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Keep your cows in the family October 27th, 2019 by

In the 1980s, the Portuguese farmers I lived with kept two or three cows per household. Instead of hosing down the barns—the greatest use of water on dairy farms—the cows were stabled in a large room on the ground floor of the farm house. Every couple of days, farmers would lay down a clean bed of gorse, fern, heather and other wild plants. Instead of creating toxic lagoons of manure, the families would dig the manure out of the barns and spread it on their fields as organic fertilizer.

The parish of Pedralva, near Braga, Portugal, had four milking parlors. Twice a day the farmers (almost all women) would walk their cows down the lane to the milking parlor, where the operator, also a young woman, would milk the cows mechanically, record the amount of milk (clearly visible in a large, glass jar) and pipe the milk into a cold storage tank, to be picked up later by the dairy.

The milking parlor became a place where the farmers would chat and exchange ideas as they stood in line with their cows. I realize now that it was also a chance for the cows to get out of the house and take a stroll. The cows were not pets, but they all had names, enough to eat and drink, and they were never caged. The cows were usually fed on leftover maize stalks and pasture grass, although a handful of farmers with a dozen cows were starting to make silage. So, most of the feed was a byproduct of food production, rather than a diversion of human food to livestock.

The documentary film “Cowspiracy,” by Kip Anderson and Keegan Kuhn, tells of the complacency of Greenpeace, the Sierra Club, Surfrider Foundation, Rainforest Action Network, and Oceana: large, environmental organizations that ignore animal farming as a leading cause of climate change. Livestock account for 51% of global greenhouse emissions, while the whole transportation sector makes up just 13%. Cows make greenhouse gas as they fart out methane while the tractors and fertilizer factories all burn fossil fuel.

Livestock in the USA produce 30 times more feces than people. Fecal slurry from cows and pigs is kept in “lagoons” that often leak into rivers. In tropical countries forests are cleared to make pastures. Much of the forest burned in Bolivia this year was being cleared to graze cows for beef exports to China.

In Eat for the Planet, journalists Nil Zacharias and Gene Stone raise similar concerns, especially about the use of water. In the USA it takes 2000 liters of water to make a liter of milk, 15,000 liters of water to produce a kilo of meat. More corn, soybeans and wheat is produced to feed animals than humans, requiring vast amounts of water, energy and land.

Add this all together and it makes sense that the livestock sector is responsible for 51% of human-caused greenhouse gases.

Food and Animal Welfare, a recent book by Henry Buller and Emma Roe, raises concerns about the cruelty inflicted on the animals themselves. Cows, pigs and chickens have inherited instinctive behaviors from their wild ancestors: chickens like to build nests for their eggs, pigs love to dig into the moist earth, and cows enjoy grazing in the sunshine. The animals become stressed when they are unable to act out these behaviors.

On small, family farms, animals are usually handled in kinder, more environmentally sound ways. Adopting this approach on factory farms is costly and easy to avoid where regulation of animal welfare is poor and consumers don’t know or don’t care about the stresses animals face when penned up all day, every day, unable to move.

Cruelty to animals, deforestation, fecal pollution, the extravagant waste of water and the use of food grains to feed animals are all real problems of agriculture if the animals are just seen as cogs in the factory. But I have seen family farms in Latin America, Africa and Bangladesh where animals are treated a bit like they were in Portugal in the 1980s. The animals are kept clean without big hoses of water. The manure is used as fertilizer instead of being stored in lakes of filth. The animals eat at least some crop residues and spend at some time outdoors. The cows do still fart on family farms, but most other environmental problems are mitigated. Governments and the public should be thinking of more ways to encourage shorter food chains, decent prices for family farmers, enforcement of better standards, and research on appropriate technologies.

Further reading

Bentley, Jeffery W. 1992 Today There Is No Misery: The Ethnography of Farming in Northwest Portugal. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

Buller, Henry, and Emma Roe 2018 Food and Animal Welfare. London: Bloomsbury Publishing. 222 pp.

Zacharias, Nil and Gene Stone 2018 Eat for the Planet: Saving the World One Bite at a Time. New York: Abrams Image. 160 pp.

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And many other livestock videos on Access Agriculture

Spanish mulch September 22nd, 2019 by

Linguists will tell you that each language arranges the world differently. No two languages classify objects, activities or emotions in the same way. This is especially true of the words used in farming.

