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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.

Related blogs

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Of fertilizers and immigration

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A revolution for our soil

A brief history of soy

The sugar palms of Angkor Wat

Grocery shops and farm shops

Related video

Making a condiment from soya beans

Inspiring platforms

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.

An exit strategy April 4th, 2021 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación

Development projects often die when the money runs out. Many of these efforts often have no exit strategy in mind, but that’s changing, as I saw on a recent visit to Villa Taquiña, on the mountain slopes above Cochabamba, Bolivia.

Once an independent peasant community, Villa Taquiña has now largely been swallowed by the city of Cochabamba, but until recently, many farmers still managed to grow small plots of cut flowers.

When I lived in Villa Taquiña, years ago, if I caught the bus before dawn I would share the ride with older women taking huge bundles of carnations, gladiolas, and chrysanthemums to sell in the central market. But on my recent visit a local farmer, doña Nelly, explained that when Covid put a stop to big weddings and funerals, it wiped out the demand for cut flowers. Adaptable as ever, the smallholders turned to fresh vegetables, but there was a catch. The flowers had been grown with lots of pesticides. Now the farmers hoped to produce in a more environmentally friendly way, “so we can leave something for our children and grandchildren,” doña Nelly explained.

Two agronomists, Ing. Alberto Cárdenas and Ing. Alexander Espinoza, from Fundación Agrecol Andes, are helping a dozen farm families transition to agroecology. The farmers plant broccoli, cabbage and other vegetables with seeds they buy at the shop. The seeds come dusted in pink fungicide, but the farmers harvest seeds from some of the plants they grow, and are now producing 80% of their own seed. If they need a fungicide, they can make sulfur-lime or Bordeaux mix, which are accepted by most organic agricultural programs. The farmers also plant basil, quilquiña and other aromatic plants among their vegetables to discourage insect pests. Many different plants are grown together; this is called intercropping and it also keeps the pests away. The farmers are also bringing their soils back to life by incorporating compost.

Although the plots are tiny (some farmers have as little as 700 square meters) with hard work even a small piece of land can produce a lot of vegetables. Then the problem becomes where to sell it. Folks could take their produce to the big market in the city, but they would have to compete with conventionally-grown vegetables brought in by the truck load. Alberto and Alex have organized the farmers to work together. They often meet at doña Nelly’s house to package the produce with attractive labels. Besides saving on the costs of agrochemicals, these organic farmers have a close link with consumers, so they listen to what their clients want, and try to offer them a rich diversity of vegetables.

Belonging to a group also helps the farmers to reach customers who appreciate organic produce. In Bolivia the niches for organic food are still in their infancy, so producers and consumers need a little help finding each other. Alberto and Alex have organized the farmers with their consumers. Every week a group of consumers (including my family) gets a WhatsApp message with this week’s menu of what is on offer. We order what we want, everything from crisp vegetables to a perfect whole wheat flour to the best cactus fruit I’ve ever had. Two days later Alberto and Alex cheerfully arrive at our door with the produce.

Unfortunately, this is not sustainable marketing. Vegetable growers can’t always depend on the good graces of a project to sell their produce for them, but Alberto and Alex have an exit strategy.  They are organizing volunteer farmers and consumers to meet occasionally and inspect the farms, to guarantee that they are agroecologically sound. It is called the “participatory guarantee system,” (SPG) a kind of people’s organic certification. With time, Alberto hopes to make the marketing profitable enough that someone, perhaps the farmers themselves, will take it over as a private enterprise.  To that end, the farmers are organizing themselves into a legally-recognized association. Letting the farmers and the consumers get to know each other is also an innovation to make sure that we keep buying and selling.

I visit Villa Taquiña with two-dozen mask-wearing consumers, who were delighted to meet some of the farmers who grow the food we eat. One of those farmers, Elsa Bustamante, has an exit strategy of her own. She is feeding guinea pigs on the vegetable waste from her small plot, and she plans to start a restaurant featuring organic vegetables and homegrown guinea pigs. “You will all be my customers,” Elsa tells us. And then she serves up golden brown quarters of fried guinea pig on a bed of rice, potatoes and salad. The consumers love it.

