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Principles matter July 18th, 2021 by

In this age of restricted travel, when webinars have taken the place of conferences, at first I missed face-to-face meetings a lot. But virtual events do allow one to get exposed to far more ideas than before. This is also the case when digital learning is introduced to farmers. Farmers are increasingly getting information online, like videos. But the videos have to be properly designed. Unlike following a cooking recipe on a Youtube video, in agriculture, recipes must be accompanied by basic principles, so that farmers can decide how to experiment with the new ideas.

I was reminded of this recently during a webinar on the Community-Based Natural Farming Programme in Andhra Pradesh, India. One of the speakers was Vijay Kumar, one of the driving forces behind the programme, which aims to scale up agroecology to millions of farmers in Andhra Pradesh. Vijay is a humble, highly-respected former civil servant. He is much in demand, so meeting him in person would be a challenge, but introduced by a mutual colleague, I was fortunate to have already met him several times on Zoom. Vijay appreciates that Access Agriculture stands for quality training videos that enable South-South learning. According to him, the collaboration with Access Agriculture offers opportunities to help scale community-based natural farming from India to Africa and beyond. It is fortunate to have strong allies who understand the challenges of scaling and that to be cost-effective, one cannot simply visit all the world’s farmers in person.

Still, many people think that farmers can only learn from fellow farmers who live nearby and speak the same language, and that training videos are only useful when they are made locally. The many experiences from local partners with Access Agriculture training videos show that farmers do learn from their peers across cultures, on different continents. Farmers are motivated when they see how fellow farmers in other parts of the world solve their own problems. Access Agriculture videos are effective across borders in part because they explain the scientific principles behind technologies, and not just show how to do things. Vijay is convinced that scientific knowledge and farmer knowledge need to go hand in hand to promote agroecology.

The second speaker at the natural farming conference was Walter Jehne, a renowned Australian soil microbiologist, who talked about the need to build up soil organic matter and micro-organisms as a way to revive soils and cool the planet. I was pleased that he also stressed the importance of principles. When one of the Indian participants asked Walter if he could provide the recipe, he smilingly and patiently explained: “We should focus on the underlying principles, as principles apply across the globe, irrespective of where you are. You need organic matter, you need to build up good soil micro-organisms and make use of natural growth promotors. If a recipe tells you to use cow dung, but you don’t have cows, what can you do? If for instance you have reindeer, their dung will work just as well. You don’t have to be dogmatic about it.”  In two of my earlier blogs (Trying it yourself and Reviving soils) I did exactly do that back home: use ingredients that were available to me: sheep dung, leaves of oak trees in the garden, wheat straw, and so on, but building on ideas from Indian farmers.

Farmers have creative minds and this creativity is fed by basic principles: while recipes surely help, a better understanding of underlying scientific principles are what matter most when it comes down to adaptation to local contexts. We, at Access Agriculture are thrilled to join Andhra Pradesh’s efforts to spread Community-Based Natural Farming across the globe.

Related webinars

365 Days Green Cover & Pre-Monsoon Dry Sowing (PMDS) – Walter Jehne – Streamed on 6th July 12:30 pm

Restoring the water cycles to cool the climate

Related blogs

Trying it yourself

Reviving soils

Effective micro-organisms

Friendly germs

Earthworms from India to Bolivia

A revolution for our soil

Damaging the soil and our health with chemical reductionism

Related videos

Good microbes for plants and soil

Organic biofertilizer in liquid and solid form

Coir pith

Mulch for a better soil and crop

Vermiwash: an organic tonic for crops

Making a vermicompost bed

Inspiring video platforms

Access Agriculture: hosts over 220 training videos in over 90 languages on a diversity of crops and livestock, sustainable soil and water management, basic food processing, etc. Each video describes underlying principles, as such encouraging people to experiment with new ideas.

EcoAgtube: a social media video platform where anyone from across the globe can upload their own videos related to natural farming and circular economy.

Zoom to Titicaca June 6th, 2021 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación

Covid may be the world’s most spectacular emerging disease, but agriculture has its own new pests and diseases. Fortunately, collaboration between agronomists and farmers can offer solutions, as I saw in a recent meeting on the shores of Lake Titicaca.

This is 2021, so we met on Zoom, but I was struck by how much the meeting resembled others I have attended in person with farmers and agronomists.

Ing. Sonia Laura, a researcher from Prosuco who works closely with farmers, had driven out to the village of Iquichachi, a couple of hours from La Paz. Sonia set up the call on her laptop, and the farmers (Sra. Cristina, Sra. Arminda, Sr. Juan, Sr. Paulino, Sr. Zenobio, and Sr. Fidel) all managed to squeeze onto the screen. Bundled up in coats and hats against the high Andean cold, they explained how several years ago, they noticed a new worm eating the potatoes they store at home.

