WHO WE ARE SERVICES RESOURCES




Most recent stories ›
AgroInsight RSS feed
Blog

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

Apple futures June 2nd, 2019 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación

Lap’iya means “dahlia” in Quechua. It’s an apt name for a village of commercial flower growers, tucked into a steep canyon in the Andes, high above the city of Cochabamba. Ana and I visited Lap’iya recently to learn about a farmer who is seeking alternative crops, ones that don’t require spraying with pesticides. Concerns are growing about the use of pesticides in flowers.

We met Benjamín Vargas, a farmer, and his friend Serafín Vidal, an extension agent who are developing an agroforestry system based on apples. They are perhaps the first ones in the area to mix apples with forestry trees. They hope this combination will hold the soil on the steep slope while also providing a reliable income. Apples do well in this part of Bolivia, with a wide range of varieties that are smaller than the imported ones, but tasty. They also sell for less.

Benjamín and Serafín have grafted the varieties onto dwarf rootstock, so they can plant the trees closer together. Benjamín and Serafín wait until the apples are a few years old before planting other trees in between them, such as khishwara and pine. They prune these trees so they grow straight and tall, with fewer lower branches to cast shade on the apples.

In another small orchard, Benjamín has placed nets over the apples to keep out the birds. “Be careful not to step on my other plants,” he tells us. It’s only then that I spot the peas and cabbages, and the seedlings of forest trees, all growing between the apples.

Benjamín and Serafín go on to explain that they make and spray four different natural products on the apples. One they call a biofertilizer, another is biol (a fermented cow dung slurry), a third is a product that is rich in micro-organisms, and finally they use a sulfur-lime brew. The men say that all of these are fertilizers, although I think of the sulfur-lime spray as more of a homemade pesticide). Benjamín said that his kids run in and out of the trees, picking vegetables to eat, and he doesn’t want to spray anything unhealthy on the trees.

These innovators say that their idea was to control pests by keeping the trees well fertilized. The men say that they are not out to fight insect pests: “This is not combat agriculture, but one where we try to get along.”

Benjamín and Serafín said that they learn from each other; they did seem more like partners than like teacher-student. They are intercropping apples with vegetables and with forest trees to sell produce and to help conserve the soil. It will take years to see if their innovations work. Trees take a long time to grow, but I’d like to come back in a few years to see if the apples found a market, if the pests stayed at bay, and if the soil stayed firm on the mountainside.

(more…)

Gardening against all odds May 26th, 2019 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación

All over the tropics, from Lima to Lagos, from Mumbai to Manila, the big cities are overflowing with migrants. In some regions, like the Andes, parts of the countryside are emptying out, with whole villages boarded up.

The new neighborhoods ringing the cities are often described as crowded eyesores. Ana and I visited one recently, on the edge of Cochabamba, a city that has long been divided into a fashionable north side, hemmed in by mountains, and by a working-class south side. But in the past 10 years or so the south side has mushroomed out of the valley bottom, to grow over the hills south of town. At night the lights on the hills are a reminder of how much the city has changed.

In one of the newest of these poor neighborhoods, we met some of the 80 members of a women’s group, Nueva Semilla (New Seed). Migration has been intense after the mining industry crumbled in the 1980s, but even in the past 10 years people have continued to leave villages in the provinces of Cochabamba and in Northern Potosí, the poorest region of Bolivia, to seek a better life in the city.

Nueva Semilla is in a tough neighborhood where people have to look after themselves. Families live on small plots of land, where they slowly build their brick and cement houses with their own hands, in their limited free time, usually just Sundays and national holidays. The streets are unpaved and dusty, laid out on square grids (or in curves on some of the steeper slopes). The government has built schools and hospitals. There is electricity, but no running water. People buy water from tanker trucks for a dollar a barrel.

The women’s group started in 2014, when some of them were taking a catechism class. They were impressed with the garden in the churchyard and this set them thinking. They had all been farmers in the places they had come from; why not establish their own gardens in their new homes?

But the women were used to growing potatoes, maize and barley, not garden vegetables. Fortunately, an NGO, the Agroecology and Faith Association, helped them with seed and some training, and some fabric to make semi-shade to protect the young plants against the fierce sun.

