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Our African ancestors July 5th, 2020 by

Ancient humans migrated out of Africa three times. The first “Out of Africa” as archaeologist Peter Bellwood explains in First Migrants, was about 2 million years ago, long before our own species, Homo sapiens, had emerged. But one of our ancestors, Homo erectus and other, related species entered Southwest Asia from East Africa, and settled in most of tropical and temperate Eurasia. They walked completely upright, made stone tools and hunted and gathered for a living. They had small brains, just 500 to 900 cc, half the size of ours (about 1500 cc). H. erectus also lacked the imagination which inspires humans today. Homo erectus never invented boats to reach the islands and it’s not clear if they could make clothing to keep warm.  

Out of Africa 2 occurred around a million years ago. A second human species migrated from Africa, Homo heidelbergensis, which eventually evolved into the famous Neanderthals of Europe (Homo neanderthalensis). Another branch of Homo heidelbergensis stayed in Africa, where they eventually evolved into Homo sapiens

Out of Africa 3 was sometime between 200,000 and 130,000 years ago, when Homo sapiens, fully modern humans, left Eastern and Southern Africa to conquer the Earth. It was a humble start, with just a few people. Estimates vary, but there may only have been as few as 10,000 breeding adults on the whole planet.

By this time, modern humans almost certainly spoke fully expressive languages: they could no doubt argue, bend the truth, and describe their dreams. We don’t know the words they used to give flight to their thoughts, since their languages are lost in time. Long before people had started to till the earth, from 130,000 to 50,000 years ago, these hunter-gatherers had replaced the Neanderthals, with just a bit of genetic mixing in Eurasia. Humans on most continents derive some two to four percent of their genes from Neanderthals. Modern Africans are largely free of Neanderthal genes.

Homo sapiens settled all of Africa, Eurasia and Australia. Periodic ice ages with lower sea levels created land bridges to Britain, Japan, and many of the islands of Southeast Asia. These modern humans had the imagination to invent boats, and they crossed a stretch of 70 km of open sea to reach New Guinea and Australia.

Before 16,000 years ago people had mastered cold weather survival, almost certainly sewing sophisticated clothing from animal hides, using bone needles that have been found in archaeological sites. By then, some had reached the Eurasian Arctic and crossed the wide Beringia Land Bridge into Alaska. By 11,000 years ago, people were already hunting guanacos in southern South America. People had either walked down the South American coast or taken boats.

Boats were also crucial for reaching the islands of Melanesia, as far east as the Solomon Islands.

So, before humanity ever started to farm, our ancestors had reached almost every inhabitable spot on Earth, with the exception of the Eastern Pacific, which came much later. By 10,000 years ago, modern humans had migrated vast distances from Africa, settling all the continents, from the tropics to the Arctic, except for Antarctica.

By 10,000 years ago our ancestors could paint great art, carve ivory figurines, and invent tailored clothing. Their art included naturalistic representations of animals, but also dots, lines, half-circles and other abstract symbols, suggesting that they also had complex language. When their imagination got the better of their sense of caution, our ancestors would also walk or sail over the horizon.

There were only slight genetic differences between populations. In colder latitudes, where people wore fur suits most of the time, they struggled to synthesize enough vitamin D from the sun. Evolution selected for lighter skin, to help folks get their vitamins. Other than that, white skin doesn’t mean much more than the ability to get a sunburn.

From prehistory we learn that Africa was the cradle of humanity. The early modern humans were creative, thoughtful and widespread yet still relied on hunting and gathering for food and other essentials. Next week I will discuss the second half of First Migrants, which covers early agriculture and the movements of the first farmers.

Further reading

I’ve taken most of this material, especially the outline of prehistoric migrations from:

Bellwood, Peter 2013 First Migrants: Ancient Migration in Global Perspective. Oxford, UK: Wiley-Blackwell.

I’ve also been inspired by some recent books that document how most of humankind’s genetic differences are literally skin deep, while our common humanity goes all the way to our core.

Mukherjee, Siddhartha 2016 The Gene: An Intimate History. Penguin Books: Haryana, India.

Zimmer, Carl 2018 She Has Her Mother’s Laugh: The Powers, Perversions and Potential of Heredity. New York: Dutton. 656 pp.

