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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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Out of space July 28th, 2019 by

Celebrating 50 years after landing on the moon, a series of weekly TV broadcasts nicely illustrates the spirit of the time. One interview with a man on a New York City street drew my particular attention. The interview showed why so many people supported the NASA programme: “We have screwed up our planet, so if we could find another planet where we can live, we can avoid making the same mistakes.”

History has shown over and over again how the urge to colonise other places has been a response to the declining productivity of the local resource base. In his eye-opening book “Dirt. The Erosion of Civilizations”, Professor David Montgomery from the University of Washington made me better understand the global and local dynamics of land use from a social and historical perspective.

Out of the many examples given in his book, I will focus on the most recent example: the growth of industrial agriculture, as the rate of soil erosion has taken on such a dramatic proportion that it would be a crime against humanity not to invest all of our efforts to curb the trend and ensure food production for the next generations.

The Second World War triggered various changes affecting agriculture. First, the area of land cultivated in the American Great Plains doubled during the war. The increased wheat production made more exports to Europe possible. Already aware of the risks of soil erosion, in 1933 the U.S. government established an elaborate scheme of farm subsidies to support soil conservation, crop diversification, stabilize farm incomes and provide flexible farm credit. Most farmers took loans to buy expensive machinery. Within a decade, farm debt more than doubled while farm income only rose by a third.

After the Second World War, military assembly lines were converted for civilian use, paving the way for a 10-fold increase in the use of tractors. By the 1950s several million tractors were ploughing American fields. On the fragile prairy ecosystem of the Great Plains, soil erosion rapidly took its toll and especially small farmers were hit by the drought in the 1950s. Many farmers were unable to pay back their loans, went bankrupt and moved to cities. The few large farmers who were left increased their farm acreage and grew cash crops to pay off the debt of their labour-saving machinery. By the time the first man had put his foot on the moon, 4 out of 10 American farms had disappeared in favour of large corporate factory farms.

At the same time that the end of the Second World War triggered large-scale mechanization, the use of chemical fertilizer also sharply increased. Ammonia factories used to produce ammunition were converted to produce cheap nitrogen fertilizer. Initial increase in productivity during the Green Revolution stalled and started to decline within two decades. By now the sobering figures indicate that despite the high yielding varieties and abundant chemical inputs, productivity in up to 39% of the area growing maize, rice, wheat and soya bean has stagnated or collapsed. Reliance on purchased annual inputs has increased production costs, which has led in many cases to increased farmer debt, and subsequent farm business failures. At present, agriculture consumes 30% of our oil use. With the rising oil and natural gas prices it may soon become too expensive to use these dwindling resources to produce fertilizer. 

Armed with fertilizers, farmers thought that manure was no longer needed to fertilize the land. A decline in organic matter in soils further aggravated the vulnerability of soils to erosion. As people saw the soil as a warehouse full of chemical elements that could be replenished ad libitum to feed crops, they ignored the microorganisms that provided a living bridge between organic matter, soil minerals and plants. Microorganisms do not have chlorophyll to do photosynthesis, like plants do, and require organic matter to feed on.

A 1995 review reported that each year 12 million hectares of arable land are lost due to soil erosion and land degradation. This is 1% of the available arable soil, per year. The only three regions in the world with good (loess) soil for agriculture are the American Midwest, northern Europe and northern China. Today, about a third of China’s total cultivated area is seriously eroded by wind and water.

While the plough has been the universal symbol of agriculture for centuries, people have begun to understand the devastating effect of ploughing on soil erosion. By the early 2000s, already 60% of farmland in Canada and the U.S.A. were managed with conservation tillage (leaving at least 30% of the field covered with crop residues) or no-till methods. In most other parts of the world, including Europe, ploughing is still common practice and living hedges as windbreaks against erosion are still too often seen as hindrance for large-scale field operations.

In temperate climates, ploughing gradually depletes the soil of organic matter and it may take a century to lose 10 centimetres of top soil. This slow rate of degradation is a curse in disguise, as people may not fully grasp the urgency required to take action. However, in tropical countries the already thinner top soil can be depleted of organic matter and lost to erosion in less than a decade. The introduction of tractor hiring services in West Africa may pose a much higher risk to medium-term food security than climate change, as farmers plough their fields irrespective of the steepness, soil type or cropping system. In Nigeria, soil erosion on cassava-planted hillslopes removes more than two centimetres of top soil per year.

Despite the overwhelming evidence of the devastating effects of conventional agriculture, the bulk of public research and international development aid is still geared around a model that supports export-oriented agriculture that mines the soils, and chemical-based intensification of food production that benefits large corporations. Farm subsidies and other public investments in support of a more agroecological approach to farming are still sadly insufficient, yet a report from The High Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition published this month concludes that the short-term costs of creating a level playing field for implementing the principles suggested by agroecology may seem high, but the cost of inaction is likely to be much higher.

With the reserves of oil and natural gas predicted to become depleted before the end of this century, changes to our industrial model of petroleum-based agriculture will happen sooner than we think. And whether we are ready for it is a societal decision. With all attention being drawn to curbing the effects of climate change, governments, development agencies and companies across the world also have a great and urgent responsibility to invest in promoting a more judicious use of what many see as the cheapest resource in agriculture, namely land. We are running out of space and colonising other planets is the least likely option to save our planet from starvation.

Further reading

David R. Montgomery. 2007. Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations. Berkeley: University of California Press, 285 pp.

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

Pimentel, D.C., Harvey, C., Resosudarmo, I., Sinclair, K., Kurz, D., M, M., Crist, S., Shpritz, L., Fitton, L., Saffouri, R. and Blair, R. 1995. Environmental and Economic Cost of Soil Erosion and Conservation Benefits. Science 267, 1117-23.

