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An exit strategy April 4th, 2021 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación

Development projects often die when the money runs out. Many of these efforts often have no exit strategy in mind, but that’s changing, as I saw on a recent visit to Villa Taquiña, on the mountain slopes above Cochabamba, Bolivia.

Once an independent peasant community, Villa Taquiña has now largely been swallowed by the city of Cochabamba, but until recently, many farmers still managed to grow small plots of cut flowers.

When I lived in Villa Taquiña, years ago, if I caught the bus before dawn I would share the ride with older women taking huge bundles of carnations, gladiolas, and chrysanthemums to sell in the central market. But on my recent visit a local farmer, doña Nelly, explained that when Covid put a stop to big weddings and funerals, it wiped out the demand for cut flowers. Adaptable as ever, the smallholders turned to fresh vegetables, but there was a catch. The flowers had been grown with lots of pesticides. Now the farmers hoped to produce in a more environmentally friendly way, “so we can leave something for our children and grandchildren,” doña Nelly explained.

Two agronomists, Ing. Alberto Cárdenas and Ing. Alexander Espinoza, from Fundación Agrecol Andes, are helping a dozen farm families transition to agroecology. The farmers plant broccoli, cabbage and other vegetables with seeds they buy at the shop. The seeds come dusted in pink fungicide, but the farmers harvest seeds from some of the plants they grow, and are now producing 80% of their own seed. If they need a fungicide, they can make sulfur-lime or Bordeaux mix, which are accepted by most organic agricultural programs. The farmers also plant basil, quilquiña and other aromatic plants among their vegetables to discourage insect pests. Many different plants are grown together; this is called intercropping and it also keeps the pests away. The farmers are also bringing their soils back to life by incorporating compost.

Although the plots are tiny (some farmers have as little as 700 square meters) with hard work even a small piece of land can produce a lot of vegetables. Then the problem becomes where to sell it. Folks could take their produce to the big market in the city, but they would have to compete with conventionally-grown vegetables brought in by the truck load. Alberto and Alex have organized the farmers to work together. They often meet at doña Nelly’s house to package the produce with attractive labels. Besides saving on the costs of agrochemicals, these organic farmers have a close link with consumers, so they listen to what their clients want, and try to offer them a rich diversity of vegetables.

Belonging to a group also helps the farmers to reach customers who appreciate organic produce. In Bolivia the niches for organic food are still in their infancy, so producers and consumers need a little help finding each other. Alberto and Alex have organized the farmers with their consumers. Every week a group of consumers (including my family) gets a WhatsApp message with this week’s menu of what is on offer. We order what we want, everything from crisp vegetables to a perfect whole wheat flour to the best cactus fruit I’ve ever had. Two days later Alberto and Alex cheerfully arrive at our door with the produce.

Unfortunately, this is not sustainable marketing. Vegetable growers can’t always depend on the good graces of a project to sell their produce for them, but Alberto and Alex have an exit strategy.  They are organizing volunteer farmers and consumers to meet occasionally and inspect the farms, to guarantee that they are agroecologically sound. It is called the “participatory guarantee system,” (SPG) a kind of people’s organic certification. With time, Alberto hopes to make the marketing profitable enough that someone, perhaps the farmers themselves, will take it over as a private enterprise.  To that end, the farmers are organizing themselves into a legally-recognized association. Letting the farmers and the consumers get to know each other is also an innovation to make sure that we keep buying and selling.

I visit Villa Taquiña with two-dozen mask-wearing consumers, who were delighted to meet some of the farmers who grow the food we eat. One of those farmers, Elsa Bustamante, has an exit strategy of her own. She is feeding guinea pigs on the vegetable waste from her small plot, and she plans to start a restaurant featuring organic vegetables and homegrown guinea pigs. “You will all be my customers,” Elsa tells us. And then she serves up golden brown quarters of fried guinea pig on a bed of rice, potatoes and salad. The consumers love it.

