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Learn by eating April 14th, 2019 by

The prickly pear is delicious, if you can figure out how to eat it. The cactus fruit is covered by minute thorns, as hard to see as a strand of blonde human hair. Some Bolivians avoid the irritating thorns by holding the fruit with a fork and then peeling it with a knife. The little thorns on the fruit are so aggravating that they have their own name in the Quechua language: qhepu, as opposed to the larger thorns, called khishka, found on the pads of the cactus or on other spiny plants.

On a recent Sunday afternoon Ana and I admired the fruit growing in the gardens of Villa, a village near Punata, and we wondered if anyone would sell us some. Ana thought they would not. Prickly pear is usually harvested in the morning, when the qhepus tend to be firmly attached to the fruit. If people harvest in the mid-day they can get covered in brittle qhepus.

But two teenaged girls who were selling soft drinks in front of their house thought that their mom might sell us some fruit. It was late enough in the day to harvest prickly pear.

Their mom, doña Norma, put on a thick leather glove and began twisting the prickly pears off of the cactus plant. Then she told her daughter to pick some branches of sunch’u, a weedy, flowering plant. Doña Norma took the prickly pears to a patch of thick grass where her daughter brushed off the qhepus with the sunch’u branches.

A lot of information came to life that afternoon: how to harvest fruit with infuriating thorns, how to disarm the prickly pears with a handful of leaves, and the best time of day to do it. Local knowledge is like that: passed on not in the abstract, or in the classroom, but during everyday events such as working and eating.

See how cactus fruit is harvested and cleaned of thorns in these short video clips from Agtube

Harvesting prickly pear

Removing thorns from cactus fruit

Scientific names

The prickly pear is Opuntia ficus-indica

Sunch’u is Viguiera lanceolate

Related blog story

Kiss of death in the cactus garden

A brief history of soy April 7th, 2019 by

It was only a century ago that one of the oldest and most nutritious of human food crops began evolving into a global commodity, along the way becoming implicated in problems with genetic engineering, deforestation, and water pollution.

In an engaging world history of soy, Christine Du Bois tells how the bean was gathered and eaten in Manchuria, in northeastern China, at least 9000 years ago, and has been domesticated for at least 5000 years. Ancient (or at least medieval) recipes include tofu (from China), the intriguing, heavily fermented temprah (from Indonesia) and soy sauce (from Japan, but sold in Britain by the 1600s).

Henry Ford was one of the first to grasp the industrial potential of the crop and promoted it to make engine oil and plastics. His motor company was making plastic car parts from soy, and today we might have vegetal automobiles, had DuPont not created plastic from petroleum. DuPont’s plastics might have left American soy farmers with extra beans on their hands, if not for people like Gene Sultry, who started the first soy mill in Illinois in 1927, to crush the beans and extract oil (e.g. for margarine), leaving the crushed beans as animal feed. Sultry travelled the midwestern US with a six-car soy information train, complete with a lecture hall and two theater cars, where farmers watched films explaining how and why they should grow the new crop.

In one of the ironies of post-World War II economics, the USA began exporting large quantities of soy back to its Asian center of origin, first as relief food, but soon Japanese farmers learned to factory farm chickens and pigs on the US model, and feed them with imported, American soy.

This important new trade was upset by Richard Nixon, who in 1973, in the face of rising food prices, briefly banned the export of soy. This startled the Japanese into seeking supplies elsewhere. They began to support the research and development of soy in Brazil, a country that previously grew very little soy. The Japanese and Brazilian researchers were soon breeding locally adapted varieties and learning how to add lime to acidic soils, so that the dense forests of Mato Grosso could be felled for soy.

Photo by E. Boa

The crop soon spread to neighboring Argentina, Paraguay and Bolivia. This vast soy-producing area in South America is the size of a large country, and is sometimes sarcastically called “the Republic of Soy”. Besides habitat destruction, soy displaced native peoples and smallholders as industrial farmers moved onto their land, sowing thousands of hectares. Soy can, of course, be grown by smallholders; Eric Boa and I were fortunate enough to visit some family farmers in 2007 who were happily growing soy on 20 to 30-hectare plots in Bolivia.

It is the large scale of soy that shows its nastier side. The bean has been genetically modified to make it resistant to Monsanto’s herbicide Roundup (glyphosate). Almost all soy now grown in North and South America is genetically modified. Runoff from chemical fertilizer has created a large, dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. In the midwestern USA, soy-fed pigs create mass amounts of liquified manure that builds up in “hog lagoons”, frequently spilling over into rivers. The logical solution would be to use the manure as fertilizer, cutting back on chemicals, but this would entail keeping water out of the manure while cleaning barns, and then hauling the organic fertilizer over long distances.

