WHO WE ARE SERVICES RESOURCES




Most recent stories ›
AgroInsight RSS feed
Blog

No word for legume September 1st, 2019 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación

I remember a story from grad school about a people in the Amazon Basin who had no word for “parrot”, because they knew the names of all the individual species of parrots.

I was reminded of that this week in Peru, where I was teaching a course on how to write fact sheets and video scripts for a popular audience.

My students are seasoned professionals, and one group was writing a fact sheet about planting legumes to fix nitrogen from the air, as a non-chemical way to improve the soil, a crucial concept for ecological agriculture. Along with the students, I struggled to say “nitrogen-fixing legumes” in words that everyone knows. “Nitrogen” was the easy part, it’s like urea fertilizer, which most smallholders know about.

But “legume” was trickier. It’s a botanical term. Like the parrot-watchers in the Amazon, smallholders in many parts of the world have a word for each species of legume, but no one word for all legumes.

“We could say ‘plants that produce pods.’” I suggested helpfully.

“No,” one of my students said, rejecting my idea out of hand.

That’s one of the advantages of teaching adults, the students know more than the teacher about a lot of topics. In this case, the student is an agronomist who has worked with farmers and legumes in northern Peru for a full career. He explained that some of the best legumes for fixing nitrogen, like alfalfa or the wild garrotilla, have pods so small that people fail to see them.

In the end, we wrote “legume” and then followed it with examples like beans and peas.

Then we drove out to the prosperous village of Piuray, about an hour from Cusco on the road to the Sacred Valley. The smallholders of Piuray value formal education. They are proud of their large, two-story school. Some of the local people work in the city as lawyers and engineers.

But after asking several local people to read our fact sheet, they often looked up and said “What’s a legume?”

Our examples had not been good enough to explain the concept. And there is no simpler word for legume. The simplest word for legume is “legume.”

This matters when writing for a global audience, because people all over the world, from Peru to Pakistan grow legumes, but different species.

In the end, the authors of this fact sheet realized that there was no short and simple way to say “nitrogen fixing legumes.” So they said “Legumes are plants like clover, lupin, vetch and alfalfa that capture nitrogen from the air in little nodules, which are pink or white balls or in the roots. The nitrogen is then used by the rest of the plant.”

Some terms have no simpler synonym, but they can be defined and explained, in words that everyone knows.  

Scientific names

Garrotilla is Medicago hispida

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Edgar Olivera and Ing. Alfredo Tito, both of the Grupo Yanapai, and to Dr. Ana Dorrego of the Centro de Investigación de Zonas Áridas (CiZA) of the Universidad Nacional Agraria La Molina and of LEISA, la Revista de Agroecología. They are writing a script for a video on pasture management. I have learned a lot from them in a week of working and writing together.  Our script writing course was generously supported by The McKnight Foundation’s Collaborative Crop Research Program (CCRP).

HACE FALTA UNA PALABRA PARA LEGUMINOSAS

por Jeff Bentley, 1 de septiembre del 2019

Recuerdo una historia de la universidad de posgrado sobre un pueblo en la Amazonía que no tenía una palabra para “loro”, porque conocían los nombres de cada especie de loro.

Me acordé de eso esta semana en el Perú, donde enseñaba un curso sobre cómo escribir hojas volantes y guiones de video para una audiencia popular.

Mis estudiantes son profesionales experimentados, y un grupo estaba escribiendo una hoja volante sobre el sembrar leguminosas para fijar el nitrógeno del aire, como una forma no química de mejorar el suelo, un concepto crucial para la agricultura ecológica. Junto con los estudiantes, luché para decir “leguminosas que finan nitrógeno” en palabras que todo el mundo conoce. El “nitrógeno” fue la parte fácil; es como la urea, que la mayoría de los campesinos conocen.

Pero “leguminosa” era más difícil. Es un término botánico. Al igual que los observadores de loros en la Amazonía, los pequeños agricultores en muchas partes del mundo tienen una palabra para cada especie de leguminosa, pero ninguna para todas ellas.

Sugerí “Podríamos decir ‘plantas que producen vainas'”.

“No”, dijo uno de mis estudiantes, rechazando de frente mi idea.

Esa es una de las ventajas de enseñar a los adultos; frecuentemente los estudiantes saben más que el profesor. En este caso, el estudiante es un ingeniero agrónomo que ha trabajado con agricultores y leguminosas en el norte del Perú durante toda su carrera. Explicó que algunas de las mejores legumbres para fijar el nitrógeno, como la alfalfa o la garrotilla silvestre, tienen vainas tan pequeñas que la gente no las ve.

Al final, escribimos “leguminosa” y luego la seguimos con ejemplos como frijoles y arvejas.

Luego nos dirigimos a la próspera comunidad rural de Piuray, a una hora de Cusco en el camino hacia el Valle Sagrado. Los pequeños agricultores de Piuray valoran la educación formal. Están orgullosos de su gran escuela de dos pisos. Algunos de los habitantes locales trabajan en la ciudad como abogados e ingenieros.

