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Eating bricks June 14th, 2020 by

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A similar trend took place in the milk industry.

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

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

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

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

Further reading

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

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

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Travelling farmers May 3rd, 2020 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación

We once had a talented carpenter named Rodrigo, who would come to our house to fix cabinets and build closets. He liked to start in the afternoon and stay for dinner. He was slow and methodical, but his work was always perfect. Every year, this bohemian handyman would take his mother and go back to their home village on the Bolivian Altiplano, several times a year to plant, tend and harvest quinoa. They would bring the harvest back to Cochabamba and wait for the price to peak, when they would sell. In previous stories we have described the soil erosion caused by the quinoa boom (Wind erosion and the great quinoa disaster and Slow recovery), but Rodrigo and his mother were acting like short-term, economic rationalists.

In a provocative new article, researcher Enrique Ormachea explains that people like Rodrigo and his mother are “residents” (country people living permanently in the cities, while maintaining ties in the village, especially returning for harvest).

Other farmers have moved much shorter distances. The Andean valleys are dotted with the ruined, adobe houses where the grandparents of today’s farmers once lived. Many farmers have left the most remote countryside to live in the bigger villages and small towns where there are shops, schools, electricity and running water. In the past 15 or 20 years, many of these Bolivian farmers have bought motorcycles so they can live in town and commute to the farm. It is now a common sight in the countryside to see farmers’ motorbikes parked along the side of the dirt roads, while the farmer is working a nearby field.

These farmers sell their potatoes and grains in weekly fairs in the small towns, to small-scale wholesalers (who work with just one truck). Thousands of people may throng into a fair, in a town that is nearly empty the other six days of the week.

Still other migrants make long trips every year. Farmers without irrigation cannot work their own land during the long dry season. So, in the offseason they travel to the lowlands of Bolivia, where forests have been cleared for industrial agriculture: not necessarily sustainable, but productive (at least for now). This commercial agriculture relies on the labor of rural people who travel hundreds of kilometers to work.

68% of the agricultural production in Bolivia comes from large, capitalist farms, according to census data that Ormachea cites in his article. 23% is on peasant farms that are large enough to hire some labor and sell some produce. Only 8% is on small, subsistence farms. One could argue with this data; smallholders often underestimate their income when talking to census takers, who are suspected of being the tax man in disguise. Even if we accept the figures at face value, a third of food output comes from small farms. But large and small farms produce different things; smallholders produce fruits, vegetables, potatoes and pigs, unlike the soy, sugar, rice and beef that comes from the big farms. 

Three kinds of people (the city residents, the farmers who commute from town, and the dry season migrants) all travel to produce and move food. The government of Bolivia acts as though it does not understand this. In order to stop Covid-19, the government has forbidden all buses, taxis and travel by car, closed the highways and banned the fairs. According to the official logic, farmers live on farms, and grow potatoes for their soup pot, so they don’t need to travel.

Some Bolivian citizens are given special permission, a paper to tape to the windshield of their truck, allowing them to drive to rural areas to buy food wholesale, to resell in cities. But these buyers are not reaching all of the farms, and such schemes are easily corrupted. At least 1,000 vehicles are circulating with counterfeit permission slips, in Cochabamba alone. Ormachea cites farmers like Martín Blanco, a peach farmer, who explained that because of recent travel restrictions, he was only able to get half of his peach harvest to market. The rest of the peaches were lost. As one farmer explained “If I don’t sell it all, I won’t have my little money.”

In the past couple of decades, food systems in tropical countries have changed rapidly, to rely much more on travel than previously. These food systems are resilient, up to a point, but they are also easier to break apart than they are to fix. As Ormachea suggests, policy makers need to meet with business people, farmer representatives and indigenous leaders to find a way to allow the safe movement of food and farmers in these times of virus lockdown.

Further reading

Challapa Cabezas, Carmen 2000 Tránsito en Cochabamba descubre mil permisos clonados y falsificados. Los Tiempos 24 April 2020.

Chuquimia, Leny 2020 Agricultores temen por sus cosechas y los alimentos tardan en llegar. Página Siete 4 April 2020.

Ormachea Saavedra, Enrique 2020 ProducciĂłn AgrĂ­cola y Estado de Emergencia Sanitaria. BoletĂ­n de Seguimiento a PolĂ­ticas PĂşblicas. Control Ciudadano 35. CEDLA: Centro de Estudios para el Desarrollo Laboral y Agrario.

