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Roundup: ready to move on? August 25th, 2019 by

At our local garden shop, in northeast Belgium, I recently overheard a conversation between the shopkeeper and a young customer, who asked about Roundup®. Since glyphosate, the active ingredient in the herbicide, was banned in Belgium for home use (see note below), a new glyphosate-free Roundup is now aggressively promoted in garden centres. The original Roundup can only be used for professional farming, so the shopkeeper told the customer that her husband is continuously asked to go and spray people’s ornamental home gardens. Even chemical habits can be hard to kick.

When it is my turn at the counter (I am looking for organic chicken feed), I tell the shopkeeper that I just returned from an international conference where American professors revealed how various ingredients of Roundup can be related to male infertility, cancer, Alzheimer and at least 40 other human diseases. She took in the information without being shocked and countered that many people have since resorted to home-made remedies like vinegar to kill weeds, which she preposterously claimed did much more harm to the soil than commercial products. Apparently, the people who sell chemicals, even at the retail level, can become jaded about their dangers.

Both in developed and developing countries, very few people think it necessary to protect themselves when spraying pesticides. People either cannot read, fail to make the effort to read the label or ignore the risks.

While debates on cause-effect relationship can last for decades (the tobacco lobby successfully denied the carcinogenic effects of tobacco for decades, knowing all the while that smoking was a killer), the scientific presentations at the international conference I attended also revealed the shortcomings of official systems that have been put in place to protect our public health. For one, toxicity trials before new products are released only look at short-time effects, whereas diseases of mice (and humans) often show symptoms after years of chronic exposure, as the toxins build up in the body. Equally important, official tests are only done on the active ingredient, not on the full product as it is sold and used.

Protected by intellectual property rights, companies are not obliged to reveal and list the ingredients of the inert material that makes up the bulk of herbicides and pesticides. Laboratory tests showed that one of the ingredients in Roundup is arsenic, which is at least 1000 times more toxic than glyphosate in itself. In short, the glyphosate-free Roundup is still as toxic as before, only it does not show in official tests.

The sad irony is that while the owner of the garden shop is busy spraying people’s gardens with Roundup, the government of Belgium spent millions of Euros to protect those same people, by cleaning the soil from the arsenic factory in Reppel, which was closed in 1971. Although scientific evidence was available that the soil and groundwater were heavily polluted with arsenic, zinc and other heavy metals, it took more than 30 years before the site was cleaned up, and apparently more work is still required.

Environmental damage, including pollution, soil erosion and biodiversity loss are hard to measure in simple economic terms. As Jeff mentioned in last week’s blog, environmental costs are often seen as “externalities” and not considered when calculating the cost:benefit of farms. This has given conventional farming an unfair advantage over organic or agroecological farming.

Although the narrow focus on a single active ingredient, such as glyphosate, may have been good to trigger a public debate around food safety and the danger of corporate interests in our food system, a more holistic approach to crop protection and food production is required that takes into account these externalities.

Managing weeds is a key challenge for farmers across the globe. While mulching, crop rotation, intercropping and green manures are all options, additional weeding may be required—often by appropriate, small machines. Alternatives to herbicides do exist. For commercial (conventional and organic) farmers affordable mechanical weeding technologies, based on precision technology, would make a huge difference.

For instance, the food processing industry has benefitted a lot from optic food sorting machines. In a fraction of a second, a stone the size of a pea can be removed from millions of peas. With a simple mobile app called PlantNet I can take a photo of any plant which immediately tells me what plant it is, even if I only have the leaves at hand and the plant is not yet flowering.

Despite what the industry wants to make us believe, farmers do not need herbicides. If countries are serious about public health, more research is needed to support non-chemical food production. Agricultural robots are getting better. In the near future it would be possible to engineer a wheeled robot that could systematically drive over a field, scanning for weeds, and eliminating them mechanically, even within crop rows.

If governments would invest more in alternatives to chemical agriculture and organise nation-wide campaigns (as they have done for decades to inform people of other health risks, such as smoking, and drinking and driving), farmers, gardeners and shopkeepers (like the lady near my village) would become more aware of the dangers of herbicides and more open to promoting and using alternatives.

