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Of mangos and manioc October 18th, 2020 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación

Last week in this blog, I wrote about how Native American words for crops entered English and other tongues from native languages, through Spanish (Spanish chocolate). Now it’s time for the other side of the story, the Portuguese side.

Soon after the Columbus voyage, in May of 1493, Pope Alexander VI essentially drew a line north-south through the Atlantic Ocean, 100 leagues (about 400 km) west of the Cape Verde Islands, declaring that any lands discovered west of that line would belong to Spain. The Portuguese could claim any non-Christian country east of the line. The Pope’s intention was to recognize Spanish rights to the islands of the Caribbean, since the Portuguese had previously claimed all lands south of the Canary Islands (which would have given the Caribbean to the Portuguese).  The Portuguese accepted Spain’s hold on the Caribbean, but argued strenuously that the line should be moved a further 270 leagues west.  

Just the next year, Spanish and Portuguese negotiators met in Tordesillas, in northern Spain, where Spain bowed to the Portuguese demand, and the line moved west. Fortuitously, the change would later ensure that Brazil became a Portuguese colony.

The Portuguese would only land on Brazil in 1500, but six years earlier in Tordesillas, they had insisted so strongly on moving the line that some historians wonder if Portugal had known of South America in 1494. In the end, Portugal claimed Brazil in addition to territories in Africa and Asia. Spain got the rest of the Americas and most of the Pacific Ocean. Even by the arrogant standards of sixteenth century imperialism, the Tordesillas deal was astonishing, splitting the world in half the way you would slice an orange with a knife.

Other seafaring nations, especially England, rejected the Treaty of Tordesillas out of hand, but the deal did help to avoid war between Spain and Portugal. The Portuguese set up a string of trading colonies from Guinea Bissau in West Africa to Macau in China. They took 16th century manufactured goods east, along with the names for the stuff. Many languages in Asia and Africa borrowed Portuguese words for items like “window” (janela) and “key” (chave).

The exchange of goods and words worked both ways. In India, Portuguese travelers savored a delicious fruit called maanga in Malayalam, a Dravidian language. The fruit became “manga” in Portuguese, and then “mango” in many languages from German to Japanese.

The Portuguese also brought new foods from Brazil, like a tasty nut, called “cashew” in many European languages from the Portuguese caju, from akaiú, in the native Tupi language.

In spite of treaties, the Spanish-Portuguese tension lingered, and still shows up in language today. The tropical American root crop, cassava, has three names in English. The word “cassava” comes from the Spanish cazabe (the name for cassava flour), which is from the Taino, a native language that was then spoken throughout the Greater Antilles. Another English word for cassava is “manioc”, which comes not from Spanish, but from the rival Portuguese, from mandioca, from mandióka, in the Tupi language of Brazil.  German, Dutch and many other languages also have two words for this crop, “cassava” from Taino via Spanish and “manioc” from Tupi through Portuguese.

The label for “pineapple” was also contested. The Spanish called the fruit piña, “pinecone”, because of its faceted skin. The English translated piña as “pine” and added “apple,” to signal “this is a fruit”, making an unusual blended word.  Brazilians today call the pineapple abacaxi (from the Tupi ywa-katí, “fragrant fruit”), but in Portugal it is ananás, from the Tupi word for pineapple, naná. In most of the world’s languages today, except for English and Spanish, the pineapple is known by some version of “ananas.”

The line of Tordesillas, through the center of the Atlantic Ocean, seems improbably and crudely imperialistic to modern ideals. The Iberian colonies have finally all been surrendered, but the Spanish influence on the world’s languages is still felt from the west of that line, with a Portuguese legacy on the east side.

Further reading

Brotton, Jerry 2013 A History of the World in Twelve Maps. London: Penguin Books. 514 pp. (See chapter 6).

Etymologies

Most of the etymologies are from Michaelis Dicionário Brasileiro da Língua Portuguesa

DE MANGOS Y MANDIOCA

18 de octubre del 2020, por Jeff Bentley

La semana pasada en este blog, escribí que algunas palabras indígenas para cultivos americanos pasaron al inglés y a otros idiomas desde las lenguas nativas, a través del español (Chocolate español). Ahora nos toca la otra parte de la historia, el lado portugués.