Related Agro-Insight blog stories

The next generation of farmers

Strawberry fields once again

Further reading

Bentley, Jeffery W. 2015 “Flowers Watered with Beer.” Agriculture for Development 26:20-22.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Nelly Camacho, Elsa Bustamante, and her brother Pastor for letting us into their homes and their fields. Doña Nelly is the representative of the SPG Cercado. (Cercado is a province in the Department of Cochabamba. Cercado has only one municipality, which is also called Cochabamba, and it is the Department’s capital). The SPG Cercado is backed up by Law 3525, “Regulation and promotion of ecological production of agriculture, livestock and non-timber forest products” and by the National Technical Norm (NTN) which supports the participatory guarantee systems (SPG) which is used to accredit urban, peri-urban and rural groups of ecological farmers. The SPG Cercado works via an MOU with the municipal government of Cochabamba and the Fundación Agrecol Andes, with funding from the Italian Agency for Development Cooperation. Ing. Alberto Cárdenas and Ing. Alexander Espinoza work for the Fundación Agrecol Andes, in Cochabamba. A big thanks to them for organizing this visit, and thanks as well to Alberto for his comments on an earlier version of this story.

Scientific name

Quilquiña (Porophyllum ruderale) is a pungent herb used for making salsas.

Videos on the agroecological way to produce vegetables

Using sack mounds to grow vegetables

Managing black rot in cabbage

Managing vegetable nematodes

Insect nets in seedbeds

ESTRATEGIA DE SALIDA

Jeff Bentley, 4 de abril del 2021

Los proyectos de desarrollo suelen morir cuando se acaba el dinero. A muchos de estos esfuerzos les falta una estrategia de salida, pero eso está cambiando, como vi hace poco en una visita a Villa Taquiña, al pie de la cordillera andina, en Cochabamba, Bolivia.

Villa Taquiña, que era una comunidad agrícola independiente, hoy en día ha sido prácticamente tragada por la ciudad de Cochabamba, pero hasta hace poco, muchos agricultores cultivaban pequeñas parcelas de flores cortadas para vender.

Cuando yo vivía en Villa Taquiña, hace algunos años, si salía antes del amanecer compartía el micro (bus) con mujeres mayores de edad que llevaban enormes bultos de claveles, gladiolos y crisantemos para vender en el mercado central. Pero en mi última visita, una agricultora local, doña Nelly Camacho, me explicó que cuando el Covid acabó con las bodas y los funerales bien asistidos, dio fin a la demanda de flores cortadas. Tan bien adaptables como siempre, los pequeños agricultores empezaron a producir verduras frescas, pero había un problemita. Las flores se cultivaban con muchos plaguicidas. Ahora los agricultores esperan producir de forma más ecológica, “porque queremos dejar algo para nuestros hijos, y nietos”, explica doña Nelly.

Los ingenieros agrónomos Alberto Cárdenas y Alexander Espinoza, de la Fundación Agrecol Andes, les están ayudando a una decena de familias en la transición a la agroecología. Los agricultores siembran brócoli, repollo lechugas, vainas y otras hortalizas con semillas que compran en la agropecuaria. Las semillas vienen recubiertas con un fungicida rosado, pero los agricultores guardan algunas de las semillas de las plantas que cultivan, y ahora están produciendo el 80% de sus propias semillas. Si necesitan un fungicida, pueden hacer sulfocálcico o caldo bordelés, que son aceptados por la mayoría de los programas de agricultura orgánica. Los agricultores también siembran albahaca, quilquiña y otras plantas aromáticas entre sus hortalizas para ahuyentar a las plagas insectiles. Cultivan una mezcla de muchas plantas diferentes; esto se llama policultivo y también evita tener plagas. Además, los agricultores están recuperando sus suelos, incorporando compost.

A pesar de que las parcelas que quedan son pequeñas (alguna gente cultiva sólo 700 metros cuadrados), con trabajo se puede producir muchas verduras. Luego viene el problema de dónde venderlas. Los agricultores podrían llevar sus productos al gran mercado, la Cancha de Cochabamba, pero tendrían que competir con las camionadas de hortalizas convencionales. Alberto y Alex han organizado a los agricultores para que trabajen juntos. A menudo se reúnen en la casa de doña Nelly para embolsar los productos con etiquetas atractivas. Además de ahorrarse los costos de los agroquímicos, estos agricultores orgánicos tienen un estrecho vínculo con los consumidores, y saben lo que sus clientes quieren y tratan de ofrecerles una rica diversidad de verduras.

