they produce themselves.  

The women and their families have left their farms behind, but they have also brought the best of country values with them: hard-work and creativity. These adaptive people have taken their personal development into their own hands, and have decided that a home garden is one of the tickets out of poverty.

Related blog stories

Agroecology and Faith’s solidarity baskets are modeled on an experience in Ecuador, which (as luck would have it) I have reported on in a previous blog: Donating food with style

For a story on hydroponic gardening: No land, no water, no problem

Related videos

For videos on seed fairs, and farmers’ rights to seed, see:

Farmers‚Äô rights to seed ‚Äď Guatemala

Farmers’ rights to seed – Malawi

UN MEJOR FUTURO CON JARDINES

Por Jeff Bentley

26 de mayo del 2019

Por todo el trópico, desde Lima hasta Lagos, desde Mumbai hasta Manila, las grandes ciudades están repletas de migrantes. En algunas regiones, como los Andes, partes del campo se están vaciando, con aldeas enteras tapiadas.

Los nuevos barrios que rodean las ciudades se describen a menudo como ‚Äúcinturones de miseria‚ÄĚ. Hace poco, Ana y yo visitamos a una, en las afueras de Cochabamba, una ciudad que ha estado dividida por mucho tiempo en un lado norte de moda, rodeada de monta√Īas, y por un lado sur de la clase trabajadora. Pero en los √ļltimos 10 a√Īos, m√°s o menos, el lado sur ha salido del piso del valle, para crecer sobre los cerros al sur de la ciudad. Por la noche, las luces de las colinas son un recordatorio de lo mucho que ha cambiado la ciudad.

En uno de los m√°s nuevos de estos barrios pobres, conocimos a algunas de los 80 miembros de un grupo de mujeres, llamado Nueva Semilla. Ellas han migrado de las provincias de Cochabamba y del norte de Potos√≠, la regi√≥n m√°s pobre de Bolivia. La miner√≠a colaps√≥ en los a√Īos 1980, pero la gente sigue llegando para buscar una vida mejor en la ciudad.

Nueva Semilla est√° en un barrio duro de gente habilosa. Las familias viven en peque√Īas parcelas de tierra, donde lentamente construyen sus casas de ladrillo y cemento con sus propias manos, los domingos y feriados. Las calles est√°n sin pavimentar y polvorientas, pero dispuestas en cuadr√≠culas (o en curvas en algunas de las pendientes m√°s empinadas). El gobierno ha construido escuelas y hospitales. Hay electricidad, pero no hay agua corriente. La gente compra agua de camiones cisternas por 8 Bs. el turril de 200 litros.

El grupo de mujeres comenz√≥ en 2014, cuando algunas de ellas estaban tomando una clase de catecismo. Quedaron impresionados con el jard√≠n de la iglesia y se pusieron a pensar. Ellas hab√≠an sido agricultoras en sus lugares de origen ¬Ņpor qu√© no establecer huertos familiares en su nuevo lugar?

Pero ellas estaban acostumbradas a cultivar papas, maíz y cebada, no hortalizas. Afortunadamente, una ONG, la Asociación de Agroecología y Fe, les ayudó con semillas y algo de capacitación, y algunas telas para hacer semisombra para proteger las plantitas contra el feroz sol.

Do√Īa Betty, una de las l√≠deres, nos mostr√≥ su casa, en un peque√Īo lote de ladera rocosa sin suelo. Do√Īa Betty compr√≥ una camionada de lama, que mezcla con las hojarascas que recoge debajo de los √°rboles de algarrobo (thaqo) en las colinas circundantes. Ella pone esta mezcla en llantas viejas, y riega con agua que ella compra. Ella ha creado un jard√≠n encantador, con una docena de diferentes verduras, incluyendo tomates org√°nicos y apio que est√° cultivando para compartir las semillas con los miembros de su grupo.

Una vecina, do√Īa Ernestina, tambi√©n est√° en el grupo, y tiene un exuberante jard√≠n de unos 10 por 10 metros. Tiene un peque√Īo jard√≠n hidrop√≥nico de tubos de PVC llenos de plantas de lechuga, una inversi√≥n pagada por la municipalidad local. La Agroecolog√≠a y la Fe prefiere lo org√°nico, y no est√° muy de acuerdo con los jardines hidrop√≥nicos, porque usan fertilizantes minerales. Pero la ONG es suficientemente flexible para tolerar los huertos hidrop√≥nicos, que a las mujeres les gustan. El grupo de mujeres es independiente y libre de establecer v√≠nculos con m√°s de una instituci√≥n.

Junto con un peque√Īo grupo de otros visitantes, pagamos un poquito para un almuerzo que las mujeres nos prepararon. Estaban ansiosas por vender sus verduras. Cuatro cabezas de lechuga costaron 5 Bs., m√°s barato que en el mercado. Las familias comen mucho de sus propios productos y sus hijos parecen limpios, sanos y bien alimentado). Los peque√Īos huertos de las mujeres son sorprendentemente productivos, a pesar de que tienen que hacer su propio suelo y comprar su agua. Las familias tambi√©n tienen excedentes de hortalizas para vender.

Agroecolog√≠a y Fe est√° planeando una feria de intercambio de semillas, y una vez al mes tienen una feria solidaria, donde las mujeres venden canastas solidarias de verduras que ellas mismas producen. 

Las mujeres y sus familias han dejado atr√°s sus granjas, pero trajeron consigo lo mejor de los valores rurales: el trabajo duro y la creatividad. Esta gente vers√°til ha tomado su desarrollo personal en sus propias manos, y han decidido que un huerto familiar es uno de los boletos para salir de la pobreza.

Otras historias del blog

Las canastas de solidaridad de Agroecología y Fe se inspiraron de una experiencia en el Ecuador, que (por pura casualidad) he descrito en un blog previo: Donaciones de comida, con estilo

Para una historia sobre la producción hidropónica de hortalizas: Sin tierra, sin agua, no hay problema

Videos que le podrían interesar

Para videos sobre las semillas de semillas, y de los derechos populares a las semillas, vea:

Derechos de los agricultores a las semillas ‚ÄĒ Guatemala

Farmers’ rights to seed – Malawi

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