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The village hunter June 28th, 2020 by

I recently ran into our village hunter, Pol Gielen, which is always a good occasion to get to know the village history a little better, and to learn about the changing challenges of hunters and farmers alike. In our village, Erpekom, in north eastern Belgium, with only 300 odd citizens, Pol Gielen is one of the two people allowed to hunt on the village grounds. The license has been passed on from generation to generation. While hunting in Europe is a centuries-old occupation, it has not always had the same social relevance.

The first hunting laws stem from the time of William the Conqueror, the Norman King who reigned England from 1066 until his death in 1087. A decade earlier, William allied himself with Flanders, now part of Belgium, by marrying Matilda, daughter of Count Baldwin of Flanders. William was a fervent hunter who loved being in the woods, observing animals, yet he despised the common people. A peasant caught hunting could be thrown into prison or, just as likely, publicly executed. For centuries to follow, hunting became a stylized pastime of the aristocracy.

In contemporary Europe, hunting is no longer confined to the rich. While hunting licenses are to ensure that only well-trained persons are allowed to hunt, the right to hunt is also linked to the duty to care for all animals listed in the hunting laws. For various species, such as deer, wild boars, hares and pheasants, hunters and authorities have to develop plans, detailing, how many animals may or must be killed during the hunting season. Some pest species, such as pigeons, can be shot with little restriction.

In an earlier blog, Bullets and birds, I wrote how pigeons can be a real challenge for organic farmers, who do not use seed that the factories coat with chemicals to repel birds, and how local hunters can come to the rescue if need be. My recent encounter with Pol, our village hunter, showed me how changing pesticide regulations in Europe continue to influence the relationships between hunters, farmers and the environment.

In 2018, the European Commission banned three neonicotinoids (synthetic nicotinoids, toxins originally derived from tobacco). The ban covers all field crops, because these pesticides harm domesticated honey bees and wild pollinators. Neonics, as they are commonly called, are often coated onto seeds to protect them from soil pests. These pesticides are systemic, meaning they spread through the plant’s tissue. The toxin eventually reaches pollen and nectar, where it harms pollinators. According to a study by Professor Dave Goulson in the UK, most seeds and flowers marketed as “bee-friendly” at garden centres, supermarkets and DIY centres, like Aldi and Homebase, are contaminated with systemic pesticides. In fact, in his study in 2017 70% of the plants contained neonics commonly including the ones banned for use on flowering crops by the EU. Birds, bees, butterflies, bats and mammals are indiscriminately poisoned when they forage on contaminated plants.

The dramatic decline of bees and other pollinators due to the use of neonics and other pesticides is threatening the sustainability of the global food supply. Of the 100 crop species that provide 90% of global food, 71 are pollinated by bees.

To further reduce the negative impact of agriculture on the environment, more restrictions have been imposed because of mounting evidence that pesticide-coated seed are also harmful to birds, including partridges, a favourite game bird for a thousand years that has now become a rarity. Apart from subsidies for installing and maintaining hedgerows around farmers’ fields to serve as food and nesting habitat for birds, the European Commission recently banned methiocarb, a toxic insecticide used as a bird repellent, often used to coat maize seed.

With the new EU regulations limiting seed coatings, conventional dairy farmers got worried that birds would damage their maize crop, and have begun looking for alternatives. That is the reason why one of our farmer neighbours decided to call upon Pol, the village hunter. It was on his way back from that farmer that I ran into Pol when he said: “Well, the farmer asked me to come and shoot pigeons, but I told him: ‘I would be happy to help you, but where do you want me to hide, you have removed all the hedges in your fields!’”

Regulations to curb the indiscriminate and dangerous use of pesticides on seed and in fields must go hand in hand with other measures, such as promoting hedgerows that fulfil important ecological functions for birds and pollinators. Also, environmentally-friendly alternatives could be further investigated and promoted. Green, innovative technologies, such as clay coating, is likely to become increasingly important. Clay is perceived by insects and birds as soil and offers a natural protection of the seeds. The clay can even be enriched with other natural additives to repel birds and insects.

Hunting has come a long way in the past 1,000 years. No longer the pastime of kings, hunting can be part of an enlightened programme to manage bird pests, without the use of chemicals, while saving the bees.

