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Validating local knowledge July 26th, 2020 by

Vea la versi√≥n en espa√Īol a continuaci√≥n

Paul and I have written earlier stories in this blog about the yapuchiris, expert farmer-researcher-extensionists on the semi-arid, high plains of Bolivia. At 4000 meters above sea level (over 13,000 feet), seasoned farmers know how to observe plants and animals, clouds and stars, to predict the weather, especially to answer the Big Question on their minds: when will the rains start, so I can plant my crop?

All of the yapuchiris know some traditional ways of predicting the weather. Some yapuchiris also write their observations on a special chart they have designed with their agronomist colleagues at Prosuco, an organization in La Paz. The chart, called a Pachagrama, allows the yapuchiris to record the weather each day of the year, just by penciling in a few dots, so they can see if their predictions come true, and how the rains, frosts and hail affect their crops.

It can be daunting to prove the value of local knowledge, but it is worth trying.

Eleodoro Baldivieso is an agronomist with Prosuco, which has spent much of the past year studying the results of the Pachagrama weather-tracking charts. As he explained to me recently, Prosuco took four complete Pachagramas (each one filled out over seven years) containing 42 cases; each case is a field observed over a single season by one of the yapuchiris. Comparing the predicted weather with the recorded weather allowed Prosuco to see if the Pachagramas had helped to manage risk, mainly by planting a couple of weeks early, on time, or two weeks late.

Frost, hail and unpredictable rainfall are the three main weather risks to the potato and quinoa crops on the Altiplano. In October, a little rain falls, hopefully enough to plant a crop, followed by more rain in the following months. Average annual rainfall is only 800 mm (about 30 inches) in the northern Altiplano, and a dry year can destroy the crop.

For the 42 cases the study compared the yapuchiri’s judgement on the harvest (poor, regular, or good) with extreme weather events (like frost), and the planting date (early, middle or late) to see if variations in the planting date (based on weather predictions) helped to avoid losses and bring in a harvest.

The study found that crops planted two weeks apart can suffer damage at different growth stages of the plant. For example, problems with rainfall are especially risky soon after potatoes are planted, affecting crops planted early and mid-season. Frost is more of a risk for early potatoes at the start of the season, and for late potatoes when they are flowering. Hail is devastating when it falls as the mid and late planted potatoes are flowering.

The yapuchiris are often able to accurately predict frost, hail, and rainfall patterns months in advance. Scientific meteorology does a good job predicting such weather a few days away, but not several months in advance. When you plant your potatoes, modern forecasts cannot tell you what the weather will be like when the crop is flowering. Forecasting the weather in a challenging environment is helpful, at least some of the time. Planting two weeks early or two weeks late may help farmers take best advantage of the rain, but then expose the crop to frost or hail. Changing the planting dates can help farmers avoid one risk, but not another.

The weather is so complicated that risk can never be completely managed. And because scientific meteorology cannot predict hail and frost months in advance, local knowledge fills a void that science may never replace.

Previous blog stories

Cultivating pride in the Andes

To see the future

Predicting the weather

Watch the video

Recording the weather

Watch the presentation by Eleodoro Baldivieso (in Spanish)

http://andescdp.org/cdp16/seminarios/seminario_4_respondiendo_amenazas_productivas/yapuchiris_Prosuco

Acknowledgement

This work with weather is funded by the McKnight Foundation’s Collaborative Crop Research Program (CCRP). Francisco Condori, Luciano Mamani, Félix Yana and Santos Quispe are the yapuchiris who participated in this research. Thanks to Eleodoro Baldivieso, María Quispe, and Sonia Laura of Prosuco for reading and commenting on a previous version of this story. The first two photos are courtesy of Prosuco.

VALIDANDO LOS CONOCIMIENTOS LOCALES

Por Jeff Bentley

26 de julio del 2020

Paul y yo hemos escrito historias anteriores en este blog sobre los Yapuchiris, expertos agricultores-investigadores y extensionistas en el Altiplano semi√°rido boliviano. A los 4000 metros sobre el nivel del mar, los agricultores experimentados saben c√≥mo observar plantas y animales, nubes y estrellas para predecir el clima, especialmente para responder a la Gran Pregunta en sus mentes ¬Ņcu√°ndo comenzar√°n las lluvias para yo pueda sembrar mi chacra?