Pero después de pedirle a varias personas locales que leyeran nuestra hoja volante, a menudo levantaban la vista y decían “¿Qué es una leguminosa?”

Nuestros ejemplos no habían sido suficientes para explicar el concepto. Y no hay una palabra más sencilla para leguminosas. La palabra más simple para leguminosas es ” leguminosas”.

Esto es importante cuando se escribe para una audiencia global, porque gente de todo el mundo, desde Perú hasta Pakistán, cultiva leguminosas, pero especies diferentes.

Al final, los autores de esta hoja volante se dieron cuenta de que no había una forma corta y sencilla de decir “leguminosas que fijan nitrógeno”. Así que dijeron: “Las leguminosas son plantas como el trébol, el tarwi, la vicia, y la alfalfa que capturan el nitrógeno del aire a través de nódulos, que son bolitas rosadas o blancas en las raíces. Luego el nitrógeno es aprovechado por el resto de la planta.”

Algunos términos no tienen sinónimos más sencillos, pero pueden ser definidos y explicados, en palabras que todo el mundo conoce. 

Nombre científico

Garrotilla es Medicago hispida

Agradecimientos

Agradezco al Ing. Edgar Olivera y al Ing. Alfredo Tito, ambos, del Grupo Yanapai, y a la Dra. Ana Dorrego del Centro de Investigación de Zonas Áridas (CiZA) de la Universidad Nacional Agraria La Molina y de LEISA, la Revista de Agroecología. Ellos están escribiendo un guion para un video sobre el manejo de los pastos. En una semana de convivencia y redacción he aprendido bastante de ellos.  Nuestro curso de redacción de guiones recibió el apoyo generoso del Programa Colaborativo de Investigación sobre Cultivos (CCRP) de la Fundación McKnight.

Roundup: ready to move on? August 25th, 2019 by

At our local garden shop, in northeast Belgium, I recently overheard a conversation between the shopkeeper and a young customer, who asked about Roundup®. Since glyphosate, the active ingredient in the herbicide, was banned in Belgium for home use (see note below), a new glyphosate-free Roundup is now aggressively promoted in garden centres. The original Roundup can only be used for professional farming, so the shopkeeper told the customer that her husband is continuously asked to go and spray people’s ornamental home gardens. Even chemical habits can be hard to kick.

When it is my turn at the counter (I am looking for organic chicken feed), I tell the shopkeeper that I just returned from an international conference where American professors revealed how various ingredients of Roundup can be related to male infertility, cancer, Alzheimer and at least 40 other human diseases. She took in the information without being shocked and countered that many people have since resorted to home-made remedies like vinegar to kill weeds, which she preposterously claimed did much more harm to the soil than commercial products. Apparently, the people who sell chemicals, even at the retail level, can become jaded about their dangers.

Both in developed and developing countries, very few people think it necessary to protect themselves when spraying pesticides. People either cannot read, fail to make the effort to read the label or ignore the risks.

While debates on cause-effect relationship can last for decades (the tobacco lobby successfully denied the carcinogenic effects of tobacco for decades, knowing all the while that smoking was a killer), the scientific presentations at the international conference I attended also revealed the shortcomings of official systems that have been put in place to protect our public health. For one, toxicity trials before new products are released only look at short-time effects, whereas diseases of mice (and humans) often show symptoms after years of chronic exposure, as the toxins build up in the body. Equally important, official tests are only done on the active ingredient, not on the full product as it is sold and used.

Protected by intellectual property rights, companies are not obliged to reveal and list the ingredients of the inert material that makes up the bulk of herbicides and pesticides. Laboratory tests showed that one of the ingredients in Roundup is arsenic, which is at least 1000 times more toxic than glyphosate in itself. In short, the glyphosate-free Roundup is still as toxic as before, only it does not show in official tests.

The sad irony is that while the owner of the garden shop is busy spraying people’s gardens with Roundup, the government of Belgium spent millions of Euros to protect those same people, by cleaning the soil from the arsenic factory in Reppel, which was closed in 1971. Although scientific evidence was available that the soil and groundwater were heavily polluted with arsenic, zinc and other heavy metals, it took more than 30 years before the site was cleaned up, and apparently more work is still required.

Environmental damage, including pollution, soil erosion and biodiversity loss are hard to measure in simple economic terms. As Jeff mentioned in last week’s blog, environmental costs are often seen as “externalities” and not considered when calculating the cost:benefit of farms. This has given conventional farming an unfair advantage over organic or agroecological farming.

Although the narrow focus on a single active ingredient, such as glyphosate, may have been good to trigger a public debate around food safety and the danger of corporate interests in our food system, a more holistic approach to crop protection and food production is required that takes into account these externalities.