The US government subsidizes the insurance industry to the tune of $30 billion a year, buffering American soy farmers from risk—a type of farm welfare that benefits those with the most soy, and the most land. These subsidies depress the world price for soy, making it harder for farm families in Africa and elsewhere to get the best prices for their soy.

Yet soy is a versatile food crop that can be made into thousands of tasty and nutritious dishes. It fixes nitrogen from the air, allowing less use of chemical urea as fertilizer. It can be grown profitably by smallholders, if they are protected from land-grabbers, and if governments do not subsidize large-scale farmers.

Brazil is now making efforts to limit further deforestation for soy. Other steps could be taken to rationalize soy’s fertilizer cycle and alternatives for weed control. A crop which has been implicated in so much damage could still be farmed and eaten in environmentally sound ways.

Further reading

Du Bois, Christine M. 2018 The Story of Soy. London: Reaktion Books. 304 pp.

Videos on soy

Soya sowing density

Making soya cheese

Harvesting and storing soya bean seed

Making a condiment from soya beans

The red bucket March 31st, 2019 by

I recently had a chance to visit some dairy farmers near Cochabamba. They live in a small community and are members of a dairy cooperative which was able to buy a refrigerated milk storage tank with support from the Bolivian government. Twice a day the farmers bring their metal milk cans to the collection center, a small brick building which houses a 1,000 liter storage tank.

The stainless-steel tank has an electric cooler to chill the milk and a paddle that gently stirs it. This keeps the milk fresh until a tank truck from the dairy collects the milk later in the day. After each milking, the farmer simply takes her milk to the center, avoiding the work of selling it door-to-door, or of making it into cheese.

The farmers are organized in groups of a dozen or so households, and they take turns running the collection center. This involves measuring the density of each delivery of milk with a little gadget that looks like a pistol (a density meter) to make sure that no water has been added, and jotting down how many liters each person brings in.

Every two weeks the co-op pays each farmer for their milk produced. It sounds simple but the reality is different, particularly in calculating the volume of milk each farmer delivers.

The farmers bring in one or two milk cans each time they come. The factory that makes the milk can labels each one “40 liters” but they only physically hold 39 liters. The staff at the co-op are not sure why this is. The farmers at the collection center have been known to naively give a neighbor credit for 40 liters, because the can looked full. Besides, the cans are not always full, so the milk from each family has to be measured accurately, in a special pail. Pouring the milk into the pail (while trying not to spill any) is a tedious task, and another transaction cost. But it has to be done well. The dairy and the cooperative will fine the farmers if they report more milk than they deliver.

Another problem is that farmers report whole liters to the dairy, often rounding down actual volumes.

At the meeting I attended, one young farmer complained bitterly about this. “Sometimes I bring in almost five liters, and they write down four!”

She went on to say that sometimes the person in charge is nice, and gives her credit for five liters, but most of her fellow farmers won’t do that. She singled out one other farmer, doña Irma, as being especially strict.

But doña Irma had a solution for that. “That’s why we have the red bucket,” she politely reminded the group. If someone has a little extra milk, they pour it into the red bucket. If someone needs milk to make up a liter, then can take it from the red bucket.”

Transaction costs can be higher for smaller producers. It may take as much time and effort to deliver 40 liters as to bring in 400. The collection center makes it easier to deliver milk, but it introduces a few new costs, such as the time it takes to run the center, and the risks of mis-measuring the milk.

The young farmer was still angry. No doubt some producers are more motivated to take milk from the red bucket than to add milk. Still, the red bucket was a local if imperfect solution to a nagging transaction cost.

Smallholders will make marketing and institutional innovations, like the red bucket, to stay profitable in a world where food systems are getting every more complex. At a time when many people are leaving the countryside, and multinational corporations are monopolizing the food supply, it’s good to know that at least some cooperatives are trying to work with smallholders so they can earn a decent living in their home communities.

Related blogs

Trust that works

It takes a family to raise a cow

Related videos

Pure milk is good milk

Keeping milk free from antibiotics

Taking milk to the collection centreKeeping milk clean and fresh

Kicking the antibiotic habit March 24th, 2019 by

Humanity may be on the verge of a scary new world where antibiotics no longer work. An infected wound, for example from a scratch on a rusty nail, could be potentially fatal. Surgery would become much riskier. Common diseases such as tuberculosis would once more threaten the lives of millions.

The problem is that some disease-causing bacteria are resistant to antibiotics. The more antibiotics are used, the sooner these resistant bacteria are selected and the quicker they multiply. Over-prescription and the indiscriminate use of antibiotics are the main causes of the current crisis, both in people and in animals.