The moth lays its eggs on stored potatoes, and on potato plants in the field. The eggs hatch into caterpillars that go back and forth: from field to home in the harvest, and from storage to field with the seed.

The farmers showed some graphs of data they had been collecting with Sonia, under advice from Ing. Reinaldo Quispe, an agronomist from Proinpa, who joined the call from his office in La Paz. Reinaldo and the farmers had been using the sex scent (pheromone) of female moths to attract and trap the male moths. Each moth species has its own unique sex pheromone. Reinaldo had identified the pests, two related species of tuber moths, native to the Andes, but usually found in the lower, warmer valleys. Both species belong to a moth family that specializes in infesting stored foods.

The agronomist Raúl Ccanto joined us from Peru, from the NGO Yanapai. Raúl explained that Peruvian farmers had suffered from these two moths for many years. Over the years of working with the farmers, Yanapai and others had developed some practical solutions.

As Raúl explained, select the seed carefully. When you take seed from the house to plant in the field, make sure that you only plant healthy tubers, not the ones full of worms.

Also rotate your crops. “This is something you farmers have always done, but it’s important to say that it is a good thing.” Growing potatoes one year, followed by other roots and tubers (such as oca and papalisa, which are not of the potato family), and then other legumes and cereals, helps to keep the soil free of potato pests.

Raúl’s PowerPoint included the results of experiments, done in collaboration with Peruvian farmers, where they tried various ways to manage the moths in stored seed potato. One idea that worked well, and was also cheap, was to dust healthy seed potatoes with talc, which keeps the moths from laying their eggs in potatoes. The talc worked almost as well as malathion, the insecticide.

Raúl skipped lightly over the malathion, barely mentioning it, and for good reason. He had included the chemical treatment in the experiment as a comparison, but he was not promoting it. As Reinaldo explained, farmers often prefer insecticides and use them even in stored potatoes, which one should not do.

In fact, medical schools in Bolivia teach their third-year students to diagnose and treat malathion poisoning, because it is common. “This is something you’ll see,” the older doctors tell their students.

With any new pest or disease, it’s important to know where it came from. Raúl explained that the moths may have recently colonized the cold Altiplano, not just because of climate change, but also because people are bringing wormy seed in from fairs in distant parts of the country. And they are growing more potatoes. As more of the land is planted more often and over larger areas, to meet market demand, a more attractive environment is created for potato pests.

Yes, the farmers agreed, potatoes are being grown more often. And that is why it is crucial for scientists and farmers to put their heads together, to confirm useful ideas, from different perspectives.

The farmers wanted to know if there was something they could apply to their potatoes, to kill the moth. Raúl and Reinaldo both explained that there is no one thing that will manage the pest. It will have to be managed by rotating crops, and by selecting healthy seed. Other ideas like dusting the potatoes with talc will also help. The good news is that the moths can be managed.

It may be in human nature to yearn for simple solutions. Many of us have simply wished that Covid would go away, and that things would go back to normal. Like Covid, managing the tuber moth will require several good ideas, well explained, widely shared and applied.

In this case, the new information motivated the farmers to set up their own experiments. Sonia told me that after our call, the farmers met to reflect and take action. They decided that each one of them would select their seed, clean their potato storeroom, and sprinkle talc on the selected seed. They will keep using the pheromone traps, among other things. Later, they will explain these practices to their other community members, to take action as a group.

Scientific names

The tuber moths are Phthorimaea operculella and Symmetrischema tangolias (Lepidoptea: Gelechiidae).

Oca (Oxalis tuberosa) and papalisa (Ullucus tuberosus) are native Andean crops, not widely grown outside the region. The papalisa is also called “olluco” in Peru.

Talc is a clay mineral, magnesium silicate, a natural stone that is ground to make a powder.

Acknowledgements

Sonia Laura works with María Quispe at Prosuco (Promoción de la Sustentabilidad y Conocimientos Compartidos) in La Paz.

Raúl Ccanto works at Grupo Yanapai (meaning “to help” in Quechua), in Peru.

Reinaldo Quispe works at Proinpa (Fundación para la Promoción e Investigación de Productos Andinos), Bolivia.

The work with the Andean tuber moths is supported by the McKnight Foundation’s CCRP (Collaborative Crop Research Program).

Thanks to Sonia Laura and to Paul Van Mele for reading a previous version of this story.