Managing weeds is a key challenge for farmers across the globe. While mulching, crop rotation, intercropping and green manures are all options, additional weeding may be required—often by appropriate, small machines. Alternatives to herbicides do exist. For commercial (conventional and organic) farmers affordable mechanical weeding technologies, based on precision technology, would make a huge difference.

For instance, the food processing industry has benefitted a lot from optic food sorting machines. In a fraction of a second, a stone the size of a pea can be removed from millions of peas. With a simple mobile app called PlantNet I can take a photo of any plant which immediately tells me what plant it is, even if I only have the leaves at hand and the plant is not yet flowering.

Despite what the industry wants to make us believe, farmers do not need herbicides. If countries are serious about public health, more research is needed to support non-chemical food production. Agricultural robots are getting better. In the near future it would be possible to engineer a wheeled robot that could systematically drive over a field, scanning for weeds, and eliminating them mechanically, even within crop rows.

If governments would invest more in alternatives to chemical agriculture and organise nation-wide campaigns (as they have done for decades to inform people of other health risks, such as smoking, and drinking and driving), farmers, gardeners and shopkeepers (like the lady near my village) would become more aware of the dangers of herbicides and more open to promoting and using alternatives.

As I walked out of the village garden shop without my organic chicken feed (she did not have it in stock for lack of demand), I realized that shopkeepers are happy to sell what people ask for, if enough people ask for it. I hope one day to go back and find them selling better tools for controlling weeds.

Further reading

Defarge, N., Spiroux de Vendômois, J. and Séralini, G.E. 2018. Toxicity of formulants and heavy metals in glyphosate-based herbicides and other pesticides. Toxicology Reports 5, 156-163.

First International Conference on Agroecology Transforming Agriculture & Food Systems in Africa: Reducing Synthetic Pesticides and Fertilizers by Scaling up Agroecology and Promoting Ecological Organic Trade. 2019, Nairobi, Kenya. https://www.worldfoodpreservationcenterpesticidecongress.com/

HLPE. 2019. Agroecological and other innovative approaches for sustainable agriculture and food systems that enhance food security and nutrition. A report by The High Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition. www.fao.org/fileadmin/user_upload/hlpe/hlpe_documents/HLPE_Reports/HLPE-Report-14_EN.pdf

IPES-Food. 2016. From uniformity to diversity: a paradigm shift from industrial agriculture to diversified agroecological systems. International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food systems. www.ipes-food.org

Related videos

Effective weed management in rice

Rotary weeder

Over 140 farmer training videos on organic agriculture can be found on the Access Agriculture video-sharing platform:  Organic agriculture

Related blogs

From uniformity to diversity

Stop erosion

What counts in agroecology

What counts in agroecology August 18th, 2019 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación

Measuring the costs and benefits of a small farm can be harder than on a large one, especially if the small farm includes an orchard and makes many of its own inputs, as I saw on a recent visit to Sipe Sipe, near Cochabamba, Bolivia, where a faith-based organization, Agroecología y Fe (Agroecology and Faith) is setting up ecological orchards.

The director of Agroecology and Faith, Germán Vargas, explained that a forest creates soil, gradually building up rich, black earth under the trees, while agriculture usually exposes the soil to erosion. A farm based on trees, with organic fertilizer, and with vegetables growing beneath the trees, should be a way to make a profit while conserving the soil. 

Extensionist Marcelina Alarcón showed us the apple trees that she and local farmers planted in August, 2018. They started by terracing the one hectare of gently sloping land. In one week of hard work they built a 200,000 liter, circular water reservoir of stone and concrete (gravity-fed with stream water) to irrigate the terraces and three additional hectares. The cost was 64,000 Bs. ($9,275), which seems like a big investment, but similar reservoirs built 30 years ago are still working.

Lush beds of lettuce, cabbage, broccoli, wheat, onions (some plants grown for their seed) are thriving beneath the apple trees. When one crop is harvested another takes its place, in complex rotations over small spaces. No chemicals are used, but the group makes calcium sulphate spray and liquid organic fertilizers to improve the soil, prevent crop diseases and enhance the production and quality of the apples and vegetables.

The group has harvested vegetables four times and sold them directly to consumers at fairs organized by Agroecology and Faith for a total gross receipt of 4,380 Bolivianos ($635).

I was visiting the farm at Sipe Sipe with a small group organized by Agroecology and Faith and some of their allies. Some of the lettuce, onions and tomatoes from the farm end up in a tub during our visit, to make a salad for the visitors—part of a fabulous lunch (complete with fresh potatoes and mutton cooked underground) offered at a modest cost. Produce cooked on site and sold informally on the farm are probably not counted when estimating profitability. After the tour of the farm and before the lunch, Marcelina set up a table with some vegetables for sale. She was kept quite busy writing down each transaction as we bought small bags of tomatoes and other produce for amounts less than a dollar each.