Related Agro-Insight blog stories

The next generation of farmers

Strawberry fields once again

Further reading

Bentley, Jeffery W. 2015 “Flowers Watered with Beer.” Agriculture for Development 26:20-22.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Nelly Camacho, Elsa Bustamante, and her brother Pastor for letting us into their homes and their fields. Doña Nelly is the representative of the SPG Cercado. (Cercado is a province in the Department of Cochabamba. Cercado has only one municipality, which is also called Cochabamba, and it is the Department’s capital). The SPG Cercado is backed up by Law 3525, “Regulation and promotion of ecological production of agriculture, livestock and non-timber forest products” and by the National Technical Norm (NTN) which supports the participatory guarantee systems (SPG) which is used to accredit urban, peri-urban and rural groups of ecological farmers. The SPG Cercado works via an MOU with the municipal government of Cochabamba and the Fundación Agrecol Andes, with funding from the Italian Agency for Development Cooperation. Ing. Alberto Cárdenas and Ing. Alexander Espinoza work for the Fundación Agrecol Andes, in Cochabamba. A big thanks to them for organizing this visit, and thanks as well to Alberto for his comments on an earlier version of this story.

Scientific name

Quilquiña (Porophyllum ruderale) is a pungent herb used for making salsas.

Videos on the agroecological way to produce vegetables

Using sack mounds to grow vegetables

Managing black rot in cabbage

Managing vegetable nematodes

Insect nets in seedbeds

ESTRATEGIA DE SALIDA

Jeff Bentley, 4 de abril del 2021

Los proyectos de desarrollo suelen morir cuando se acaba el dinero. A muchos de estos esfuerzos les falta una estrategia de salida, pero eso está cambiando, como vi hace poco en una visita a Villa Taquiña, al pie de la cordillera andina, en Cochabamba, Bolivia.

Villa Taquiña, que era una comunidad agrícola independiente, hoy en día ha sido prácticamente tragada por la ciudad de Cochabamba, pero hasta hace poco, muchos agricultores cultivaban pequeñas parcelas de flores cortadas para vender.

Cuando yo vivía en Villa Taquiña, hace algunos años, si salía antes del amanecer compartía el micro (bus) con mujeres mayores de edad que llevaban enormes bultos de claveles, gladiolos y crisantemos para vender en el mercado central. Pero en mi última visita, una agricultora local, doña Nelly Camacho, me explicó que cuando el Covid acabó con las bodas y los funerales bien asistidos, dio fin a la demanda de flores cortadas. Tan bien adaptables como siempre, los pequeños agricultores empezaron a producir verduras frescas, pero había un problemita. Las flores se cultivaban con muchos plaguicidas. Ahora los agricultores esperan producir de forma más ecológica, “porque queremos dejar algo para nuestros hijos, y nietos”, explica doña Nelly.

Los ingenieros agrónomos Alberto Cárdenas y Alexander Espinoza, de la Fundación Agrecol Andes, les están ayudando a una decena de familias en la transición a la agroecología. Los agricultores siembran brócoli, repollo lechugas, vainas y otras hortalizas con semillas que compran en la agropecuaria. Las semillas vienen recubiertas con un fungicida rosado, pero los agricultores guardan algunas de las semillas de las plantas que cultivan, y ahora están produciendo el 80% de sus propias semillas. Si necesitan un fungicida, pueden hacer sulfocálcico o caldo bordelés, que son aceptados por la mayoría de los programas de agricultura orgánica. Los agricultores también siembran albahaca, quilquiña y otras plantas aromáticas entre sus hortalizas para ahuyentar a las plagas insectiles. Cultivan una mezcla de muchas plantas diferentes; esto se llama policultivo y también evita tener plagas. Además, los agricultores están recuperando sus suelos, incorporando compost.

A pesar de que las parcelas que quedan son pequeñas (alguna gente cultiva sólo 700 metros cuadrados), con trabajo se puede producir muchas verduras. Luego viene el problema de dónde venderlas. Los agricultores podrían llevar sus productos al gran mercado, la Cancha de Cochabamba, pero tendrían que competir con las camionadas de hortalizas convencionales. Alberto y Alex han organizado a los agricultores para que trabajen juntos. A menudo se reúnen en la casa de doña Nelly para embolsar los productos con etiquetas atractivas. Además de ahorrarse los costos de los agroquímicos, estos agricultores orgánicos tienen un estrecho vínculo con los consumidores, y saben lo que sus clientes quieren y tratan de ofrecerles una rica diversidad de verduras.