Pertenecer a un grupo también ayuda a los agricultores a encontrar los clientes que aprecian los productos orgánicos. En Bolivia, los nichos de los alimentos orgánicos todavía están en pañales, entonces los productores y consumidores necesitan un poco de ayuda para encontrarse. Alberto y Alex han organizado a los agricultores con sus consumidores. Cada semana, un grupo de consumidores (incluyendo a mi familia) recibe un mensaje de WhatsApp con la oferta semanal. Pedimos lo que queremos, desde verduras súper frescas, una perfecta harina integral, y la mejor tuna que jamás he probado. Dos días después, Alberto y Alex puntualmente nos dejan una “bolsa saludable” (Bolsaludabe) de productos en la puerta.

Lastimosamente, este tipo de comercialización no es sostenible. Los horticultores no siempre pueden depender de la buena voluntad de un proyecto para vender sus productos, pero Alberto y Alex tienen una estrategia de salida. Están organizando a agricultores y consumidores voluntarios para que se reúnan de vez en cuando e inspeccionen las parcelas, a fin de garantizar que son agroecológicas de verdad. Se llama “sistema participativo de garantías” (SPG), y es una especie de certificación orgánica popular. Con el tiempo, Alberto espera que la comercialización sea lo suficientemente rentable como para que alguien, tal vez los mismos productores, se haga cargo de vender la producción de manera particular. Para hacer eso, los productores se están organizando en una asociación con personería jurídica. El hacer que los agricultores y los consumidores nos conozcamos es también una innovación para asegurar que sigamos comprando y vendiendo.

En mi visita a Villa Taquiña éramos dos docenas de consumidores con barbijos, que estábamos encantados de conocer a algunos de los agricultores que producen los alimentos que comemos. Una de esas agricultoras, Elsa Bustamante, tiene su propia estrategia de salida. Ella está alimentando a cuys con los residuos vegetales de su pequeña parcela, y planifica abrir un restaurante con verduras ecológicas y cuys producidos en casa. “Todos ustedes serán mis clientes”, nos dice Elsa. Y luego sirve cuartos de cuy fritos y dorados y aún calientes sobre un lecho de arroz, papas y ensalada. A los consumidores les encanta.

Artículos relacionados del blog de Agro-Insight

The next generation of farmers

En el frutillar de nuevo

Lectura adicional

Bentley, Jeffery W. 2015 “Flowers Watered with Beer.” Agriculture for Development 26:20-22.

Agradecimientos

Gracias a Nelly Camacho, Elsa Bustamante, y su hermano Pastor por recibirnos en sus hogares y sus parcelas. Doña Nelly es la representante del SPG Cercado. (Cercado es una provincia del Departamento de Cochabamba. Cercado tiene un solo municipio, que también se llama Cochabamba, el cual es la capital del Departamento). El SPG Cercado es respaldado por la Ley 3525, “Regulación y promoción de la producción agropecuaria y forestal no maderable ecológica” y por la Norma Técnica Nacional (NTN) que apoya a los sistemas participativos de garantía (SPG) a través de la cual se acredita grupos de productores ecológicos a nivel urbano, periurbano y rural. El SPG Cercado trabaja a través de un convenio entre el gobierno municipal de Cochabamba y la Fundación Agrecol Andes, con financiamiento de la Cooperación Italiana. Los Ing. Alberto Cárdenas y Alexander Espinoza trabajan para la Fundación Agrecol Andes, en Cochabamba. Gracias a ellos por organizar el viaje, y gracias a Alberto por sus comentarios sobre una versión anterior de este blog.

Vocabulario

El cuy es el conejillo de las Indias.

La quilquiña es una hierba con un fuerte olor usada para hacer salsas, Porophyllum ruderale.

Videos sobre la forma agroecológica de producir hortalizas

Producir hortalizas en maceta de saco

Managing black rot in cabbage

El manejo de nematodos en hortalizas

Insect nets in seedbeds

Redes contra insectos en almácigo

Grocery shops and farm shops December 6th, 2020 by

Few people realize how our food system is structured and how we consumers have a crucial influence. Exercising our food rights is as important as being politically active.

My dad ran a successful grocery store on the village market square, just across from the church. I still vividly remember the day when he took out an advertisement leaflet from the letter box. A year earlier a supermarket had opened in the village, accompanied by aggressive marketing. “They sell the same orange juice cheaper than I can buy it from the wholesaler,” my dad turned to my mum, “if this continues, I will have to close soon.” Customers from the neighbourhood suddenly started to pass by our shop on their way to the supermarket, heads down, embarrassed because they no longer dared to greet my dad, with whom they had joked and chit-chatted for over 30 years.

