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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

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Trying it yourself

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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.

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Out of space

Offbeat urban fertilizer

Related Access Agriculture videos

Organic biofertilizer in liquid and solid form

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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

Related blog stories

Her mother’s laugh

Kiss of death in the cactus garden

Learn by eating

Read more

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.

Eating an old friend December 15th, 2019 by

Last year in Bangladesh, in the village of Begati Chikerbath, I visited Shamsur Naheris, an energetic extensionist in a bright orange sari. She had organized an exchange visit so that local women can tell their stories about making money and changing their lives by the simple means of raising chickens.

A year and a half earlier, the village had hosted an FFS (farmer field school) on poultry, where the women learned to vaccinate their chickens and ducks with eye drops and to keep the hens in small coops. When the hen has a clutch of eggs, she sits on them in a nest, called a hazol, which the villagers make themselves, a technique they learned in the FFS. The hazol is a kind of earthen bowl with two small cups on one side for feed and water. Because the hazol is big and heavy, the hens are less likely to upset and spill their food. The hen sits on straw in the hazol and broods her eggs with water and food handy. The hazol and the hen are placed inside a small chicken coop.

More chicks live to maturity with this system, and when they are six weeks old, they can be let loose to find their own food, which lowers costs and saves space in the chicken coop. Then the hen can start another brood. This way she gets five or six broods in a year, over a useful life of some five years, until she ends up in the family cooking pot.

“How can you stand to eat your old friend?” one visitor asked, concerned that the women might have become too attached to the hens to eat them.

“It’s easy, we just soften the meat first with green papaya,” one of the chicken farmers explains.

While there may be little sentimentality attached to the birds, the women are all keen to raise them. Every house has a small chicken coop in the back yard and all of the little structures are filled with healthy birds.

In a meeting with visitors from other villages, five local women told how raising chickens has improved not just their income, but also their self-esteem. The audience was clearly moved. The visitors were farmers and their husbands, 25 couples from six local community-based, water management groups. Having the husbands attend was a touch of inspiration. It would ensure that the men would be convinced and would support their wives as they started small-scale commercial poultry.

Even a simple technical innovation, such as a chicken coop and an improved nest, may require some training and clever community organizing.

Acknowledgements

The extensionists mentioned in this paper were Community development facilitators (CDF) for the Blue Gold Project, which is financed by the government of the Netherlands to improve water management in Bangladesh.

A related video

Watch this video on Taking care of local chickens

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