Poco después del viaje de Colón, en mayo de 1493, el Papa Alejandro VI trazó una línea de norte a sur a través del Océano Atlántico, a 100 leguas (unos 400 km) al oeste de las Islas de Cabo Verde, declarando que cualquier tierra descubierta al oeste de esa línea pertenecería a España. Los portugueses podrían reclamar cualquier país no cristiano al este de la línea. La intención del Papa era reconocer los derechos españoles sobre las Islas del Caribe, ya que los portugueses habían reclamado anteriormente todas las tierras al sur de las Islas Canarias (que daría el Caribe a los portugueses).  Los portugueses aceptaron el dominio español sobre el Caribe, pero argumentaron enérgicamente que la línea debería desplazarse otras 270 leguas hacia el oeste. 

Al año siguiente, los negociadores españoles y portugueses se reunieron en Tordesillas, en Castilla, donde España aceptó la demanda portuguesa y la línea se movió hacia el oeste. Por suerte de los portugueses, más tarde el cambio les daría el Brasil como colonia.

Los portugueses sólo desembarcarían en el Brasil en el 1500, pero seis años antes en Tordesillas, habían insistido tanto en mover la línea que algunos historiadores se preguntan si Portugal había sabido de América del Sur en el 1494. Al final, Portugal reclamó Brasil además de territorios en África y Asia. España obtuvo el resto de las Américas y la mayor parte del Océano Pacífico. Aun según los arrogantes estándares del imperialismo del siglo XV, el acuerdo de Tordesillas fue mucha cosa, dividiendo el mundo a la mitad como si se tratara de cortar una naranja con un cuchillo filudo.

Otras naciones marineras, especialmente Inglaterra, rechazaron el Tratado de Tordesillas de frente, pero el acuerdo ayudó a evitar la guerra entre España y Portugal. Los portugueses establecieron una serie de colonias comerciales desde Guinea Bissau en África Occidental hasta Macao en la China. Se llevaron las manufacturas del siglo XVI al este, junto con sus nombres. Muchos idiomas de Asia y África se prestaron palabras portuguesas para artículos como “ventana” (janela) y “llave” (chave).

El intercambio de bienes y palabras corrió en ambos sentidos. En la India, los viajeros portugueses saborearon una deliciosa fruta llamada maanga en malayalam, una lengua dravídica. La fruta se convirtió en “manga” en portugués, y luego en “mango” en muchos idiomas del alemán al japonés.

Los portugueses también trajeron nuevos alimentos del Brasil, como el sabroso marañón. Su nombre en inglés y en varios otros idiomas europeos, cashew, viene del “caju” en portugués, del akaiú, en la lengua nativa tupí.

A pesar de los tratados, la tensión hispano-portuguesa persistió, y aún hoy se manifiesta en el idioma. La yuca, o la mandioca, tiene varios nombres. El más común en inglés es “cassava”, del español “cazabe” (el nombre no de la yuca sino de su harina). “Cazabe” viene del taíno, idioma nativo que se hablaba en las Antillas Mayores. Otra palabra inglesa para la yuca es “manioc” que no es del español, sino de su rival, el portugués, de “mandioca”, la cual viene mandióka, en la lengua tupí de Brasil.  El alemán, el holandés y muchos otros idiomas también tienen dos palabras para la yuca, “cassava” del taíno a través del español y “manioc” del tupí a través del portugués.

La “piña” era otra palabra discutida. Los españoles lo bautizaron “piña”, por las facetas de su piel, como de la fruta del pino. El inglés tradujo “piña” como pine (pino) y añadió apple (manzana), como decir “esta es una fruta”. El resultado, “pineapple” es una extraña mezcla de dos palabras.  Hoy en día los brasileños llaman a la piña abacaxi (del tupí ywa-katí, “fruta fragante”), pero en Portugal es “ananás,” de la palabra tupi para piña, naná. Actualmente en la mayoría de los idiomas del mundo, excepto el inglés y el español, la piña es conocida por alguna versión de “ananás”.

La línea de Tordesillas, atravesando el Océano Atlántico, parece improbable para nuestros ideales modernos y antimperialistas. Hoy en día los ibéricos han entregado todas sus colonias, pero la influencia española en las lenguas del mundo aún se siente desde el oeste de esa línea, con un legado portugués al lado este.

Lectura adicional

Brotton, Jerry 2013 A History of the World in Twelve Maps. Londres: Penguin Books. 514 pp. (See chapter 6).

