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Blocking out the food November 3rd, 2019 by

As alternative food systems develop, they may also be the most vulnerable, as I saw after the disastrous elections in Bolivia of this past 20 October. Many people suspected that the election had been rigged, and that the president had not actually won a fourth term.

In protest, the major cities began erecting barricades on all major streets, and many smaller ones. This is protest by self-inflicted economic wound. Many people cannot get to work. Many close their shops and hardly anyone will take their kids to school. The macro-economy takes a nose-dive.

On Friday, six days into the protests, the protest leaders announced on social media that the roadblocks would be lifted in the morning so people could buy food. So I went shopping.

One NGO I know runs a “solidarity basket”, like a subscription service. They pick up fresh vegetables from peri-urban farmers and sell them on certain Saturdays. This weekend the roadblocks had kept the NGO from collecting the produce from the farmers. I met the NGO in a city park, where they had two pickups, offering just onions, yoghurt and mogochinchi (dried peaches) produced by small-scale entrepreneurs, but not the vegetables. My friends understood the importance of the protest, but they were visibly upset that they couldn’t collect the vegetables, which is a way of helping poorer farmers, mostly women, to sell to sympathetic members of the middle class.

Every Saturday, an alternative shop I patronize brings vegetables from farms in the valley. They also bake bread. The owner, Paula, joked that her assistant had not been able to come in, so Paula had baked the bread herself. It fell when rising. She also quipped not to mind if the asparagus was a bit smashed. “I had to go get it on my bike”, she explained (to ride around the roadblocks).

That same Saturday the regular markets and the supermarkets were overwhelmed with people shopping for what was going to be a difficult week for everyone. Every shopping cart was in use, and the lines stretched from the cash register half way through the store.

While a few items sold out, like tuna fish in water, most foods were still in stock. Supermarkets can last for a few days without being resupplied.  

Government supporters added to the tension by announcing that they would counter the protests in the city by blockading the national highways, with the stated purpose of keeping food out.

Food suppliers and shoppers all have a vested interest in trading with each other. As the week wore on, the supermarkets closed their doors. The food dealers that stayed open were the oldest ones: family-owned shops, and open-air markets.

Unfortunately, this past week I was really looking forward to attending a seed exchange, where people would meet and trade their own local varieties of tree and crop seed. No money would exchange hands, just gifts and trade in seed. This was an innovative, even experimental addition to the alternative food system. Unfortunately, that was cancelled entirely. The newest parts of the food system can also be the weakest. Cities are vulnerable to a break in food supplies, and experiences like this one may be a wake-up call to strengthen local food systems.

What counts in agroecology August 18th, 2019 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación

Measuring the costs and benefits of a small farm can be harder than on a large one, especially if the small farm includes an orchard and makes many of its own inputs, as I saw on a recent visit to Sipe Sipe, near Cochabamba, Bolivia, where a faith-based organization, Agroecología y Fe (Agroecology and Faith) is setting up ecological orchards.

The director of Agroecology and Faith, Germán Vargas, explained that a forest creates soil, gradually building up rich, black earth under the trees, while agriculture usually exposes the soil to erosion. A farm based on trees, with organic fertilizer, and with vegetables growing beneath the trees, should be a way to make a profit while conserving the soil. 

Extensionist Marcelina Alarcón showed us the apple trees that she and local farmers planted in August, 2018. They started by terracing the one hectare of gently sloping land. In one week of hard work they built a 200,000 liter, circular water reservoir of stone and concrete (gravity-fed with stream water) to irrigate the terraces and three additional hectares. The cost was 64,000 Bs. ($9,275), which seems like a big investment, but similar reservoirs built 30 years ago are still working.

Lush beds of lettuce, cabbage, broccoli, wheat, onions (some plants grown for their seed) are thriving beneath the apple trees. When one crop is harvested another takes its place, in complex rotations over small spaces. No chemicals are used, but the group makes calcium sulphate spray and liquid organic fertilizers to improve the soil, prevent crop diseases and enhance the production and quality of the apples and vegetables.