The sale of half a kilo of tomatoes is as much work to document as the sale of twenty tons of rice. A small farm has many more sales than a large farm and it takes a lot of administrative work to keep track of produce that is not sold because it goes into seed, feed or onto the family table.

The cost:benefit of a conventional field is simpler to tabulate: so much labor, machinery, seed and chemicals, all purchased, and single crop yields measured with relative ease. Yet this doesn’t tell the whole story. Loss of soil due to erosion, or carbon and nitrogen to the atmosphere, or pollution from fertilizer run-off all have a cost, even if they are often dismissed as “externalities.”

An agroforestry system like the hectare of apples and vegetables we visited starts with a large investment in irrigation and terracing. Many of the inputs are labor, or home-made fertilizers, and their cost is not always counted. The apple trees have not yet borne fruit, and some of the vegetables may escape the bookkeeper’s tally. Yet here the “externalities” have a positive and valuable contribution: soil is being created, chemical pollution is nil, and livelihoods are enriched as local farmers, mostly women, learn to work together to produce healthy food to sell. Classical economic comparisons with conventional farms fail to take account of these benefits.

Even a small farm can have a lot to consider in estimating returns, with many crops and activities and environmental services. Until we learn to measure the environmental efficiency as well as financial profitability of agroforestry or agroecological farms properly, they will never look as good as they really are.

Further reading

A recent report from the FAO (the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization) concludes that yield data is too poor a parameter to compare conventional (over-plowed, chemical intensive) agriculture with agroecology, a beyond-organic agriculture with soil conservation and respect for local communities.

HLPE Report on Agroecological and other innovative approaches for sustainable agriculture and food systems that enhance food security and nutrition. Extract from the Report: Summary and Recommendations (19 June 2019). Rome: FAO http://www.csm4cfs.org/summary-recommendations-hlpe-report-agroecology-innovations/

Related blogs

Out of space

Enlightened agroecology

Apple futures

Gardening against all odds

LO QUE CUENTA EN LA AGROECOLOGÍA

Por Jeff Bentley, 18 de agosto del 2019

Medir los costos y los beneficios de una pequeña finca puede ser más difícil que en una grande, especialmente si la pequeña incluye árboles y produce muchos de sus propios insumos, como vi en una reciente visita a Sipe Sipe, cerca de Cochabamba, Bolivia, donde la organización eclesial “Asociación Agroecología y Fe” (AAF) está estableciendo huertos ecológicos agroforestales.

El director de la AAF, Germán Vargas, explicó que un bosque crea suelo, acumulando gradualmente tierra negra y rica bajo los árboles, mientras que la agricultura suele exponer el suelo a la erosión. Una finca basada en árboles, con abonos orgánicos, y con hortalizas que crecen debajo de los árboles, debería ser una forma de obtener beneficios al mismo tiempo que se conserva el suelo. 

La extensionista Marcelina Alarcón nos mostró los manzanos que ella y la gente local plantaron en agosto del 2018. Comenzaron haciendo terrazas en una hectárea en suave pendiente. En una semana de trabajo duro construyeron un reservorio circular de agua de 200.000 litros de piedra y concreto (llenado por gravedad de agua de riachuelo) para regar las terrazas y tres hectáreas adicionales. El costo fue de 64.000 Bs. ($9,275), que parece una inversión grande, pero reservorios similares construidos hace 30 años siguen funcionando.

Camellones exuberantes de lechuga, repollo, brócoli, trigo, cebollas (algunas cultivadas para su semilla) prosperan bajo los manzanos. Cuando se cosecha un cultivo, otro ocupa su lugar, en complejas rotaciones sobre pequeños espacios. No aplican productos químicos, pero el grupo fabrica caldo mineral sulfocálcico y abonos orgánicos líquidos para mejorar el suelo, prevenir las enfermedades de los cultivos y mejorar la producción y calidad de los manzanos y de las hortalizas.

El grupo ha cosechado verduras cuatro veces y las ha vendido directamente a los consumidores en ferias organizadas por la AAF (en una canasta solidaria y saludable) por un total de 4.380 bolivianos (635 dólares).

Yo visitaba la finca agroforestal de Sipe Sipe con un pequeño grupo organizado por la AAF y algunos de sus aliados. Algunas de las lechugas, cebollas y tomates de la finca terminaron en una bañera durante nuestra visita, para hacer una ensalada para los visitantes, parte de un fabuloso almuerzo (con papas frescas y cordero cocido bajo tierra en un pampaku) ofrecido a un precio modesto. Los productos cocinados en el sitio y vendidos informalmente en la finca probablemente no se contabilizan. Después del recorrido por la finca y antes del almuerzo, Marcelina organizó una mesa para vender algunas verduras. Se mantuvo ocupada apuntando cada transacción mientras comprábamos pequeñas bolsas de tomates y otros productos por cantidades menos de un dólar cada una.