I was reminded of this recently when translating a video script from English to Spanish. The video, from northern India, forced me to grapple with “mulch”, an English word that is also widely used in Spanish, in real life and on the Internet.  Yet the world’s authority on the Spanish language, the Real Academia Española, does not include “mulch” in its magnificent dictionary, the Diccionario de la Real Academia de la Lengua Española.

It is odd that “mulch” is a new word in Spanish, when it is an old word in English. The Oxford English Dictionary defines mulch as a “Partly rotted plant material, etc.; (Horticulture) loose material consisting of straw, decaying leaves, shredded cuttings and bark etc., spread on soil or around or over a plant to provide insulation, protect from desiccation and deter weeds.” “Mulch” comes from a Middle English word, “molsh” or “mulsh” and has been in the language at least since 1440, and possibly much earlier.

I had my doubt about using “mulch” in Spanish. Various on-line dictionaries suggest “mantillo”, literally “little blanket” instead. But a web search of mantillo usually shows commercial bags of chipped bark used for landscaping and suppressing weeds. Not quite the same as the straw, leaves and husks that farmers have on hand.

I wrote to three agronomists I respect, native Spanish speakers who work closely with farmers. They confirmed that “mulch” was the word to use in Spanish. But one offered a little twist: if the video from northern India was being translated into Quechua, we could say “sach’a wanu.” Now there is a term to savor. “Wanu” means dropping, and is the source of the English word “guano,” meaning bird dung. In Quechua, “wallp’a wanu” is chicken dung, “llama wanu” is llama dung, and “sach’a wanu” is forest mulch, or the fallen leaves of trees.

I was back where I started. So, I decided to use “mulch” in the script, although at the first mention I did offer the alternative “mantillo.”

While languages describe the world in different ways, they also level those differences as they aggressively borrow words from each other, for example “silo”, “lasso”, and “stevedore.” These are all recent loanwords from Spanish to English. New words take time to be defined in dictionaries, which cautiously avoid including fad words that may fade away before really entering the language. But one day “mulch” will be included in the Diccionario de la Real Academia, joining “whisky,” “sandwich,” and other recent English loan words that have enriched the Spanish language.

Watch the video

Mulch for a better soil and crop

Two heads film better than one September 15th, 2019 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación.

I used to think that committees and group work killed creativity, but teamwork can help individuals produce things – like a cool video – that they couldn’t do by themselves.

Late last year, I was part of a team making a video in the southern Altiplano of Bolivia, along with Paul (the director), Marcella (the cameraperson) and Milton Villca. Milton is an agronomist who grew up in a village on the windswept plains where we were filming. He still lives in the area, helping local farmers to cope with challenges, especially the immense loss of soil caused by wind erosion.

After watching Marcella film for two days, Milton confided that he had tried making his own video, about a wasp that attacks and helps to control some of the caterpillar pests of the quinoa crop. But like the farmers, Milton had also struggled with the wind, losing two cameras because of damage by the fine sand. He’d continued filming the wasps with his cell phone, but he told Marcella he wasn’t sure about the quality of the images. Would she mind taking a look at them?

Marcella was happy to watch Milton’s video clips. All was fine. There were fabulous close ups of a wasp that digs a tunnel in the earth, hides it with grains of sand, finds a big, fat caterpillar, paralyzes it, and drags it back to the burrow, which the wasp is miraculously able to find, with the precision of a GPS. The video clips showed how the wasp uncovers the nest, inserts the unfortunate caterpillar, and lays an egg on it. A wasp grub hatches from the egg, eats the caterpillar and eventually emerges in the summer as an adult wasp.

Paul was immediately taken by the story of the wasp, which locals call nina nina. In our interviews with farmers for a video on windbreaks he decided to also ask them what they knew about the wasp. Unlike many parasitic wasps, which are too small to see clearly with the naked eye, the nina nina is pretty big, and local people know about it and can describe its ecology.

Asking a professional cameraperson to critique your videos can be daunting, but Milton no doubt sensed that Marcella would give him sympathetic and positive criticism. His risk paid off. We collaborated with Milton to write a script for his video. Marcella edited his clips and combined them into a short video, which we are proud to release this week.

Watch the video

The wasp that protects our crops

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Acknowledgements

Milton Villca works for the Proinpa Foundation. Our work was generously supported by the CCRP (Collaborative Crop Research Program) of the McKnight Foundation.