Related blog stories

A long walk home

Strawberry fields once again

VIAJES PRODUCTIVOS

Por Jeff Bentley, 3 de mayo del 2020

Antes teníamos un carpintero habiloso llamado Rodrigo, que venía a nuestra casa para arreglar gabinetes y construir roperos. Le gustaba empezar por la tarde y quedarse a cenar. Era lento y metódico, pero su trabajo siempre era perfecto. Este artista bohemio solía llevar a su mamá a su comunidad de origen en el altiplano boliviano, varias veces al año, para plantar, cuidar y cosechar la quinoa. Traían la cosecha a Cochabamba y esperaban a que el precio llegara a su punto máximo, cuando vendían. En historias anteriores hemos descrito la erosión del suelo causada por el boom de la quinua (Destruyendo el Altiplano Sur con quinua y Recuperación lenta), pero por lo menos Rodrigo y su mamá se comportaban de manera económicamente racional, a corto plazo.

En un artĂ­culo nuevo y original, el investigador Enrique Ormachea explica que personas como Rodrigo y su mamá son “residentes” (gente del campo que vive permanentemente en las ciudades, y que mantienen sus vĂ­nculos con su comunidad, especialmente regresando para la cosecha).

Otros campesinos viajan, pero a distancias mucho más cortas. Aquí y allí por los valles andinos encuentras “las casas de los abuelos,” ruinas de adobe donde vivía gente hasta hace algunas pocas décadas. Muchos agricultores han dejado el campo más remoto para vivir en las comunidades más grandes y en las pequeñas ciudades donde hay tiendas de barrio, colegios, luz y agua potable. En los últimos 15 o 20 años, muchos de estos agricultores bolivianos han comprado motocicletas para poder vivir en el pueblo e ir cada día a su terreno. Ahora en el campo es común ver las motos de los agricultores estacionadas al lado de los caminos de tierra, mientras el motociclista trabaja en un campo cercano.

Estos agricultores venden sus papas y granos en ferias semanales en las cabeceras municipales, a los mayoristas de pequeña escala (que trabajan con un solo camión). Miles de personas acuden en masa a las ferias, en pueblos que están casi vacías los otros seis días de la semana.

En cambio, otros migrantes hacen largos viajes cada año. Los agricultores sin riego no pueden trabajar su propia tierra durante la larga época seca. Así que, en la temporada baja viajan al oriente de Bolivia, donde se han talado los bosques para la agricultura industrial; no es necesariamente sostenible, pero sí es productiva (por lo menos todavía). Esta agricultura comercial depende de la mano de obra de la gente del campo que viaja cientos de kilómetros para trabajar.

El 68% de la producciĂłn agrĂ­cola de Bolivia proviene de grandes fincas capitalistas, segĂşn los datos del censo agropecuario que Ormachea cita en su artĂ­culo. El 23% es producido por campesinas que tienen suficiente escala para contratar ayudantes y vender algunos productos. SĂłlo el 8% de la producciĂłn agrĂ­cola viene de explotaciones de subsistencia. Estos datos son discutibles; los campesinos a menudo subestiman su producciĂłn cuando hablan con los censistas, quienes sospechan de ser cobradores disfrazados de impuestos. Pero aun si aceptamos las cifras asĂ­ no más, un tercio de los alimentos vienen de los campesinos que producen frutas, verduras, papas y chanchos, a diferencia de la soya, el azĂşcar, el arroz y la carne de res que vienen de las fincas grandes. 

Tres tipos de personas (los residentes, los agricultores que se trasladan a sus parcelas, y los migrantes de la época seca) todos viajan para producir y trasladar alimentos. El gobierno de Bolivia actúa como si no entendiera esto. Para detener a Covid-19, el gobierno ha prohibido todo el transporte público, ha cerrado las carreteras y las ferias. De acuerdo con la lógica oficial, los campesinos viven en granjas, y cultivan papas para hacer su papa wayk’u, por lo que no necesitan viajar.

A algunos ciudadanos bolivianos se les da un permiso especial, un papel para pegar al parabrisas de su camiĂłn, lo que les permite ir a las zonas rurales para comprar alimentos al por mayor, para revenderlos en las ciudades. Pero estos compradores no llegan a todos los productores, y tales sistemas se corrompen fácilmente. Al menos mil vehĂ­culos circulan con permisos falsificados, sĂłlo en Cochabamba. Ormachea cita a agricultores como MartĂ­n Blanco, un agricultor de duraznos, quien explicĂł que debido a las recientes restricciones de viaje, sĂłlo pudo llevar al mercado la mitad de su cosecha de duraznos. El resto de los duraznos se perdieron. Como explicĂł otro agricultor: “Si no lo vendo todo, no tendrĂ© mi platita.”