Todos los Yapuchiris conocen algunas formas tradicionales de predecir el tiempo. Algunos Yapuchiris tambi√©n apuntan sus observaciones en un cuadro especial que han dise√Īado con sus colegas, los ingenieros agr√≥nomos de Prosuco, una organizaci√≥n en La Paz. El cuadro, llamado Pachagrama, permite a los Yapuchiris registrar el tiempo cada d√≠a del a√Īo, con s√≥lo dibujar algunos puntos, para que puedan ver si sus predicciones se hagan realidad y como las lluvias, heladas y granizadas afectan sus cultivos.

Puede ser difícil comprobar ese conocimiento local, pero vale la pena intentarlo.

El Ing. Eleodoro Baldivieso, de Prosuco, ha pasado gran parte del a√Īo pasado estudiando los resultados de los Pachagramas. C√≥mo √©l me explic√≥ hace poco, Prosuco tom√≥ cuatro Pachagramas completos (de siete campa√Īas agr√≠colas) y 42 casos; cada caso es una parcela observada durante una campa√Īa por uno de los yapuchiris. El comparar el tiempo previsto con el tiempo registrado permiti√≥ a Prosuco ver si los Pachagramas hab√≠an ayudado a manejar el riesgo, principalmente mediante la siembra temprana (dos semanas antes), intermedia y tard√≠a (dos semanas despu√©s).

Las heladas, el granizo y la lluvia impredecible son los tres principales riesgos meteorol√≥gicos para los cultivos de papa y quinua en el Altiplano. En octubre cae un poco de lluvia, con la esperanza de que sea suficiente para sembrar un cultivo, seguida hasta marzo por m√°s lluvia. La precipitaci√≥n media anual es s√≥lo 800 mm en el Altiplano Norte, y un a√Īo seco puede destruir la cosecha, lo mismo que un a√Īo con mucha lluvia.

Para los 42 casos el estudio comparó la evaluación del Yapchiri de la cosecha (malo, regular, o bueno) con eventos extremos de tiempo (como heladas), con las fechas de siembra (temprano, mediano, o tarde) para ver si el variar la fecha de siembra (basado en el pronóstico del Yapuchiri) ayudó a evitar pérdidas y lograr una cosecha.

El estudio hall√≥ que los cultivos sembrados a dos semanas de diferencia pueden sufrir da√Īo en diferentes etapas de crecimiento da las plantas. Por ejemplo, los problemas con las lluvias son especialmente arriesgados poco despu√©s de la siembra de la papa, afectando m√°s a la siembra tempran, a principios y mediados de la temporada. Las heladas son m√°s riesgosas para las papas tempranas al comienzo de la temporada, y para las papas tard√≠as justo en la √©poca de floraci√≥n. El granizo es devastador para las siembras intermedias y tard√≠as, si la papa est√° en flor.

Los Yapuchiris a menudo son capaces de predecir con certeza las heladas, el granizo y los patrones de lluvia, con meses de antelaci√≥n. La meteorolog√≠a cient√≠fica a menudo puede predecir ese tiempo a unos pocos d√≠as, pero con meses de anticipaci√≥n. Cuando siembras tu papa, el pron√≥stico moderno no te puede decir c√≥mo ser√° el tiempo cuando tu cultivo est√° en flor. Pronosticar el tiempo en un entorno desafiante es √ļtil, al menos parte del tiempo. Sembrar dos semanas antes o dos semanas despu√©s puede ayudar a los agricultores a aprovechar mejor la lluvia, pero se expone el cultivo a las heladas o granizo, cuando es m√°s vulnerable. Cambiar las fechas de siembra puede ayudar a los agricultores a evitar uno de los riesgos, pero no siempre a todos.

El clima es tan complicado que el riesgo nunca puede ser manejado completamente. Y debido a que la meteorología científica no puede predecir el granizo y las heladas con meses de anticipación, el conocimiento local llena un vacío que la ciencia tal vez nunca reemplace.

