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Organic Sri Lanka October 17th, 2021 by

Nederlandse versie hieronder

We are all familiar with organic milk, organic fruit and vegetables, or organic chocolate, but when one reads “Organic Sri Lanka”, one may have difficulty grasping what this really is about. For sure, it cannot mean that the entire country is organic. Or does it?

Indeed. As of April 2021, triggered by a wave of kidney diseases among its rice farmers, the Sri Lankan government took a brave decision to ban all imports of chemical fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides, and to to transition to organic and ecological farming.

Sri Lanka is an island country in South Asia. Political unrest and ethnic divides between Tamil and Sinhalese ethnicities led to a 30-year civil war, which ended only in 2009. Blessed with gorgeous scenery and plenty of arable and fertile land, Sri Lanka has been able to develop a stable economy, mainly based on tourism, textiles, rice and tea, of which it is the second-largest exporter in the world.

However, for decades, Sri Lankan agricultural policies had supported high-input agriculture, providing free irrigation and subsidised chemical fertilizer, thereby slowly undermining the country’s rich natural resource base: the people, land and water on which farming depends. The damage had been largely unnoticed until more recently.

In 1995, when I was teaching tropical agriculture at the University of Ghent, I was fortunate to have a chance to live and work for a couple of months in this beautiful country, to backstop a project funded by the European Union. The project focused on weed management, and I was asked to use numerical vegetation ecology as a research method to assess weed populations in farmers’ fields in relation to environmental factors and farmers’ practices.

Each week I travelled to a different part of the country and spent days in the rural areas, interviewing farmers and visiting their fields. It was an intense period, often with little sleep as accommodation was basic or even missing, but at the same time it re-enforced my passion to be in the field, working with smallholder farmers.

After returning back home in Belgium and analysing the data, I came to a staggering conclusion, which I wrote down in one of my first papers, presented at an international conference. The grassy weed Echinochloa crus-galli was highly prevalent in the Mahaweli Development Programme, the largest irrigation scheme in the country where rice was grown with a high input of herbicides and fertilizer. As with the other grass E. colonum, it seemed resistant towards the herbicides used. The many years of spraying propanil had led to resistance for two of the world’s most troublesome weeds. Propanil is a contact herbicide, it kills weeds upon contact with little damage to the crop. It is sold under many different brand names, and has been widely used across the globe over the past 60 years.

While in the early days Monsanto tried to file a patent for propanil, the herbicide continues to be widely used across the world, produced and marketed by Bayer (which bought Monsanto in 2016). Propanil is also made by Dow AgroSciences, various Chinese agrochemical companies, as well as the Indian Bharat Group and United Phosphorus. Environmental and human health hazards caused by agrochemicals take time to manifest themselves, and the cocktails of chemicals applied to farmers’ fields further complicate measuring the poison’s effects. On top of that, once applied, pesticides (including herbicides) are broken down into smaller units, called metabolites, which are often unknown to science and therefore easily escape the tests. Yet, metabolites are often more toxic and more persistent than the parent compound. These complications partly explain why multinational companies can continue their devastating business.

According to a report by the NGO Pesticide Action Network, propanil, along with various other pesticides, can be measured in various amounts in the rain in Asia, North America, Europe, and Latin America. “Pesticides travel thousands of kilometres through the air; they are carried through rivers and seas to distant locations; they are having a devastating effect on biodiversity including beneficial insects; they are undermining the sustainability of food production systems; they kill an unknown number of farmers, workers, children and animals every year; they alter gene pools; and they are costing society billions of dollars in adverse impacts (Pesticide Action Network 2015).”

Chemical fertilizers and pesticides contain heavy metals, such as cadmium, arsenic, chromium, cobalt, lead and nickel, which are known to be toxic and endocrine disruptors. These heavy metals are not listed on the labels as they are considered minor contaminants. Yet, heavy metals accumulate in the soil with repeated applications of agrochemicals.

For years civil society and journalists in Sri Lanka have signalled the devastating effects of agrochemicals; a revealing article in the Colombo Telegraph shows that already in 1998, the Sri Lanka Farmer Forum comprising of over 320 delegates, warned that the current trends in agricultural research were creating a “complete dependence of high-input crops that robbed us of crop independence”.

No one really listened. At least not until the hard evidence of human health hazards and the damage caused to soil and water could no longer be denied.

Organic and ecological farming is knowledge intensive. It is sobering to see how the traditional knowledge farmers in Sri Lanka have developed over thousands of years has been eroded by several decades of chemical agriculture.