Etimologías

La mayoría de las etimologías son de Michaelis Dicionário Brasileiro da Língua Portuguesa

Spanish chocolate October 11th, 2020 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación

When Columbus dropped anchor in the Bahamas that October day, he actually had Arabic interpreters on board, because he was so unsure who he would meet on his trip. The people he came across actually spoke Taino, an Arawakan language. The Spanish soon learned the Taino words for New World devices, like hammocks and canoes, but also for American crops, like maize (maíz, in Spanish, from the Taino mahís).

Thirty years later, in Mexico, the conquistadores learned about a bean that made a nasty, but uplifting drink. The Aztecs called it xocoatl, from xoco (bitter) and atl (water). The word became chocolate, first in Spanish, and then in dozens of other languages. The language of the Aztecs, Nahuatl, was also the source of the words for tomato (tomatl) and chili (chilli), also funneled through Spanish (tomate, chile) into most of the languages of Europe.

In South America, the Spanish learned the names for quinoa (Spanish quinua, from the Quechua kinwa) and for sun-dried meat, jerky (charque, from ch’arki).

Two hundred years after the Taino discovered Columbus lurking off their coasts, the words for Native American crops and foods were still finding their way into English, through the Spanish connection. In 1697, a British pirate with a flair for writing, William Dampier, published the bestseller A New Voyage Round the World, which introduced his readers to the avocado, from the Spanish aguacate, from the Nahuatl ahuacatl (testicle), named for its shape. For good measure, Dampier also passed on the first recorded recipe in English for guacamole (Nahuatl ahuacamulli, or “avocado sauce”).

The Native Americans gave the world so many of our favorite crops and foods. It’s fitting that some of the names for these crops are also Native American. It also makes historical sense that some of these terms were filtered through Spanish, a bittersweet reminder that these crops arrived on the global stage through conquest and colonization.  

A word about jerky

Just to set the record straight, I’ve read in two books recently that ch’arki is freeze dried. It’s not; it’s just sun dried. You can make it in warm or cold weather, as long as the sun shines.

Further reading

Preston, Diana & Michael Preston 2004 A Pirate of Exquisite Mind. The Life of William Dampier: Explorer, Naturalist and Buccaneer. London: Corgi Books. 512 pp.

For the etymologies I have generally followed the spellings in the 22nd (2001) edition of the Diccionario de la Lengua Española, by the Spanish Royal Academy. Although published in Madrid, this outstanding dictionary also respectfully documents the various Latin American versions of the Spanish language.

Related blogs

Expanding horizons

Khipu: a story tied in knots

Watch videos in Spanish

Access Agriculture has 109 videos in Spanish on farming, gardening and food. You can watch them here.

CHOCOLATE ESPAÑOL

Jeff Bentley, 8 de octubre del 2020

Cuando Colón echó el ancla en las Bahamas ese día de octubre, tenía intérpretes de árabe a bordo, porque no sabía con quién se toparía en su viaje. Resulta que la gente que encontró hablaba en taíno, un idioma arahuaco. Los españoles pronto aprendieron las palabras taínas para los artefactos del Nuevo Mundo, como hamacas y canoas, pero también para los cultivos americanos, como el maíz (del taíno “mahís”). Del español, el “maíz” pasó al inglés, alemán, francés, italiano, holandés y varios otros idiomas europeos.

Treinta años después, en México, los conquistadores aprendieron sobre un grano que hacía una bebida con sabor feo, pero con efecto agradable. Los aztecas lo llamaban xocoatl, de xoco (amargo) y atl (agua). La palabra se convirtió en “chocolate”, primero en español, y luego en docenas de otras lenguas. La lengua de los aztecas, el náhuatl, fue también la fuente de las palabras para tomate (tomatl) y chile (chili), también canalizadas a través del español hasta la mayoría de las lenguas de Europa.

En Sudamérica, los españoles aprendieron los nombres de la quinua (del quechua kinwa) y del charque (ch’arki, en quechua), que terminó como jerky, en inglés.

Doscientos años después de que los taínos descubrieran a Colón acechando en sus costas, las palabras para los cultivos y alimentos de los americanos nativos seguían entrando al inglés y los otros idiomas de Europa, a través de la conexión española. En 1697, un pirata británico con talento para la escritura, William Dampier, publicó el bestseller, Un Nuevo Viaje Alrededor del Mundo, que introdujo la palabra avocado al inglés, de “aguacate” en español, del ahuacatl (testículo) nombre que pusieron en náhuatl por la forma del fruto. Además, Dampier dejó la primera receta escrita en inglés para el guacamole (el náhuatl ahuacamulli, o “salsa de aguacate”).