Pertenecer a un grupo también ayuda a los agricultores a encontrar los clientes que aprecian los productos orgánicos. En Bolivia, los nichos de los alimentos orgánicos todavía están en pañales, entonces los productores y consumidores necesitan un poco de ayuda para encontrarse. Alberto y Alex han organizado a los agricultores con sus consumidores. Cada semana, un grupo de consumidores (incluyendo a mi familia) recibe un mensaje de WhatsApp con la oferta semanal. Pedimos lo que queremos, desde verduras súper frescas, una perfecta harina integral, y la mejor tuna que jamás he probado. Dos días después, Alberto y Alex puntualmente nos dejan una “bolsa saludable” (Bolsaludabe) de productos en la puerta.

Lastimosamente, este tipo de comercialización no es sostenible. Los horticultores no siempre pueden depender de la buena voluntad de un proyecto para vender sus productos, pero Alberto y Alex tienen una estrategia de salida. Están organizando a agricultores y consumidores voluntarios para que se reúnan de vez en cuando e inspeccionen las parcelas, a fin de garantizar que son agroecológicas de verdad. Se llama “sistema participativo de garantías” (SPG), y es una especie de certificación orgánica popular. Con el tiempo, Alberto espera que la comercialización sea lo suficientemente rentable como para que alguien, tal vez los mismos productores, se haga cargo de vender la producción de manera particular. Para hacer eso, los productores se están organizando en una asociación con personería jurídica. El hacer que los agricultores y los consumidores nos conozcamos es también una innovación para asegurar que sigamos comprando y vendiendo.

En mi visita a Villa Taquiña éramos dos docenas de consumidores con barbijos, que estábamos encantados de conocer a algunos de los agricultores que producen los alimentos que comemos. Una de esas agricultoras, Elsa Bustamante, tiene su propia estrategia de salida. Ella está alimentando a cuys con los residuos vegetales de su pequeña parcela, y planifica abrir un restaurante con verduras ecológicas y cuys producidos en casa. “Todos ustedes serán mis clientes”, nos dice Elsa. Y luego sirve cuartos de cuy fritos y dorados y aún calientes sobre un lecho de arroz, papas y ensalada. A los consumidores les encanta.

Artículos relacionados del blog de Agro-Insight

The next generation of farmers

En el frutillar de nuevo

Lectura adicional

Bentley, Jeffery W. 2015 “Flowers Watered with Beer.” Agriculture for Development 26:20-22.

Agradecimientos

Gracias a Nelly Camacho, Elsa Bustamante, y su hermano Pastor por recibirnos en sus hogares y sus parcelas. Doña Nelly es la representante del SPG Cercado. (Cercado es una provincia del Departamento de Cochabamba. Cercado tiene un solo municipio, que también se llama Cochabamba, el cual es la capital del Departamento). El SPG Cercado es respaldado por la Ley 3525, “Regulación y promoción de la producción agropecuaria y forestal no maderable ecológica” y por la Norma Técnica Nacional (NTN) que apoya a los sistemas participativos de garantía (SPG) a través de la cual se acredita grupos de productores ecológicos a nivel urbano, periurbano y rural. El SPG Cercado trabaja a través de un convenio entre el gobierno municipal de Cochabamba y la Fundación Agrecol Andes, con financiamiento de la Cooperación Italiana. Los Ing. Alberto Cárdenas y Alexander Espinoza trabajan para la Fundación Agrecol Andes, en Cochabamba. Gracias a ellos por organizar el viaje, y gracias a Alberto por sus comentarios sobre una versión anterior de este blog.

Vocabulario

El cuy es el conejillo de las Indias.

La quilquiña es una hierba con un fuerte olor usada para hacer salsas, Porophyllum ruderale.

Videos sobre la forma agroecológica de producir hortalizas

Producir hortalizas en maceta de saco

Managing black rot in cabbage

El manejo de nematodos en hortalizas

Insect nets in seedbeds

Redes contra insectos en almácigo

The next generation of farmers March 28th, 2021 by

Whether in Europe or in the global South, young farmers, unless they are born into a farm family, often lack three key things: land, finance and knowledge. But a new breed of farmers has risen, fuelled by passion to produce food in a healthy way, free from agrochemicals. Their journeys are often difficult, but with support from the community and by helping each other, they are heading towards a fairer and brighter future, as I learned this week on a revealing road trip.

Recently, I joined my farmer friends Johan Hons and Vera Kuijpers on their weekly trip to deliver and buy organic produce from wholesalers and fellow farmers to stock up their farm shop that opens from Friday afternoon until Saturday noon. Johan and Vera have been pioneer organic farmers in north-eastern Belgium.

“When we started some 30 years ago, it was just us and one other family who had a basic food packaging machine. Whenever needed, we could use their machine,” Johan said. In the meantime, the number of organic farmers has grown, and an amazing informal network is coming to life.

