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Learn by eating April 14th, 2019 by

The prickly pear is delicious, if you can figure out how to eat it. The cactus fruit is covered by minute thorns, as hard to see as a strand of blonde human hair. Some Bolivians avoid the irritating thorns by holding the fruit with a fork and then peeling it with a knife. The little thorns on the fruit are so aggravating that they have their own name in the Quechua language: qhepu, as opposed to the larger thorns, called khishka, found on the pads of the cactus or on other spiny plants.

On a recent Sunday afternoon Ana and I admired the fruit growing in the gardens of Villa, a village near Punata, and we wondered if anyone would sell us some. Ana thought they would not. Prickly pear is usually harvested in the morning, when the qhepus tend to be firmly attached to the fruit. If people harvest in the mid-day they can get covered in brittle qhepus.

But two teenaged girls who were selling soft drinks in front of their house thought that their mom might sell us some fruit. It was late enough in the day to harvest prickly pear.

Their mom, doña Norma, put on a thick leather glove and began twisting the prickly pears off of the cactus plant. Then she told her daughter to pick some branches of sunch’u, a weedy, flowering plant. Doña Norma took the prickly pears to a patch of thick grass where her daughter brushed off the qhepus with the sunch’u branches.

A lot of information came to life that afternoon: how to harvest fruit with infuriating thorns, how to disarm the prickly pears with a handful of leaves, and the best time of day to do it. Local knowledge is like that: passed on not in the abstract, or in the classroom, but during everyday events such as working and eating.

See how cactus fruit is harvested and cleaned of thorns in these short video clips from Agtube

Harvesting prickly pear

Removing thorns from cactus fruit

Scientific names

The prickly pear is Opuntia ficus-indica

Sunch’u is Viguiera lanceolate

Related blog story

Kiss of death in the cactus garden

A brief history of soy April 7th, 2019 by

It was only a century ago that one of the oldest and most nutritious of human food crops began evolving into a global commodity, along the way becoming implicated in problems with genetic engineering, deforestation, and water pollution.

In an engaging world history of soy, Christine Du Bois tells how the bean was gathered and eaten in Manchuria, in northeastern China, at least 9000 years ago, and has been domesticated for at least 5000 years. Ancient (or at least medieval) recipes include tofu (from China), the intriguing, heavily fermented temprah (from Indonesia) and soy sauce (from Japan, but sold in Britain by the 1600s).

Henry Ford was one of the first to grasp the industrial potential of the crop and promoted it to make engine oil and plastics. His motor company was making plastic car parts from soy, and today we might have vegetal automobiles, had DuPont not created plastic from petroleum. DuPont’s plastics might have left American soy farmers with extra beans on their hands, if not for people like Gene Sultry, who started the first soy mill in Illinois in 1927, to crush the beans and extract oil (e.g. for margarine), leaving the crushed beans as animal feed. Sultry travelled the midwestern US with a six-car soy information train, complete with a lecture hall and two theater cars, where farmers watched films explaining how and why they should grow the new crop.

In one of the ironies of post-World War II economics, the USA began exporting large quantities of soy back to its Asian center of origin, first as relief food, but soon Japanese farmers learned to factory farm chickens and pigs on the US model, and feed them with imported, American soy.

This important new trade was upset by Richard Nixon, who in 1973, in the face of rising food prices, briefly banned the export of soy. This startled the Japanese into seeking supplies elsewhere. They began to support the research and development of soy in Brazil, a country that previously grew very little soy. The Japanese and Brazilian researchers were soon breeding locally adapted varieties and learning how to add lime to acidic soils, so that the dense forests of Mato Grosso could be felled for soy.

Photo by E. Boa

The crop soon spread to neighboring Argentina, Paraguay and Bolivia. This vast soy-producing area in South America is the size of a large country, and is sometimes sarcastically called “the Republic of Soy”. Besides habitat destruction, soy displaced native peoples and smallholders as industrial farmers moved onto their land, sowing thousands of hectares. Soy can, of course, be grown by smallholders; Eric Boa and I were fortunate enough to visit some family farmers in 2007 who were happily growing soy on 20 to 30-hectare plots in Bolivia.

