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Silent Spring, better living through biology June 13th, 2021 by

Hey farmer, farmer

Put away that DDT now

Give me spots on my apples

But leave me the birds and the bees

Please!

“Big Yellow Taxi,” by Joni Mitchell

It’s possible that Joni Mitchell’s 1970 lyrics owe a debt to Rachel Carson’s (1962) book Silent Spring. Why not? The book was a major influence on the environmental movement, inspiring Earth Day, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the US ban on DDT, besides. Less often mentioned, the book also touched off integrated pest management (IPM).

For all that, Carson makes few mentions of farmers in her book. Many of the cases she meticulously described are of the US and Canadian governments arrogantly dropping insecticide from airplanes, blanketing forest, field, stream, pasture, and even suburban communities.

DDT and other noxious organophosphate insecticides were applied in each case to kill some specific pest: The Japanese beetle, the spruce budworm, and the fire ant, for example.

In every case, the results were disastrous. Dead livestock, and cancer in humans, but the birds were decimated. The bald eagle, national bird of the USA, was nearly exterminated by DDT. The bald eagle has since made a comeback, but many other bird species are on the decline.

The chemical companies that sold these pesticides to the government had the audacity (or the stupidity) to claim that insects would not be able to evolve resistance to the toxins. The pests would be eradicated!

But they weren’t. The bugs won the war. In every single case, the target pest species was more numerous a few years after the spraying started.

To explain this, Carson coined the analogy of the pesticide treadmill. Before a pesticide is used, an insect’s population is controlled by its natural enemies, such as spiders, wasps, ants, and birds. Insecticide kills the pest, and its natural enemies, too. The pest evolves resistance to the pesticide, much quicker than do its natural enemies (which often reproduce more slowly and absorb more of the poison). Once freed from its natural enemies, the pest population explodes. Now it has to be managed by pesticides.

In 1962, Carson mused that Darwin would have been pleased to see how well his theories were proven, as insect pests had quickly evolved resistance to pesticides. If Carson were here today, she might not be so happy to see how the chemical companies have also evolved. They have engineered maize and soy varieties that can withstand herbicides, so fields can be sprayed with glyphosate that kills all the plants, except for the ones with designer genes. The corporations that sell the seed conveniently sell the herbicide as well. Companies like Monsanto once claimed that the weeds would not be able to evolve resistance to the genetically modified crops.

But they did. At least 38 species of weeds are now resistant to glyphosate.

As Carson said nearly 60 years ago (and it’s still true), farms and forests are biological systems. Their pest problems have to be solved with biology, not with chemistry. In Rachel Carson’s day, only 2% of economic entomologists were working on biological pest control. Most of the other 98% were studying chemicals. Funding for chemicals breeds contempt for biological alternatives.

Biological pest control uses natural enemies to control pests. Carson cites the famous case of the cottony cushion scale, a citrus pest in California. The pest was controlled in 1872, long before DDT was available, by importing a lady bird beetle from Australia that ate the scale insects. The scale insects then became rare in California orchards until the 1940s, when insecticides killed the lady bird beetles and the pests exploded.

A recent book by Biovision and IPES Food suggests that many big donors still fund conventional research in pesticides. Perhaps it’s time to invest in scientists who can pick up Rachel Carson’s challenge, and solve biological problems with biology.

Further reading

Carson, Rachel 1962 (1987 edition). Silent Spring. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Heap, Ian, and Stephen O. Duke 2018 “Overview of glyphosate‐resistant weeds worldwide.” Pest Management Science 4(5): 1040-1049.

On chemical companies denying that weeds would develop resistance to their herbicides see chapter 5 in:

Philpott, Tom 2020 Perilous Bounty: The Looming Collapse of American Farming and How we can Prevent It. New York: Bloomsbury Publishing. 246 pp. (See also a review of this book in Our threatened farmers).

Biovision Foundation for Ecological Development & IPES-Food. 2020. Money Flows: What Is Holding Back Investment in Agroecological Research for Africa? Biovision Foundation for Ecological Development & International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems

Videos on natural, biological pest control

The wasp that protects our crops

Killing fall armyworms naturally

Weaver ants against fruit flies

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.

Teaching the farmers of tomorrow with videos May 23rd, 2021 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación

Youth around the world are leaving agriculture, but many would stay on the farm if they had appropriate technologies and better social services, as Professor Alejandro Bonifacio explained to me recently.