Local entrepreneurs are resilient and creative. I am still amazed when I think of all the different goods my dad had on offer in his small shop, from fresh fruit to ice cream, from birdseed and toys to stockings for women. Along with my mum, he paid special attention to making the shop window as attractive as it could be during special occasions like Sinterklaas (6 December), Christmas and Easter. It was real art that no supermarket could beat.

But shops need more than high quality goods and services, and loyal customers. One day, the wholesaler who had sold produce to my dad for years, bluntly announced that he could no longer supply us, as the wholesaler made more profit selling directly to the supermarkets and said it was not worthwhile continuing to supply independent retailers. By then, a second supermarket had already opened in the village. And so, dad closed his shop. That was in the early 1990s. Dad was also a skilled printer, so he found other work. But he had loved his shop, because he said it let him make other people happy. Now that was gone. 

Currently, in Belgium 95% of the food we eat is purchased from supermarkets, which continue to put local entrepreneurs out of business. Supermarkets also harm local farmers by driving prices so low that farmers can barely cover their costs, as we described in an earlier blog Stuck in the middle.

Over the years, my wife Marcella and I have become good friends with Johan and Vera, who grow organic vegetables and fruits and sell them in a farm shop they started about a decade ago. Each time we meet, they have some interesting stories to share. “We sell some of our produce to Biofresh,” Vera said, “but they always pay the lowest possible price for our produce and prices have never gone up over the years.” I was already familiar with such practices that can really put the knife to farmers’ throats, but had not expected this to happen in the organic food system, which I thought was fairer.

In 2019, Biofresh merged with the Dutch company Udea, after which economics started to overrule its philosophy. “Now Biofresh no longer allows retailers to enter its premises to see what fruit and vegetables is on offer if the amount they buy each week is below 1,000 Euro,” Johan shared, “so many small farm shops like us have started to look for alternatives, but it is not easy.” Every Thursday, the day before their farm shop opens, Johan and Vera drive through half of Belgium to sell and buy fresh produce. Besides Biofresh, they now also buy from Sinature, BioVibe and directly from various farmer friends.

Thirty years after my dad closed his village shop, the nascent farm shops which are to be celebrated and nurtured for providing healthy, fresh and fair food, especially during these times of corona, are in the same stranglehold as the grocery shops in the 1990s. When profits overrule ethics, wholesalers decide under which conditions people can still buy from them, and may cut off sales to small shops, just because the wholesaler wants even more money.

As transaction costs to stock up are larger for small-scale retailers, supermarket chains have ousted local entrepreneurs. They are now buying up closed village shops to start specialty shops and as irony would have it “be closer to the customer”. Some supermarkets have even gone a step further, buying up organic farms and fishing grounds to gain full control over the food we eat. Supervised by managers, the real farmers and fisher folks with a passion for their profession risk becoming mere employees devoid of any decision-making power.

The European Green Deal provides an action plan to boost the efficient use of resources by moving to a circular economy, restore biodiversity and cut pollution. Yet it remains to be seen what measures will be put in place to support our small-scale farmers, farm shops and community-initiatives such as weekly boxes of fresh local produce procured through group purchasing associations.

Without appropriate measures, organic farming risks becoming a variation of industrial agriculture with emerging opportunities captured by a few dominant food chain actors, who further consolidate their power, wealth and decision-making over what food we get on our table.

In the meantime, we consumers should not underestimate our influence. As Johan said: “consumers have the market in their hands.” Buy local from farm shops, farmers’ markets and small-scale retailers as much as you can. The supermarkets’ claim that they are local serves the wrong purpose and pushes those with a passion for their profession out of business.

Further reading

https://allesoverbio.be/artikels/hoe-bio-uitgroeide-tot-een-professionele-landbouwmethode

IPES-Food (2016) From Uniformity to Diversity: A paradigm shift from industrial agriculture to diversified agroecological systems.

IPES-Food (2018) Breaking away from industrial food and farming systems: Seven case studies of agroecological transition.

Related blogs

Stuck in the middle

Blocking out the food

Marketing something nice

Mobile slaughterhouses

Forgotten vegetables

Fighting farmers

The Navajo rug, creating a tradition November 1st, 2020 by

Anthropologists shy away from the word “traditional,” because even traditions that seem ancient may be creatively evolving. In the southwestern USA, nothing says “traditional” louder than a Navajo rug, woven from handspun wool on a hand-made loom.