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The diesel wheat mills May 5th, 2019 by

The people of Yuraj Molino (“white mill”) live surrounded by wheat fields, in a large valley near the small town of Pocona, Bolivia. As the name suggests, there have been flour mills in Yuraj Molino for some time. But by the late 1970s, customers were complaining of how long it took to grind the wheat; they got tired of waiting all day for their flour. And then millers began to notice that with the warmer, dryer climate, the streams no longer carried as much stream water, to power the mills. Some of the mills closed. Ana and I visited the ruins of a miller’s house, the yard full of weeds, with the mill still there and a calendar for 1984 still on the wall.

Other mills survived. Local miller Juan Torrico showed us his old mill house, with the canal that once brought water from the mountains. In 2001, Juan’s brother Sergio designed a new mill at the mill house. He bought two large, new stones from a master craftsman near Epizana, Cochabamba, who still carves the massive limestone wheels. Sergio bought a diesel engine, and a used truck axel. The brothers built a new mill house and mounted the stones in it, fixed the axel upright below them, and then used a steel rod to connect the axel to the diesel engine, which Sergio put in the next room. This way they kept the diesel smoke and the engine noise out of the mill room. They don’t want the smoke to spoil the delicate flavor of the flour, which people love.

Five or six other mills in the valley are also sited where old water mills used to be, near running water. But most of them are also now powered by diesel motors.

One by one the old water mills around Pocona adapted to diesel, and one or two are still using water power. The change to diesel was gradual and there was never a break in service, never a time when the farmers had no mills to go to. The mills themselves also stayed in the same places. Although the mills were originally sited to be near water, they were also near the wheat fields, and the millers owned the land where their mills were, and they had community ties to the area. So, the diesel mills stayed right where the water mills had been.

There is no research institution providing expertise on how to motorize Bolivian water mills. At some point, the millers themselves had to blend their traditional knowledge with a lot of new information about motors and old truck parts. As always, people in rural areas are constantly creating and making sophisticated adaptations to changing conditions.

The enemies of innovation August 26th, 2018 by

Sometimes even rational people fight innovation, as we learn in this recent book by the late Calestous Juma, a Kenyan scholar who taught at Harvard and who enjoyed the rare distinction of being elected as a fellow of the Royal Society of London and a foreign associate of the US National Academy of Science.

To condense Prof. Juma’s nuanced and complex thesis, there are two good reasons to oppose innovation, and one surprising outcome.

First, early versions of an innovation are often expensive, unwieldy and simply not very good at getting the job done. Thomas Edison’s first electrical wiring relied on noisy generators, was a fire hazard, and accidentally electrocuted 17 New Yorkers to death in two years between 1887 and 1889. These problems were eventually ironed out, but some of the failings of an innovation are never fully addressed. When tractors began to replace horses in the USA in the 1920s, three decades after they were invented by John Froelich in 1892, critics complained that the tractors (and automobiles) were wasteful and that buying, fueling and repairing them would place a financial burden on farmers,

Second, an innovation is opposed by the social network that uses and supports the incumbent technology. Electric lights were competing with a well-entrenched and profitable natural gas industry. Farriers, veterinarians and harness makers relied on horses for steady business and income. Older workers with the skills and experience to use an existing technology may resist an alternative. The Luddites were not a bunch of maniacs who liked to break things; they were skilled weavers in the 19th century who correctly realized that mechanized looms would replace experienced workers with unskilled ones.

Fortunately, the dynamic tension between the old and the new can be as creative as the original invention, refining the timeworn technology or promoting innovative social structures.

For example, margarine was invented in France in 1869 and was being manufactured in the USA by the 1880s. At the time American dairy farmers were poorly organized, but led by the butter factories, they eventually formed the National Dairy Council. This powerful lobby group harassed margarine makers, leading to legislation in five US states which required margarine to be dyed an unappetizing pink. They also spread disinformation, reporting bogus studies that claimed that margarine stunted children’s growth, for example. But nineteenth century butter was not the choice food that we know today; it was often rancid and adulterated with chemicals. Competition with margarine forced butter manufacturers to make a better product. And in the ultimate compromise, some spreads now blend butter and margarine.

In the end margarine’s saving grace was not technical, but social. In the 1940s US margarine makers switched from imported coconut oil to American soybean and cottonseed oil, acquiring farmer allies that allowed them to fend off the big dairy interests and find a permanent place at the table.

In the end, the innovation may never completely defeat the incumbent technology, which may settle into a competitive niche of its own. The gas industry fought electricity with all the imagination it had, creating gas-powered versions of every electrical appliance invented. There was even a gas radio in the 1930s (it had the added advantage of giving off a little extra heat). Electricity never completely replaced natural gas, which still provides heat and energy, but the rivalry lives on in the competition between gas ovens and electric models.

There are some clear lessons here for agricultural scientists, who are often dismayed when farmers do not immediately adopt ideas derived from research. As we learn from the optimistic Prof. Juma: your invention may have potential in the long run, but in the short term it may still have bugs that need to be fixed. Innovations often seek to replace existing technologies that have proven advantages, and are familiar to users; the struggle between old and new can lead to creative solutions.  Specifically, researchers can use farmer field schools (FFS) or other experiences to learn about the farmers’ point of view and work together to adapt innovations to meet their needs and circumstances.

Further reading

Juma, Calestous 2016 Innovation and Its Enemies: Why People Resist New Technologies. Oxford University Press. 416 pp.

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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