La venta de medio kilo de tomates es tanto trabajo como la venta de veinte toneladas de arroz. Una finca pequeña tiene muchas más ventas que una grande y se requiere mucho trabajo administrativo para hacer un seguimiento de los productos que no se venden porque van a parar como semilla, para alimentar a los animales o a la mesa de la familia.

El costo:beneficio de un campo convencional es más simple de tabular: tanta mano de obra, maquinaria, semillas y productos químicos, todos comprados, y el rendimiento de un solo cultivo medido con relativa facilidad. Sin embargo, esto no cuenta toda la historia. La pérdida de suelo debido a la erosión, o el carbono y nitrógeno a la atmósfera, o la contaminación por la escorrentía de los fertilizantes, todos ellos tienen un costo, aunque a menudo se desestimen como “externalidades”.

Un sistema agroforestal, como la hectárea de manzanas y hortalizas que visitamos comienza con una gran inversión en riego y terrazas. Muchos de los insumos son mano de obra, o abonos caseros, y su costo no siempre se cuenta. Los manzanos aún no han dado fruto, y algunas de las verduras pueden escaparse de la cuenta del contable. Sin embargo, aquí las “externalidades” tienen una contribución positiva y valiosa: se está creando el suelo, la contaminación química es nula y los medios de subsistencia se enriquecen a medida que los agricultores locales, en su mayoría mujeres, aprenden a trabajar juntas para producir alimentos saludables para vender. Las comparaciones económicas clásicas con las explotaciones convencionales no tienen en cuenta estos beneficios.

Incluso una pequeña granja puede tener mucho que considerar al estimar los rendimientos, con muchos cultivos y actividades y servicios ambientales. Hasta que no aprendamos a medir la eficiencia ambiental y la rentabilidad financiera de las granjas agroforestales o agroecológicas de manera adecuada, nunca se verán tan bien como realmente son.

Para leer más

Un informe reciente de la FAO (Organización de las Naciones Unidas para la Alimentación y la Agricultura) concluye que los datos sobre el rendimiento son muy pobres para poder comparar la agricultura convencional (sobre arado, con uso intensivo de químicos) con la agroecología, una agricultura que vas más allá de la orgánica, con conservación del suelo y respeto para las comunidades locales.

Resumen y recomendaciones del informe del GANESAN sobre Agroecología y otras innovaciones (19 de junio 2019). Roma: FAO. http://www.csm4cfs.org/es/summary-recommendations-hlpe-report-agroecology-innovations/

Historias de blog relacionadas

Out of space

La luz de la agroecología

Manzanos del futuro

Un mejor futuro con jardines

Enlightened Agroecology August 4th, 2019 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación

Francisco “Pacho” Gangotena grew up in the countryside of Ecuador and decided that the best way to help smallholder farmers was to get an education. So, he went abroad for a Ph.D. in anthropology. He came home feeling like “the divine papaya”, he says, thinking that he could change the world with his doctorate.

After a year of teaching at the university, Pacho wanted do something more practical, so he and his wife Maritza sold the house and the car and bought four hectares of land for farming not too far from Quito. But making this work was going to be a huge challenge. The land had no trees and the soil was degraded.

From day one, the family decided that they would use no agrochemicals. They gradually improved the soil by recycling the crop residues and manure back into the soil. Pacho estimates that in this way the family has applied the equivalent of 4000 truckloads of compost since he first began farming here over 35 years ago.

I met Pacho recently on his farm in Puembo, in the Ecuadorian Andes, where he happily showed me and a few other visitors his four dairy cows. He puts sawdust in their stall to absorb their manure and urine. Each cow eats 90 kilos of feed daily and produces about 70 kilos of waste every day, equivalent to 25 tons of organic fertilizer each year for every cow. A single cow can fertilize one hectare of crops. All the manure goes onto the farm, along with all of the composted crop residues.

Pacho rotates his vegetable crops on his four-hectare farm. Potatoes are followed by broccoli, lettuce, radishes and green beans. He employs ten people and is proud that his small farm can give jobs to local families by producing healthy vegetables to sell direct to consumers in the local markets.

His grown son and daughter have also found work on the farm. Pacho jokes that he has retired and that now his daughter is his boss—and a pretty demanding one.

Besides recycling organic matter, Pacho also has some more unusual strategies for building up the soil. He enriches it with wood ash from pizzerias and with powdered rock from quarries. As the quarries cut stone, they leave behind a lot of powdered rock, as waste, which Pacho collects. Rocks are rich in minerals (with up to 80 elements) and are one of nature’s main components of soil.

Pacho is up front about his limitations, which adds to his credibility. A new phytoplasma disease (punta morada) is sweeping Ecuador, wiping out potato fields, including his. He also has to import vegetable seed from the USA and Europe.

But Pacho’s vegetable fields are lush, like gardens, and now surrounded by trees that the family has planted “providing room, board and employment for the birds and for beneficial insects,” Pacho explains. An ornithologist friend counted 32 bird species on the farm, including 22 insectivores. Pacho is convinced that the birds help him to control pests without the need for insecticides. Predatory insects also provide a natural biological control of pests.