The Navajo people arrived in the Southwest from the north, sometime between the 1200s and 1400s AD. They probably learned to weave from long-established peoples like the Hopis, and Zuñis. In the 1600s, Spanish colonists brought sheep to New Mexico. Native people soon began herding them and weaving their wool, warmer and more abundant than some of the previous fibers (like human hair, and strips of rabbit fur).

In 1863 the US Army cajoled and bullied much of Navajo Nation to move to Bosque Redondo or Fort Sumner, in New Mexico. The Navajos packed their horse-drawn wagons and herded their sheep to the fort, about 300 miles (480 km) from the heart of Navajo country. The Navajos were given land, but crops failed due to drought, floods and armyworms in the hot, unfamiliar climate. The Navajos ate almost all of their sheep to survive. But while confined, the Navajos also acquired a taste for certain foreign goods, like wool Pendleton blankets, velveteen shirts, metal axes and cooking pots, not to mention coffee, sugar and flour.

When the Navajos were finally allowed to go home in 1868, the army gave two sheep to each man, woman and child. The Navajos were practiced pastoralists, and within a few years they once again had large herds.

White traders began moving onto the reservation, living in isolated “trading posts,” small general stores that sold cloth, tools and groceries with a long shelf life. They also bought wool and crafts from the Navajos. An autobiographical account by one of these traders, Franc Newcomb, explains how in the 1910s and 20s, one of the main trade goods was a wool blanket, known in the Southwest as a “Navajo rug”. Over the years, the traders who bought these rugs gave the Navajos advice on how to make the rugs more attractive for the tourist market. It was in the traders’ enlightened self-interest if their Navajo customers had more money to spend. The rugs gradually became bigger, more carefully woven, with more interesting patterns. http://www.aritearu.com/pic/HosteenKlah1.jpg

Franc Newcomb, and her husband, Arthur, were befriended by their neighbor, Klah, a renowned medicine man and weaver. Klah allowed Franc to attend his healing ceremonies, an art form as complex as the opera. A ceremony takes three or four years to learn. It lasts for as many as nine days and nights and is accompanied by myths, chants and intricate illustrations of divine figures, made by carefully pouring colored sand between one’s fingers.

Most visual arts are made to last a while. Not the sand painting. The patient enters the one-room log house (called a hogan) and sits on the sand painting, destroying it, while absorbing its healing power. Franc would sit up night after night at the ceremonies, and she loved the sand paintings. Franc thought the sand paintings deserved to be recorded. She had a nearly photographic memory, but she gave Klah colored pencils and paper, and he sketched the sand paintings, to make sure every detail was accurate. Franc, a former school teacher, painted Klah’s drawings onto large sheets of heavy-duty wrapping paper from her store.

Eventually Franc suggested that Klah weave the sand painting designs into rugs. He hesitated to weave such a sacred image, but eventually he built several 12-foot by 12-foot (4-meter) looms, using logs he cut in the mountains. He began weaving large rugs of the Yeibichai (spiritual beings). His mother, sister and two-nieces also joined him.

Klah decided that such special rugs had to be made from a soft, tan wool from the belly of the sheep, and Franc’s husband, Arthur, drove Klah to trading posts all over the reservation to buy the rare wool.

Klah and his family couldn’t keep up with the demand for Yeibichai rugs, and soon other weavers were copying the idea. I inherited a small, almost miniature Yeibichai rug from my grandfather, who probably bought it at a trading post. The winter of 1978-79, I lived at a Navajo trading post in Lukachukai, Arizona, and always thought of the Navajo rug as a traditional artform, although I was aware of some changes. Bright colors from chemical dyes were introduced mid-century, only to be replaced again by softer, plant dyes in the 1960s and 70s, when nature became cool. But there was much more innovation than that, especially the creation of large, tapestry-style weavings, illustrating the sand paintings with their spiritual figures. Like much creative change, the Navajo rug has evolved in response to market demand, and thanks to collaboration between people with vastly different experiences.