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’s 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 “bee-friendly” 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: “Well, the farmer asked me to come and shoot pigeons, but I told him: ‘I would be happy to help you, but where do you want me to hide, you have removed all the hedges in your fields!’”

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 “Bee-Friendly” 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! ‘Bee-friendly’ 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

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

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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Mobile slaughterhouses

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Stuck in the middle

Keep your cows in the family

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Trying it yourself May 24th, 2020 by

Helping to write a script for a farmer training video on vermiwash triggered my interest in trying it out myself, as I began to wonder if ideas from tropical India could work in temperate Belgium.

As the video explains, vermiwash is the liquid that is collected after water passes through compost made by earthworms. It is rich in plant growth hormones, micro-nutrients like iron and zinc, and major nutrients like nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium. Vermiwash increases the number of beneficial micro-organisms in the soil and helps plants to grow healthy.

After showing the problem of declining soil health due to the overuse of agrochemicals, the video quickly moves on to some powerful, motivational interviews by some local farmers in Tamil Nadu, in southern India.

“When you want to mix vermicompost with the soil, you need large quantities. But vermiwash can be applied directly to plant leaves, so you need less and you can see the effect on plant growth faster. It is also cheaper than compost,” says farmer Sivamoorthi.

Besides the liquid vermiwash, I had also helped another of our Indian partners, WOTR, develop a video on vermicompost, which is solid, and stronger than normal compost . But, I was more attracted to the idea of making vermiwash, as it requires little space and I could easily use it as a foliar spray on my vegetables, berry shrubs and fruit trees.

At the local hardware store, I bought a barrel with a tap at the bottom. The first drafts of the script mentioned that it is best to fill the bottom of the barrel with small stones, so the tap doesn’t get blocked. I did exactly that. In the final version of the video, this part was removed. When I asked Shanmuga Priya, who made this video, she said: “After I talked to farmers it seems no one is doing this, because after three months they empty the barrel, remove the earthworms and then put the compost on their field. Of course, they don’t want stones to be mixed with the compost.”

Indian farmers just use a small piece of mosquito netting or cotton cloth as a filter. Right, that was a good lesson; farmers always find a way to improve any technique they learn from extension staff. I still have the bottom of my barrel filled with pebbles, and so far so good. I will have to make the extra effort of sorting out the stones when setting up a new batch of vermiwash.

The video says to fill the bottom with some 10-15 centimetres of dried leaves, not green ones, which would slow down decomposition. As I had plenty of dried oak leaves, and even though they decompose slowly, I wondered if they would work, but hey, that’s what I have, so that’s what I will try.

Then the video shows how an equal amount of rice straw is added. Instead, I used wheat straw, as I still have plenty of bundles in the attic of our shed.

The next part was also a little tricky. While the video suggested using 5 to 10 kg of decomposed cow dung, I wondered if the dung of my sheep would work just as well. It was a discussion I had had several times with Indian partners, who always say that only cow dung is a useful source of beneficial microorganisms. I asked a friend of mine, who is soil scientist, and still did not get a clear answer to this. Soil scientists are trained more in the physical and chemical properties of soil and are less familiar with its complex biology. But that is food for another blog story.

After adding some water to the barrel, I collected a few handfuls of earthworms from my compost and put them into the barrel. I would soon see if my set up would work or not. While farmers in India can collect vermiwash after just 10 days, I realised that the early days of spring in Belgium are still too cold, so the worms are not that active yet. Six weeks later, though, we happily collected our first litre of brown vermiwash.

After diluting it with ten litres of water, I sprayed the vermiwash on the leaves of my rhubarb as an experiment, before putting it on any other plants. In just a few days the leaves turned a shiny, dark green. The plants looked so healthy, that neighbours even remarked on it and asked what I had given them.

My wife, Marcella, had been rearing vegetable seedlings in a small glass house, and when the time came to transplant them to the garden, she decided to set up a small experiment. One batch of mustard leaf seedlings would be planted straight in the soil, the other batch she would soak the roots of the seedlings for 15 minutes in pure vermiwash. After all, the video shows that this works with rice seedlings, so why not with vegetable seedlings?

And again, the effect was striking: all of the seedlings dipped in the vermiwash took root quickly, while in the other batch only a fraction did.