Further reading

Goulson, Dave. 2017. Pesticides in “Bee-Friendly” flowers. www.sussex.ac.uk/lifesci/goulsonlab/blog/bee-friendly-flowers. Original research describing in detail the pesticides was published in the journal Environmental Pollution, May 2017 and can be found here: www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0269749117305158  

Malone, Katy. 2018. Beeware! ‘Bee-friendly’ garden plants can contain bee-harming chemicals. https://www.bumblebeeconservation.org/beeware-bee-friendly-garden-plants-can-contain-bee-harming-chemicals/

Stokstad, Erik. 2018. European Union expands ban of three neonicotinoid pesticides. Science, April 27.

The European Green Deal: https://ec.europa.eu/info/strategy/priorities-2019-2024/european-green-deal_en

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Eating bricks June 14th, 2020 by

In Belgium we have an expression: “all Belgians are born with a brick in their stomach”, meaning that all citizens aspire to build their own house someday. But when bricks are literally eaten, something has gone seriously wrong.

Some 25 years ago, during one of my first projects in Sri Lanka, news came out that chilli powder was mixed with ground up bricks. Some crooks were trying to make a dishonest profit. Ground chilli and powdered bricks are of a similar colour and consistency. Few buyers taste the chilli powder when they buy it, and as chilli is typically added to sauces, never eaten straight, a cheating dealer supplying to regional or international markets for customers he would never see again at times could get away with such a scam.  

Fortunately, in Europe we have a long history of food safety standards, regulations and government institutes safeguarding the quality of the food that enters the market and ends up on our plates. But such systems are absent, dysfunctional or just getting started in many developing countries.

Yet many developing countries have an advantage when it comes to food safety: short food chains. Control measures on food safety are less important when one relies on short food chains. In Sri Lanka, for instance, I used to patronize spice gardens where urban people would stock up on black pepper, chilli or cardamom. Over the years the customers would establish a relationship based on trust with the family running the spice garden. Even in the markets, most vendors know their regular customers, and would never risk selling them a fake product. Suppliers are motivated to sell high-quality products to their valuable, steady customers.

I had forgotten about this incidence of adulterated chilli until recently. While reading the book The True History of Chocolate, I was struck by one particular paragraph on food adulteration. Cacao had spread from Latin America to Portuguese, Spanish, English and French colonies across Africa and Asia in the 19th century.

In 1828, the Dutch chemist Coenraad Van Houten took out a patent on a process to make powdered chocolate with a very low fat content. The Industrial Revolution was in full swing and entrepreneurs in England and America established their first companies to make chocolate for the masses. For centuries, chocolate had only been known as a foamy drink, consumed mainly by the royalty, aristocracy and clergy.

Already in 1850, the British medical journal The Lancet mentioned the creation of a health commission for the analysis of foods. According to the journal suspicions about the quality of the mass-produced chocolate proved correct: in 39 out 70 samples, chocolate had been adulterated with red brick powder. Similar results were obtained from samples of chocolate seized in France. The investigations led to the establishment of the British Food and Drug Act of 1860 and the Adulteration of Food Act of 1872.

A similar trend took place in the milk industry.

In Belgium, starting in 1900, machines were deployed to scale up butter production. Just two years later, the Belgian farmers’ organisation, the Boerenbond (Farmers’ League) decided to employ food consultants to check the administration, hygiene and quality of the dairies. In 1908, the Boerenbond established a food laboratory which it deemed necessary to help curb the increase in butter adulteration.

Now, more than a century later, the Covid-19 pandemic has exposed once more the vulnerability of a globalised food system with long supply chains. Slightly more than 50% of all food produced in Belgium is exported, including milk. As the demand from China dropped, this left farmers unable to sell dairy, meat and potatoes. Belgian dairy cooperatives also struggled to have sufficient packaging material, as this relied on imports of certain materials.

Such troubles are triggering people to rethink how to make our food system more sustainable. For a long time, food safety regulations were assumed to be the main pillar of a safe food system, but the pandemic has revealed that the complexity of a global food system makes it prone to breaking down, leaving producers and consumers vulnerable. Over the years, overly rigid food safety standards in Belgium have discouraged farmers from adding value to their own produce and selling it on their farm. Triggered by the crisis, the Belgian Minister for Agriculture, Denis Ducarme, has just reduced the stringency on food safety control for farm-made cheese. More will hopefully be done in the near future to encourage farmers to process and sell food on their farm. In these short food chains, farmers will be motivated to make clean, healthy products.

The food in Europe is reasonably safe and healthy, but Covid-19 has shown us how modern food systems are fragile. Burdensome regulations oppress smallholders until they are not even able to make a cheese for their neighbours. By investing in shorter food chains, we can make our food systems more resilient, and bring back the distinctive flavours of local foods.  Shorter, more adaptable food chains will build trust, while leaving the bricks to those who are building houses.

