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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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When ants and microbes join hands June 23rd, 2019 by

When I recently attended the 1st International Conference on Agroecology – Transforming Agriculture & Food Systems in Africa, one of the research posters on display drew my attention. Effective microorganisms® are a commercial mix of beneficial bacteria, yeast and other living things. A team in Mozambique had found that the microorganisms not only controlled Oidium, a serious fungal disease in cashew, but also managed the devastating sap-sucking bug that deforms nuts and causes their premature fall. Or at least that is what the title said.

Professor Panfilo Tabora had been working for many years with cashew. Not knowing that I was an avid fan of the weaver ant, Oecophylla, a tree-dwelling predator, Panfilo gently explained to me that the microorganisms attracted the weaver ant to the cashew trees. “The ants were a bonus,” he said with a smile. I knew that weaver ants effectively control bugs, but now I was completely intrigued: how on earth would microorganisms attract ants?

“Earlier, farmers helped the weaver ants to colonize new trees by putting ropes between trees so the ants could colonise new trees and attack bugs and other pests,” Panfilo explained me. “But when farmers started spraying fungicides the ants disappeared.”

For several years, Panfilo and his colleagues began to teach villagers to make their own liquid molasses from dried and stored cashew apples as a source of sugar, minerals and amino acids to feed and multiply the microorganisms. So the farmers made molasses to feed the effective microorganisms, which controlled the Oidium. But even when the fermented solution was ready to spray on the trees it was still sweet. “When farmers spray their trees with the solution, the sweet liquid and amino acids attracts the ants.”

Although the poster did not tell the full story, there was still truth in saying that microorganisms controlled the fungal disease and the pest, in reality it was the fermented solution that attracted the ants, which controlled the bugs. Still, even such a roundabout pest control is worth having.  

I felt reassured to know that valuable ancient technologies of biological control, such as weaver ant husbandry, have a future when combined with modern agroecological technologies that restore rather than kill ecosystems.

“And we discovered a few more unintended benefits,” Professor Panfilo continued. “By spraying the tree canopies with microorganisms, farmers are no longer exposed to pesticides and can reduce the cost of pruning.” As pesticides are expensive and harmful, farmers need to move quickly from one tree to the next to spray the outside canopy of the trees, or else they will get covered with chemicals. But as these effective microorganisms are safe for people, farmers can actually spray the under-canopies from below. The tree canopies often touch one another, which also helps the ants to move between trees. Instead of pruning every year, Prof Panfilo’s team tells farmers to just prune once every other year, or even every three years so as to have more terminals for flowering and fruiting and to let the ants move from tree to tree. All of this adds up to more yield.

At that stage, I was so impressed that I had a hard time absorbing yet another unintended benefit of this organic technology. In Mozambique, as in many other countries, farmers use the fallen cashew apples to make cashew apple juice. “By spraying cashew trees with effective microorganisms, it acts as an anti-oxidant so the juice retains its clear colour for at least 2 months,” said Panfilo.

Quite a few of the presentations at the conference had nicely illustrated the benefits of organic agriculture to people and the environment, but Prof Panfilo and his team stood out because they illustrated how the introduction of even a single, modern eco-technology can have such a wide range of benefits.

Not all microorganisms are bad, as people in the industry, schools and media often wants us to make believe. Thanks to the work of practical researchers, we learn that this healthy mix of microscopic flora can cure mildew, attract ants that kill pests, provide a safe alternative to pesticides and stop cashew fruit juice from oxidizing for months.

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Singing to the cows May 19th, 2019 by

I recently showed a Kenyan video about hand milking to a group of women dairy farmers in Bolivia. They laughed when Peter Ndung’u Macharia, a farmer who appears in the video, said that he sometimes sang to his cows.

I wondered why the Bolivian women laughed. People laugh for many reasons. They may find humor when they see the familiar in an unexpected context, or they can laugh at a strange idea. So, later I asked the extensionist, who was also watching the video: “Do dairy farmers here sing to their cows?”

“I wished they would sing to their cows. They argue in front of their cows, husband and wife yelling at each other, or at their kids. Sometimes they hit the cow, or they milk with all that anger inside of them, making the cow nervous.”

Access Agriculture videos are meant to be a learning experience, and serious, but it may add interest if the audience finds some unintended humor. The extensionist said that the video was excellent, and that he hoped that people here would adopt a softer touch, such as singing, instead of just corralling a cow and jerking on her unwashed teats.