He also thinks that it is important to share what he has learned, welcoming around 32,000 smallholders to visit his farm over the years. It helps that he was the director of Swiss Aid in Ecuador for 20 years and has built a large network of collaborating farmers. Many come in groups, and some stay for several days to learn about organic farming and agroecology.

The farm’s family and staff feed us a big lunch of kale salad, potato soup and a lasagna made with green leaves instead of pasta. All vegetarian and delicious. The farm has a clear emphasis on nutritious food and produces lots of it. By intercropping and rotating crops, they get 92 tons of vegetables and other crops per hectare each year, a more than respectable yield by any standard. Since buying the farm, the organic matter, or carbon held in the soil has increased from 2% to 12% or more. In a hectare that is at least 500 tons of carbon.

Not everyone is in favor of organic, biological agriculture. For example, in an otherwise excellent book, Enlightenment Now, Steven Pinker argues that organic agriculture is not sustainable, because it supposedly uses more land that conventional agriculture.

In fact, in developing countries organic agriculture yields 80% more than conventional agriculture, but without the yield stagnation or decline that occurs with the high use of external inputs (see Uniformity in Diversity by IPES Food).

But Pinker, in his characteristic optimism, also writes that even though climate change is the world’s most serious problem, it can be solved if we really work on it.

That brings us back to the Gangotena family farm, which is providing jobs, and lots of healthy food, while removing carbon from the air where it is harmful and putting it underground where it is useful.  Organic agriculture may be one of the world’s greatest techniques for sequestering carbon from the atmosphere, storing in the soil as rich, black earth for productive farming.

Further reading

Pinker, Steven 2018 Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress. London: Penguin Books.

IPES Food 2016 From Uniformity to Diversity: A paradigm shift from industrial agriculture to diversified agroecological systems. International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems.

Related blog story

Out of space

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Pacho Gangotena and his family for their generosity of spirit and for the example they set, to Ross Borja and Pedro Oyarzún of EkoRural for organizing the visit to the farm. EkoRural is supported in part by the McKnight Foundation. Thanks to Ross Borja, Pedro Oyarzún, Claire Nicklin, Pacho Gangotena, Paul Van Mele and Eric Boa for reading an earlier draft of this story.

LA LUZ DE LA AGROECOLOGÍA

Por Jeff Bentley, 4 de agosto del 2019

Francisco “Pacho” Gangotena creció en el campo en Ecuador y decidió que la mejor manera de ayudar a los campesinos era obtener una educación. Así que, se fue al exterior para hacer un doctorado en antropología. Llegó a casa sintiéndose como “la divina papaya “, dice, pensando que podría cambiar el mundo con su doctorado.

Después de un año de enseñar en la universidad, Pacho quería hacer algo más práctico, así que él y su esposa Maritza vendieron la casa y el auto y compraron cuatro hectáreas de tierra cerca de Quito. Pero la agricultura iba a ser un gran desafío. La tierra no tenía árboles y el suelo estaba degradado.

Desde el primer día, la familia decidió que no usaría agroquímicos. Poco a poco mejoraron el suelo volviendo a incorporar los rastrojos y el estiércol. Pacho estima que de esta manera la familia ha aplicado el equivalente a 4000 camiones de compost desde que empezaron a trabajar la tierra hace 35 años.

Conocí a Pacho hace poco en su finca en Puembo, en los Andes ecuatorianos, donde con toda felicidad él mostró a mí y a algunos otros visitantes sus cuatro vacas lecheras. Pone aserrín en su establo para absorber el estiércol y la orina. Cada vaca come 90 kilos de alimento al día y produce unos 70 kilos de estiércol al dia, unas 25 toneladas de abono orgánico por vaca, al año. Cada vaca fertiliza una hectárea. Todo el estiércol fertiliza el suelo junto con los rastrojos del campo convertidos en compost.

Pacho rota sus cultivos en sus cuatro hectáreas de cultivo que constituyen su finca. Después de las papas pone brócoli, lechuga, rábanos y arvejas. Emplea a diez personas y está orgulloso de que su pequeña finca dé empleo a las familias locales, produciendo verduras sanas para venderlas directamente a los consumidores en los mercados locales.

Su hijo y su hija también traban en la finca. Pacho bromea que se ha jubilado y que ahora su hija es su jefa, y que es muy dura.

Además de reciclar la materia orgánica, Pacho también tiene algunas estrategias más originales para crear suelo. La enriquece con ceniza de leña de pizzerías y con el polvo de roca de las canteras. Como las canteras cortan piedra, dejan mucha roca en polvo, como desecho, que Pacho recoge. La rocas son ricas en minerales (hasta 80 elementos) y constituyen uno de los principales componentes naturales del suelo.