Further reading

Belgische Boerenbond. 1990. 100 Jaar Boerenbond in Beeld. 1890-1990. Dir. Eco-BB – S. Minten, Leuven, 199 pp.

Sophie D. Coe and Michael D. Coe. 1996. The True History of Chocolate. Thames and Hudson Ltd, London, 280 pp.

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Make luffa, not plastic April 19th, 2020 by

During the Second World War, cut off from many supplies, the USA looked to the laboratory for help. Large teams of chemists were specifically engaged in the war effort, explains historian Daniel Immerwahr in his 2019 book How to Hide an Empire. Agricultural products like rubber were replaced by a synthetic made from petroleum. Nylon and rayon substituted for silk. Fiberglass was born, along with plywood, and many plastic synthetics.

Plastic sponges invaded our homes, replacing their natural originals, which came from the sea. But, as we will see below, there is also a vegetable sponge.

My family has always washed the dishes with plastic sponges. Then last year we grew weary of having to frequently replace the plastic sponges, because they retained food bits which rotted and gave off a bacterial stench. Then we started to feel bad about throwing away so many sponges. Once discarded, they never decay, and we were fueling demand for plastic from polluting factories.

You can’t stop using something unless you have an alternative. Older people in Cochabamba remember how their parents would keep a luffa plant, whose fruits can be used as kitchen sponges. The luffa is a member of the squash family; it grows on a vine and looks a bit like a big cucumber when it is green.

When Ana decided that we had to grow luffa to replace the plastic sponges, our first problem was getting the seed. The plant is no longer popular, but fortunately a neighbor was one of the last people in the city still growing luffas. They grow vigorously and when their vine grew over the garden wall and into the street, we waited for the fruit to dry and when no one was looking, we plucked it off. We were on our way to growing luffa.

The luffa has a strange way of spreading its seed. The tip of the hanging fruit is covered with a little cap, which pops off when the shell dries and the seed is ready. Then as the luffa sways in the breeze, still swinging on the vine, it spills its seed on the ground.

The luffa plant needs little care, just a structure to climb on. We have yet to find any pests or diseases on this beautiful plant. Its big, yellow flowers attract bumblebees, and the plant climbs the walls like ivy, taking up little space on the ground.

After the fruit dries, Ana simply breaks off the crunchy, papery skin revealing a clean, dry vegetable sponge. Knock out any remaining seeds and the luffa is ready to use. It is the perfect size and shape to wash out a drinking glass. You can also scrub up in the shower with a luffa. You can use the luffa whole or cut it into pieces. The sponge is full of holes, so it stays clean and odor-free for weeks. When you replace your luffa sponge with a new one, you can toss the old one into the compost pit.

The luffa loves warm weather. If you can’t grow luffa yourself you can always buy it. Say farewell to those synthetic plastic sponges and welcome back their natural alternatives, straight from the garden.

Further reading

Immerwahr, Daniel 2019 How to Hide an Empire: A Short History of the Greater United States. London: Bodley Head. 516 pp.

Scientific names

The luffa (or loofah) belongs to the cucurbit family, along with watermelon and pumpkin. There are two species, Luffa cylindrica, also called Luffa aegyptica, and Luffa acutangula.

A history worth its salt February 9th, 2020 by

Mark Kurlansky’s well-written and inspiring book Salt: A World History, shows how crucial salt has been throughout our history.

Salt was at the very core of Chinese, Mayan and Roman civilization, as it was a key source of revenue for the State. Some ancient civilizations were conquered by destroying the opponent’s access to salt. An army without salt was almost as easily conquered as one without weapons.  A soldier’s daily ration often contained dried and salted meat. Horses would come to a standstill if they lacked a regular intake of salt.

Marco Polo’s economic intelligence was important in part because of his ideas about salt. The son of an established trader in Venice, Marco Polo travelled to China in the 13th century A.D. to establish trade relations. When he returned to Venice after a second, 20-year long visit to China, Marco Polo brought back knowledge of how a salt administration can fill the treasury and that a state can make more profit from trading salt than from producing it. Venice was able to dominate Mediterranean commerce after 1380, thanks to their salt trade, along with their smaller vessels that were more easily converted into war ships than the larger, less versatile Genoese ships. Venetian power lasted for about a century, until the Genoese Christopher Columbus and the Portuguese Vasco da Gama opened the Atlantic Ocean as the main body of water for trade, by-passing the Mediterranean. While Vasco da Gama sailed around Africa to India to avoid the Mediterranean, Columbus tried to beat him by going straight west, where the Americas blocked his route to India, but eventually led to new salt works in the Caribbean.