Photos

Thanks also to Sonia Laura for her beautiful photographs.

ZOOM AL TITICACA

Por Jeff Bentley, 6 de junio del 2021

El Covid-19 podría ser la enfermedad nueva más espectacular del mundo, pero la agricultura tiene sus propias plagas y enfermedades emergentes. Afortunadamente, la colaboración entre agrónomos y agricultores puede ofrecer soluciones, como vi en una reciente reunión a orillas del Lago Titicaca.

Estamos en el 2021, así que nos reunimos por Zoom, pero me sorprendió lo mucho que se parecía la reunión a otras a las que he asistido en persona con agricultores y agrónomos.

La Ing. Sonia Laura, una investigadora de Prosuco, que trabaja estrechamente con los agricultores, había ido en camioneta hasta la comunidad rural de Iquicachi, a un par de horas de La Paz. Sonia organizó la llamada en su laptop, y los agricultores (las y los señores Cristina, Arminda y Juan, Paulino, Zenobio, Fidel,) se hicieron entrar todos en la pantalla. Abrigados con chompas y gorros contra el frío altoandino, explicaron que hace pocos años se dieron cuenta de que un nuevo gusano se comía las papas que almacenaban en sus casas.

La polilla de papa pone sus huevos en las papas almacenadas y en las plantas de papas en el campo. De los huevos nacen gusanos del campo, que van a casa en la cosecha, y del almacén regresan a la chacra con la semilla.

Los agricultores mostraron algunos gráficos de datos que habían estado recopilando con Sonia, bajo la orientación del Ing. Reinaldo Quispe, de Proinpa, quien se unió a la llamada desde su oficina en La Paz. Sonia y los agricultores habían estado usando el olor sexual (feromona) de las polillas hembras para atraer y atrapar a las polillas macho. Cada especie de polilla tiene su propia feromona sexual. Reinaldo había identificado las plagas, dos especies relacionadas de polillas del tubérculo, nativas de los Andes, pero que suelen encontrarse en los valles más bajos y cálidos. Ambas especies pertenecen a una familia de polillas especializada en infestar alimentos almacenados.

Desde Perú nos acompañó el agrónomo Raúl Ccanto, de la ONG Yanapai. Raúl explicó que los agricultores peruanos habían sufrido estas dos polillas durante muchos años. A lo largo de sus años de trabajo con los agricultores, Yanapai y otros han desarrollado algunas soluciones prácticas.

Como explicó Raúl, hay que seleccionar la semilla con cuidado. Cuando saques la semilla de la casa para sembrarla, asegúrate de plantar sólo los tubérculos sanos, no los que están llenos de gusanos.

También hay que rotar los cultivos. “Esto es algo que ustedes los agricultores siempre han hecho, pero es importante decir que es bueno que lo hagan”. Lo que ayuda a mantener el suelo libre de plagas de la papa es cultivarlas solo un año, seguido de otras raíces y tubérculos (como la oca y la papalisa, que no son de la familia de la papa), y luego sembrar leguminosas y cereales.

La presentación de Raúl incluyó los resultados de los experimentos, realizados en colaboración con agricultores peruanos, en los que se probaron varias formas de controlar las polillas en los almacenes de semillas de papa. Una idea que funcionó bien, y que además era barata, fue rociar la papa seleccionada con talco, que impide que las polillas pongan sus huevos en las papas. El talco funcionaba casi tan bien como el malatión, el insecticida.

Raúl pasó por alto el malatión; apenas lo mencionó, y con razón. Había incluido el tratamiento químico en el experimento como comparación, pero no lo promovía. Como explicó Reinaldo, los agricultores suelen preferir los insecticidas y los usan incluso en las papas almacenadas, lo cual no se debe hacer.

De hecho, las facultades de medicina de Bolivia enseñan a sus estudiantes de tercer año a diagnosticar y tratar la intoxicación por malatión, porque es algo común. “Esto es algo que van a ver”, dicen los doctores a sus alumnos.

Con cualquier plaga o enfermedad nueva, es importante saber de dónde viene. Raúl explicó que las polillas pueden haber colonizado recientemente el frío Altiplano, no sólo por el cambio climático, sino también porque la gente está trayendo semillas agusanadas de ferias en otras partes del país. Y están cultivando más papas sobre mayor superficie. A medida que se siembra más seguido y en más área, para satisfacer la demanda del mercado, se crea un ambiente más atractivo para las plagas de la papa.

Sí, los agricultores reconocieron que hoy en día las papas se cultivan más seguido. Y por eso es crucial que científicos y agricultores compartan sus ideas, para confirmar las que son útiles.