Pacho admite francamente sus limitaciones, lo cual le da más credibilidad. Un nuevo fitoplasma (una enfermedad—punta morada) está arrasando con las papas del Ecuador, incluido las suyas. También tiene que importar varias de sus semillas de hortalizas de los Estados Unidos y Europa.

Pero las hortalizas de Pacho son exuberantes, como jardines, y ahora están rodeados de árboles que la familia ha plantado “para dar ‘room and board’ y trabajo a los pájaros e insectos benéficos”, explica Pacho. Un amigo ornitólogo contó 32 especies de aves en la granja, incluyendo 22 insectívoros. Pacho está convencido de que las aves le ayudan a controlar las plagas sin necesidad de usar insecticidas. Los insectos depredadores también hacen un control biológico natural de las plagas.

También cree que es importante compartir lo que ha aprendido y 32.000 campesinos han visitado su granja a lo largo de los años. Es una ventaja haber sido director de Swiss Aid en Ecuador durante 20 años y ha creado una amplia red de agricultores colaboradores. Muchos vienen en grupos, y algunos se quedan varios días para aprender sobre la agricultura orgánica y la agroecología.

La familia y el personal de la granja nos alimentan con un gran almuerzo de ensalada de col rizada, sopa de papas y una lasaña de hojas verdes sin pasta. Todo vegetariano y delicioso. La finca tiene un claro énfasis en la comida nutritiva, la cual produce en abundancia. A través del policultivo y la rotación de cultivos, obtienen 92 toneladas de hortalizas y productos agrícolas por año en las cuatro hectáreas, por año, más que respetables bajo cualquier sistema. Desde que compró  la finca, la materia orgánica o carbono retenido en el suelo ha subido del 2% al 12% o más. En una hectárea de al menos 500 toneladas de carbono.

No todos están a favor de la agricultura orgánica y biológica. Por ejemplo, en un libro por lo demás excelente, Enlightenment Now, Steven Pinker argumenta que la agricultura orgánica no es sostenible, porque supuestamente usa más tierra que la agricultura convencional.

De hecho, en los países en desarrollo la agricultura orgánica rinde un 80% más que la agricultura convencional, pero sin los rendimientos estancados o en disminución que sucede con el alto uso de insumos externos (véase Uniformity in Diversity por IPES Food).

Pero Pinker, con su característico optimismo, añade que aunque el cambio climático es el problema más grave del mundo, puede resolverse si realmente trabajamos en eso.

Esto nos lleva de nuevo a la granja de la familia Gangotena, que crea puestos de trabajo y produce abundantes alimentos saludables, a la vez que extrae el carbono del aire donde hace daño y lo pone bajo tierra donde hace bien.  

Leer más

Pinker, Steven 2018 Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress. London: Penguin Books.

IPES Food 2016 From Uniformity to Diversity: A paradigm shift from industrial agriculture to diversified agroecological systems. International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems.

Historia de blog relacionada

Out of space

Agradecimientos

Gracias a Pacho Gangotena y su familia por su espíritu generoso y por el ejemplo que nos dan, a Ross Borja y Pedro Oyarzún de EkoRural por organizar la visita a la granja. EkoRural recibe apoyo de la Fundación McKnight. Gracias a Ross Borja, Pedro Oyarzún, Claire Nicklin, Pacho Gangotena, Paul Van Mele y Eric Boa por leer una versión anterior de esta relación.

Out of space July 28th, 2019 by

Celebrating 50 years after landing on the moon, a series of weekly TV broadcasts nicely illustrates the spirit of the time. One interview with a man on a New York City street drew my particular attention. The interview showed why so many people supported the NASA programme: “We have screwed up our planet, so if we could find another planet where we can live, we can avoid making the same mistakes.”

History has shown over and over again how the urge to colonise other places has been a response to the declining productivity of the local resource base. In his eye-opening book “Dirt. The Erosion of Civilizations”, Professor David Montgomery from the University of Washington made me better understand the global and local dynamics of land use from a social and historical perspective.

Out of the many examples given in his book, I will focus on the most recent example: the growth of industrial agriculture, as the rate of soil erosion has taken on such a dramatic proportion that it would be a crime against humanity not to invest all of our efforts to curb the trend and ensure food production for the next generations.

The Second World War triggered various changes affecting agriculture. First, the area of land cultivated in the American Great Plains doubled during the war. The increased wheat production made more exports to Europe possible. Already aware of the risks of soil erosion, in 1933 the U.S. government established an elaborate scheme of farm subsidies to support soil conservation, crop diversification, stabilize farm incomes and provide flexible farm credit. Most farmers took loans to buy expensive machinery. Within a decade, farm debt more than doubled while farm income only rose by a third.