It is the large scale of soy that shows its nastier side. The bean has been genetically modified to make it resistant to Monsanto’s herbicide Roundup (glyphosate). Almost all soy now grown in North and South America is genetically modified. Runoff from chemical fertilizer has created a large, dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. In the midwestern USA, soy-fed pigs create mass amounts of liquified manure that builds up in “hog lagoons”, frequently spilling over into rivers. The logical solution would be to use the manure as fertilizer, cutting back on chemicals, but this would entail keeping water out of the manure while cleaning barns, and then hauling the organic fertilizer over long distances.

The US government subsidizes the insurance industry to the tune of $30 billion a year, buffering American soy farmers from risk—a type of farm welfare that benefits those with the most soy, and the most land. These subsidies depress the world price for soy, making it harder for farm families in Africa and elsewhere to get the best prices for their soy.

Yet soy is a versatile food crop that can be made into thousands of tasty and nutritious dishes. It fixes nitrogen from the air, allowing less use of chemical urea as fertilizer. It can be grown profitably by smallholders, if they are protected from land-grabbers, and if governments do not subsidize large-scale farmers.

Brazil is now making efforts to limit further deforestation for soy. Other steps could be taken to rationalize soy’s fertilizer cycle and alternatives for weed control. A crop which has been implicated in so much damage could still be farmed and eaten in environmentally sound ways.

Further reading

Du Bois, Christine M. 2018 The Story of Soy. London: Reaktion Books. 304 pp.

Videos on soy

Soya sowing density

Making soya cheese

Harvesting and storing soya bean seed

Making a condiment from soya beans

The red bucket March 31st, 2019 by

I recently had a chance to visit some dairy farmers near Cochabamba. They live in a small community and are members of a dairy cooperative which was able to buy a refrigerated milk storage tank with support from the Bolivian government. Twice a day the farmers bring their metal milk cans to the collection center, a small brick building which houses a 1,000 liter storage tank.

The stainless-steel tank has an electric cooler to chill the milk and a paddle that gently stirs it. This keeps the milk fresh until a tank truck from the dairy collects the milk later in the day. After each milking, the farmer simply takes her milk to the center, avoiding the work of selling it door-to-door, or of making it into cheese.

The farmers are organized in groups of a dozen or so households, and they take turns running the collection center. This involves measuring the density of each delivery of milk with a little gadget that looks like a pistol (a density meter) to make sure that no water has been added, and jotting down how many liters each person brings in.

Every two weeks the co-op pays each farmer for their milk produced. It sounds simple but the reality is different, particularly in calculating the volume of milk each farmer delivers.

The farmers bring in one or two milk cans each time they come. The factory that makes the milk can labels each one “40 liters” but they only physically hold 39 liters. The staff at the co-op are not sure why this is. The farmers at the collection center have been known to naively give a neighbor credit for 40 liters, because the can looked full. Besides, the cans are not always full, so the milk from each family has to be measured accurately, in a special pail. Pouring the milk into the pail (while trying not to spill any) is a tedious task, and another transaction cost. But it has to be done well. The dairy and the cooperative will fine the farmers if they report more milk than they deliver.

Another problem is that farmers report whole liters to the dairy, often rounding down actual volumes.

At the meeting I attended, one young farmer complained bitterly about this. “Sometimes I bring in almost five liters, and they write down four!”

She went on to say that sometimes the person in charge is nice, and gives her credit for five liters, but most of her fellow farmers won’t do that. She singled out one other farmer, doña Irma, as being especially strict.

But doña Irma had a solution for that. “That’s why we have the red bucket,” she politely reminded the group. If someone has a little extra milk, they pour it into the red bucket. If someone needs milk to make up a liter, then can take it from the red bucket.”

Transaction costs can be higher for smaller producers. It may take as much time and effort to deliver 40 liters as to bring in 400. The collection center makes it easier to deliver milk, but it introduces a few new costs, such as the time it takes to run the center, and the risks of mis-measuring the milk.

The young farmer was still angry. No doubt some producers are more motivated to take milk from the red bucket than to add milk. Still, the red bucket was a local if imperfect solution to a nagging transaction cost.