Los agricultores querían saber si había algo que pudieran aplicar a sus papas para matar la polilla. Raúl y Reinaldo explicaron que no hay una sola cosa que la pueda manejar. Habrá que controlar la plaga mediante la rotación de cultivos y la buena selección de semillas. Otras ideas, como aplicar talco a las papas, también ayudarán. La buena noticia es que las polillas sí tienen solución.

Tal vez algo en la naturaleza humana anhela las soluciones sencillas. Muchos hemos deseado que el Covid desaparezca de una sola vez, y que las cosas vuelvan a la normalidad. Al igual que el Covid, el manejo de la polilla de la papa requerirá varias buenas ideas, bien explicadas, ampliamente compartidas y competentemente aplicadas.

En este caso, la nueva información motivó la gente a armar sus propios experimentos. Sonia me informa que se reunieron para reflexionar y tomar acuerdos. Decidieron que cada persona del grupo haría la selección de semilla. Limpiaría su almacén de papas, y pondría talco en las papas seleccionadas. Seguirán con las trampas con feromonas, entre otras cosas. Luego comunicarán estas prácticas en una reunión con toda la comunidad para tener un trabajo comunal en el control de esta plaga.

Nombres científicos

Las polillas de la papa son Phthorimaea operculella y Symmetrischema tangolias (Lepidoptea: Gelechiidae).

La oca (Oxalis tuberosa) y la papalisa (Ullucus tuberosus) son cultivos nativos andinos, poco cultivados fuera de la región. La papalisa también se llama “olluco” en el Perú.

El talco es silicato de magnesio. Es una piedra natural que se muele para obtener el polvo. Como explica Raúl Ccanto, es un “mineral no metálico”.

Agradecimientos

Sonia Laura trabaja con María Quispe en Prosuco (Promoción de la Sustentabilidad y Conocimientos Compartidos) en La Paz.

Raúl Ccanto trabaja en el Grupo Yanapai (que significa “ayudar” en quechua), en el Perú.

Reinaldo Quispe trabaja en Proinpa (Fundación para la Promoción e Investigación de Productos Andinos), en Bolivia.

El trabajo con las polillas de la papa está apoyado por el CCRP (Programa Colaborativo de Investigación de Cultivos) de la Fundación McKnight.

Gracias a Sonia Laura y a Paul Van Mele por leer una versión previa de este relato.

Fotos

Gracias también a Sonia Laura por sus hermosas fotos.

Against or with nature February 14th, 2021 by

Ask any tourist what comes to mind when they think of the Netherlands and there is a good chance they will say “windmills”. Ask any agricultural professional what the Netherlands is known for and they may mention “water management” and “dairy” (you know, the big round cheeses). Few people may realize how these are all intricately interwoven, and how their interaction over time has created an environmental disaster.

In his thought-provoking book Against the Grain, James Scott draws on earlier work of anthropologists and archaeologists to provide some insights into how early humans changed their environment to source food from closer to home. Through controlled fires, certain plants and wildlife species were favoured, while cooking enabled our ancestors to extract more nutrients from plants and animals than was previously possible. The very act of domesticating plants, animals and fire, in a sense also domesticated us as a species. While modern cows and many of our crops can no longer survive without us, we can no longer survive without them. Besides fire, people also relied heavily on water. In fact, everywhere in the world, ancient peoples first settled near rivers or at the fringes of wetlands which, along with the nearby forests, provided a rich variety of food.

Agricultural technology was fairly stable for centuries, but slowly began to change in medieval times, which brings us back to the windmill. While fixed windmills were found in Flanders by the 11th century, they were mainly used to grind grain. In the 1600s a Dutchman, Cornelis Corneliszoon van Uitgeest, added a crankshaft, an Arab invention, to convert the rotating movement of a windmill into an up-and-down one. Windmills could now also be used to saw wood, and to pump water. Soon the landscape was dotted with thousands of windmills. The now so typical Dutch landscape of peat grasslands and ditches is a manmade ecosystem shaped through drainage by windmills. The new pastures with lowered groundwater tables were especially apt for dairy farming, serving what became the world-renown Dutch dairy sector.

The drainage of the wetlands sounds like a great agronomic achievement, but a Dutch veterinarian Katrien van ‘t Hooft, director of Dutch Farm Experience, recently showed me the other side of the coin. The continuous drainage of surface water and lowered groundwater table, combined with modern dairy farming and use of tractors, has caused a drop in the peatland. The land has been sinking several centimeters per year for a long time, faster than the rise in sea level. Projections are that under current management the peat soils will further sink 2 meters before 2050, and become a major threat to the country. Although the Dutch government is taking urgent measures to restore the groundwater table, the challenges do not stop there.