As I walked out of the village garden shop without my organic chicken feed (she did not have it in stock for lack of demand), I realized that shopkeepers are happy to sell what people ask for, if enough people ask for it. I hope one day to go back and find them selling better tools for controlling weeds.

Further reading

Defarge, N., Spiroux de VendĂ´mois, J. and SĂ©ralini, G.E. 2018. Toxicity of formulants and heavy metals in glyphosate-based herbicides and other pesticides. Toxicology Reports 5, 156-163.

First International Conference on Agroecology Transforming Agriculture & Food Systems in Africa: Reducing Synthetic Pesticides and Fertilizers by Scaling up Agroecology and Promoting Ecological Organic Trade. 2019, Nairobi, Kenya. https://www.worldfoodpreservationcenterpesticidecongress.com/

HLPE. 2019. Agroecological and other innovative approaches for sustainable agriculture and food systems that enhance food security and nutrition. A report by The High Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition. www.fao.org/fileadmin/user_upload/hlpe/hlpe_documents/HLPE_Reports/HLPE-Report-14_EN.pdf

IPES-Food. 2016. From uniformity to diversity: a paradigm shift from industrial agriculture to diversified agroecological systems. International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food systems. www.ipes-food.org

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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).

Not sold in stores October 14th, 2018 by

I love supermarkets; whenever I visit a new country I think of the local supermarket as a kind of interactive food museum, with its own unique groceries on display.

But the supermarket also has a stranglehold on what we eat and grow, as I learned last week when I heard a talk by Lauren Chappell, a plant pathologist at the University of Oxford. Dr. Chappell explained that carrots come in white, pink and even purple varieties, in a rich diversity of sizes and shapes. We only think of the long, tapered orange varieties as the one and only true carrot because supermarkets will only buy varieties like Nairobi and Nantes, the stereotypical carrots. Some British chefs love the white and purple “heritage carrots,” but you won’t find them at the supermarket.

It’s the same with apples. Supermarkets only stock a handful of varieties, so that limits what even small-scale commercial farms can grow. On a recent visit to the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) gardens at Wisley, in southern England, I was delighted to see a whole orchard filled with 40 different kinds of apples. There was a large, bright pink variety, Rubinola, with a marvelous, spicy flavor, and a green Russet with a lumpy, almost toad-like skin, but an amazing, tart clean taste. These varieties, curated by the RHS, are rarely sold in stores, but keeping them alive is an important safeguard of our planet’s biodiversity. This rich gene pool is crucial for future efforts to breed fruit and vegetables that are adapted to tomorrow’s climate and to upcoming pests and diseases.

Preserving diverse food crops is also essential for a rich and varied diet. Gardens and small farms help to preserve our edible biodiversity.

Various institutions also encourage people to conserve genetic resources, for example by promoting farmers’ rights to seed, as we will see in next week’s blog story.

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Innovative processing (such as an apple juice factory on a truck) can help people to save time, and to maintain their orchards of local fruit trees (see The juice mobile).

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Farmers’ rights to seed: Malawi

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Asking the right questions August 12th, 2018 by

I once saw a quantitative survey turn to dust, literally. I was a young graduate student in Tucson, Arizona when an older anthropologist asked me if I would like to write up the results of a survey she had conducted on the city’s largely Hispanic south side. She swung open the doors to her storage shed, revealing a large, cardboard box. When the anthropologist tried to lift some of the forms out of the box, they crumbled in her fingers. Tucson’s warm, dry climate is perfect for termites, which had carved their galleries throughout the sheets of paper.

For that anthropologist, going door-to-door with her questionnaire had been the fun part of the survey. Analyzing the results and writing up the conclusions were harder. In the end the termites benefited the most from the survey.

A few years later, I found myself in northern Portugal, on a questionnaire study of smallholder farmers. I was part of a team of anthropologists and economists who designed the survey form, a straightforward task – or so we thought at the time. But at 20 pages, the form took about two hours to fill out. To encourage farmers to take part, we said that their answers would make policy-makers more responsive to agriculture, which may not have believable.