Smallholders will make marketing and institutional innovations, like the red bucket, to stay profitable in a world where food systems are getting every more complex. At a time when many people are leaving the countryside, and multinational corporations are monopolizing the food supply, it’s good to know that at least some cooperatives are trying to work with smallholders so they can earn a decent living in their home communities.

Related blogs

Trust that works

It takes a family to raise a cow

Related videos

Pure milk is good milk

Keeping milk free from antibiotics

Taking milk to the collection centreKeeping milk clean and fresh

Show farmers and real innovators February 17th, 2019 by

Fellow anthropologist Glenn Stone has written a charming story about the “show farmer,” one who uses a technology proposed by a project, and is always ready to give visitors a glowing account of it. Stone once visited a show farmer who was growing organic cotton with help from a project in Andhra Pradesh. Eight years later, Stone’s student, Andrew Flachs, visited the same farmer, but by then the project had ended and the farmer had given up on organic cotton. As Stone says, “It usually takes a lot of external support to function as a show farmer.”

Stone’s story rings true. I’ve seen many show farmers over the years.

I recall one such farmer in Chuquisaca, Bolivia, years ago, that I visited for a project evaluation. He had a small barn, built with wood, cement and other hardware donated by a well-funded project. At the time I doubted if rural people would make these livestock shelters on their own, because the materials were expensive and had to be trucked in from town. The farmer clearly liked his barn, and was happy to spend time answering my questions. Perhaps he saw my visit as part of his payment for getting a valuable structure.

The same NGO that built the barn in Chuquisaca was also encouraging people to establish group gardens with imported vegetable seed. The project encouraged the villagers to plant lettuce and carrots, ostensibly because local people were eating no vegetables. The solutions offered to the farmers transferred the model of a backyard garden from suburban USA to the sandstone canyons of Chuquisaca. But, unnoticed by the project, the farm families had been growing nutritious vegetables all along. They had patches of chilli and they grew squash between their rows of maize. Both of these vegetables were stored and available during the off-season.

As a benefit of living in Bolivia, and working on a lot of projects, I have been able to go back to this part of Chuquisaca several times. As I have returned to the area over the years, I have always been curious about the vegetables and looked to see if they caught on.  Once I saw a single row of cabbage as a dividing line in a field planted half in maize and half in potatoes, but this never caught on. I also saw a family growing a few lettuce plants in the moist soil near their outdoor water faucet. For some years a few families kept their sheep and goats inside the chicken-wire fences the NGOs built had built around the old gardens, but the backyard vegetable garden died out and the Chuquisaqueños continued to grow chilli and squash.

But some innovations do keep going even after the outsiders leave.

For example, in the 2000s, researchers at ICRISAT (International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics) in Mali created simple techniques for controlling Striga, the parasitic weed. Over several years, ICRISAT taught ideas like crop rotation and organic fertilizer in farmer field schools from Mali to Tanzania. In 2010 they invited Paul Van Mele and Agro-Insight to make videos with some of the farmer field school graduates. These were not show farmers; they hadn’t just copied what they learned at the FFS, but had adapted the ideas to suit their own conditions. Years after learning about these innovations, farmers were still using them.

Later, ICRISAT and others showed the Striga videos to thousands of farmers. In 2013 and 2014 I visited farmers who had not participated in the farmer field schools, but had seen the videos. They were still experimenting with control methods, years after watching the videos. They did this on their own, without project support, for example inventing new ways to intercrop legumes and cereals. Women who had seen the videos banded together in groups to pull Striga weeds for other farmers, for a fee.

Show farmers give time and labor to a project, and often loan a bit of land. In return, the show farmer usually receives some goods, such as a bit of seed, but they also get a chance to learn new ideas, which is a motivation for some farmers. And sometimes these new ideas do mature enough to become practical solutions to real problems, especially when the farmers engage with competent agricultural scientists. Even so, it may take years of research and adaptation to make the innovations affordable, practical and functional. Such ideas are too good for a show; they can be made into a 15-minute video of the real.