Historias previas del blog

Cultivando orgullo en los Andes

Conocer el futuro

Prediciendo el clima

Ver el video

Hacer un registro del clima

Vea la presentaci√≥n por Eleodoro Baldivieso (en espa√Īol)

http://andescdp.org/cdp16/seminarios/seminario_4_respondiendo_amenazas_productivas/yapuchiris_Prosuco

Agradecimiento

Este trabajo con el clima es financiado por el Programa Colaborativo de Investigación sobre Cultivos (CCRP) de la Fundación McKnight. Francisco Condori, Luciano Mamani, Félix Yana y Santos Quispe son los Yapuchiris que participaron en esta investigación. Gracias a Eleodoro Baldivieso, María Quispe, y Sonia Laura de Prosuco por leer y hacer comentaros sobre una versión previa de esta historia. Las primeras dos fotos son cortesía de Prosuco.

Keep your cows in the family October 27th, 2019 by

In the 1980s, the Portuguese farmers I lived with kept two or three cows per household. Instead of hosing down the barns‚ÄĒthe greatest use of water on dairy farms‚ÄĒthe cows were stabled in a large room on the ground floor of the farm house. Every couple of days, farmers would lay down a clean bed of gorse, fern, heather and other wild plants. Instead of creating toxic lagoons of manure, the families would dig the manure out of the barns and spread it on their fields as organic fertilizer.

The parish of Pedralva, near Braga, Portugal, had four milking parlors. Twice a day the farmers (almost all women) would walk their cows down the lane to the milking parlor, where the operator, also a young woman, would milk the cows mechanically, record the amount of milk (clearly visible in a large, glass jar) and pipe the milk into a cold storage tank, to be picked up later by the dairy.

The milking parlor became a place where the farmers would chat and exchange ideas as they stood in line with their cows. I realize now that it was also a chance for the cows to get out of the house and take a stroll. The cows were not pets, but they all had names, enough to eat and drink, and they were never caged. The cows were usually fed on leftover maize stalks and pasture grass, although a handful of farmers with a dozen cows were starting to make silage. So, most of the feed was a byproduct of food production, rather than a diversion of human food to livestock.

The documentary film ‚ÄúCowspiracy,‚ÄĚ by Kip Anderson and Keegan Kuhn, tells of the complacency of Greenpeace, the Sierra Club, Surfrider Foundation, Rainforest Action Network, and Oceana: large, environmental organizations that ignore animal farming as a leading cause of climate change. Livestock account for 51% of global greenhouse emissions, while the whole transportation sector makes up just 13%. Cows make greenhouse gas as they fart out methane while the tractors and fertilizer factories all burn fossil fuel.

Livestock in the USA produce 30 times more feces than people. Fecal slurry from cows and pigs is kept in ‚Äúlagoons‚ÄĚ that often leak into rivers. In tropical countries forests are cleared to make pastures. Much of the forest burned in Bolivia this year was being cleared to graze cows for beef exports to China.

In Eat for the Planet, journalists Nil Zacharias and Gene Stone raise similar concerns, especially about the use of water. In the USA it takes 2000 liters of water to make a liter of milk, 15,000 liters of water to produce a kilo of meat. More corn, soybeans and wheat is produced to feed animals than humans, requiring vast amounts of water, energy and land.

Add this all together and it makes sense that the livestock sector is responsible for 51% of human-caused greenhouse gases.

Food and Animal Welfare, a recent book by Henry Buller and Emma Roe, raises concerns about the cruelty inflicted on the animals themselves. Cows, pigs and chickens have inherited instinctive behaviors from their wild ancestors: chickens like to build nests for their eggs, pigs love to dig into the moist earth, and cows enjoy grazing in the sunshine. The animals become stressed when they are unable to act out these behaviors.

On small, family farms, animals are usually handled in kinder, more environmentally sound ways. Adopting this approach on factory farms is costly and easy to avoid where regulation of animal welfare is poor and consumers don’t know or don’t care about the stresses animals face when penned up all day, every day, unable to move.

Cruelty to animals, deforestation, fecal pollution, the extravagant waste of water and the use of food grains to feed animals are all real problems of agriculture if the animals are just seen as cogs in the factory. But I have seen family farms in Latin America, Africa and Bangladesh where animals are treated a bit like they were in Portugal in the 1980s. The animals are kept clean without big hoses of water. The manure is used as fertilizer instead of being stored in lakes of filth. The animals eat at least some crop residues and spend at some time outdoors. The cows do still fart on family farms, but most other environmental problems are mitigated. Governments and the public should be thinking of more ways to encourage shorter food chains, decent prices for family farmers, enforcement of better standards, and research on appropriate technologies.