When Klah was a boy his horse slipped and fell off a canyon wall, kicking Klah a few times on the way down. As Klah’s great-aunt slowly nursed him back to health, she saw that Klah was a hermaphrodite. Instead of subjecting Klah to ridicule or surgery, the Navajos thought he was special and powerful and they encouraged him to do men’s things, and women’s things. The openminded acceptance of his community helped Klah to become a creative artist, as he blended a male artform (sand paintings) with a female one (weaving). When Klah died in 1937, at age 70, he was one of the most respected people in the Navajo Nation.

Some Navajo terms

Hogan. An eight-sided or round house of logs or occasionally stone. From the Navajo hooghan.

Klah. The old Navajo names were sacred, and only the closest family knew a person’s real name. People were known by nicknames, which could change as they aged. Klah (Tł’a, or “left-handed”) was known by this nickname in middle age and beyond. I assume that his real name died with him.

“Navajo” and “Navaho” are both correct spellings. Academics prefer “Navaho”, but folks from the Southwest write “Navajo”, following the Spanish spelling.  The Navajos call themselves “the people” (diné).

Yeibichai. From yé’ii bicheii, maternal grandfather of giant, dreaded spirit people.

Spellings checked against:

Young, Robert W. and William Morgan 1980 The Navajo Language: A Grammar and Colloquial Dictionary. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press. 1,069 pp.

Further reading

Newcomb: Franc Johnson 1964 Hosteen Klah: Navaho Medicine Man and Sand Painter. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.  227 pp.

Photos

The photo of Klah was taken before 1923 by an unknown photographer. Source: http://www.aritearu.com/pic/HosteenKlah1.jpg

The mall Yeibichai rug, made with synthetic red dye, was ollected about 1950 by LeRoy Bentley. Photo by Jeff Bentley

Digital African agriculture September 6th, 2020 by

In the report Byte by Byte, seventeen African and international experts shed some optimistic light on the digital future of agriculture in Africa. In many ways, the continent is ahead of other regions of the world.

Africa is leading the world in cell phone finance. In Kenya in 2007, Vodaphone started M-Pesa for the mobile network operator, Safaricom. M-Pesa, (from “M” for mobile, and “pesa,” the Kiswahili word for money) offers simple financial services on the phone. Customers go to a small shop to exchange cash for online money which they can save or send to anyone else in Kenya who has a mobile phone. It is an effective way for rural and poor people to send and receive money. People in the city can send cash back home, to invest in agriculture, for example.

M-Pesa was so popular that mobile money has been replicated in Malawi, Uganda and many other African countries. Rural Africans who were underserved by banks were able to make use of the little shops that sprang up all over the small towns and in peri-urban neighborhoods.

Mobile finance is not the only innovative digital service in Africa. Other companies are offering tractor services online. TROTRO Tractor is a platform in Ghana that allows farmers to hire a tractor (and a driver), like getting a ride from Uber. Other companies use cell phones to sell agricultural supplies, or to connect farmers to buyers of agricultural produce. The largest telecommunications company in Zimbabwe has been providing weather insurance to farmers on a mobile platform since 2013. The National Network of Chambers of Agriculture of Niger (RECA) has been providing commodity price information online to farmers since 2011.

The Third Eye project in Mozambique has used drones to get an aerial view of farmers’ fields, and make recommendations on irrigation for 2,800 smallholder farmers, mostly women.

Digital technology makes sense for Africa, which has a young population. Young Africans like digital technology as much as youth on other continents. One advantage is that phones are also relatively inexpensive in Africa. I’ve seen smartphones for sale in Kenya for under $40. There are some limitations. Airtime tends to be expensive in Africa, and only about half of the population is on the electric grid.

Many Africans work around the lack of electricity, paying to charge their phones at weekly markets, barbershops or other small businesses when shopping in town. The popularity of cell phones has sparked a growing demand for small solar panels that are becoming a common site, propped up in the bright sunshine outside of an earthen house.

African farmers need appropriate new agricultural technology as well as digital devices. As more African households get online, it will be easier to reach them with digital extension, including videos.

Further reading

Malabo Montpellier Panel 2019. Byte by Byte: Policy Innovation for Transforming Africa’s. Food System with Digital Technologies, Dakar.

Related blog stories

Cell phones for smallholdersPay and learn

Pay and learn

The fate of food August 2nd, 2020 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación

In The Fate of Food, Amanda Little (professor of journalism and science writing at Vanderbilt University) takes us on a strange journey to the cutting edge of agricultural research. Little has an astonishing knack for getting quality face time with some of the most innovative (and busy) people in the science of food.