Dr. Bonifacio is from the rural Altiplano, the high plains of Bolivia. At 4,000 meters above sea level, it is some of the highest farmland in the world. Bonifacio has a PhD in plant breeding, and besides directing an agricultural research station in Viacha on the Altiplano, he teaches plant breeding part-time at the public university in La Paz (Universidad Mayor de San Andrés).

The university attracts many rural youths. Every year Bonifacio asks his new class of students to introduce themselves one-by-one and to tell where they come from, and to talk about their parents and their grandparents.

This year about 20% of the students in Bonifacio’s class are still living on the farm, and taking their classes online. Another 50% are the children or grandchildren of farmers, but are now living in the city. Many of these agronomy students would be more interested in taking over their parents’ farm, if not for a couple of problems.

One limitation is the lack of services in the rural areas: poor schools, bad roads, the lack of clinics, and no electricity or running water. While this is slowly improving, Covid has added a new twist, locking young people out of many of the places they liked to go to, and not just bars and restaurants. One advantage of city life is having access to medical attention, but this past year the students said it was as though the cities had no hospitals, because they were full of Covid patients. Classes were all on-line, and so the countryside began to look like a nicer place to live than the city. Many students went home to their rural communities, where there was much more freedom of movement than in the city.

Dr. Bonifacio told me that even when the youth do go home, they don’t want to farm exactly like their parents did. The youngsters don’t go in for all the backbreaking work with picks and shovels, but there is a lack of appropriate technology oriented towards young, family farmers, such as small, affordable machinery. Young farmers are also interested in exploiting emerging markets for differentiated produce, such as food that is free of pesticides. Organic agriculture also helps to save on production costs, as long as farmers have practical alternatives to agrochemicals.

Fortunately, there are videos on appropriate technologies, and Professor Bonifacio shows them in class. Today’s youth have grown up with videos, and find them convincing. Every year, Bonifacio organizes a forum for about 50 students on plant breeding and crop disease. He assigns the students three videos to watch, to discuss later in the forum. One of his favorites is Growing lupin without disease, which shows some organic methods for keeping the crop healthy. Bonifacio encourages the students to watch the video in Spanish, and Quechua or Aymara. Many of the students speak Quechua or Aymara, or both, besides Spanish. Some feel that they are forgetting their native language. “The videos help the students to learn technical terms, like the names of plant diseases, in their native languages,” Bonifacio says.

During the Covid lockdown, Prof. Bonifacio moved his forum online and sent the students links to the videos. In the forum, some of the students said that while they were home they could identify the symptoms of lupine disease, thanks to the video.

Bonifacio logs onto Access Agriculture from time to time to see which new videos have been posted in Spanish, to select some to show to his students, so they can get some of the information they need to become the farmers of tomorrow.

Kids who grow up on small farms often go to university as a bridge to getting a decent job in the city. But others study agriculture, and would return to farming, if they had appropriate technology for family farming, and services like electricity and high-speed internet.

Related Agro-Insight blogs

Awakening the seeds

Quinoa, lost and found

Videos to teach kids good attitudes

No land, no water, no problem

Videos from Access Agriculture

Check out these youth-friendly videos with appropriate technology. Besides videos in English, www.accessagriculture.org has:

104 videos in Spanish

Eight videos in Aymara

And eight in Quechua

ENSEÑAR A LOS AGRICULTORES DEL MAÑANA CON VIDEOS

Por Jeff Bentley, 23 de mayo del 2021

Por todas partes del mundo, los jóvenes abandonan la agricultura, pero muchos seguirían cultivando si tuvieran tecnologías apropiadas y mejores servicios sociales, como me explicó recientemente el docente Alejandro Bonifacio.

El Dr. Bonifacio es originario del Altiplano de Bolivia. A 4.000 metros sobre el nivel del mar, es una de las tierras agrícolas más altas del mundo. Bonifacio tiene un doctorado en fitomejoramiento y, además de ser jefe de una estación de investigación agrícola en Viacha, en el Altiplano, enseña fitomeoramiento a tiempo parcial en la universidad pública de La Paz (Universidad Mayor de San Andrés).

La universidad atrae a muchos jóvenes rurales. Cada año, Bonifacio pide a su nueva clase de estudiantes que se presenten uno por uno y digan de dónde vienen, y que hablen de sus padres y sus abuelos.

Este año, alrededor del 20% de los estudiantes de la clase de Bonifacio siguen viviendo en el área rural, desde donde se conectan a las clases virtuales. Otro 50% son hijos o nietos de agricultores, pero ahora viven en la ciudad. Muchos de estos estudiantes de agronomía estarían más interesados en trabajar el terreno sus padres, si no fuera por un par de problemas.