Research to develop new antibiotics is an expensive business and drug companies no longer find it profitable. However, there are immediate recommendations to follow:

1. Don’t use or prescribe antibiotics for people or livestock unless they are really needed.

2. Don’t give antibiotics to livestock unless they have a bacterial disease. And never put antibiotics in animal feed on a routine basis (a common practice to promote rapid growth of the young animals).

3. Wait five to seven days after giving antibiotics to dairy cows before using her milk, to ensure there are no more drugs in the milk.

So, recently when I was invited to visit a dairy cooperative near Cochabamba, I happily went to show them a video about how to keep milk free of antibiotics. A friendly extensionist, who worked for the co-op, showed me to their meeting hall.

The video was filmed in Nigeria, which the farmers didn’t mind, but when I said it was in English there was an audible groan of dismay from the audience. I solved that by translating the video out loud into Spanish.

The questions from an audience tell you a lot about how they perceived a talk or a video. And in this case, they were fully on topic. One young man, who works with his parents’ dairy herd, asked if mastitis (an udder infection caused by bacteria) could be cured with herbal remedies. He had understood the message about avoiding antibiotics, but the video had not explicitly mentioned mastitis, the most common disease of dairy cows and routinely treated with antibiotics.

The friendly extensionist said that the video was important, because the farmers were reluctant to discard any milk. When the dairy rejected their milk, farmers often made it into fresh cheese and sell it locally.

The Bolivian farmers liked this Nigerian dairy video. The circumstances are a bit different in Bolivia, for example farmers bring their own milk to the dairy, while the Fulani herders in the video send the milk with young men on motorbikes. But the basic recommendations to limit the development of antibiotic resistance are similar all over the world. Videos can be an important way to educate the public about the dangers of misusing antibiotics.

Related blog stories

Big chicken, little chicken

Trust that works

Further reading

The antibiotic resistance crisis

Watch the video

Keeping milk free from antibiotics

Coming soon A video on mastitis on www.accessagriculture.org

Betting on the weather March 10th, 2019 by

Recently, we have had the chance to interact intensively with farmers and agronomists in the Bolivian Altiplano to develop two videos on weather forecasting. The first video focused more on natural indicators, such as plants, animals, wind and clouds. The second video highlighted a weather app. While we encourage in both videos to merge traditional knowledge with daily observations and modern science, a certain level of risk remains.

At an altitude of 4,250 meters, in the village of Ch’ojñapata (which means “green mountain” in the Aymara language), we meet don Juan Mamani with some of his fellow farmers. On the walk to his house in the Green Mountains, field after field of young potato plants showed black, wilted leaves. Despite their rich, traditional knowledge, receiving weekly forecasts on their phone and being connected with other fellow farmers through WhatsApp, the farmers of Ch’ojñapata village saw their potato crop destroyed by frost.

Weather forecasts can be a blessing for farmers and help them to decide when to prepare the land, when to plant, irrigate and harvest their crop. But while rain is relatively easy to predict, frost is less so, especially in a changing climate, as don Juan explains:

“Sometimes the weather is cloudy with good clouds, but during the night they suddenly disappear. It gets cold and starts to freeze, there is no way to be aware of it. I do not understand the climate, the climate is heating up, it confuses us, so for that I say that one should try to understand the climate and we have to adjust to it.”

But I was still concerned, standing on the edge of this ruined potato field. Don Juan is an expert farmer, with the benefit of modern and ancestral knowledge, who had known that there was likely to be a freeze early in the season, which he could have avoided by planting later.

Edwin Yucra, an agronomist who has studied weather for years on the Altiplano, explained what happened. First farmers forecast which part of the summer will be best for planting potatoes, then they plant potatoes early, middle or late in the season, depending on their prediction. But they always hedge their bets, never putting all of their potatoes in one basket. If farmers predict that the last part of the season will be best (as in the southern summer of 2018-19), they still plant a few potatoes in the early season. The farmers also use the forecast to decide where to plant, planting in wetter areas during predicted dry years, for example, or on the warmer slopes if they anticipate a freeze.

Farming is a gamble in many ways. Every time farmers plant they are betting on the weather. While modern forecasting technologies help smallholder farmers in developing countries to improve the odds, crop insurance (and fair food prices) may be required to make farming attractive to new generations of commercial small-scale farmers.

Watch or download the videos from the Access Agriculture video platform

Taking notes to learn about the weather

Weather forecast in your hands

Related blogs

High Andean Climate Change

To see the future

Cultivating pride in the Andes

Inspiration from Bangladesh to Bolivia

Farmers produce electronic content

Forty farmer innovations

Acknowledgement

The videos on weather forecasting have been developed with funding from the McKnight Foundation’s Collaborative Crop Research Program (CCRP). Thanks to Sonia Laura, Edwin Chiara and colleagues from PROSUCO for introducing us to don Miguel and his family, and for providing background information.

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