She takes us to Shanghai to meet Tony Zhang, an entrepreneur who dreamed of being the Whole Foods (grocery store chain) of China. Zhang was so enraged when he found out that his vegetable farmers were growing special plots of organic produce just for their own families, while selling produce tainted with pesticides, that he created his own 4,000 hectare farm where he monitored his crops with electronic soil sensors that captured data on soil moisture and temperature, humidity, acidity and light absorption. The cost of managing the data and cleaning the heavily polluted soil eventually led Zhang to quit farming, but other companies continue to improve his idea of the digitalized soil sensors.

In Silicon Valley, Indian cardiologist Uma Valeti leads a startup that is culturing meat in the lab. It’s real meat, just grown in a Petri dish, not in an animal’s body. Little finds the duck meat tasty, although at over $100,000 a serving, it’s still not commercial. But costs are falling.

In Norway, commercial salmon grower Alf-Helge Aarskog is growing the fish in cages in the seawater of a fjord. Fish farmers are racing to invent technology fast enough to solve their emerging problems. Captive salmon were once fed wild sea creatures, but the diet is now 75% grain, with the goal of creating a completely vegetarian, cultivated fare. The dense populations of penned fish are a breeding ground for “sea lice,” a crustacean parasite of salmon. Aarskog is using a robot that can spot the sea lice and zap them with a laser as the fish dart through the water.

Robots are the newest farm workers on dry land as well. Peruvian engineer Jorge Heraud and colleagues in California have invented a “lettuce bot” that can thin a field by recognizing when seedlings are too dense, and kill the extra plants with a precision over-dose of chemical fertilizer. John Deere sees enough promise in the idea that the corporation recently bought Heraud’s company for $305 million.

In the USA, most lettuce is grown in California in the summer, and around Yuma, Arizona in the winter, a continent away from the big consumer markets of the East Coast. Former Cornell professor Ed Harwood and colleagues have solved this problem by growing aeroponic lettuce in an old building in Newark, New Jersey, where the plants grow under LED lights, without soil. The lettuce is marketable after 12 to 16 days instead of 30 or 45, and the plants yield four times as much as in the open field. The lettuce is grown on trays stacked high, so the yield per hectare can be 390 times as high as in a conventional farm.

The book is crowded with insights. For example, drip irrigation was invented in the 1930s by Simcha Blass, an Israeli engineer, after he observed a tree growing big and lush in the desert, thanks to a nearby, overlooked leaking faucet. Little is also cautious about some recent innovations; 90% of the maize, soy and cotton grown in the USA now is genetically modified, mostly to be grown with high doses of herbicides. Pigweed has now evolved resistance to the herbicides and infests 70 million acres (28 million hectares) in the United States.

As we learned from professor Calestous Juma, earlier in this blog (The enemies of innovation), innovations often look awkward at first; it took years for the farm tractor to become agile enough to really compete with horses. It’s hard to tell which of the innovations that Little describes will produce the food of the future. But big data, robots and more indoor farming may all be here to stay. Little starts and closes her book with a vignette about Chris and Annie Newman, a young couple in Northern Virginia raising pigs and chickens, and fruit and nut trees, with permaculture. The Newmans are pro-environment and pro-technology; they look forward to the day when they can use weeding robots on their farm. It’s just possible that digital technology of the future might tempt more young people to invest in highly productive, organic family farming.

Further reading

Little, Amanda 2019 The Fate of Food: What We’ll Eat in a Bigger, Hotter, Smarter World. New York: Harmony Books. 340 pp.

EL PORVENIR DE NUESTRA COMIDA

2 de agosto del 2020, por Jeff Bentley

En The Fate of Food (El Destino de los Alimentos), Amanda Little (profesora de periodismo y de redacción científica en la Universidad de Vanderbilt) nos lleva por un extraño viaje a la vanguardia de la investigación agrícola. Little tiene un increíble don para lograr reunirse con algunas de las personas más innovadoras (y más ocupadas) en la ciencia de los alimentos.