After the Second World War, military assembly lines were converted for civilian use, paving the way for a 10-fold increase in the use of tractors. By the 1950s several million tractors were ploughing American fields. On the fragile prairy ecosystem of the Great Plains, soil erosion rapidly took its toll and especially small farmers were hit by the drought in the 1950s. Many farmers were unable to pay back their loans, went bankrupt and moved to cities. The few large farmers who were left increased their farm acreage and grew cash crops to pay off the debt of their labour-saving machinery. By the time the first man had put his foot on the moon, 4 out of 10 American farms had disappeared in favour of large corporate factory farms.

At the same time that the end of the Second World War triggered large-scale mechanization, the use of chemical fertilizer also sharply increased. Ammonia factories used to produce ammunition were converted to produce cheap nitrogen fertilizer. Initial increase in productivity during the Green Revolution stalled and started to decline within two decades. By now the sobering figures indicate that despite the high yielding varieties and abundant chemical inputs, productivity in up to 39% of the area growing maize, rice, wheat and soya bean has stagnated or collapsed. Reliance on purchased annual inputs has increased production costs, which has led in many cases to increased farmer debt, and subsequent farm business failures. At present, agriculture consumes 30% of our oil use. With the rising oil and natural gas prices it may soon become too expensive to use these dwindling resources to produce fertilizer. 

Armed with fertilizers, farmers thought that manure was no longer needed to fertilize the land. A decline in organic matter in soils further aggravated the vulnerability of soils to erosion. As people saw the soil as a warehouse full of chemical elements that could be replenished ad libitum to feed crops, they ignored the microorganisms that provided a living bridge between organic matter, soil minerals and plants. Microorganisms do not have chlorophyll to do photosynthesis, like plants do, and require organic matter to feed on.

A 1995 review reported that each year 12 million hectares of arable land are lost due to soil erosion and land degradation. This is 1% of the available arable soil, per year. The only three regions in the world with good (loess) soil for agriculture are the American Midwest, northern Europe and northern China. Today, about a third of China’s total cultivated area is seriously eroded by wind and water.

While the plough has been the universal symbol of agriculture for centuries, people have begun to understand the devastating effect of ploughing on soil erosion. By the early 2000s, already 60% of farmland in Canada and the U.S.A. were managed with conservation tillage (leaving at least 30% of the field covered with crop residues) or no-till methods. In most other parts of the world, including Europe, ploughing is still common practice and living hedges as windbreaks against erosion are still too often seen as hindrance for large-scale field operations.

In temperate climates, ploughing gradually depletes the soil of organic matter and it may take a century to lose 10 centimetres of top soil. This slow rate of degradation is a curse in disguise, as people may not fully grasp the urgency required to take action. However, in tropical countries the already thinner top soil can be depleted of organic matter and lost to erosion in less than a decade. The introduction of tractor hiring services in West Africa may pose a much higher risk to medium-term food security than climate change, as farmers plough their fields irrespective of the steepness, soil type or cropping system. In Nigeria, soil erosion on cassava-planted hillslopes removes more than two centimetres of top soil per year.

Despite the overwhelming evidence of the devastating effects of conventional agriculture, the bulk of public research and international development aid is still geared around a model that supports export-oriented agriculture that mines the soils, and chemical-based intensification of food production that benefits large corporations. Farm subsidies and other public investments in support of a more agroecological approach to farming are still sadly insufficient, yet a report from The High Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition published this month concludes that the short-term costs of creating a level playing field for implementing the principles suggested by agroecology may seem high, but the cost of inaction is likely to be much higher.

With the reserves of oil and natural gas predicted to become depleted before the end of this century, changes to our industrial model of petroleum-based agriculture will happen sooner than we think. And whether we are ready for it is a societal decision. With all attention being drawn to curbing the effects of climate change, governments, development agencies and companies across the world also have a great and urgent responsibility to invest in promoting a more judicious use of what many see as the cheapest resource in agriculture, namely land. We are running out of space and colonising other planets is the least likely option to save our planet from starvation.

Further reading

David R. Montgomery. 2007. Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations. Berkeley: University of California Press, 285 pp.

HLPE. 2019. Agroecological and other innovative approaches for sustainable agriculture and food systems that enhance food security and nutrition. A report by The High Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition. www.fao.org/fileadmin/user_upload/hlpe/hlpe_documents/HLPE_Reports/HLPE-Report-14_EN.pdf

IPES-Food. 2016. From uniformity to diversity: a paradigm shift from industrial agriculture to diversified agroecological systems. International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food systems. www.ipes-food.org

Pimentel, D.C., Harvey, C., Resosudarmo, I., Sinclair, K., Kurz, D., M, M., Crist, S., Shpritz, L., Fitton, L., Saffouri, R. and Blair, R. 1995. Environmental and Economic Cost of Soil Erosion and Conservation Benefits. Science 267, 1117-23.

Related videos

Over 100 farmer training videos on organic agriculture can be found on the Access Agriculture video-sharing platform:  Organic agriculture

Related blogs

From uniformity to diversity

Fighting farmers

Stop erosion

Let nature guide you

Slow recovery

Wind erosion and the great quinoa disaster

Design by Olean webdesign