The group has harvested vegetables four times and sold them directly to consumers at fairs organized by Agroecology and Faith for a total gross receipt of 4,380 Bolivianos ($635).

I was visiting the farm at Sipe Sipe with a small group organized by Agroecology and Faith and some of their allies. Some of the lettuce, onions and tomatoes from the farm end up in a tub during our visit, to make a salad for the visitors—part of a fabulous lunch (complete with fresh potatoes and mutton cooked underground) offered at a modest cost. Produce cooked on site and sold informally on the farm are probably not counted when estimating profitability. After the tour of the farm and before the lunch, Marcelina set up a table with some vegetables for sale. She was kept quite busy writing down each transaction as we bought small bags of tomatoes and other produce for amounts less than a dollar each.

The sale of half a kilo of tomatoes is as much work to document as the sale of twenty tons of rice. A small farm has many more sales than a large farm and it takes a lot of administrative work to keep track of produce that is not sold because it goes into seed, feed or onto the family table.

The cost:benefit of a conventional field is simpler to tabulate: so much labor, machinery, seed and chemicals, all purchased, and single crop yields measured with relative ease. Yet this doesn’t tell the whole story. Loss of soil due to erosion, or carbon and nitrogen to the atmosphere, or pollution from fertilizer run-off all have a cost, even if they are often dismissed as “externalities.”

An agroforestry system like the hectare of apples and vegetables we visited starts with a large investment in irrigation and terracing. Many of the inputs are labor, or home-made fertilizers, and their cost is not always counted. The apple trees have not yet borne fruit, and some of the vegetables may escape the bookkeeper’s tally. Yet here the “externalities” have a positive and valuable contribution: soil is being created, chemical pollution is nil, and livelihoods are enriched as local farmers, mostly women, learn to work together to produce healthy food to sell. Classical economic comparisons with conventional farms fail to take account of these benefits.

Even a small farm can have a lot to consider in estimating returns, with many crops and activities and environmental services. Until we learn to measure the environmental efficiency as well as financial profitability of agroforestry or agroecological farms properly, they will never look as good as they really are.

Further reading

A recent report from the FAO (the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization) concludes that yield data is too poor a parameter to compare conventional (over-plowed, chemical intensive) agriculture with agroecology, a beyond-organic agriculture with soil conservation and respect for local communities.

HLPE Report on Agroecological and other innovative approaches for sustainable agriculture and food systems that enhance food security and nutrition. Extract from the Report: Summary and Recommendations (19 June 2019). Rome: FAO http://www.csm4cfs.org/summary-recommendations-hlpe-report-agroecology-innovations/

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Enlightened agroecology

Apple futures

Gardening against all odds

LO QUE CUENTA EN LA AGROECOLOGÍA

Por Jeff Bentley, 18 de agosto del 2019

Medir los costos y los beneficios de una pequeña finca puede ser más difícil que en una grande, especialmente si la pequeña incluye árboles y produce muchos de sus propios insumos, como vi en una reciente visita a Sipe Sipe, cerca de Cochabamba, Bolivia, donde la organización eclesial “Asociación Agroecología y Fe” (AAF) está estableciendo huertos ecológicos agroforestales.

El director de la AAF, Germán Vargas, explicó que un bosque crea suelo, acumulando gradualmente tierra negra y rica bajo los árboles, mientras que la agricultura suele exponer el suelo a la erosión. Una finca basada en árboles, con abonos orgánicos, y con hortalizas que crecen debajo de los árboles, debería ser una forma de obtener beneficios al mismo tiempo que se conserva el suelo. 