The back of the van is loaded with freshly harvested potatoes, a few crates of cabbages and leek seedlings that Johan and Vera had reared for the new season. Having left their farm before 6 am, by 8 o’clock we finished our first delivery. Biofresh, a main organic retailer, bought their potatoes. At the same time, we collect the produce they had ordered online a few days earlier. Vera guides me through the warehouse, explaining how the whole system works.

I see crates of organic pineapples from Côte d’Ivoire, bright mangoes from Ghana, ginger from Peru, fava beans, artichokes and oranges from Italy, and various local products, including their potatoes, amongst other things.

“At first, our name was mentioned on the label,” Vera says, “but they have now replaced our name with a number, so people no longer know who has produced them. I think it is to protect themselves from their competitors.” This may well be the case, but as we continue our road trip it dawns on me that the effectiveness of this strategy may only be short-lived.

As we load the van in the parking lot, Floriaan D’Hulster, a young fellow organic farmer whom we had met indoors 10 minutes earlier arrives. He has come to buy Johan and Vera’s crates of cabbages and hands over a little carton box. My curiosity triggered, Johan proudly opens it and shows little seed packages.

“This is from our group of farmers with whom we started to produce vegetable seed. The seed has been cleaned, nicely labelled and packaged at the premises of Akelei, the organic farm where Floriaan works, and will be available in our farm shop as of tomorrow,” Johan smiles. Their non-profit association “Vitale Rassen” was formalised in 2019 and regroups organic farmers across Flanders who produce seed under EU organic standards.

On to the next destination. Like Biofresh, Sinature is a wholesaler, but they also have their own greenhouses behind their warehouse. “We like to buy as much locally produced food as possible,” Vera says, “as that is in line with our philosophy and many clients also ask me about this.”

As we walk through the warehouse, Vera carefully goes over various lists. I learn that they are at the same time buying produce for other fellow farmers. “Many of us have started to sell our produce ourselves directly to consumers, whether at farm markets or farm shops,” Vera says, “and it is good to be able to offer clients a rich diversity of food on top of your own produce. As we have a van and a trailer, we provide this service to our fellow farmers against a small fee to cover our costs.”

At Bernd Vandersmissen’s farm I am excited to see how even in greenhouses, they successfully integrate crops and livestock. Two pigs are happily sleeping under a trailer in an area secured by a temporary electric fence. While the pigs feed on the green manure (a mixture of rye and phacelia), they keep the soil loose and fertile.

Many of the new generation of farmers have managed one way or the other to secure some land. To gain knowledge and become professional growers, the non-profit organisation Landwijzer has been offering both short and two-year long courses on organic and biodynamic farming for the past 20 years.

The remainder of the day we make various stops to buy and deliver fresh produce at some inspiring farms. As Johan and Vera are pioneers, they know everyone involved in the organic food system. Many of the new generation of farmers have also done their internship with them as part of their Landwijzer course, so they have a strong bond. By providing this weekly service, they also get a chance to chat with their colleagues and exchange ideas and recent news.

When I ask Johan how the new generation of farmers is coping with the purchasing power of large buyers that push down prices, he explains that price formation and market diversification are key aspects covered in the courses offered by Landwijzer.

A few days earlier I had an online meeting with one of the coordinators of the Fairtrade Producers’ Organisation from Latin America. To secure a living income, cocoa and coffee growers are also forced to increasingly look at income and market diversification. While the food industry may gradually come to realize that paying a fair price for food is needed to keep farmers in business, it is reassuring to see that farmers continue to innovate by pro-actively strengthening ties between themselves and the community of consumers. Belonging to a network may make a vital difference for new farmers, who often lack land and a family connection to agriculture.

Related blogs

Grocery shops and farm shops

Forgotten vegetables

Marketing something nice

Inspiring platforms

Access Agriculture: hosts over 220 training videos in over 85 languages. Each video describes underlying principles, as such encouraging people to experiment with new ideas.

EcoAgtube: a new social media platform where anyone can upload their own videos related to natural farming and circular economy.

A Life of Learning from Nature March 14th, 2021 by

When knowledge is blocked from being freely shared, humankind can lose a lot of precious time to make the world a better place. This dawned on me once more after I stumbled upon The Secrets of Water, a video documentary about the life of Viktor Schauberger.