After all, music is used fairly widely to calm cows – from classical concertos to Simon and Garfunkel (look up “music to soothe dairy cows”). Cows are living beings and making them comfortable during milking can only help to produce quality milk. And never argue in front of them.

Watch the video

Hand milking of dairy cows

Community seed producers February 24th, 2019 by

Smallholder farmers are clearly part of the private sector, along with agrodealers, traders, food processors and other actors on the value chain. Projects often encourage farmers to improve their livelhihoods by moving into other private sector roles, like seed production. But one project can easily undermine what another one is trying to create, as we recently learned in Tanzania.

For centuries farmers have developed their own plant varieties, kept their own seed and exchanged it with their neighbours. This has also been the case for cassava which is propagated by stem cuttings. Unlike cereal, legume and vegetable seed that can be stored for months if properly dried, cassava is a vegetatively propagated crop. Cassava is planted with stem cuttings that need to be as fresh as possible, or the cuttings may die. Cassava stems are also bulky. For half a hectare a farmer needs 25 bundles, each with 30 stakes of about a meter long. As with other vegetatively propagated crops, the short shelf life and bulkiness of cassava seed make it almost impossible to sell in shops, but farmer seed enterpreneurs who are close their clients could sell cassava stems.

In 2017, a regional cassava project invited Alli Abdalla Lugome from Mhaga village in Tanzania to become a community seed producer. Alli received training in good agronomic practices, bought certified cassava cuttings from the Kibaha research institute and had his field inspected by a TOSCI (Tanzania Official Seed Certification Institute) official who accredited him as a producer of “quality declared seed”. Alli now officially and legally sells cassava seed to his fellow farmers.

It is difficult to develop a market for something like cassava stems that farmers can easily produce themselves. Cassava stems also have no alternative use; they are abundant and can only be used as seed. So when a cassava garden is harvested, most farmers will happily give the leftover stems to neighbours in need of seed. But farmers will buy seed to get a new cassava variety. The improved variety that Alli multplies is resistant to the cassava brown streak disease that is caused by a virus and spread by whiteflies and by cassava cuttings. Cassava across Tanzania and many other African countries has been seriously affected by this disease. There is an urgent need to get seed of new varieties into farmers’ hands and Alli is well-placed to sell such seed to his neighbours.

But while one project was helping Alli to get into the cassava seed business, other projects were killing his market by giving free cassava seed to members of the farmer group to which Alli belongs. As I saw during my time at AfricaRice, you cannot establish farmer seed producers while at the same time handing out seed for free to the farming community. 

When development organisations are under pressure from donors to create impact at scale quickly, they can be successful in their project, but the speed and scale of success may at the same time undermine an emerging private sector of community-based seed enterprises. Running a cassava seed business is a challenge, but it would certainly help farmers like Alli if organisations would come to his village and buy his seed to distribute to other smallholders, instead of undercutting Alli by giving away free seed to his neighbours.

What is clear from this case is that two or more projects can work at cross-purposes with the same crop, in the same village as though the other project did not exist. Unfortunately, such “coordination breakdowns” are all too common in seed projects for vegetatively produced crops like cassava. But such mishaps can be avoided with better planning and communication.

Further reading

Van Mele, Paul, Jeffery W. Bentley and Robert Guéi (eds.) 2011 African Seed Enterprises: Sowing the Seeds of Food Security. Wallingford, UK: CABI. 236 pp. http://www.agroinsight.com/books.php

Bentley, Jeffery W., Jorge Andrade-Piedra, Paul Demo, Beloved Dzomeku, Kim Jacobsen, Enoch Kikulwe, Peter Kromann, P. Lava Kumar, Margaret McEwan, Netsayi Mudege, Kwame Ogero, Richardson Okechukwu, Ricardo Orrego, Bernardo Ospina, Louise Sperling, Stephen Walsh & Graham Thiele 2018 Understanding Root, Tuber, and Banana Seed Systems and Coordination Breakdown: A Multi-Stakeholder Framework. Journal of Crop Improvement.

Related video

The video Quality cassava planting material is available in English, French and Kiswahili on the Access Agriculture video platform. Soon, this video will also be available in Yoruba, Hausa, Igbo and Pigeon English.