Una limitación es la falta de servicios en las zonas rurales: colegios deficientes, carreteras en mal estado, la falta de clínicas, luz y agua potable. Aunque esto está mejorando poco a poco, Covid ha introducido cambios, porque los jóvenes ya no pueden ir a muchos de los lugares que les gustaban, y no sólo las discotecas y los restaurantes. Una de las ventajas de la vida urbana es tener acceso a la atención médica, pero este último año los estudiantes dijeron que era como si las ciudades no tuvieran hospitales, porque estaban llenos de pacientes de Covid. Las clases eran todas en línea, por lo que el campo empezó a parecer un lugar más agradable para vivir que la ciudad. Muchos estudiantes se fueron a sus comunidades rurales, donde había más libertad de movimiento que en la ciudad.

El Dr. Bonifacio me dijo que, incluso cuando los jóvenes vuelven a casa, no quieren trabajar la tierra tal como lo hacían sus padres. Los jóvenes no se dedican al trabajo agotador con palas y picotas, pero hace falta la tecnología adecuada orientada a los jóvenes agricultores familiares, por ejemplo, la maquinaria pequeña y asequible. Los jóvenes agricultores también quieren explotar los mercados emergentes de productos diferenciados, como los alimentos libres de plaguicidas. La agricultura orgánica también ayuda a ahorrar costes de producción, siempre que los agricultores tengan alternativas prácticas a los productos agroquímicos.

Afortunadamente, existen videos sobre tecnologías adecuadas, y el Dr. Bonifacio los muestra en clase. Los jóvenes de hoy conocen los videos desde su infancia, y los encuentran convincentes. Cada año, Bonifacio organiza un foro para unos 50 estudiantes sobre el fitomejoramiento y las enfermedades. Asigna a los alumnos tres videos para que los vean y los discutan después en el foro. Uno de sus favoritos es Producir tarwi sin enfermedad, que muestra algunos métodos orgánicos para mantener el lupino sano. Bonifacio anima a los estudiantes a ver el video en español y en quechua o aymara. Muchos de los estudiantes hablan quechua o aymara, o ambos, además del castellano. Algunos sienten que están olvidando su lengua materna. “Los videos ayudan a los alumnos a aprender términos técnicos, como los nombres de las enfermedades de las plantas, en sus idiomas nativos”, dice Bonifacio.

Durante la cuarentena de Covid, el Dr. Bonifacio trasladó su foro a Internet y envió a los estudiantes enlaces a los videos. En el foro, algunos de los estudiantes dijeron que mientras estaban en casa podían identificar los síntomas de la enfermedad del tarwi (lupino), gracias al video.

Bonifacio entra en la página web de Access Agriculture de vez en cuando para ver qué nuevos videos se han publicado en español, para seleccionar algunos y enseñárselos a sus alumnos, para que aprendan algo de la información que necesitan para ser los agricultores del futuro.

Los hijos de agricultores suelen usar a la universidad como puente para conseguir un buen trabajo en la ciudad. Pero otros estudian agronomía, y volverían al agro, si tuvieran tecnología apropiada para la agricultura familiar, y servicios como electricidad e Internet de alta velocidad.

Historias relacionadas en el blog de Agro-Insight

Despertando las semillas

Quinoa, lost and found

Videos to teach kids good attitudes

Sin tierra, sin agua, no hay problema

Videos de Access Agriculture

Vea algunos de estos videos apropiados para agricultores jóvenes en https://www.accessagriculture.org/es. Incluso, Access Agriculture tiene:

104 videos en castellano

Ocho videos en aymara

Y ocho en quechua

 

Iron for organic pigs May 16th, 2021 by

Organic agriculture is on the rise, but as the sector grows and more farmers convert from conventional to organic farming, regulations are continuously fine-tuned. Finding a balance between animal welfare and the heavy debt burden many conventional farmers have due to past investments in modern pig houses is a delicate exercise, as I recently learned from my friend, Johan Hons, a long-time organic farmer in north-eastern Belgium.

“When some 40 years ago a neighbour farmer offered to let me use one of his vacant stables, I bought my first Piétrain pigs (a Belgian breed of pig) and started rearing. In those early years, I always supplemented iron. A few years later, Vera and I were able to start our own farm. We were convinced that organic farming was the only way food should be produced, so I gave my pigs the space to roam around in the field. Ever since then, they never needed any iron injections and they never got sick,” Johan says.