After we surveyed six parishes in the Entre-Douro-e-Minho province I went to live in one of them, Pedralva. There I learned how much the survey had annoyed the farmers. One couple had missed their irrigation turn while answering questions. One prosperous farmer complained how long the survey took and said that: “They even counted the eyes of the chickens!” That was an exaggeration (we had asked how many rabbits and chickens people had) but a sign of how frustrating farmers found the lengthy, prying survey.

Even worse, the farmers mistrusted the survey’s intentions. The farmers assumed that the tax bureau would be informed of the results, so they claimed to have harvested a fraction of their real yields, inadvertently making their well-adapted farming systems appear unproductive.

Eventually I learned to write shorter, more focused surveys, and to enter the data every night on a spreadsheet. And prizes can help to take the sting out of lost time. Once in the Chapare, Bolivia my colleagues and I rewarded each farmer we interviewed with three kilos of mineral fertilizer, left over from an earlier project. They liked the gift so much that one of them took the survey twice.

Sometimes four or five questions are enough. In Bolivia I once worked with a project that gathered hundreds of farmers for three “technology fairs” to watch other farmers demonstrate new ideas such as metal plows or fertilized quinoa. At the end we simply asked the fair goers what ideas they liked and which ones they wanted to try. The questionnaire was so short that a dozen agronomists could administer it in a few minutes. We could get feedback from some 200 farmers before breaking for lunch.

Of course times have changed. Surveys in the city or in the villages can now be entered electronically on a tablet. The questionnaires being filled out today are immune to termites, and you can send them out on-line.

But one thing remains the same. People still don’t like to answer long questionnaires. When you fill out a questionnaire in person, the respondents may be too polite to break off the interview, but with an on-line version, fatigue sets in quickly. On-line surveys yield the best results when they are short. Some respondents are willing to share more during follow-up phone calls or emails (as we have seen in previous blog stories (Families, land and videos in Northern Uganda. Watching videos to become a dairy expert, and Drip irrigation saves water in South Sudan).

Whether on-line or in-person, a few simple questions may be as revealing as a long and tedious questionnaire that tries too hard to gather information. If do you need answers to lots of questions, consider rewarding people for the time they give you.

Further reading

The results of the first Portuguese survey eventually contributed to:

Pearson, S.R., F. Avillez, J.W. Bentley, T. J. Finan, R. Fox, T. Josling, M. Langworthy, E. Monke, & S. Tangermann 1987 Portuguese Agriculture in Transition. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

My community study in Entre-Douro-e-Minho:

Bentley, Jeffery W. 1992 Today There Is No Misery: The Ethnography of Farming in Northwest Portugal. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

The short survey in the Chapare (where people received a gift of fertilizer for answering our questions) contributed to:

Bentley, Jeffery W. 2003 Desarrollo Participativo de TecnologĂ­a en el TrĂłpico de Cochabamba. Cochabamba: Development Alternatives, Inc.

The results from the questionnaire at the technology fairs:

Bentley, Jeffery W., Graham Thiele, Rolando Oros & Claudio Velasco 2011 “Cinderella’s Slipper: Sondeo Surveys and Technology Fairs for Gauging Demand,” pp. 276-301. In André Devaux, Miguel Ordinola & Douglas Horton (eds.) Innovation for Development: The Papa Andina Experience. 418 pp. Lima: International Potato Center. Originally published in 2004 as AgREN Network Paper No. 138.

Bentley, Jeffery W., Claudio Velasco, Félix Rodríguez, Rolando Oros, Rubén Botello, Morag Webb, André Devaux & Graham Thiele 2011 “Unspoken Demands for Farm Technology”. pp. 302-324. In André Devaux, Miguel Ordinola & Douglas Horton (eds.) Innovation for Development: The Papa Andina Experience. 418 pp. Lima: International Potato Center. Originally published in 2007 in International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability 5(1): 70-84.

The Common Stream April 8th, 2018 by

A few months ago, Eric Boa (who writes this blog with Paul and I) sent me an extraordinary little book, The Common Stream, by Rowland Parker. It’s a singularly remarkable history of Foxton, a village in Cambridgeshire, England.