As drained peat releases CO2, the Dutch government has set up a scheme to reward farmers who help raise the groundwater table. But wet pastures require a very different management, as farmers are now beginning to learn. When collecting hay on wet pasture, overloaded machines risk getting stuck. Maize cannot be grown, because this water-loving crop lowers the groundwater level in the peat land. The typical Holstein-Friesian cow, commonly used in the Netherlands for its high milk production, requires maize and concentrated feed. In the peat lands it is therefore now being crossed with ‘old fashioned’ local cattle breeds, such as Blister Head (Blaarkop) and MRY (Maas-Rijn-Ijssel breed). These so-called dual purpose cows yield milk and meat, perform well on plant-rich pastures and have the benefit that they can produce milk with minimal use of concentrated feed.

However, as the peat pastures need to become wetter again, these cows are increasingly suffering from some ‘old diseases’, including intestinal worms and the liver fluke, which spends part of its life cycle in mud snails. Farmers are using anthelmintics (anti-worm chemicals) to control this, but the anthelmintics to control liver fluke are forbidden in adult cows, for milk safety reasons. Moreover, just as with antibiotics, the internal parasites are quickly building up resistance against anthelminitics, and the dairy sector is forced to rethink its position of always trying to control nature.

Now here comes a twist in the story. As Katrien explained to me, these common animal diseases used to be managed by appropriate grassland management, use of resilient cattle breeds and strategic use of (herbal) medicines.  But most of this traditional knowledge has been lost over the past decades. With a group of passionate veterinary doctors and dairy farmers, Katrien has established a network with colleagues in the Netherlands, Ethiopia, Uganda and India to promote natural livestock farming. Inspired by ethnoveterinary doctors from India, Dutch veterinary doctors and dairy farmers have gained an interest in looking at herbs, both for animal medicine and for enriching grassland pastures to boost the animals’ immune system. Together they have developed the so-called NLF 5-layer approach to reduce the use of antibiotics, anthelmintics and other chemicals in dairy farming.

Resistance to chemical drugs used in livestock, whether against bacteria, fungi, ticks or intestinal worms, will have a dramatic effect on people. For example, the bacteria that gain resistance to antibiotics in animals become ‘superbugs’, that are also resistant to antibiotics in human patients. The abuse of antibiotics in livestock can ruin these life-saving drugs for people.

James Scott describes in his book that when we started intensifying our food production thousands of years ago, we lost an encyclopaedia of knowledge based on living with and from nature. In the same vein, traditional knowledge of agriculture has been eroding since the mid twentieth century, with intensification brought on by machinery and chemicals, like the Dutch dairy farmers who lost most of their folk knowledge about plants and the ‘old’ cattle diseases.

While the challenges are rising, it is fortunate that the 21st century humans are able to learn from each other’s experiences at a scale and speed unseen in history. Dutch dairy farmers are not the only ones to have lost traditional knowledge. It has happened across the globe, and more efforts are needed to help make such worthwhile initiatives of knowledge-sharing go viral (as a matter of speaking).

Credit

Katrien van ‘t Hooft kindly reviewed earlier drafts of this blog and provided photographs.

Related Agro-Insight blogs

Veterinarians and traditional animal health care

Watching videos to become a dairy expert

Trying it yourself

Stuck in the middle

Kicking the antibiotic habit

Why people drink cow’s milk

Big chicken, little chicken

Further information

James C. Scott. 2017. Against The Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States. New Haven: Yale University Press, pp. 312.

The Foundation for Natural Livestock Farming. https://www.naturallivestockfarming.com/

Dutch Farm Experience – Lessons learnt in Dutch Dairy Farming https://www.dutchfarmexperience.com/

Groen Kennisnet wiki: Herbs and herbal medicines for livestock (in Dutch) https://wiki.groenkennisnet.nl/display/KGM/Kruiden+voor+landbouwhuisdieren

https://www.natuurlijkeveehouderij.nl/kennisbank/

Watch Access Agriculture videos on herbal medicine in animal healthcare

Keeping sheep healthy

Deworming goats and sheep with herbal medicines

Herbal treatment for diarrhoea

Herbal medicine against fever in livestock

Herbal medicine against mastitis

Natural ways to manage bloat in livestock

Managing cattle ticks

Keeping milk free from antibiotics

Of fertilizers and immigration February 7th, 2021 by

Chemical or mineral fertilizers have long been touted by agro-industry and by governments as a necessity to feed the growing world population. Sixty years after the start of the Green Revolution, the damage caused to farmland, surface water and groundwater, biodiversity and farmers’ livelihoods has forced policy-makers in India and in the European Union to curb the over-use of fertilizers and encourage more environmentally-friendly ways of farming. But fertilizers have also affected immigration in various ways.