Iron is an essential mineral for all livestock, especially for piglets. Iron-deficient piglets will suffer from anaemia: they will remain pale, stunted, have chronic diarrhoea and if left untreated they will die. Worldwide, piglets are commonly injected with a 200 milligram dose of iron a few days after birth. Although this intramuscular injection is effective against anaemia, it is very stressful to the piglets.

In a natural environment a sow acquires enough iron from the soil during rooting behaviour, which she passes on to the suckling piglets through her milk. But most pigs in conventional farming in Belgium are raised on slatted floors and have no access to soil. Sows only have enough iron reserves for their first litter. Piglets of the second and third litter would already have a shortage of iron and become sick, unless given supplements.

Under Belgian regulations, organic meat pigs are allowed only one medical treatment for whatever illness. If a second treatment is given, pigs can only be sold in the conventional circuit and hence farmers do not get a premium price. With more conventional farmers eager to convert to organic to earn a higher income, members of Bioforum, the Belgian multi-stakeholder platform for organic agriculture, requested the regulatory authorities whether iron injections could be considered as a non-medical treatment.

As a member of Bioforum, Johan suggested an alternative: “When the sow delivers in the sty, I daily give her piglets a few handfuls of soil from the moment they are one week old. I put it out of reach of the sow, otherwise she would eat it, and continue doing so until the piglets are a few weeks old and allowed outside. Just like human babies, the piglets have a curious nature and by giving them early access to soil, they immediately build up their iron stores and immunity.”

For Johan caring for animals is knowing what they need and providing them with all the comfort throughout their life. This starts at birth-giving.

However, his suggestion initially got a cold reception at the forum, whose members also includes retailers. Most farmers who want to convert to organic do not have the possibility of letting their pigs roam on the land, showing the dire realities of conventional farms in Belgium, where concrete is more abundant around the pig houses than soil.

And however creative they found Johan’s suggestion to provide piglets with soil in the stables, this was not considered a feasible option. Conventional farmers have invested heavily in modern pig houses with slatted floors and automated manure removal systems and bringing in soil would obstruct the system. Adjusting such houses to cater for organic farming is an expense few farmers are willing to make.

Belgian authorities decided that, because of lack of commercial alternatives to iron injections, they would be temporarily accepted in organic agriculture, on the condition that the iron formulation is not mixed with antibiotics.

A sustainable food system is at the heart of the European Green Deal. As the European Commission has set a target under its farm to fork strategy to have 25% of the land under organic agriculture by 2030, it will need to reflect on how far the regulations for organic agriculture can be stretched, as well as on possible measures to support farmers to convert.

If left to the pigs to decide, they would surely opt for more time outdoors and less concrete around their houses, not a tweak in the regulations to declassify iron injection as a medical treatment.

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Damaging the soil and our health with chemical reductionism April 11th, 2021 by

For 150 years, much of the public has become alienated from our food, often not knowing how it was produced, or where. Single-nutrient research papers (Vitamin C cures the common cold! Omega-3 fatty acids reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease!) have eroded our perception of food and provided the basis for food companies to get us to eat more highly processed foods touted as healthier than the real food. The work of a few reductionist chemists has had an outsized influence on industrial food production, with devastating effects on soil health and human health.

In 1840, the German scientist Justus von Liebig observed that nitrogen (N), phosphorous (P) and potassium (K) were responsible for crop growth. Later in life, Liebig realized that these macronutrients were far from adequate. He even argued vehemently against the use of nitrogen-based fertilizers for many years, but his progressive insights were largely ignored by the fertilizer industry, which quickly understood that more money can be made by keeping things simple. Occasionally, some micronutrients such as Zinc (Zn), Magnesium (Mg) or Sulphur (S) have been added to blends of fertilizer, but the overreliance of these chemicals has had a devastating effect on soil ecology, air and water pollution.

Healthy soils are complicated systems, with a host of micro- and macro-organisms, from earthworms to beneficial fungi and bacteria, interacting with each other to create a living soil. Many universities have shied away from this complex ecology, creating departments of soil physics and soil chemistry, but not ones for soil biology or ecology. Marketing people also favour simplicity. Telling farmers how to apply 120 kg of NPK to grow a crop is easier than educating them on soil ecosystems with all their complex interactions. And these simple recommendations sell more fertilizer.