Further reading

Bentley, Jeffery W. 1992 Today There Is No Misery: The Ethnography of Farming in Northwest Portugal. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

Buller, Henry, and Emma Roe 2018 Food and Animal Welfare. London: Bloomsbury Publishing. 222 pp.

Zacharias, Nil and Gene Stone 2018 Eat for the Planet: Saving the World One Bite at a Time. New York: Abrams Image. 160 pp.

Related blog stories

Stuck in the middle

It takes a family to raise a cow

Watching videos to become a dairy expert

Veterinarians and traditional animal health care

Salt blocks and mental blocks

The red bucket

A brief history of soy

Videos about caring for animals on smallholder, family farms

Hand milking of dairy cows

And many other livestock videos on Access Agriculture

Enlightened Agroecology August 4th, 2019 by

Vea la versi√≥n en espa√Īol a continuaci√≥n

Francisco ‚ÄúPacho‚ÄĚ Gangotena grew up in the countryside of Ecuador and decided that the best way to help smallholder farmers was to get an education. So, he went abroad for a Ph.D. in anthropology. He came home feeling like ‚Äúthe divine papaya‚ÄĚ, he says, thinking that he could change the world with his doctorate.

After a year of teaching at the university, Pacho wanted do something more practical, so he and his wife Maritza sold the house and the car and bought four hectares of land for farming not too far from Quito. But making this work was going to be a huge challenge. The land had no trees and the soil was degraded.

From day one, the family decided that they would use no agrochemicals. They gradually improved the soil by recycling the crop residues and manure back into the soil. Pacho estimates that in this way the family has applied the equivalent of 4000 truckloads of compost since he first began farming here over 35 years ago.

I met Pacho recently on his farm in Puembo, in the Ecuadorian Andes, where he happily showed me and a few other visitors his four dairy cows. He puts sawdust in their stall to absorb their manure and urine. Each cow eats 90 kilos of feed daily and produces about 70 kilos of waste every day, equivalent to 25 tons of organic fertilizer each year for every cow. A single cow can fertilize one hectare of crops. All the manure goes onto the farm, along with all of the composted crop residues.

Pacho rotates his vegetable crops on his four-hectare farm. Potatoes are followed by broccoli, lettuce, radishes and green beans. He employs ten people and is proud that his small farm can give jobs to local families by producing healthy vegetables to sell direct to consumers in the local markets.

His grown son and daughter have also found work on the farm. Pacho jokes that he has retired and that now his daughter is his boss‚ÄĒand a pretty demanding one.

Besides recycling organic matter, Pacho also has some more unusual strategies for building up the soil. He enriches it with wood ash from pizzerias and with powdered rock from quarries. As the quarries cut stone, they leave behind a lot of powdered rock, as waste, which Pacho collects. Rocks are rich in minerals (with up to 80 elements) and are one of nature’s main components of soil.

Pacho is up front about his limitations, which adds to his credibility. A new phytoplasma disease (punta morada) is sweeping Ecuador, wiping out potato fields, including his. He also has to import vegetable seed from the USA and Europe.

But Pacho‚Äôs vegetable fields are lush, like gardens, and now surrounded by trees that the family has planted ‚Äúproviding room, board and employment for the birds and for beneficial insects,‚ÄĚ Pacho explains. An ornithologist friend counted 32 bird species on the farm, including 22 insectivores. Pacho is convinced that the birds help him to control pests without the need for insecticides. Predatory insects also provide a natural biological control of pests.

He also thinks that it is important to share what he has learned, welcoming around 32,000 smallholders to visit his farm over the years. It helps that he was the director of Swiss Aid in Ecuador for 20 years and has built a large network of collaborating farmers. Many come in groups, and some stay for several days to learn about organic farming and agroecology.

The farm’s family and staff feed us a big lunch of kale salad, potato soup and a lasagna made with green leaves instead of pasta. All vegetarian and delicious. The farm has a clear emphasis on nutritious food and produces lots of it. By intercropping and rotating crops, they get 92 tons of vegetables and other crops per hectare each year, a more than respectable yield by any standard. Since buying the farm, the organic matter, or carbon held in the soil has increased from 2% to 12% or more. In a hectare that is at least 500 tons of carbon.