En las últimas dos décadas, la producción y distribución de alimentos en los países tropicales han cambiado rápidamente, hasta depender mucho más de los viajes. Estos sistemas alimentarios son resistentes, hasta cierto punto, pero también son más fáciles de desbaratar que componer. Como sugiere Ormachea, el gobierno debe reunirse con los empresarios, con las organizaciones campesinas y pueblos indígenas para ver cómo permitir el movimiento seguro de los alimentos y los agricultores en estos tiempos de cuarentena del virus.

Más lectura

Challapa Cabezas, Carmen 2000 Tránsito en Cochabamba descubre mil permisos clonados y falsificados. Los Tiempos 24 April 2020.

Chuquimia, Leny 2020 Agricultores temen por sus cosechas y los alimentos tardan en llegar. Página Siete 4 April 2020.

Ormachea Saavedra, Enrique 2020 ProducciĂłn AgrĂ­cola y Estado de Emergencia Sanitaria. BoletĂ­n de Seguimiento a PolĂ­ticas PĂşblicas. Control Ciudadano 35. CEDLA: Centro de Estudios para el Desarrollo Laboral y Agrario.

Historias relacionadas de este blog

A long walk home

En el frutillar de nuevo

A history worth its salt February 9th, 2020 by

Mark Kurlansky’s well-written and inspiring book Salt: A World History, shows how crucial salt has been throughout our history.

Salt was at the very core of Chinese, Mayan and Roman civilization, as it was a key source of revenue for the State. Some ancient civilizations were conquered by destroying the opponent’s access to salt. An army without salt was almost as easily conquered as one without weapons.  A soldier’s daily ration often contained dried and salted meat. Horses would come to a standstill if they lacked a regular intake of salt.

Marco Polo’s economic intelligence was important in part because of his ideas about salt. The son of an established trader in Venice, Marco Polo travelled to China in the 13th century A.D. to establish trade relations. When he returned to Venice after a second, 20-year long visit to China, Marco Polo brought back knowledge of how a salt administration can fill the treasury and that a state can make more profit from trading salt than from producing it. Venice was able to dominate Mediterranean commerce after 1380, thanks to their salt trade, along with their smaller vessels that were more easily converted into war ships than the larger, less versatile Genoese ships. Venetian power lasted for about a century, until the Genoese Christopher Columbus and the Portuguese Vasco da Gama opened the Atlantic Ocean as the main body of water for trade, by-passing the Mediterranean. While Vasco da Gama sailed around Africa to India to avoid the Mediterranean, Columbus tried to beat him by going straight west, where the Americas blocked his route to India, but eventually led to new salt works in the Caribbean.

Having understood the political importance of salt, the British colonial power also adopted a salt administration. In 1600, Queen Elisabeth I granted the East India Company powers almost equal to those of a state: The East India Company was allowed to mint its own money, govern its employees, raise an army and navy, and declare war against rivals. To keep India under control, one of the first things the East India Company aimed for was to neutralise local structures of salt production and marketing.

Centuries later, Mahatma Gandhi broke the British monopoly on salt by encouraging the Indian people to take up local salt production again, usually by evaporating seawater near the coast, eventually leading to Indian independence in 1947.

But salt making soon slipped away from craft producers. Nowadays, salt in India, as in most other countries, is in the hands of a few powerful companies. As an irony of history, British Salt, a company established in 1969 in the U.K. has since 2011 been taken over by Tata Chemicals Europe, which is part of the Tata Group, an Indian multinational holding company.

The six leading salt producers in the world, Australia, Canada, China, Germany, Pakistan and the United States, account for more than half of the worldwide production. In all six countries, apart from China, salt is in the hands of large corporations.

Currently, China Salt is a state-owned enterprise that has a national monopoly over the management and production of edible salt, employing some 50,000 people and controlling assets worth about 7 billion Euro. According the law, salt cannot be sold across different regions, and private citizens are banned from selling their own manufactured salt. 

Just as large corporations have taken over much of the global production of food, agro-chemicals and seed, oligarchies have also dominated the salt supply. It is unlikely that revenues generated from the sales of salt and minerals still benefit states and the well-being of its citizens. Large corporations after all are known for finding clever ways to evade taxes.