Doña Betty, one of the leaders, showed us the plot with her house, a small square of rocky hillside with no soil. Doña Betty bought a truckload of loamy soil, which she mixes with leaf-litter she collects from beneath mesquite trees on the surrounding hills. She puts the mixture in old tires, and irrigates with water she buys. She has created a delightful garden, with a dozen different vegetables, including healthy, organic tomatoes and celery which she is growing for seed to share with the members of her group.

A neighbor, doña Ernestina, is also in the group, and she has a lush garden of about 10 by 10 meters. She has a small hydroponic garden of PVC tubes filled with thriving lettuce plants, an investment paid for by the local municipality. Agroecology and Faith has a strong organic ethos and frowns on the hydroponic gardens because they rely on mineral fertilizer. Yet the NGO is also flexible enough to tolerate the hydroponic gardens, which the women seem to genuinely like. The women’s group is also independent and free to make links with more than one institution.

We paid a small fee, along with a small group of other visitors, for lunch which the women made. They were eager to sell their vegetables. Four heads of lettuce went for about 65-dollar cents, cheaper than in the market. The families eat a lot of their own produce and the kids we saw appeared healthy and well-fed. The women’s small vegetable gardens are surprisingly productive, even if they have to make their own soil and buy their water. The families even have surplus produce to sell.

The NGO is planning a seed exchange fair to … Once a month they also have a solidarity fair, where the women sell ‘solidarity’ baskets of vegetables they produce themselves.  

The women and their families have left their farms behind, but they have also brought the best of country values with them: hard-work and creativity. These adaptive people have taken their personal development into their own hands, and have decided that a home garden is one of the tickets out of poverty.

Related blog stories

Agroecology and Faith’s solidarity baskets are modeled on an experience in Ecuador, which (as luck would have it) I have reported on in a previous blog: Donating food with style

For a story on hydroponic gardening: No land, no water, no problem

Related videos

For videos on seed fairs, and farmers’ rights to seed, see:

Farmers’ rights to seed – Guatemala

Farmers’ rights to seed – Malawi

UN MEJOR FUTURO CON JARDINES

Por Jeff Bentley

26 de mayo del 2019

Por todo el trópico, desde Lima hasta Lagos, desde Mumbai hasta Manila, las grandes ciudades están repletas de migrantes. En algunas regiones, como los Andes, partes del campo se están vaciando, con aldeas enteras tapiadas.

Los nuevos barrios que rodean las ciudades se describen a menudo como “cinturones de miseria”. Hace poco, Ana y yo visitamos a una, en las afueras de Cochabamba, una ciudad que ha estado dividida por mucho tiempo en un lado norte de moda, rodeada de montañas, y por un lado sur de la clase trabajadora. Pero en los últimos 10 años, más o menos, el lado sur ha salido del piso del valle, para crecer sobre los cerros al sur de la ciudad. Por la noche, las luces de las colinas son un recordatorio de lo mucho que ha cambiado la ciudad.

En uno de los más nuevos de estos barrios pobres, conocimos a algunas de los 80 miembros de un grupo de mujeres, llamado Nueva Semilla. Ellas han migrado de las provincias de Cochabamba y del norte de Potosí, la región más pobre de Bolivia. La minería colapsó en los años 1980, pero la gente sigue llegando para buscar una vida mejor en la ciudad.

Nueva Semilla está en un barrio duro de gente habilosa. Las familias viven en pequeñas parcelas de tierra, donde lentamente construyen sus casas de ladrillo y cemento con sus propias manos, los domingos y feriados. Las calles están sin pavimentar y polvorientas, pero dispuestas en cuadrículas (o en curvas en algunas de las pendientes más empinadas). El gobierno ha construido escuelas y hospitales. Hay electricidad, pero no hay agua corriente. La gente compra agua de camiones cisternas por 8 Bs. el turril de 200 litros.

El grupo de mujeres comenzó en 2014, cuando algunas de ellas estaban tomando una clase de catecismo. Quedaron impresionados con el jardín de la iglesia y se pusieron a pensar. Ellas habían sido agricultoras en sus lugares de origen ¿por qué no establecer huertos familiares en su nuevo lugar?