It may be the most complete history of any village anywhere, which is surprising given how ordinary the village appears today. Yet Parker, who lived there for most of his adult life, used Foxton to represent changes occurring to agricultural communities over the centuries across much of England, and to some extent elsewhere.

Parker picks up his story in ancient times, when a certain Roman living in his comfortable villa near what is now Foxton, forced the native Britons to move their huts onto straight streets. This theme of rich, powerful men knowing what was best for the peasants would continue for some time.

By the fifth century the Romans had left, and the Saxons began their slow, leisurely invasion. Over two or three generations, they rowed up the rivers, stopping where they wished, and settling on the best land, where they farmed and kept what they harvested. But it was too good to last. By the 900s land was being appropriated by lords and religious orders. By 1086, 90% of Foxton’s 200 inhabitants had almost no personal possessions. Most of the land belonged to a nun, the Abbess of Chatteris, whose word was the law. The common people had no money, but lots of work. They were old by the time they were 40. The diet was coarse bread, gruel, cheese, vegetables, pease (peas and other legumes), besides boiled mutton, and boiled bacon with the occasional chicken, egg or rabbit. And lots of ale.

By 1250 two-thirds of the peasants were still virtually enslaved, but some had been freed and self-government began to emerge. The villagers elected their own officials, such as constables and “ale tasters”, a popular position that obliged the office holder to visit the homes of people who made ale and take a sip (or more) to see that the brew met the standards for proper beer.

The Black Death killed half of the people of Foxton around 1348. By 1485, perhaps in response to the enduring loss of population, or a growing sense of social injustice, the lords of the manor and the abbeys began to set their slaves (bondsmen) free. But it was only a partial freedom. Peasant farmers had to pay a large entry fee to the manor to occupy land and a house. Still, the change meant that common people had a little money to spend and by the 1500s there was a weekly market in Foxton, selling meat and butter.

Relative prosperity improved through the 1550s, when villagers rebuilt Foxton, crafting fifty houses that were so well made that by the 1970s twenty of them were still standing, including one that Rowland Parker lived in.

But rural poverty was an enduring problem. Sometimes the poor were whipped, to stir them into productive action, but that did no good. Paupers could be paid a few coins from the “poor rate,” a local tax levied on farmers. Destitute women were also employed to collect stones (for road repair) by hand from the frozen ground in the winter, by the cartload.

In one strange episode in the 1860s “coprolites” were discovered just under the topsoil in the fields surrounding Foxton. These were nuggets of phosphorous that could be sold as fertilizer. Landowners hired gangs of men “as strong as horses” to peel the earth back like a carpet, remove the coprolites, and put the soil back. It was a short-lived boon to agricultural wage workers.

By the 1880s most villages in England had a railroad station. People left farming, if not the villages, commuting to industrial wage work. This was followed by an agricultural revolution led by machinery and fertilizer. In the 1880s twenty men would harvest a wheat field with scythes, walking together in a line. By the 1970s one worker in a combine harvester would bring in the grain. Parker notes ruefully that from 1885 to 1970 crop yields quadrupled as the workforce declined dramatically. One man replaced ten. “There is now more farming done in Foxton than there ever was before and hardly any people are doing it.” Poverty was finally eliminated after the Second World War by the introduction of universal social welfare. Parker observed that people were better fed, better dressed and that all the children were going to school. Modern farming has eased drudgery and improved harvests. Life is better now than it was in the Middle Ages

Rowland Parker was Eric Boa’s French teacher at The Grammar School for Boys in nearby Cambridge. It was only some years after leaving school that Eric learned that the austere Mr. Parker had spent many of his weekends interviewing elderly villagers and translating local manuscripts from Latin and Old English.

In 2014, Tim Martin reviewed The Common Stream for The Telegraph, in a series on the A to Z of forgotten books. Martin called Parker’s book a “miniature classic of social history.” Indeed it is, and it is well worth reading.

Further reading

Parker, Rowland 1976 The Common Stream. Frogmore, St. Albans, UK: Paladin.

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