Born in 1885 as the son of an Austrian forest superintendent, Viktor spent many hours in nature observing and reflecting upon what he saw, always trying to keep an open mind. Later, he went on to study forestry and got inspired by poets like Goethe who instilled in him the importance of making full use of our senses to better understand the Ur-phenomenon or the essential quality of what one observes.

Wikipedia describes Schauberger as a naturalist, pseudoscientist, philosopher, inventor and biomimicry experimenter. While pseudoscientist sounds like a dishonest version of a scientist or someone who stands for “fake science”, Schauberger’s insights from nearly a century ago have proven far more influential than what most modern-day scientists could aspire to achieve in a life-time, even with the help of advanced technologies and nanosecond computing devices.

Science  ̶  and technological innovations  ̶  have often ignored local knowledge and even obstructed its dissemination. In 1930, the Austrian Academy of Sciences confirmed the receipt of a sealed envelope entitled “Turbulence”. In it, Schauberger described his theory of interdependency of water temperature and movement. The Academy kept it concealed for 50 years, probably partly because Schauberger continued to criticise their water resource management strategies. His work became the basis for many eco-technological innovations.

For instance, instead of protecting river banks with boulders, Schauberger explained that it makes more sense to control the flow of the river from the inner part of the river, not from the sides. Some unconventional engineers have taken this to heart and have meticulously placed lines of boulders like a funnel inside the river to convert the energy of the river from the sides to the middle. When water accelerates in the middle rather than on the sides, it is a far more cost-effective way to control river bank erosion. Besides controlling floods, it also improves the quality of the water and creates perfect habitats for different fish species.

Schauberger’s writings carefully explained the underlying principle of his theory on turbulence, namely that it is influenced by differences in temperature. The warmer layers of river water flow faster than the colder ones, creating friction, which is the source of turbulence. According to Schauberger: “a river doesn’t just flow, but winds itself forward. It rotates in its bed, or put simply, it swirls.” This principle applies to any moving water, even to a raindrop running down a window.

By understanding that the swirl or turbulence of water is the most natural way in which water flows with least resistance, Schauberger applied this to many prototype technologies for which he registered patents. He developed a machine to replicate spring water, which later formed the basis for water vitalising equipment. Among the many benefits, some are more unexpected than the others. For instance, when vitalised water is used in bakeries it retards the development of moulds.

Instead of letting water simply enter a pond through a pipe, Schauberger made it pass through a specially designed funnel to let the water whirl and gain energy. The water quality in the pond improved and algae growth reduced.

Schauberger reflected on many things. He claimed that crop productivity was declining because of the use of iron tools, saying that the rust destroys soil life. Instead, tools made from copper and copper alloys do not disturb soil magnetism and contain useful trace elements which are brought into the soil through abrasion. This improves soil micro-organisms and apparently also reduces problems with snails.

In 1948, Schauberger developed a copper bio plough, known as the Golden Plough, to loosen the soil without disturbing soil layers and micro-organisms. By copying the mole, he designed a plough that pulls the soil inward rather than pushing it outward. While this technology currently attracts quite some attention on social media, it is still not available on the market.

Jane Cobbald’s book Viktor Schauberger. A Life of Learning from Nature gives some interesting insights as to why the bio plough never made it. Apparently Schauberger wanted to go into commercial production, but he had poor negotiation skills. Fertilizer companies realized that the new plough would diminish the need for chemical fertilizers, so they approached Schauberger, asking him if he was willing to share profits if they would promote the plough. Being a convinced environmentalist his answer was a definite “no”, saying he did not want to make deals with criminals. According to his son, shortly after that Schauberger faced problems obtaining copper, so he had to abandon the project.

Using the whirl or vortex principle Schauberger also suggested that electricity could be generated without losing energy, making use of just air and water. These and many other ideas tested by a careful observer of nature, and documented in detailed writings, drawings and photographs, have continued to inspire later generations of scientists and engineers. Until today, for instance, innovators continue to deposit patents for energy-efficient desalination systems, including Schauberger’s vortex principle.

Schauberger’s guiding principle for experimentation was his intuition, which was based on his own observations of nature, his reading of old philosophers and poets, as well as on the deep knowledge of the mountain men who had spent their lives in the forests. As the story of Schauberger has shown, technological breakthroughs are often the result of holistic thinking that incorporates ideas from different disciplines and people, including artists, philosophers, farmers, foresters and engineers.

While research is needed to develop new technologies that will make our planet a better place to live for us and future generations, we also need an enabling environment that supports experimentation with novel ideas, both technical and social.