Pero ellas estaban acostumbradas a cultivar papas, maíz y cebada, no hortalizas. Afortunadamente, una ONG, la Asociación de Agroecología y Fe, les ayudó con semillas y algo de capacitación, y algunas telas para hacer semisombra para proteger las plantitas contra el feroz sol.

Doña Betty, una de las líderes, nos mostró su casa, en un pequeño lote de ladera rocosa sin suelo. Doña Betty compró una camionada de lama, que mezcla con las hojarascas que recoge debajo de los árboles de algarrobo (thaqo) en las colinas circundantes. Ella pone esta mezcla en llantas viejas, y riega con agua que ella compra. Ella ha creado un jardín encantador, con una docena de diferentes verduras, incluyendo tomates orgánicos y apio que está cultivando para compartir las semillas con los miembros de su grupo.

Una vecina, doña Ernestina, también está en el grupo, y tiene un exuberante jardín de unos 10 por 10 metros. Tiene un pequeño jardín hidropónico de tubos de PVC llenos de plantas de lechuga, una inversión pagada por la municipalidad local. La Agroecología y la Fe prefiere lo orgánico, y no está muy de acuerdo con los jardines hidropónicos, porque usan fertilizantes minerales. Pero la ONG es suficientemente flexible para tolerar los huertos hidropónicos, que a las mujeres les gustan. El grupo de mujeres es independiente y libre de establecer vínculos con más de una institución.

Junto con un pequeño grupo de otros visitantes, pagamos un poquito para un almuerzo que las mujeres nos prepararon. Estaban ansiosas por vender sus verduras. Cuatro cabezas de lechuga costaron 5 Bs., más barato que en el mercado. Las familias comen mucho de sus propios productos y sus hijos parecen limpios, sanos y bien alimentado). Los pequeños huertos de las mujeres son sorprendentemente productivos, a pesar de que tienen que hacer su propio suelo y comprar su agua. Las familias también tienen excedentes de hortalizas para vender.

Agroecología y Fe está planeando una feria de intercambio de semillas, y una vez al mes tienen una feria solidaria, donde las mujeres venden canastas solidarias de verduras que ellas mismas producen. 

Las mujeres y sus familias han dejado atrás sus granjas, pero trajeron consigo lo mejor de los valores rurales: el trabajo duro y la creatividad. Esta gente versátil ha tomado su desarrollo personal en sus propias manos, y han decidido que un huerto familiar es uno de los boletos para salir de la pobreza.

Otras historias del blog

Las canastas de solidaridad de Agroecología y Fe se inspiraron de una experiencia en el Ecuador, que (por pura casualidad) he descrito en un blog previo: Donaciones de comida, con estilo

Para una historia sobre la producción hidropónica de hortalizas: Sin tierra, sin agua, no hay problema

Videos que le podrían interesar

Para videos sobre las semillas de semillas, y de los derechos populares a las semillas, vea:

Derechos de los agricultores a las semillas — Guatemala

Farmers’ rights to seed – Malawi

Singing to the cows May 19th, 2019 by

I recently showed a Kenyan video about hand milking to a group of women dairy farmers in Bolivia. They laughed when Peter Ndung’u Macharia, a farmer who appears in the video, said that he sometimes sang to his cows.

I wondered why the Bolivian women laughed. People laugh for many reasons. They may find humor when they see the familiar in an unexpected context, or they can laugh at a strange idea. So, later I asked the extensionist, who was also watching the video: “Do dairy farmers here sing to their cows?”

“I wished they would sing to their cows. They argue in front of their cows, husband and wife yelling at each other, or at their kids. Sometimes they hit the cow, or they milk with all that anger inside of them, making the cow nervous.”

Access Agriculture videos are meant to be a learning experience, and serious, but it may add interest if the audience finds some unintended humor. The extensionist said that the video was excellent, and that he hoped that people here would adopt a softer touch, such as singing, instead of just corralling a cow and jerking on her unwashed teats.

After all, music is used fairly widely to calm cows – from classical concertos to Simon and Garfunkel (look up “music to soothe dairy cows”). Cows are living beings and making them comfortable during milking can only help to produce quality milk. And never argue in front of them.

Watch the video

Hand milking of dairy cows

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

Design by Olean webdesign