Not everyone is in favor of organic, biological agriculture. For example, in an otherwise excellent book, Enlightenment Now, Steven Pinker argues that organic agriculture is not sustainable, because it supposedly uses more land that conventional agriculture.

In fact, in developing countries organic agriculture yields 80% more than conventional agriculture, but without the yield stagnation or decline that occurs with the high use of external inputs (see Uniformity in Diversity by IPES Food).

But Pinker, in his characteristic optimism, also writes that even though climate change is the world’s most serious problem, it can be solved if we really work on it.

That brings us back to the Gangotena family farm, which is providing jobs, and lots of healthy food, while removing carbon from the air where it is harmful and putting it underground where it is useful.  Organic agriculture may be one of the world‚Äôs greatest techniques for sequestering carbon from the atmosphere, storing in the soil as rich, black earth for productive farming.

Further reading

Pinker, Steven 2018 Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress. London: Penguin Books.

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.

Related blog story

Out of space

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Pacho Gangotena and his family for their generosity of spirit and for the example they set, to Ross Borja and Pedro Oyarz√ļn of EkoRural for organizing the visit to the farm. EkoRural is supported in part by the McKnight Foundation. Thanks to Ross Borja, Pedro Oyarz√ļn, Claire Nicklin, Pacho Gangotena, Paul Van Mele and Eric Boa for reading an earlier draft of this story.

LA LUZ DE LA AGROECOLOG√ćA

Por Jeff Bentley, 4 de agosto del 2019

Francisco “Pacho” Gangotena creci√≥ en el campo en Ecuador y decidi√≥ que la mejor manera de ayudar a los campesinos era obtener una educaci√≥n. As√≠ que, se fue al exterior para hacer un doctorado en antropolog√≠a. Lleg√≥ a casa sinti√©ndose como “la divina papaya “, dice, pensando que podr√≠a cambiar el mundo con su doctorado.

Despu√©s de un a√Īo de ense√Īar en la universidad, Pacho quer√≠a hacer algo m√°s pr√°ctico, as√≠ que √©l y su esposa Maritza vendieron la casa y el auto y compraron cuatro hect√°reas de tierra cerca de Quito. Pero la agricultura iba a ser un gran desaf√≠o. La tierra no ten√≠a √°rboles y el suelo estaba degradado.

Desde el primer d√≠a, la familia decidi√≥ que no usar√≠a agroqu√≠micos. Poco a poco mejoraron el suelo volviendo a incorporar los rastrojos y el esti√©rcol. Pacho estima que de esta manera la familia ha aplicado el equivalente a 4000 camiones de compost desde que empezaron a trabajar la tierra hace 35 a√Īos.

Conoc√≠ a Pacho hace poco en su finca en Puembo, en los Andes ecuatorianos, donde con toda felicidad √©l mostr√≥ a m√≠ y a algunos otros visitantes sus cuatro vacas lecheras. Pone aserr√≠n en su establo para absorber el esti√©rcol y la orina. Cada vaca come 90 kilos de alimento al d√≠a y produce unos 70 kilos de esti√©rcol al dia, unas 25 toneladas de abono org√°nico por vaca, al a√Īo. Cada vaca fertiliza una hect√°rea. Todo el esti√©rcol fertiliza el suelo junto con los rastrojos del campo convertidos en compost.

Pacho rota sus cultivos en sus cuatro hect√°reas de cultivo que constituyen su finca. Despu√©s de las papas pone br√≥coli, lechuga, r√°banos y arvejas. Emplea a diez personas y est√° orgulloso de que su peque√Īa finca d√© empleo a las familias locales, produciendo verduras sanas para venderlas directamente a los consumidores en los mercados locales.

Su hijo y su hija también traban en la finca. Pacho bromea que se ha jubilado y que ahora su hija es su jefa, y que es muy dura.