Having understood the political importance of salt, the British colonial power also adopted a salt administration. In 1600, Queen Elisabeth I granted the East India Company powers almost equal to those of a state: The East India Company was allowed to mint its own money, govern its employees, raise an army and navy, and declare war against rivals. To keep India under control, one of the first things the East India Company aimed for was to neutralise local structures of salt production and marketing.

Centuries later, Mahatma Gandhi broke the British monopoly on salt by encouraging the Indian people to take up local salt production again, usually by evaporating seawater near the coast, eventually leading to Indian independence in 1947.

But salt making soon slipped away from craft producers. Nowadays, salt in India, as in most other countries, is in the hands of a few powerful companies. As an irony of history, British Salt, a company established in 1969 in the U.K. has since 2011 been taken over by Tata Chemicals Europe, which is part of the Tata Group, an Indian multinational holding company.

The six leading salt producers in the world, Australia, Canada, China, Germany, Pakistan and the United States, account for more than half of the worldwide production. In all six countries, apart from China, salt is in the hands of large corporations.

Currently, China Salt is a state-owned enterprise that has a national monopoly over the management and production of edible salt, employing some 50,000 people and controlling assets worth about 7 billion Euro. According the law, salt cannot be sold across different regions, and private citizens are banned from selling their own manufactured salt. 

Just as large corporations have taken over much of the global production of food, agro-chemicals and seed, oligarchies have also dominated the salt supply. It is unlikely that revenues generated from the sales of salt and minerals still benefit states and the well-being of its citizens. Large corporations after all are known for finding clever ways to evade taxes.

Today much of our commercial salt comes from deep, mechanized mines. Salt has become so cheap that we routinely add it to animal feeds, and leave salt blocks for the livestock to lick at their leisure. Salt is now so abundant that we have to be cautioned that eating too much of it is bad for our heart. But it was not always so. Kurlansky invites us to imagine a world, not long ago, when salt was one of the most expensive foods that people bought. While the price of salt has dropped tremendously, the sheer volume of global consumption still makes it a powerful commodity.

Suggested reading

Mark Kurlansky (2002) Salt:A World History. Penguin Books, pp. 484

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Spineless cactus February 2nd, 2020 by

I wrote in last week’s blog, Her mother’s laugh, that famed plant breeder (and showman), Luther Burbank, bred the spineless cactus. But there is more to the story.

The prickly pear cactus is native to Mexico and spread to the Caribbean and possibly to the Andes in pre-Colombian times. Columbus took the plant, with its delicious fruit, back to Europe on his first voyage. The hardy cactus was soon grown around the Mediterranean, and quickly found its way to arid lands from South Africa to India.

While ancient Mexicans domesticated this cactus, farmers in India selected varieties without thorns.

By 1907, Luther Burbank was promoting his spineless cactus, a hybrid of Mexican and Indian varieties. In his catalogues he wrote that the cactus which would grow with no irrigation, little care, and it would make ideal cattle fodder for the arid western USA.

In the USA, Burbank’s spineless cactus never quite lived up to its hype. While it lacked the large, needle-like thorns, it still grew small, hair-like thorns, which are brittle and can be painful when they lodge into a person’s hands or an animal’s mouth. Burbank’s spineless cactus required some irrigation and more management than other varieties, and under stress, the cactus tended to grow its spines. The thorn-free cactus also had to be fenced to protect it from hungry livestock and wildlife.

Burbank’s American cactus bubble burst by the 1920s, when ranchers grew disappointed with prickly pear. But there was already a long tradition of growing spineless cactus in India, where smallholder farmers had perfected the art of growing the prickly pear for fruit, and to feed the leaves to their livestock. Now you can learn from them, in a new video that tells how to plant, and grow the cactus, and use it as animal fodder.

Watch the video

Spineless cactus for fodder

Related blog stories

Her mother’s laugh

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Read more

Ewbank, Anne 2019 The Thorny Tale of America’s Favorite Botanist and His Spineless Cacti https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/spineless-cactus

Griffith, M. P. 2004 The origins of an important cactus crop, Opuntia ficus‐indica (Cactaceae): new molecular evidence. American Journal of Botany91(11), 1915-1921.

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