As Jeff has written in some earlier blogs, the Covid-19 crisis has stopped people from travelling, affecting many farmers (see: Travelling farmers), students (see: A long walk home) and society at large. It has also forced people to creatively use their time. Like many other people, we have been able to spend more time in the garden, and in our case, we were able try out some of the things we learned from farmers in the global South.

As we tried oak leaves, wheat straw and sheep dung instead of the ingredients used by Indian farmers, we found that vermiwash works as well in Flanders as it does in Tamil Nadu. Good training videos inspire people to experiment with new ideas and adapt these to their own conditions. That is the philosophy and approach of Access Agriculture: using video as a global source of inspiration.

Related blogs

Earthworms from India to Bolivia

Encouraging microorganisms that improve the soil

Effective micro-organisms

Friendly germs

Related videos, freely downloadable from www.accessagriculture.org

Vermiwash: an organic tonic for crops

Making a vermicompost bed

Good microbes for plants and soil

Training trees May 10th, 2020 by

Many people are familiar with pruning trees, but on a recent course organised by the association of ecological gardeners (VELT) in Bocholt, Limburg, Belgium, I learned another important trick to shape trees and harvest more fruit. By training trees, you make branches grow in the direction you want. That sounds easy enough, but back home, when trying to apply this to our own fruit trees, I learned once more the importance of understanding the principles, and then adapting them to the local conditions.

Pierre Zanders, the trainer from VELT, explained to us that branches that grow straight upright have tremendous vigour and just continue growing up without giving fruits. The more you can get a branch to grow horizontally, the more fruit it will produce. Young branches that are weighed down by too much fruit can break, so ideally you should aim to train branches to grow at angles between 45 and 60 degrees.

Pierre is such an expert on fruit trees that he is often asked to travel to share his skills. He proudly told us a story about the time he was invited to the USA to train thousands of mature fruit trees. While the job was scheduled to take 6 weeks, Pierre finished the job in just two weeks. In disbelief, the owner of the groves had to accept that Pierre had a much faster way of training branches.

“If you have to train older trees,” Pierre told us, “you don’t need any branch spreaders that cost money. The only thing you need is a very sharp knife. Up in the trees, you find enough wood that can be used as a branch spreader. Prune a stick that is as thick as the twig you want to bend lower. In the stick you have removed from the tree, cut a notch at one end of the stick and then cut the stick to the right length. Fix one end of the stick onto the main tree trunk, and place the end with the notch around the twig you want to bend. Gently push the stick down until the twig reaches the desired angle.” The owner was amazed. This seasoned fruit expert from Belgium had not used any of the commercial branch spreaders the owner had bought to train his trees.

Pierre laughingly provokes us: “why pay money if you can do it much simpler and much faster? Besides, with my technique nobody needs to go back into the orchard a few months later to collect any tree training devices. Over time, the branches will start to grow in the desired direction and the little sticks that I used as branch spreader can stay in the tree or may eventually be blown away by the wind. So, you save money twice.”

During Pierre’s pruning course, we learned that for younger trees it is useful to hang weights to the branches, or to tie strings and use pegs to fix the string down to the soil. After the course I talked to my friend, Johan Hons, an organic farmer, and he kindly gave me a roll of string and taught me a useful knot to loosely tie the string around twigs and branches.

A few days after training my 20 or so fruit trees, I saw in dismay how some of the branches had snapped. “Terrible, how could this happen,” I wondered. “Did I bend them too much?” Taking a closer look at the damage, I noticed some wool on the strings. Apparently, the sheep grazing under my fruit trees had started rubbing themselves against these strings. It was too much for some of the young branches to take.

That was the time I had to come up with my own solution. All my fruit trees have a mesh wire tree shelter guard around their trunk to protect their bark from the sheep. By placing a bamboo stick through the holes at the top of the mesh, I could fix my strings to the bamboo, above reach of the sheep. The two short strings down from the bamboo to the mesh ensure that the bamboo does not snap in half with the pulling forces from the branches.

Farming is about observing what works and what doesn’t work…. If you understand the basic principles of a technology, it is easier to make workable adaptations. Pierre and Johan both gave me good ideas about how to spread branches so they do not grow straight up. But after my sheep undid their good suggestions, I could still invent my own technique, because Pierre had taught me the underlying principle: more horizontal branches produce more flowers and therefore more fruit.

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