Today much of our commercial salt comes from deep, mechanized mines. Salt has become so cheap that we routinely add it to animal feeds, and leave salt blocks for the livestock to lick at their leisure. Salt is now so abundant that we have to be cautioned that eating too much of it is bad for our heart. But it was not always so. Kurlansky invites us to imagine a world, not long ago, when salt was one of the most expensive foods that people bought. While the price of salt has dropped tremendously, the sheer volume of global consumption still makes it a powerful commodity.

Suggested reading

Mark Kurlansky (2002) Salt:A World History. Penguin Books, pp. 484

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Stuck in the middle September 29th, 2019 by

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further reading

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

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

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

Related blogs

Out of space

Why people drink cow’s milk

Roundup: ready to move on?

Fighting farmers

What counts in agroecology

From uniformity to diversity

Further viewing

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


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

A brief history of soy April 7th, 2019 by

It was only a century ago that one of the oldest and most nutritious of human food crops began evolving into a global commodity, along the way becoming implicated in problems with genetic engineering, deforestation, and water pollution.

In an engaging world history of soy, Christine Du Bois tells how the bean was gathered and eaten in Manchuria, in northeastern China, at least 9000 years ago, and has been domesticated for at least 5000 years. Ancient (or at least medieval) recipes include tofu (from China), the intriguing, heavily fermented temprah (from Indonesia) and soy sauce (from Japan, but sold in Britain by the 1600s).

Henry Ford was one of the first to grasp the industrial potential of the crop and promoted it to make engine oil and plastics. His motor company was making plastic car parts from soy, and today we might have vegetal automobiles, had DuPont not created plastic from petroleum. DuPont’s plastics might have left American soy farmers with extra beans on their hands, if not for people like Gene Sultry, who started the first soy mill in Illinois in 1927, to crush the beans and extract oil (e.g. for margarine), leaving the crushed beans as animal feed. Sultry travelled the midwestern US with a six-car soy information train, complete with a lecture hall and two theater cars, where farmers watched films explaining how and why they should grow the new crop.

In one of the ironies of post-World War II economics, the USA began exporting large quantities of soy back to its Asian center of origin, first as relief food, but soon Japanese farmers learned to factory farm chickens and pigs on the US model, and feed them with imported, American soy.

This important new trade was upset by Richard Nixon, who in 1973, in the face of rising food prices, briefly banned the export of soy. This startled the Japanese into seeking supplies elsewhere. They began to support the research and development of soy in Brazil, a country that previously grew very little soy. The Japanese and Brazilian researchers were soon breeding locally adapted varieties and learning how to add lime to acidic soils, so that the dense forests of Mato Grosso could be felled for soy.

Photo by E. Boa

The crop soon spread to neighboring Argentina, Paraguay and Bolivia. This vast soy-producing area in South America is the size of a large country, and is sometimes sarcastically called “the Republic of Soy”. Besides habitat destruction, soy displaced native peoples and smallholders as industrial farmers moved onto their land, sowing thousands of hectares. Soy can, of course, be grown by smallholders; Eric Boa and I were fortunate enough to visit some family farmers in 2007 who were happily growing soy on 20 to 30-hectare plots in Bolivia.

It is the large scale of soy that shows its nastier side. The bean has been genetically modified to make it resistant to Monsanto’s herbicide Roundup (glyphosate). Almost all soy now grown in North and South America is genetically modified. Runoff from chemical fertilizer has created a large, dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. In the midwestern USA, soy-fed pigs create mass amounts of liquified manure that builds up in “hog lagoons”, frequently spilling over into rivers. The logical solution would be to use the manure as fertilizer, cutting back on chemicals, but this would entail keeping water out of the manure while cleaning barns, and then hauling the organic fertilizer over long distances.

The US government subsidizes the insurance industry to the tune of $30 billion a year, buffering American soy farmers from risk—a type of farm welfare that benefits those with the most soy, and the most land. These subsidies depress the world price for soy, making it harder for farm families in Africa and elsewhere to get the best prices for their soy.

Yet soy is a versatile food crop that can be made into thousands of tasty and nutritious dishes. It fixes nitrogen from the air, allowing less use of chemical urea as fertilizer. It can be grown profitably by smallholders, if they are protected from land-grabbers, and if governments do not subsidize large-scale farmers.

Brazil is now making efforts to limit further deforestation for soy. Other steps could be taken to rationalize soy’s fertilizer cycle and alternatives for weed control. A crop which has been implicated in so much damage could still be farmed and eaten in environmentally sound ways.

Further reading

Du Bois, Christine M. 2018 The Story of Soy. London: Reaktion Books. 304 pp.

Videos on soy

Soya sowing density

Making soya cheese

Harvesting and storing soya bean seed

Making a condiment from soya beans

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