La extensionista Marcelina Alarcón nos mostró los manzanos que ella y la gente local plantaron en agosto del 2018. Comenzaron haciendo terrazas en una hectárea en suave pendiente. En una semana de trabajo duro construyeron un reservorio circular de agua de 200.000 litros de piedra y concreto (llenado por gravedad de agua de riachuelo) para regar las terrazas y tres hectáreas adicionales. El costo fue de 64.000 Bs. ($9,275), que parece una inversión grande, pero reservorios similares construidos hace 30 años siguen funcionando.

Camellones exuberantes de lechuga, repollo, brócoli, trigo, cebollas (algunas cultivadas para su semilla) prosperan bajo los manzanos. Cuando se cosecha un cultivo, otro ocupa su lugar, en complejas rotaciones sobre pequeños espacios. No aplican productos químicos, pero el grupo fabrica caldo mineral sulfocálcico y abonos orgánicos líquidos para mejorar el suelo, prevenir las enfermedades de los cultivos y mejorar la producción y calidad de los manzanos y de las hortalizas.

El grupo ha cosechado verduras cuatro veces y las ha vendido directamente a los consumidores en ferias organizadas por la AAF (en una canasta solidaria y saludable) por un total de 4.380 bolivianos (635 dólares).

Yo visitaba la finca agroforestal de Sipe Sipe con un pequeño grupo organizado por la AAF y algunos de sus aliados. Algunas de las lechugas, cebollas y tomates de la finca terminaron en una bañera durante nuestra visita, para hacer una ensalada para los visitantes, parte de un fabuloso almuerzo (con papas frescas y cordero cocido bajo tierra en un pampaku) ofrecido a un precio modesto. Los productos cocinados en el sitio y vendidos informalmente en la finca probablemente no se contabilizan. Después del recorrido por la finca y antes del almuerzo, Marcelina organizó una mesa para vender algunas verduras. Se mantuvo ocupada apuntando cada transacción mientras comprábamos pequeñas bolsas de tomates y otros productos por cantidades menos de un dólar cada una.

La venta de medio kilo de tomates es tanto trabajo como la venta de veinte toneladas de arroz. Una finca pequeña tiene muchas más ventas que una grande y se requiere mucho trabajo administrativo para hacer un seguimiento de los productos que no se venden porque van a parar como semilla, para alimentar a los animales o a la mesa de la familia.

El costo:beneficio de un campo convencional es más simple de tabular: tanta mano de obra, maquinaria, semillas y productos químicos, todos comprados, y el rendimiento de un solo cultivo medido con relativa facilidad. Sin embargo, esto no cuenta toda la historia. La pérdida de suelo debido a la erosión, o el carbono y nitrógeno a la atmósfera, o la contaminación por la escorrentía de los fertilizantes, todos ellos tienen un costo, aunque a menudo se desestimen como “externalidades”.

Un sistema agroforestal, como la hectárea de manzanas y hortalizas que visitamos comienza con una gran inversión en riego y terrazas. Muchos de los insumos son mano de obra, o abonos caseros, y su costo no siempre se cuenta. Los manzanos aún no han dado fruto, y algunas de las verduras pueden escaparse de la cuenta del contable. Sin embargo, aquí las “externalidades” tienen una contribución positiva y valiosa: se está creando el suelo, la contaminación química es nula y los medios de subsistencia se enriquecen a medida que los agricultores locales, en su mayoría mujeres, aprenden a trabajar juntas para producir alimentos saludables para vender. Las comparaciones económicas clásicas con las explotaciones convencionales no tienen en cuenta estos beneficios.

Incluso una pequeña granja puede tener mucho que considerar al estimar los rendimientos, con muchos cultivos y actividades y servicios ambientales. Hasta que no aprendamos a medir la eficiencia ambiental y la rentabilidad financiera de las granjas agroforestales o agroecológicas de manera adecuada, nunca se verán tan bien como realmente son.