Adem√°s de reciclar la materia org√°nica, Pacho tambi√©n tiene algunas estrategias m√°s originales para crear suelo. La enriquece con ceniza de le√Īa de pizzer√≠as y con el polvo de roca de las canteras. Como las canteras cortan piedra, dejan mucha roca en polvo, como desecho, que Pacho recoge. La rocas son ricas en minerales (hasta 80 elementos) y constituyen uno de los principales componentes naturales del suelo.

Pacho admite francamente sus limitaciones, lo cual le da m√°s credibilidad. Un nuevo fitoplasma (una enfermedad‚ÄĒpunta morada) est√° arrasando con las papas del Ecuador, incluido las suyas. Tambi√©n tiene que importar varias de sus semillas de hortalizas de los Estados Unidos y Europa.

Pero las hortalizas de Pacho son exuberantes, como jardines, y ahora est√°n rodeados de √°rboles que la familia ha plantado “para dar ‚Äėroom and board‚Äô y trabajo a los p√°jaros e insectos ben√©ficos”, explica Pacho. Un amigo ornit√≥logo cont√≥ 32 especies de aves en la granja, incluyendo 22 insect√≠voros. Pacho est√° convencido de que las aves le ayudan a controlar las plagas sin necesidad de usar insecticidas. Los insectos depredadores tambi√©n hacen un control biol√≥gico natural de las plagas.

Tambi√©n cree que es importante compartir lo que ha aprendido y 32.000 campesinos han visitado su granja a lo largo de los a√Īos. Es una ventaja haber sido director de Swiss Aid en Ecuador durante 20 a√Īos y ha creado una amplia red de agricultores colaboradores. Muchos vienen en grupos, y algunos se quedan varios d√≠as para aprender sobre la agricultura org√°nica y la agroecolog√≠a.

La familia y el personal de la granja nos alimentan con un gran almuerzo de ensalada de col rizada, sopa de papas y una lasa√Īa de hojas verdes sin pasta. Todo vegetariano y delicioso. La finca tiene un claro √©nfasis en la comida nutritiva, la cual produce en abundancia. A trav√©s del policultivo y la rotaci√≥n de cultivos, obtienen 92 toneladas de hortalizas y productos agr√≠colas por a√Īo en las cuatro hect√°reas, por a√Īo, m√°s que respetables bajo cualquier sistema. Desde que compr√≥  la finca, la materia org√°nica o carbono retenido en el suelo ha subido del 2% al 12% o m√°s. En una hect√°rea de al menos 500 toneladas de carbono.

No todos están a favor de la agricultura orgánica y biológica. Por ejemplo, en un libro por lo demás excelente, Enlightenment Now, Steven Pinker argumenta que la agricultura orgánica no es sostenible, porque supuestamente usa más tierra que la agricultura convencional.

De hecho, en los países en desarrollo la agricultura orgánica rinde un 80% más que la agricultura convencional, pero sin los rendimientos estancados o en disminución que sucede con el alto uso de insumos externos (véase Uniformity in Diversity por IPES Food).

Pero Pinker, con su caracter√≠stico optimismo, a√Īade que aunque el cambio clim√°tico es el problema m√°s grave del mundo, puede resolverse si realmente trabajamos en eso.

Esto nos lleva de nuevo a la granja de la familia Gangotena, que crea puestos de trabajo y produce abundantes alimentos saludables, a la vez que extrae el carbono del aire donde hace da√Īo y lo pone bajo tierra donde hace bien.  

Leer m√°s

Pinker, Steven 2018 Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress. London: Penguin Books.

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.

Historia de blog relacionada

Out of space

Agradecimientos

Gracias a Pacho Gangotena y su familia por su esp√≠ritu generoso y por el ejemplo que nos dan, a Ross Borja y Pedro Oyarz√ļn de EkoRural por organizar la visita a la granja. EkoRural recibe apoyo de la Fundaci√≥n McKnight. Gracias a Ross Borja, Pedro Oyarz√ļn, Claire Nicklin, Pacho Gangotena, Paul Van Mele y Eric Boa por leer una versi√≥n anterior de esta relaci√≥n.

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: ‚ÄúWe have screwed up our planet, so if we could find another planet where we can live, we can avoid making the same mistakes.‚ÄĚ

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 ‚ÄúDirt. The Erosion of Civilizations‚ÄĚ, 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 (‚Äúwhite mill‚ÄĚ) 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‚Äôs 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.

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