Yet the agrochemical industry is not planning to let go of it easily. In less than 6 months after the President declared the country to go 100% organic, lobby groups of the industry have led a media campaign to create the impression that Sri Lanka’s food crisis is the result of the nation’s shift towards organic farming. Fortunately, the President has so far stood firm against the panic being created in the name of growing food insecurity.

To retrain farmers on the management of lands without toxins and heavy energy and to rebuild soil fertility, farmers in Sri Lanka can learn from their fellow farmers in other countries. At the same time, also the agricultural extension and education systems need to drastically change. That is why our non-profit organisation, Access Agriculture, decided to support the government of Sri Lanka by partnering with the Lankan Organic Agriculture Movement (LOAM) and translating many of its farmer-to-farmer training videos into the local languages. Such learning tools will prove to be a great support to the current and future generations of farmers, extension staff and scientists who will need to do research in a more collaborative way with farmers.

More info

Devinder Sharma. 2021. Sri Lanka goes organic. The Tribune. https://www.tribuneindia.com/news/comment/sri-lanka-goes-organic-318938

Ranil Senanayake. 2015. Restoring sustainability to Sri Lankan agriculture. Colombo Telegraph. https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/restoring-sustainability-to-sri-lankan-agriculture/

Vineet Kumar. 2021. Sri Lanka’s inorganic transition to organic farming. DownToEarth. https://www.downtoearth.org.in/news/agriculture/sri-lanka-s-inorganic-transition-to-organic-farming-79532

Related Agro-Insight blogs

Principles matter

Silent Spring, better living through biology

Roundup: ready to move on?

Inspiring 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.

 

Biologisch Sri Lanka

We zijn allemaal vertrouwd met biologische melk, biologische groenten en fruit, of biologische chocolade, maar wanneer men “Biologisch Sri Lanka” leest, kan het moeilijk te vatten zijn wat dit nu eigenlijk inhoudt. Het kan toch niet betekenen dat het hele land biologisch is. Of toch?

Inderdaad. Vanaf april 2021 heeft de Sri Lankaanse regering, naar aanleiding van een golf van nierziekten onder haar rijstboeren, een moedig besluit genomen om alle invoer van kunstmest, pesticiden en herbiciden te verbieden, en over te schakelen op biologische landbouw.

Sri Lanka is een eilandstaat in Zuid-Azië. Politieke onrust en etnische verdeeldheid tussen de Tamil en Singalese bevolking leidden tot een 30 jaar durende burgeroorlog, die pas in 2009 eindigde. Gezegend met prachtige landschappen en veel vruchtbare landbouwgrond, is Sri Lanka erin geslaagd een stabiele economie te ontwikkelen, voornamelijk gebaseerd op toerisme, textiel, rijst en thee, waarvan het de op een na grootste exporteur ter wereld is.

Decennialang heeft het Sri Lankaanse landbouwbeleid echter een industrieel landbouwmodel ondersteund, met gratis irrigatie en gesubsidieerde kunstmest, waardoor de cruciale hulpbronnen van het land – de boeren, het land en het water waarvan de landbouw afhankelijk is – langzaam werden ondermijnd. De schade is lang grotendeels onopgemerkt gebleven.

In 1995, toen ik tropische landbouw doceerde aan de Universiteit van Gent, had ik het geluk een paar maanden in dit prachtige land te mogen wonen en werken, ter ondersteuning van een door de Europese Unie gefinancierd project. Het project was gericht op onkruidbeheer, en ik werd gevraagd om numerieke vegetatie-ecologie te gebruiken als onderzoeksmethode om onkruidpopulaties in de velden van boeren te beoordelen in relatie tot milieufactoren en de praktijken van boeren.

Elke week reisde ik naar een ander deel van het land en bracht dagen door op het platteland, waar ik boeren interviewde en hun akkers bezocht. Het was een intense periode, vaak met weinig slaap omdat goede accommodatie er dikwijls ontbrak, maar tegelijkertijd versterkte het mijn passie om in het veld te werken met kleine boeren.

Na mijn terugkeer in België en de analyse van de gegevens, kwam ik tot een verbijsterende conclusie, die ik opschreef in een van mijn eerste papers, gepresenteerd op een internationale conferentie. De vele jaren van sproeien met propanil hadden geleid tot resistentie voor twee van ‘s werelds meest lastige onkruiden. Propanil is een contactherbicide, verkocht onder diverse merknamen, en is de afgelopen 60 jaar over de hele wereld op grote schaal gebruikt.