Immigration can be triggered by political suppression or economic hardship, often aggravated by climate change. But rural folks across the globe are also under increased pressure due to the rising costs of agricultural inputs, such as chemical fertilizers and animal feed. While recently some European farmers have decided to migrate to other countries, the high rate of suicides among farmers in both Europe and India is shocking. Despite these alarming events, the promotion of fertilizers in Africa goes on. As with the dumping of obsolete pesticides banned in Europe because of their high toxicity, the agro-industry has also turned to Africa to further increase their profits from selling fertilizers.

One of the problems is that for far too long researchers have been focusing on yields instead of on farmers’ profits and building healthy soils that can sustain farming in the long run. At a recent virtual conference organized by the European Commission, researchers from the Swiss Research Institute on Organic Agriculture (FiBL) presented results from a 12-year study looking at various cropping systems in tropical countries. Soil organic carbon was on average 20-50% higher in organic farms compared to conventional farms. While the yields of organic systems can match or outperform conventional systems, proper use of N-fixing legumes, organic manure and good agricultural practices is key to improve productivity.

Fertilizer promotion by governments or development projects have mostly benefited local elites and better-off farmers thereby adding to social inequality. Modern cereal varieties have been bred for responsiveness to chemical fertilizer. At the beginning of the Green Revolution in the 1960s, rice, maize and wheat farmers who opted for the full package (modern high-yielding crop varieties, fertilizer and pesticides) initially were able to boost their yield. But while the increased production led to lower market prices, they also became increasingly indebted to moneylenders and banks.

International researchers have now turned their attention to roots and tubers. The poor person’s crop, cassava, could yield up to 50 tons per hectare, about four to five times the current average yield, if chemical fertilizers were used. Again, it will be mainly the larger farmers who stand to benefit as they capture the market. Smallholders stand to lose and, along with their children, turn to seek other livelihood options.

Cities in Africa are bursting and offer few economic opportunities, so it is of little wonder that people seek greener horizons. Regional migration is a common strategy to survive. According to the latest report of the International Organization for Migration (IOM 2020 report, page 318), land degradation, land tenure insecurity and lack of rainfall are major drivers of environment-induced migration for people from West and North Africa. The European narrative framing migration as primarily “economic” often overlooks key factors, such as climate and environmental drivers of migration.

But environmental damage does not only happen where chemical or mineral fertilizers are used. It also happens where fertilizers are produced, but this remains often hidden.

The site of secondary mining of Phosphate rock in Nauru, 2007. Photo: Lorrie Graham

Nauru, a Pacific island, was a good place to live when it gained independence from Australia in 1968. However, in just three decades of surface-mining, the island was stripped of its soil, to get at the rock phosphate (for fertilizer). Now there is no place to grow crops. Ironically, Nauru’s entire population has become dependent on imported fast food from Australia. More than 70 percent of Nauruans are obese, and the country struggles to reinstall backyard gardening and encourage young people to eat plants. The mining of fertilizer and bad governance turned the smallest and once richest republic in the world into the most environmentally ravaged nation on earth: Nauru had little choice but to accept Australia’s offer to host ousted asylum seekers, often immigrants from Indonesia, in return for money.

While some people and donors are still convinced that a Green Revolution industrial model of agriculture is the way forward for Africa, one should pause and look at the consequences of mining and using chemical (mineral) fertilizer. If we want to keep people on their land, we have to support healthy food systems that nurture the soil and keep it healthy and productive.

Further reading

Bhullar, G.S., Bautze, D., Adamtey, N., Armengot, L., Cicek, H., Goldmann, E., Riar, A., Rüegg, J., Schneider, M. and Huber, B. (2021) What is the contribution of organic agriculture to sustainable development? A synthesis of twelve years (2007-2019) of the “long-term farming systems comparisons in the tropics (SysCom)”. Frick, Switzerland: Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FiBL).

LoFaso, Julia (2014) Destroyed by Fertilizer, A Tiny Island Tries to Replant. Modern Farmer. https://modernfarmer.com/2014/03/tiny-island-destroyed-fertilizer-tries-replant/

International Organization for Migration (2020). Migration in West and North Africa and across the Mediterranean. International Organization for Migration, Geneva.