Nos lleva a Shanghai para conocer a Tony Zhang, un empresario que soñaba ser el Whole Foods (cadena de supermercados) de China. Zhang se enfureció tanto cuando se enteró de que sus productores de hortalizas cultivaban parcelas orgánicas especiales sólo para alimentar a sus propias familias, mientras vendían productos contaminados con plaguicidas, que creó su propia funca de 4.000 hectáreas donde supervisaba sus cultivos con sensores electrónicos del suelo que captaban datos sobre la humedad y la temperatura del suelo, la acidez y la absorción de la luz solar. Al final de cuentas, el costo de manejar los datos y limpiar el suelo bien contaminado llevó a Zhang a dejar de cultivar, pero otras empresas siguen mejorando su idea de los sensores digitalizados del suelo.

En el Valle del Silicio, el cardiólogo Uma Valeti (originalmente de la India) dirige una empresa nueva que cultiva carne en el laboratorio. Es carne de verdad, que crece en una placa de Petri, no en el cuerpo de un animal. La Profesora Little prueba la sabrosa carne de pato, aunque a más de 100.000 dólares la porción, todavía no es comercial. Pero los costos están bajando.

En Noruega, el criador comercial de salmón, Alf-Helge Aarskog, cultiva peces enjauladas en el agua salina de un fiordo. Los piscicultores inventan tecnología rápidamente para resolver los problemas a medida que emerjan. Hace pocos años, el salmón en cautiverio se alimentaba con mariscos capturados del mar, pero actualmente su dieta es 75% de granos, con la meta de llegar a un alimento completamente vegetariano. Las jaulas llenas de peces son un caldo de cultivo para los “piojos del salmón”, un crustáceo parásito. Aarskog está usando un robot que detecta los piojos de salmón y los mata con un láser mientras los peces nadan velozmente.  

Los robots son los más recientes trabajadores agrícolas en la tierra firme también. El ingeniero peruano Jorge Heraud y sus colegas de California han inventado un “robot de lechuga” que puede ralear un campo, reconociendo cuando los plantines son demasiado densos, y matar los que sobran con una sobredosis de fertilizante químico, puesto con precisión quirúrgica. La empresa John Deere ve tanta promesa en la idea que ha comprado la compañía de Heraud por 305 millones de dólares.

En los Estados Unidos, la mayoría de la lechuga se cultiva en California en el verano, y alrededor de Yuma, Arizona en el invierno; la hortaliza tiene que atravesar todo el continente para llegar a los grandes mercados de la Costa Este. El ex profesor de Cornell, Ed Harwood y sus colegas han acortado esta distancia, cultivando lechuga aeropónica en un edificio viejo de Newark, Nueva Jersey, donde las plantas crecen bajo luces LED, sin suelo. La lechuga se puede vender después de 12 a 16 días en lugar de 30 o 45, y las plantas rinden cuatro veces más que en campo abierto. La lechuga se cultiva en bandejas apiladas una sobre otra, por lo que el rendimiento por hectárea puede ser 390 veces mayor que en una granja convencional.

El libro está lleno de ideas. Por ejemplo, el riego por goteo fue inventado en la década de 1930 por Simcha Blass, un ingeniero israelí, al observar un árbol que crecía grande y frondoso en el desierto, gracias a un grifo que goteaba a sus raíces. Little observa algunas innovaciones con cautela; el 90% del maíz, la soja y el algodón que se cultivan en los Estados Unidos está ahora modificado genéticamente, en su mayor parte para ser cultivado con altas dosis de herbicidas. El amaranto silvestre ha desarrollado resistencia a los herbicidas e infesta 28 millones de hectáreas en los Estados Unidos.

Como hemos aprendido del profesor Calestous Juma (vea el blog The enemies of innovation), muchas innovaciones son imprácticas al principio; tomó años para que el tractor se volviera tan ágil como el equipo jalado por caballos. Es difícil decir cuál de las innovaciones que Little describe producirá el alimento del futuro. Pero los datos en computadora, los robots y la agricultura aeropónica de repente han llegado para quedarse. Little comienza y cierra su libro con una viñeta sobre Chris y Annie Newman, una pareja joven del norte de Virginia que cría cerdos y pollos, frutales y nueces, con permacultura. Los Newman quieren cuidar el medio ambiente mientras fomentan la tecnología nueva; esperan el día en que puedan usar robots para deshierbar su finca. Tal vez la tecnología digital del futuro pueda tentar a más jóvenes a invertir en la agricultura familiar orgánica de alta productividad.

Lectura adicional

Little, Amanda 2019 The Fate of Food: What We’ll Eat in a Bigger, Hotter, Smarter World. Nueva York: Harmony Books. 340 pp.

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