DOS CABEZAS FILMAN MEJOR QUE UNA

Por Jeff Bentley, 15 de septiembre del 2019

Yo solĂ­a pensar que los comitĂ©s y el trabajo en grupo mataban la creatividad, pero el trabajo en equipo puede ayudar a los individuos a producir cosas – como un video genial – que no podrĂ­an hacerse por sĂ­ mismos.

A finales del año pasado, formé parte de un equipo que hacía un video en el Altiplano sur de Bolivia, junto con Paul (el director), Marcella (la camarógrafa) y Milton Villca. Milton es un técnico agrónomo de un pueblo del altiplánico ventoso donde filmábamos. Él todavía vive en la zona, ayudando a los agricultores locales a manejar sus desafíos, especialmente a la inmensa pérdida de suelo causada por la erosión del viento.

Después de ver a Marcella filmar durante dos días, Milton confió que él había intentado hacer su propio video, sobre una avispa que ataca y ayuda a controlar algunos de los gusanos plagas del cultivo de la quinua. Pero al igual que los agricultores, Milton también había luchado contra el viento, perdiendo dos cámaras debido a los daños causados por la arena fina. Había seguido filmando las avispas con su celular, pero le dijo a Marcella que no estaba seguro de la calidad de las imágenes. ¿Ella estaría dispuesta a verlas?

A Marcella le encantaron los videos de Milton. Hubo excelentes primeros planos de una avispa que excava un tĂşnel en la tierra, lo esconde con granos de arena, encuentra una oruga grande y gorda, la paraliza y la arrastra hasta el tĂşnel del nido, que la avispa milagrosamente logra encontrar, como si tuviera un GPS. Los videos muestran cĂłmo la avispa descubre el nido, inserta al desafortunado gusano y pone un huevo en Ă©l. Luego, la crĂ­a de la avispa sale del huevo, se come al gusano y eventualmente emerge como una avispa adulta en el verano.

A Paul le cautivó inmediatamente la historia de la avispa, a la que la gente local llama nina nina. En nuestras entrevistas con los agricultores para un video sobre las barreras vivas, decidió también preguntarles lo que sabían sobre las avispas. A diferencia de muchas avispas parásitas, que son demasiado pequeñas para ver claramente a simple vista, la nina nina es bastante grande, y la gente local sabe de ella y puede describir su ecología.

Pedirle a un camarĂłgrafo profesional que critique sus videos puede ser desalentador, pero Milton sin duda sintiĂł que Marcella le darĂ­a una crĂ­tica positiva, con empatĂ­a. Su riesgo valiĂł la pena. Colaboramos con Milton para escribir un guion para su vĂ­deo. Marcella editĂł sus clips y los combinĂł en un video corto, que estamos orgullosos de lanzar esta semana.

Ver el video

La avispa que protege nuestros cultivos

VĂ­deo relacionado

Barreras vivas para proteger el suelo

Historias de blogs relacionadas

RecuperaciĂłn lenta

Despertando las semillas

Organic agriculture and mice

Agradecimientos

Milton Villca trabaja para la FundaciĂłn Proinpa. Nuestro trabajo fue generosamente apoyado por el CCRP (Programa Colaborativo de InvestigaciĂłn sobre Cultivos) de la FundaciĂłn McKnight.

Native potatoes, tasty and vulnerable September 8th, 2019 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación

Of well over 4000 potato varieties, the great majority only grow in the Andes, a cordillera of great heights (with farming up to 4500 meters above sea level) and tropical latitudes (with little variation in daylight hours between summer and winter). Potato varieties adapted to these special conditions can rarely survive outside the Andes.

The native varieties are endangered, and if they disappear, they will take with them the genes that breeders need to create the varieties adapted to a changing world.

But the Andean farmers fear the extinction of native potatoes for other reasons. Near Cusco, Santiago Huarhua and Ernestina Huallpayunca, with their children, tell us that native potatoes are much nicer to eat than the modern varieties. The native potatoes are of many colors, even red and blue. They are floury and tasty. Don Santiago and doña Ernestina produce them only with natural fertilizer, which they say helps to preserve the potato’s special flavor. The couple grows the potatoes on the high mountain slopes above their village, while the so-called improved potatoes are white and are produced with chemical fertilizer, on the valley bottom.

Even though the family preserves native potatoes, they grow more of the improved ones, because of market demand, to make fried potatoes and chips. The native potatoes tend to be smaller and too dry to fry, but perfect for boiling.