Related Agro-Insight blogs

Stuck in the middle

Reviving soils

A revolution for our soil

Gardening against all odds

Encouraging microorganisms that improve the soil

Farming with trees

Out of space

Offbeat urban fertilizer

Related Access Agriculture videos

Organic biofertilizer in liquid and solid form

Good microbes for plants and soil

Human urine as fertilizer

Using sack mounds to grow vegetables

Can Andean farmers predict the weather accurately? January 3rd, 2021 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación

In the Peruvian Andes, in the southern hemisphere’s summer of 1990-91, a researcher named Ricardo Claverías wondered if local people really could predict the weather. In 1990, before the crops were planted, Claverías interviewed a random sample of 32 farmers living near the shores of Lake Titicaca. As they do every year, these farmers observed the stars, the birds, animals, cactus and other plants to predict the agricultural season.

Each individual farmer looked at several “indicators” or signs of nature, and some people were better observers than others, but 59% of Claverías’ sample predicted a normal or a dry year. However, 16% had still not formed an opinion, so 70% of those who had made their forecast at the time of the study told Claverías it would be a normal year, although perhaps a little dry.

Even though 70% of the sampled farmers is a clear majority, the prediction was not unanimous. In effect, it did turn out to be a slightly dry year, but it was complicated. The rains were below average, but there was little frost, so the main crops and animals thrived (potatoes, quinoa, llamas and sheep). In general, the study reconfirmed farmers’ predictions.

A few years later, Claverías had an excellent opportunity to compare scientific and peasant forecasts for an agricultural season.

In July of 1997, weather experts met in Lima, to discuss the upcoming El Niño event, which they could foresee by the rise in ocean temperatures off the Peruvian coast. The experts predicted massive flooding in the Amazon Basin, and along the Pacific Coast, but in Peru’s section of the Altiplano, the high plains in the south, there would be a devastating drought, an opinion seconded by a meeting of international meteorologists in Lima in October of that year.

In 1997, Claverías didn’t have time to do as complete a study as he had done seven years earlier, but he did ask some farmers on the Altiplano how the upcoming summer season of 1997-98 would unfold. He also asked agronomists who were in close contact with farmers. These folk forecasts were mainly for a good year. Farmers especially noticed the various species of birds that nested in the totora, a plant in the shallow waters of Titicaca.

Every year the lake waters rise and fall with changes in the rainfall. The birds build their nests in the totora above the water, in the dry season. If the birds sense a wet year, they make their nests high on the totora plants. If the birds feel a dry year coming on, they build their nests low, close to the water. In 1997, the bird nests were fairly high, and the farmers did not believe there would be a drought.

It turns out that the scientific predictions were right, on the coast, which was drenched in floods. But on the Altiplano the drought never came. The rains were a bit below normal during the September-to-May growing season, but certainly within the normal range. The harvests were good, and with the devastation brought on other regions, prices were high and the farmers were able to make money by selling any surplus they had.

Claverías argued for more and better studies to verify local weather prediction. I’m not sure that there have been many follow-up studies in the 20 years since he wrote his unpublished paper. Such research would take a bit of time and effort, but it could be done in a year or two, ideal for a thesis project, and the method is straightforward. Besides, such a study could be done in other parts of the world, not just in the Andes.

Method to verify local weather prediction knowledge

1. Compile the indicators that farmers in your study area use to predict the weather.

2. Ask a few dozen farmers for their forecasts before the agricultural season begins.

3. Compile weather data and farm production figures as the year unfolds.

A few such studies would reject or confirm the hypothesis that folk meteorology can predict the weather for a whole season at a time—a task that normal science still cannot do, El Niño years aside. The practical results would be of value for the whole agricultural sector.

Claverías’ paper has been cited 35 times (well, now 36), which is respectable for a publication, but outstanding for a manuscript that was never published. Any future weather paper would no doubt appeal to a large audience.

Further reading

Claverías, Ricardo 2000 Conocimientos de los Campesinos Andinos sobre los Predictores Climáticos: Elementos para su Verificación. Paper read at the Seminary-Workshop organized by the NOAA Project (Missouri). Chucuito, Puno, Perú.

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¿LA GENTE ANDINA RURAL PUEDE PRONOSTICAR EL TIEMPO DE VERDAD?

Por Jeff Bentley, 3 de enero del 2021

En los Andes peruanos, en el verano de 1990-91, un investigador llamado Ricardo Claverías se preguntó si la gente local realmente podía pronosticar el clima. En 1990, antes de que se sembraran sus chacras, Claverías se entrevistó con una muestra al azar de 32 agricultores que vivían cerca del lago Titicaca. Como lo hacen todos los años, estos agricultores observaron las estrellas, los pájaros, los animales, los cactus y otras plantas para predecir el tiempo duranta la campaña agrícola.