Further information

Cobbald, Jane. 2009. Viktor Schauberger. A Life of Learning from Nature, Floris Books, pp. 176.

Schauberger, Viktor – The Fertile Earth – Nature’s Energies in Agriculture, Soil Fertilisation and Forestry: Volume 3. Translated and edited by Callum Coats, 2004. pp. 212.

The Secrets of Water, The Documentary of Viktor Schauberger “Comprehend and Copy Nature”: https://www.ecoagtube.org/content/secrets-water-documentary-viktor-schauberger-comprehend-and-copy-nature

Inspiring platforms

Access Agriculture: hosts over 220 training videos in over 85 languages. Each video describes underlying principles, as such encouraging people to experiment with new ideas.

EcoAgtube: a new social media platform where anyone can upload their own videos related to ecological farming and circular economy.

Honey Bee Network: this platform gives a voice to traditional knowledge holders and grassroots innovators. Primarily based in India, it has sparked products, inventions and innovations in many countries.

Top-down extension on the rise? February 28th, 2021 by

Despite more than three decades of investments in participatory approaches, top-down extension with blue print recommendations seems to be gaining ground again. Why is it so hard to stamp out such denigrating, disempowering practices that consider farmers as passive takers of advice and obedient producers of food?

While working in Vietnam in 1997, roughly a decade after the government established a more liberal market economy with its Doi moi reform policy, my Canadian friend Vincent often shared his frustrations.  As he deployed the tools of participatory rural appraisal (PRA) to assess the priority development needs of rural communities, vegetables often emerged as number one. But as he concluded the full day’s exercise by asking the villagers what they wanted to work on, they always said “rice”. It drove Vincent nuts, as there was no way he could justify that to his NGO back home. As rice was still set as a priority by the local authorities, people had put their personal aspirations aside and abided by government policies.

All states throughout history have relied on making people follow rules … and pay taxes. In my blog two weeks ago, I referred to James Scott’s book Against the Grain, where he writes about the early development of agriculture, starting some 10,000 years ago. During the first several millennia of plant and animal domestication, early farmers and pastoralists continued to hunt, and gather wild plants, leaving them with plenty of leisure time and an incredible diverse and healthy diet, as they practiced sustainable agriculture for four or five thousand years.

When the first states emerged some 6,000 years ago, all this began to change. State elites collected tax as a share of the harvest or as forced labour (or both). As wheat, maize and rice need to be harvested at one particular time and can be easily stored, the early states forced farmers to grow more of these cereal crops. The first writings were not poems or epic stories, but accounts with names of people and taxes paid or other transactions. Rigid instructions on how to manage the crops allowed the tax collector to estimate yields and to calculate how much tax they could collect. Top-down extension is as old as the very first states. Crop diversity declined as people worked harder and ate less.

So despite the more recent, huge public investments and overwhelming evidence of the benefits of participatory approaches, whether farmer field schools, community seed banks or participatory technology generation, development practitioners are up against a difficult enemy (a pushy state that wants to tell farmers what to do). But now some new actors have entered the scene.

Over the past decade, non-traditional extension service providers like telecommunications companies and digital service providers have taken the stage, with many donor agencies and philanthropists believing that digital extension will shape the future of farming. These new service providers can provide pretty accurate information on market prices and weather forecasts, but their tools are too weak to provide an extension service. In the golden age of tweets, farmer advice is often summarised in short, simple text messages and by doing so, digital service providers play back into the hands of those governments and companies who believe they have a right to control rural folks.

Some of my recent research on apps and digital platforms revealed once more how fertilizer and seed companies (and some donors) are using digital services to push national fertilizer and seed recommendations.

Short, blunt messages are better for promoting agrochemicals than for discussing a complex agroecology. It is a rare digital service that understands farmers and responds to their needs in a non-directive way.

Anthropologist Paul Richards described small-scale farming as a type of performance whereby farmers learn by experimentation and adapt their behaviour to reach certain goals. To support diverse and healthy food systems, digital extension approaches will need to encourage experimentation and farmer-to-farmer learning across borders. While simple sms messages can be offered in local languages, video will become an increasingly important format to engage farmers in active learning, with images and verbal discussion from fellow farmers. In video, the audience can read the images, and listen to explanations by fellow farmers, plus viewers can go back and watch the video again and discuss with their friends and family. This gives video a depth and a subtlety that can’t be tweeted.

Modern states that see farmers as citizens, not as subjects, will need to explore many forms of participatory extension, and not simply try to digitize top-down approaches, which will never appeal to farmers.

Further information

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

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