De gevaren van agrochemische stoffen voor het milieu en de volksgezondheid manifesteren zich pas na enige tijd, en de cocktails van chemische stoffen die op de akkers van de boeren worden aangebracht, maken het nog moeilijker om de effecten van het gif te meten. Daar komt nog bij dat bestrijdingsmiddelen (met inbegrip van herbiciden) na toepassing worden afgebroken tot kleinere eenheden, metabolieten genaamd, die vaak onbekend zijn voor de wetenschap en daarom gemakkelijk aan de tests ontsnappen. Toch zijn metabolieten vaak giftiger en persistenter dan de oorspronkelijke stof. Deze complicaties verklaren ten dele waarom multinationale ondernemingen hun verwoestende handel kunnen voortzetten.

Volgens een rapport van de NGO Pesticide Action Network kan propanil, samen met diverse andere pesticiden, in verschillende hoeveelheden worden gemeten in de regen in Azië, Noord-Amerika, Europa en Latijns-Amerika. “Pesticiden leggen duizenden kilometers af door de lucht; ze worden via rivieren en zeeën naar verre locaties vervoerd; ze hebben een verwoestend effect op de biodiversiteit, waaronder nuttige insecten; ze ondermijnen de duurzaamheid van voedselproductiesystemen; ze doden elk jaar een onbekend aantal boeren, arbeiders, kinderen en dieren; ze veranderen genenpools; en ze kosten de samenleving miljarden dollars aan nadelige gevolgen (Pesticide Action Network 2015).”

Chemische meststoffen en pesticiden bevatten zware metalen, zoals cadmium, arseen, chroom, kobalt, lood en nikkel, waarvan bekend is dat ze giftig zijn en de hormoonhuishouding verstoren. Deze zware metalen worden niet op de etiketten vermeld omdat ze als minder belangrijke verontreinigende stoffen worden beschouwd. Toch hopen de zware metalen zich op in de bodem bij herhaalde toepassing van landbouwchemicaliën.

Jarenlang hebben maatschappelijke organisaties en journalisten in Sri Lanka gewezen op de verwoestende effecten van landbouwchemicaliën. Niemand luisterde echt. Tenminste niet totdat het harde bewijs van de gevaren voor de menselijke gezondheid en de schade aan bodem en water niet langer kon worden ontkend.

Biologische en ecologische landbouw is kennisintensief. Het is ontnuchterend om te zien hoe de traditionele kennis die de boeren in Sri Lanka in de loop van duizenden jaren hebben ontwikkeld, is uitgehold door een paar decennia van chemische landbouw.

Toch is de agrochemische industrie niet van plan dit gemakkelijk los te laten. In minder dan 6 maanden nadat de president verklaarde dat het land voor 100% biologisch zou gaan, hebben lobbygroepen van de industrie een mediacampagne gevoerd om de indruk te wekken dat de voedselcrisis in Sri Lanka het gevolg is van de transitie van het land naar biologische landbouw. Gelukkig heeft de president tot dusverre voet bij stuk gehouden tegen de paniek die wordt gezaaid in naam van de groeiende voedselonzekerheid.

Om boeren om te scholen in het beheer van land zonder gifstoffen en zware energie en om de bodemvruchtbaarheid te herstellen, kunnen de boeren in Sri Lanka leren van hun collega-boeren in andere landen. Tegelijkertijd moeten ook de systemen voor landbouwvoorlichting en -onderwijs drastisch veranderen. Daarom heeft onze vzw, Access Agriculture, besloten de regering van Sri Lanka te steunen door een partnerschap aan te gaan met de Sri Lankan Organic Agriculture Movement (LOAM) en veel van haar boeren trainingsvideo’s in de plaatselijke talen te vertalen. Dergelijke leermiddelen zullen een grote steun blijken te zijn voor de huidige en toekomstige generaties boeren, voorlichtingsmedewerkers en wetenschappers die op een meer coöperatieve manier met boeren onderzoek moeten doen.

Writing tips from Marco Polo February 21st, 2021 by

If Covid has idled you, this might be the time to take a tip from Marco Polo, and write a book or an article.

In 1271, a 17-year-old Marco set out for China and Mongolia with his father, Niccolò and his uncle, Maffeo Polo. At the court of Kublai Khan, grandson of Genghis Khan, Niccolò presented Marco as the great Khan’s servant. The Khan liked Marco right away, and sent him to various cities in China, perhaps as a tax collector, or as an official in the royal salt monopoly, or maybe just to report back.

Even then, Marco had a gift for storytelling, and he reported back to the Khan in detail of the people and things he had seen. Marco kept notes to remind him of what to tell the Khan.

Twenty-four years after leaving Venice, the three Polos arrived back home again, but they were soon dragged into a pointless war with Genoa. As a noble, Marco was obliged to outfit a galley. But when he and his sailors ventured into the Adriatic Sea they were captured by the Genoese, who took him to prison. For centuries, Genoa had been competing with Venice for the trade in salt and other goods in the Mediterranean, so the city states were arch rivals.