Para leer más

Un informe reciente de la FAO (Organización de las Naciones Unidas para la Alimentación y la Agricultura) concluye que los datos sobre el rendimiento son muy pobres para poder comparar la agricultura convencional (sobre arado, con uso intensivo de químicos) con la agroecología, una agricultura que vas más allá de la orgánica, con conservación del suelo y respeto para las comunidades locales.

Resumen y recomendaciones del informe del GANESAN sobre Agroecología y otras innovaciones (19 de junio 2019). Roma: FAO. http://www.csm4cfs.org/es/summary-recommendations-hlpe-report-agroecology-innovations/

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Mobile slaughterhouses February 3rd, 2019 by

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further reading

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

Related blog

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

The joy of farming October 21st, 2018 by

Yesterday in Mandera village in Tanzania, we were lucky to meet an inspiring young farmer.  32-year old Sadiki Mchama is an entrepreneur with passion and vision who left his office job to become a farmer. Across Africa, well-organised farms that produce for markets are often set up by older government officials who invest their savings into farming to provide a steady income after they retire. But Sadiki was clearly a different case, which triggered my curiosity.

Until 3 years ago Sadiki worked as an accountant at the Water Supply and Sanitation Authority of the Wami River Basin. Once he had saved enough money, he decided to start his own farm.

When asked what attracted him to go into agriculture, he replied happily: “You can enjoy everything in agriculture. Everything I do are my own ideas.”

Sadiki started growing cassava on his 10 acres (4 hectares) of land. But some of the planting material he got from the open market was infested with disease, such as the cassava mosaic virus and the cassava brown streak disease. As he uproots some of the infested plants it does not take long to realise that infested plants yield no tubers.

Eager to find a solution, Sadiki turned to the extension officer who introduced him to a project that tried to set up a cassava “seed” system, involving community “seed” producers. Sadiki successfully took the course, bought certified cassava planting material and planted it far from other fields, so the disease would not spread to his new crop.

“When you start a business, you need to find customers and look after them so they come back to you,” Sadiki says. While many farmers struggle to find a market for their cassava roots, Sadiki did manage. He now rents a car and brings his produce to the customers however far away they are.

Asked how Sadiki would manage to find customers for his new cassava planting material business, he said: “I attend village meetings and talk to the farmers, but I also use WhatsApp, Facebook and Instagram to inform potential customers.”

Sadiki is a people person. His open, smiling face radiates with positive energy. As we were filming a video on healthy cassava planting material, we were pleased to include him. In farmer training videos, enthusiastic people like Sadiki communicate ambition and show what is possible.

Once our video on quality cassava planting material is posted on the Access Agriculture video platform, Sadiki plans to download the video and share it with his network. The video in turn may help to boost his business, the same way that vegetable training videos in Uganda boosted the demand for tomato, chilli and onion seed.

Young people across Africa are starting to see opportunities in agriculture. And they cleverly combine their great interpersonal skills with new ICTs and social media.

Further reading

Bentley, J. 2016. The Luo translations: farmer learning videos in northern Uganda. Agro-Insight, Belgium. See: www.accessagriculture.org/publications

Acknowledgement

The video on Quality Cassava Planting Material is developed for IITA under the ACAI project (African Cassava Agronomy Initiative)

A healthier way to eat groundnuts June 3rd, 2018 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación

Rosario Cadima is an enterprising farmer who spends two days a week buying and selling potatoes at the fair in Colomi, Cochabamba. Juan Almanza, the talented extensionist we met in last week’s blog (Videos for added inspiration), had given her a DVD with a series of agricultural learning videos aimed at farmers like her. The DVD included seven videos in Spanish, Quechua and Aymara on caring for the soil. One of the videos was about peanuts (groundnuts), which like other legumes, fixes nitrogen for the soil. Rosario recently watched the DVD with her parents, grandfather and other family members. They watched all of the videos over three nights, and she recalled them vividly.

Juan was surprised when Rosario mentioned the video on groundnuts. “But you don’t grow groundnuts here,” he said.