Don Santiago says that when he was a child, there were many native potato varieties, more than he can remember, but now there are only five. He shows us where he keeps his seed potato. He has three shelves, each about one by two meters, enough to plant about 1500 square meters of each variety; that makes one small plot for each kind of potato. The survival of these vulnerable varieties depends on a few kilos of seed, curated by relatively isolated households.

In recent years, Peruvians have started to appreciate these little gourmet potatoes, and buy them. This new demand for native potatoes helps to ensure their survival, but varieties are still being lost. Yet native potatoes do have one thing in their favor: farmers like them more than other varieties.  

A note on potato varieties

The International Potato Center curates 4354 native potato varieties. Genebank.

Acknowledgments

Thanks to Ing. RaĂşl Ccanto, of the Grupo Yanapai, and to Ing. Willmer PĂ©rez and Ing. Andrea Prado, both of the International Potato Center (CIP). They are writing a video script about native potatoes. I have learned a lot from them in a week of sharing and writing.  Our script writing course was generously supported by The McKnight Foundation’s Collaborative Crop Research Program (CCRP).

PAPAS NATIVAS, DELICIOSAS Y VULNERABLES

Por Jeff Bentley, 8 de septiembre del 2019

De las mucho más de 4000 variedades de papa, la gran mayoría solo viven en los Andes, una cordillera con grandes alturas (con agricultura hasta 4500 msnm) y latitudes tropicales (con poca variación de horas luz entre invierno y verano). Las variedades adaptadas a estas condiciones especiales raras veces sobreviven en otros lugares.

Las variedades nativas están en peligro de extinción, y si se desaparecen, llevarán consigo los genes que los fitomejoradores necesitarán para crear variedades aptas a un mundo cambiante.

Pero los agricultores andinos temen la extinción de la papa nativa por otras razones. Cerca de Cusco, Santiago Huarhua y Ernestina Huallpayunca, con sus hijos, nos explican que las papas nativas son mucho más ricas que las mejoradas. Las nativas son de muchos colores, hasta rojo y azul. Son harinosas y sabrosas. Don Santiago y doña Ernestina las producen solo con abono natural, que según ellos ayuda a preservar su sabor especial. Las cultivan en las alturas, en los cerros arriba de su comunidad, mientras las papas mejoradas son blancas, y se producen con fertilizante químico, en el piso del valle.

A pesar de que la familia preserva papas nativas, más producen papas mejoradas, porque es lo que el mercado demanda, para hacer papa frita. Las papas nativas tienden a ser pequeñas y no muy buenas para freír, pero perfectas para sancochar.

Don Santiago nos cuenta que cuando era un niño, había muchas variedades nativas. No se acuerda cuántas, pero ahora solo quedan cinco. Nos muestra donde guarda su papa, para semilla. Tiene tres estantes, cada uno de un metro por dos, suficiente para sembrar 1500 metros cuadrados de cada variedad; es una parcela pequeña para cada clase de papa. La sobrevivencia de estas variedades vulnerables depende de unos cuantos kilos de semilla, custodiadas por familias relativamente aisladas.

El preservar a las papas nativas será una actividad social. Nadie lo puede hacer solo. El público tendrá que aprender a apreciar estas papitas gourmet, y comprarlas. Los agricultores tendrán que tener acceso a la semilla de otros lugares cuando su papa se degenera y hay que cambiarla.

En los últimos años, los consumidores peruanos han empezado a querer a esas pequeñas papas gourmet. Esta nueva demanda para la papa nativa ayuda a asegurar su sobrevivencia, pero se siguen perdiendo variedades. Sin embargo, la mejor ficha que tienen las papas nativas es que los mismos agricultores las prefieren a las otras variedades.

Una nota sobre las variedades de papa

El Centro Internacional de la Papa conserva 4354 variedades de papa nativa. Genebank

Agradecimientos Agradezco al Ing. RaĂşl Ccanto, del Grupo Yanapai, y al Ing. Willmer PĂ©rez y la Ing. Andrea Prado, ambos del Centro Internacional de la Papa (CIP). Ellos están escribiendo un guion para un video sobre las papas nativas. En una semana de convivencia y redacciĂłn he aprendido bastante de ellos.  Nuestro curso de redacciĂłn de guiones recibiĂł el apoyo generoso del Programa Colaborativo de Investig

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 VendĂ´mois, J. and SĂ©ralini, 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

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