The nascent food industry was also quick to latch onto simplistic, chemical reductionism. The same Liebig, who promoted nitrogen as plant food, proposed that animal protein (which contains nitrogen) was the fertilizer that makes humans grow.

By 1847 Liebig had invented a beef-based extract, and he went into business with an entrepreneur who bought cheap land in the pampas of Uruguay. From the new port town of Fray Bentos, about 100 miles up the Uruguay River from Buenos Aires, Liebig’s extract, as thick as molasses, was shipped across the world.

Liebig claimed that his extract contained fats and proteins and could cure typhus and all sorts of digestive disorders. Liebig enlisted physicians and apothecaries to sell his goo. As criticism mounted that there was little nutritional value in his concoctions, the Liebig company changed tack, marketing the product not as a medicine, but as a delicious palliative that could ease a troubled stomach and mind. This change in marketing proved shrewd. By the early 1870s the extract was a staple in middle-class pantries across Europe. Lest you think we are too smart to be fooled by such chicanery today, the original gooey extract is still sold by the Liebig Benelux company, and meat tea lives on as the bouillon cube. The next time you open a flavour packet that comes with a brick of ramen noodles, you have Liebig to thank.

Liebig and other chemists were influential in reducing food  ̶  and the focus of the agri-food industry  ̶  to a few, large, simple ingredients. But food is more than a mere combination of nutrients that can be easily measured and prescribed.

While the meat industry has continued to grow, in the early 20th century dieticians like John Harvey Kellogg strongly opposed eating meat, claiming that animal protein had a devastating effect on the colon. As he laid the foundation for the breakfast cereal industry, Kellogg in turn marketed his products in terms of simple food ingredients: carbohydrates and fibres. While the first packaged breakfast cereals were all whole grain, over the years they have evolved numerous additions, such as dried fruits, lots of refined sugar, and most are now made with white flour. However, they are still marketed as part of a nutritious breakfast.

In his book, In Defense of Food, Michael Pollan provides ample examples of how over the past 150 years consumers have been made to believe that food can be reduced to calories and simple nutrients. As highly processed foods are filling the shopping baskets of billions of people across the globe, cancers, diabetes and vascular diseases become ever more common.

But the food industry is a powerful one.

Although soya bean recipes like tofu have been part of a balanced diet for centuries in Asia and whole maize can be made into healthy food like tortillas, both crops are now being subjected to a new reductionism, as they are refined into fat and carbohydrates: 75% of the vegetal oil we use is from soya beans, while more than half of the sweeteners added to our processed food and drinks is high-fructose corn syrup, from maize. Crops that could be part of a healthy diet for people are now either fed to animals in factory farms, or turned into fats and sugar, contributing to the obesity epidemic.

Since the 1970s, the increased focus on maize and soya beans, with their patented varieties, has served three strongly interwoven industries of seed, fertilizer and food manufacturing. Just four companies now dominate seed and agro-chemicals globally (Bayer-Monsanto, DowDuPont/Corteva, ChemChina-Syngenta and BASF). While large corporations reap immediate profits, we the tax payers are left to solve the problems they cause in the form of soil erosion, air and water pollution, a drastic decline in biological and food diversity, and public health risks.

Fortunately, consumers across the globe are starting to awaken to the risks posed by industrial food production and eating chemically-processed food with refined ingredients and artificial substances.

The over-reliance of chemical fertilizer in agriculture and chemically-processed food are more than an analogy. They are part of an effort to simplify food systems to a few constituent parts, dominated by a few large players. It has taken society nearly two centuries to get into this trap, and it will take an effort to get out of it. Agroecology with its focus on short food supply chains is pointing the way forward for food that is healthy for the body, mind and society at large.

In March 2021, the European Commission approved an action plan that 30% of the public funds for agricultural research and innovation has to be in support of organic agriculture. The backlog is huge, so it is timely to see that research shall cover among other things, changing farmers’ and consumers’ attitudes and behaviours.

Further reading

Clay Cansler. 2013. Where’s the Beef? https://www.sciencehistory.org/distillations/wheres-the-beef

European Commission. 2021. Communication from the commission to the European Parliament, the council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the committee of the regions on an action plan for the development of organic production. https://ec.europa.eu/info/food-farming-fisheries/farming/organic-farming/organic-action-plan_en

Michael Pollan. 2009. In Defense of Food. An Eater’s Manifesto. Large Print Press.

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Access Agriculture: hosts over 220 training videos in over 85 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 new social media platform where anyone from across the globe can upload their own videos related to natural farming and circular economy.

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