“No, but we buy them and eat them,” Rosario said. Then she explained that she and her family sometimes bought peanuts that had a thick mold on them; they would simply wipe it off and eat the apparently clean nuts.

“So did we,” Juan admitted.

The mold is a fungus, and it releases a poison called aflatoxin into peanuts and other stored foods. The video showed all of this, and explained that people should bury moldy food, instead of eating it.

Rosario’s family is now careful to avoid eating moldy peanuts. Farmers are also consumers and a video can help them to make better food choices. Smallholder farmers don’t always have opportunities to learn about public health matters related to the food that they produce and eat. The farmer learning videos hosted on Access Agriculture are now carrying many more messages than we first imagined. And the videos are rich enough that viewers can interpret them to learn unexpected lessons.  As we have said in our earlier blog (Potato marmalade), eating is the last step in a process that usually starts with planting a seed, so it makes sense that videos for farmers can also benefit consumers.

Watch the video

The video Managing aflatoxins in groundnuts during drying and storage is available to watch or freely download in English, Spanish and a dozen other languages.

For more videos about preparing nutritious food, please see:

Enriching porridge, baby food

Tomato concentrate and juice

Making rennet

Making fresh cheese

Pure milk is good milk

Making a condiment from soya beans

Making soya cheese

COMER MANÍ MÁS SANO

Por Jeff Bentley, 3 de junio del 2018

Rosario Cadima es una AGRICULTORA emprendedora que pasa dos días a la semana comprando y vendiendo papas en la feria de Colomi, Cochabamba. Juan Almanza, el extensionista talentoso que conocimos en el blog de la semana pasada (Videos para un poco más de inspiración), le había dado un DVD con una serie de videos de aprendizaje agrícola dirigidos a agricultores como ella. El DVD incluyó siete videos en español, quechua y aymara sobre el cuidado del suelo. Uno de los videos era sobre cacahuates (maníes), que al igual que otras leguminosas, fija nitrógeno para el suelo. Rosario recientemente vio el DVD con sus papás, abuelo y otros miembros de la familia. Miraron todos los videos durante tres noches, y ella los recordó vívidamente.

Juan se sorprendió cuando Rosario mencionó el video sobre maní. “Pero aquí no se produce maní”, dijo.

“No, pero los compramos y los comemos”, dijo Rosario. Luego explicó que ella y su familia a veces compraban maníes que tenían un molde grueso; simplemente lo limpiaban y comían los granos, que parecían limpios.

“Nosotros también”, admitió Juan.

El moho es un hongo y libera un veneno llamado aflatoxina en los maníes y otros alimentos almacenados. El video mostró todo esto, y explicó que las personas deben enterrar el maní con moho, en vez de comerlo.

La familia de Rosario ahora tiene cuidado de no comer maníes con moho. Los agricultores también son consumidores y un video puede ayudarlos a tomar mejores decisiones para con su comida. Los pequeños agricultores no siempre tienen la oportunidad de aprender sobre asuntos de salud pública relacionados con los alimentos que producen y comen. Los videos de aprendizaje agrícola ubicados en Access Agriculture ahora llevan muchos más mensajes de lo que imaginábamos al inicio. Y los videos son lo suficientemente ricos como para que el público pueda interpretarlos para aprender lecciones inesperadas. Como hemos dicho en nuestro blog anterior (Mermelada de papa), comer es el último paso en un proceso que generalmente comienza con la siembra de una semilla, por lo que tiene sentido que los videos para agricultores también puedan beneficiar a los consumidores.

Vea el video

El video El manejo de aflatoxinas en maní está disponible para ver o bajar gratis en inglés, español y una docena de otros idiomas.

Para más videos sobre la preparación de comida nutritiva, favor de ver:

Enriching porridge, alimento para bebés

Tomato concentrate and juice

Making rennet

Making fresh cheese

Pure milk is good milk

Making a condiment from soya beans

Making soya cheese

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