The Genoese recognized Marco as a noble (in no small part because he would tell anyone who would listen that he was a Venetian nobleman). So, Marco was placed into a reasonable comfortable captivity, for at least a year, and perhaps as long as three, waiting for his family to ransom him.

Marco beguiled his fellow jail mates with tales of exotic lands, and soon came to the attention of another prisoner of war, Rustichello da Pisa, a notary and a romance writer.

Rustichello realized the power of Marco’s story and the two became collaborators. Marco sent for, and received the notes he had written to report back to the Khan, and he dictated his story to Rustichello, who wrote it up (in French, oddly enough). In the words of historian Laurence Bergreen, in prison, Marco Polo found the freedom to write his story.

Hand-written copies of the book slowly appeared all over Europe, in English, Spanish, Italian and other languages. Marco himself, who had returned from Asia with a fortune in pearls and jewels sewed into the hems of his clothing, also hired scribes to copy his book. Each one was a bit different; Marco may have kept adding to his book each time he had it copied. At a time before the printing press, when a book could cost as much as a house, and a library might have only 100 volumes, a copy of Marco Polo’s Travels was a valuable gift. Marco would give copies to important people he wanted to impress.

Marco died in 1324, but his book lived on, and it was one of the first books (after the bible) to come off the printing press, almost two centuries after it had been written. The Travels appeared in print first in German, in 1477 and Christopher Columbus owned a Latin version, in which he wrote detailed notes in the margins.

China had thrown off Mongol rule not long after Kublai Khan died in 1294, and then closed itself off from the west for centuries. But Marco’s book inspired voyagers like Columbus and Magellan to seek a sea route to China.

Marco Polo was not the only European to visit Asia. His own father and uncle went not once, but twice, yet they appear as minor characters in Marco’s story.

Traveling and writing have both changed a lot since Marco stepped onto the Silk Road to China, but some principles remain the same: keep good notes and be observant; report back in a narrative style and write it up. It may be helpful to have a collaborator. Take advantage of any time or space you get, to write.

If Marco had merely travelled to China and not met Rustichello, the Polos would have been largely forgotten. Marco Polo is famous not because of his trip, but because of his book about his trip, in spite of all the technical limitations of publishing in the 13th and 14th century.

Further reading

Bergreen, Laurence 2009 Marco Polo: From Venice to Xanadu. London: Quercus. 415 pp.

Related Agro-Insight blogs

A history worth its salt

Illustrations

Caravana de Marco Polo, from the Atlas Catalán of Carlos V, 1375.

Map, The Route of Marco Polo’s Journey, by SY.

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

Spineless cactus February 2nd, 2020 by

I wrote in last week’s blog, Her mother’s laugh, that famed plant breeder (and showman), Luther Burbank, bred the spineless cactus. But there is more to the story.

The prickly pear cactus is native to Mexico and spread to the Caribbean and possibly to the Andes in pre-Colombian times. Columbus took the plant, with its delicious fruit, back to Europe on his first voyage. The hardy cactus was soon grown around the Mediterranean, and quickly found its way to arid lands from South Africa to India.

While ancient Mexicans domesticated this cactus, farmers in India selected varieties without thorns.

By 1907, Luther Burbank was promoting his spineless cactus, a hybrid of Mexican and Indian varieties. In his catalogues he wrote that the cactus which would grow with no irrigation, little care, and it would make ideal cattle fodder for the arid western USA.

In the USA, Burbank’s spineless cactus never quite lived up to its hype. While it lacked the large, needle-like thorns, it still grew small, hair-like thorns, which are brittle and can be painful when they lodge into a person’s hands or an animal’s mouth. Burbank’s spineless cactus required some irrigation and more management than other varieties, and under stress, the cactus tended to grow its spines. The thorn-free cactus also had to be fenced to protect it from hungry livestock and wildlife.

Burbank’s American cactus bubble burst by the 1920s, when ranchers grew disappointed with prickly pear. But there was already a long tradition of growing spineless cactus in India, where smallholder farmers had perfected the art of growing the prickly pear for fruit, and to feed the leaves to their livestock. Now you can learn from them, in a new video that tells how to plant, and grow the cactus, and use it as animal fodder.

Watch the video

Spineless cactus for fodder

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Ewbank, Anne 2019 The Thorny Tale of America’s Favorite Botanist and His Spineless Cacti https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/spineless-cactus

Griffith, M. P. 2004 The origins of an important cactus crop, Opuntia ficus‐indica (Cactaceae): new molecular evidence. American Journal of Botany91(11), 1915-1921.

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