Show farmers and real innovators February 17th, 2019 by

Fellow anthropologist Glenn Stone has written a charming story about the “show farmer,” one who uses a technology proposed by a project, and is always ready to give visitors a glowing account of it. Stone once visited a show farmer who was growing organic cotton with help from a project in Andhra Pradesh. Eight years later, Stone’s student, Andrew Flachs, visited the same farmer, but by then the project had ended and the farmer had given up on organic cotton. As Stone says, “It usually takes a lot of external support to function as a show farmer.”

Stone’s story rings true. I’ve seen many show farmers over the years.

I recall one such farmer in Chuquisaca, Bolivia, years ago, that I visited for a project evaluation. He had a small barn, built with wood, cement and other hardware donated by a well-funded project. At the time I doubted if rural people would make these livestock shelters on their own, because the materials were expensive and had to be trucked in from town. The farmer clearly liked his barn, and was happy to spend time answering my questions. Perhaps he saw my visit as part of his payment for getting a valuable structure.

The same NGO that built the barn in Chuquisaca was also encouraging people to establish group gardens with imported vegetable seed. The project encouraged the villagers to plant lettuce and carrots, ostensibly because local people were eating no vegetables. The solutions offered to the farmers transferred the model of a backyard garden from suburban USA to the sandstone canyons of Chuquisaca. But, unnoticed by the project, the farm families had been growing nutritious vegetables all along. They had patches of chilli and they grew squash between their rows of maize. Both of these vegetables were stored and available during the off-season.

As a benefit of living in Bolivia, and working on a lot of projects, I have been able to go back to this part of Chuquisaca several times. As I have returned to the area over the years, I have always been curious about the vegetables and looked to see if they caught on.  Once I saw a single row of cabbage as a dividing line in a field planted half in maize and half in potatoes, but this never caught on. I also saw a family growing a few lettuce plants in the moist soil near their outdoor water faucet. For some years a few families kept their sheep and goats inside the chicken-wire fences the NGOs built had built around the old gardens, but the backyard vegetable garden died out and the Chuquisaqueños continued to grow chilli and squash.

But some innovations do keep going even after the outsiders leave.

For example, in the 2000s, researchers at ICRISAT (International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics) in Mali created simple techniques for controlling Striga, the parasitic weed. Over several years, ICRISAT taught ideas like crop rotation and organic fertilizer in farmer field schools from Mali to Tanzania. In 2010 they invited Paul Van Mele and Agro-Insight to make videos with some of the farmer field school graduates. These were not show farmers; they hadn’t just copied what they learned at the FFS, but had adapted the ideas to suit their own conditions. Years after learning about these innovations, farmers were still using them.

Later, ICRISAT and others showed the Striga videos to thousands of farmers. In 2013 and 2014 I visited farmers who had not participated in the farmer field schools, but had seen the videos. They were still experimenting with control methods, years after watching the videos. They did this on their own, without project support, for example inventing new ways to intercrop legumes and cereals. Women who had seen the videos banded together in groups to pull Striga weeds for other farmers, for a fee.

Show farmers give time and labor to a project, and often loan a bit of land. In return, the show farmer usually receives some goods, such as a bit of seed, but they also get a chance to learn new ideas, which is a motivation for some farmers. And sometimes these new ideas do mature enough to become practical solutions to real problems, especially when the farmers engage with competent agricultural scientists. Even so, it may take years of research and adaptation to make the innovations affordable, practical and functional. Such ideas are too good for a show; they can be made into a 15-minute video of the real.

Further reading

Bentley, Jeffery, Paul Van Mele, Sidi Touré, Tom van Mourik, Samuel Guindo and Gérard Zoundji 2017 “Seeds of the devil weed: Local Knowledge and Learning from Videos in Mali,” pp 75-85. In Paul Sillitoe (Ed.) Indigenous Knowledge: Enhancing its Contribution to Natural Resources Management. Wallingford, UK: CAB International. 227 pp.

Stone, Glenn, 2014, Theme park farming in Japan

Zoundji, Gérard C., Simplice D. Vodouhê, Florent Okry, Jeffery W. Bentley & Rigobert C. Tossou 2017 “Beyond Striga Management: Learning Videos Enhanced Farmers’ Knowledge on Climate-Smart Agriculture in Mali.” Sustainable Agriculture Research 7(1): 80-92. https://www.accessagriculture.org/publications

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Videos Striga videos: https://www.accessagriculture.org/search/striga/all/

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