Further reading

Bentley, Jeffery, Paul Van Mele, Sidi Touré, Tom van Mourik, Samuel Guindo and Gérard Zoundji 2017 “Seeds of the devil weed: Local Knowledge and Learning from Videos in Mali,” pp 75-85. In Paul Sillitoe (Ed.) Indigenous Knowledge: Enhancing its Contribution to Natural Resources Management. Wallingford, UK: CAB International. 227 pp.

Stone, Glenn, 2014, Theme park farming in Japan

Zoundji, Gérard C., Simplice D. Vodouhê, Florent Okry, Jeffery W. Bentley & Rigobert C. Tossou 2017 “Beyond Striga Management: Learning Videos Enhanced Farmers’ Knowledge on Climate-Smart Agriculture in Mali.” Sustainable Agriculture Research 7(1): 80-92. https://www.accessagriculture.org/publications

Related blogs

The truth of local language

Travels around the sun

I thought you said “N’togonasso”

Beating a nasty weed

Videos Striga videos: https://www.accessagriculture.org/search/striga/all/

Mobile slaughterhouses February 3rd, 2019 by

A recent article on the BBC News reminded me of how policy-makers can look at narrow technical solutions (how to kill an animal) while ignoring broader, yet largely undebated issues about how we organise our food system. I will illustrate this by giving an example of my former neighbour, René, a farmer who lives in the east of Belgium.

René inherited the farm from his father. EU subsidies in the 1980s encouraged farmers to increase the number of livestock, so by the time his father handed over the farm there were around 1000 pigs. But René of course had to pay his brothers for their share of the inheritance. By the time he was in his early 50s he was still paying off loans to the bank. With the low price he got from selling to supermarkets, René realised he had to find a way to earn more money. He decided to take a butchery course and soon after he started selling meat products directly to the public on his farm.

By 2010, René had reduced his herd to some 200 pigs. He still sells some pigs to supermarkets, but his main income is now derived from selling meat from his own animals to people who visit his farm butchery. Every Monday morning René takes 2 pigs to the slaughterhouse, spends the week processing the meat into more than 20 products ranging from salamis to smoked hams and pâtés, and then he and his wife Marij open the shop from Friday to Sunday.

With a great sense of pride, René told me a few years back that he had finally paid off all his debts. But just a year later, the farm family had to take another main decision. The nearest slaughterhouse in Genk, some 20 kilometres from his farm, had closed down, so René was forced to drive over 50 kilometres to have his animals slaughtered.

Regulations required that for longer distances live and slaughtered animals had to be transported in special vehicles. René told me this would cost the family around 10,000 Euro, not counting the extra distance to be traveled each week. One has to sell a lot of sausages to pay for this extra cost. Closing the farm and going to work in a factory was not an option, so they kept their heads high, invested in a trailer and the family continued with their farm and food business.

It seemed that the slaughterhouse in Genk that René relied on had closed down under pressure of certain lobby groups in favour of more industrial agriculture. When supermarkets rule the food system, policies change to reflect the concerns of consumerss. Little thought is given to how changes work to the detriment of smallholder farmers and local food initiatives.

At least for the red meat sector, mobile abbatoirs could offer a great alternative to centralised slaughterhouses. Under the supervision of the farmer and the professional slaughterer who drives the mobile abattoir, animals can be spared the stress of long transport and be slaughtered humanely at home. We can learn from countries where such initiatives are in use, such as those in Scandinavia, France, Australia and New Zealand.

Food is power, and a democratic food system is one that is owned and controlled by as many people as possible instead of by a few giant companies. While community-supported agriculture can give people a sense of ownership over their food, more is required to fundamentally change our food system with due respect given to the people who produce the bulk of our food: professional and passionate smallholder farmers. Mobile abattoirs deserve more attention to enhance the welfare of animals and to keep farmers crafting food in a business they are proud to run.

Further reading

BBC News. Research into benefits of mobile abattoirs. 23 January 2019. https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-scotland-highlands-islands-46958906

Related blog

In an earlier blog I wrote about the challenges of regulating the slaughtering of animals, with public debates in Belgium mainly focusing on how to deal with religious rituals (see: Forgotten food rites).

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