Cada agricultor individual observó varios “indicadores” o signos de la naturaleza, y algunas personas fueron mejores observadores que otras, pero el 59% de la muestra de Claverías predijo un año normal o seco. Sin embargo, el 16% aún no se había formado una opinión, por lo que el 70% de los que habían hecho su pronóstico en el momento del estudio le dijeron a Claverías que sería un año normal, aunque tal vez un poco seco.

Aunque el 70% de los agricultores de la muestra es una clara mayoría, la predicción no fue unánime. En efecto, resultó ser un año ligeramente seco, pero era complicado. Las lluvias eran un poco inferiores al promedio, pero hubo pocas heladas, por lo que hubo una buena producción de los principales cultivos y animales (papas, quinua, llamas y ovejas). En general, el estudio reconfirmó las predicciones de los agricultores.

Unos años más tarde, Claverías tuvo una excelente oportunidad de comparar los pronósticos científicos y campesinos para una temporada agrícola.

En julio del 1997, los meteorólogos se reunieron en Lima, para discutir el próximo evento de El Niño, que podían prever por el aumento de las temperaturas del mar en la costa peruana. Los expertos predijeron inundaciones masivas en la cuenca amazónica y a lo largo de la costa del Pacífico, pero en Altiplano del Perú, las altas llanuras del sur, habría una sequía devastadora, opinión que fue secundada por una reunión de meteorólogos internacionales en Lima en octubre de ese año.

En 1997, Claverías no tuvo tiempo de hacer un estudio tan completo como el que había hecho siete años antes, pero sí preguntó a algunos agricultores del Altiplano cómo se desarrollaría la próxima temporada del verano de 1997-98. También preguntó a los agrónomos que estaban en estrecho contacto con los agricultores. Estas predicciones populares eran principalmente para un buen año. Los agricultores se fijaron especialmente en las diversas especies de aves que anidaban en la totora, una planta de las aguas poco profundas del Titicaca.

Cada año las aguas del lago suben y bajan con los cambios en la lluvia. Los pájaros construyen sus nidos en las totoras, sobre el agua, durante la época seca. Si las aves perciben un año lluvioso, hacen sus nidos en lo alto de las totoras. Si sienten que viene un año seco, construyen sus nidos bajo, cerca del nivel del agua. En 1997, los nidos de las aves estaban bastante altos, y la gente rural no creían que habría una sequía.

Resulta que las predicciones científicas eran correctas, en la costa, que estaba devastada por las inundaciones. Pero en el Altiplano, la sequía nunca llegó. Las lluvias estuvieron un poco por debajo de lo normal durante la campaña agrícola de septiembre a mayo, pero siempre dentro del rango normal. Las cosechas fueron buenas, y con la destrucción causada en otras regiones, los precios de los alimentos fueron altos y los agricultores ganaban dinero vendiendo cualquier excedente que tuvieran.

Claverías abogó por más y mejores estudios para verificar el pronóstico meteorológico local. Dudo que haya habido muchos estudios de seguimiento en los 20 años desde que escribió su trabajo. Tal investigación tomaría un poco de tiempo y esfuerzo, pero podría hacerse en un año o dos, ideal para un proyecto de tesis, y el método es claro. Además, se podría hacer el estudio en otras partes del mundo, no sólo en los Andes.

Método para verificar el conocimiento meteorológico local

1. Compile los indicadores que los agricultores de su zona usan para pronosticar el tiempo.

2. Pida diagnósticos a unas docenas de personas rurales antes de que empiece la campaña agrícola.

3. Compile los datos meteorológicos y de producción agrícola a medida que pase el año.

Unos pocos estudios de este tipo rechazarían o confirmarían la hipótesis de que la meteorología popular puede pronosticar el tiempo para todo un año en un momento dado, una tarea que la ciencia normal todavía no puede hacer, excepto tal vez en años de El Niño. Los resultados prácticos serían valiosos para todo el sector agrícola.

El trabajo de Claverías ha sido citado 35 veces (bueno, ahora 36), lo que es respetable para una publicación, pero es mucho para un manuscrito inédito. Cualquier futura publicación científica sobre la meteorología popular sin duda atraería a un buen público.

Further reading

Claverías, Ricardo 2000 Conocimientos de los Campesinos Andinos sobre los Predictores Climáticos: Elementos para su Verificación. Trabajo presentado en el Seminario-Taller organizado por el Proyecto NOAA (Missouri). Chucuito, Puno, Perú.

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