Los indígenas americanos dieron al mundo muchos de nuestros cultivos y alimentos favoritos. Es apropiado que algunas de los nombres para estos cultivos también sean indígenas. También tiene sentido histórico que algunos de estos términos llegaron a los demás idiomas europeos gracias a los españoles, un agridulce recuerdo que algunas de las contribuciones más valiosas de las Américas eran frutos de la conquista y la colonización.

Sobre el charque

Solo una aclaración, he leído hace poco en dos diferentes libros que el ch’arki es liofilizado, o sea que es secado en frío, congelado. Pero no es cierto. El charque es secado así no más, a sol, en tiempo frío o caliente.

Para leer más

Preston, Diana & Michael Preston 2004 A Pirate of Exquisite Mind. The Life of William Dampier: Explorer, Naturalist and Buccaneer. Londres: Corgi Books. 512 pp.

Para la mayoría de las etimologías he usado la ortografía en la 22a (2001) edición del Diccionario de la Lengua Española, de la Real Academia Española. Este magnífico diccionario es publicado Madrid, pero también documenta el vocabulario y usos latinoamericanos, con amor y respeto.

Previamente en nuestro blog

Expanding horizons

Desenredando la historia del khipu

Videos en español

Access Agriculture tiene 109 videos en español sobre el agro, el huerto y la comida. Los puede ver aquí.

Khipu: A story tied in knots September 27th, 2020 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación

Writing was linked to farming from the time of the first scribes, when Sumerian accountants made wedge-shaped marks in wet clay tablets to keep track of trade in grain and livestock. These numbers and symbols were first used around 5,000 BC as a simple notational system for counting sheep and jars of olive oil, eventually evolving into true writing by at least 3,500 BC as shown by recorded hymns and myths. Original writing systems were rare: only the Chinese and the Mesoamericans invented writing independently of the Sumerians.

All writing systems use a flat surface, and until factories made cheap paper in the nineteenth century, material to write on was a limitation. Clay was bulky. Stone was hard. Papyrus was expensive. Parchments from animal skins were so valuable that old ones were often scraped clean to write something new; the old text was often still visible and called a palimpsest. Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka took the trouble to write scriptures on palm leaves, painstakingly arranged in books, while rare Sanskrit manuscripts survive on birch bark.

High in the Andes, the Inka state was using its own system for recording data, based on a completely different medium: knotted twine, a technique that had been evolving since at least the time of the Wari Empire (450-1000 AD), long before the Inka (1400-1533). The multilingual empire of the Inka reached from Ecuador to Chile, with millions of subjects. Conquered communities paid tax to the empire, as textiles, and as maize and freeze-dried potatoes kept in storehouses (qollqa) and as a one-year labor turn every seven years (mit’a).

To tabulate all of these obligations, the empire used the khipu, knots on a string. The khipu maker (khipu kamayoq, or knot-master) started with long central cord, with secondary and tertiary twine fanning out from it like branches of a tree. Each string told a story. Meaning was distinguished by type of fiber (cotton vs llama hair), whether it was twisted left or right, by the type of knot, by a hundred different colors of twine and by the position of the knots.

Conquered nobles were forced to send their sons to live in the capital city, Cusco, where the boys took a four-year course on Inka myth and history, and on the official language (Quechua). Two years of their education were devoted to a study of the khipu.

The khipu was accurate enough to record the census data of a whole province, the soldiers of an army, or tax obligations. Knot-masters also used the khipus to help memorize and recite myths and narratives.

The Spanish conquistadores understood that khipus stored data accurately, and had them dictated and transcribed as sources of Inka history. Khipus were even allowed as evidence in colonial courts, where the litigants would argue over the ownership of land or titles, or sue for reimbursement for foodstuffs supplied to Spanish soldiers, as recorded in the knotted strings.

Knowledge of how to make a khipu died out a generation after the conquest, but Harvard anthropologist, Gary Urton, a specialist in the khipus, argues that they were not an adding machine (as some thought), nor were they true writing. They were however, a superb mnemonic device, perfectly accurate for recording exact numbers in the hundreds of thousands.

Moderately simple khipus could be interpreted on their own, without memorizing the content. The Inka organized a network of runners radiating out from Cusco across the realm. Each messenger (chaski) would run for about 20 km, before relaying his information to the next courier. A team could cover as much as 240 km a day, but perhaps 150 chaskis were needed to run from Quito to Cusco, some 2900 km. To avoid garbling their message entirely, each chaski handed the next one a khipu, which travelled independently of its maker, and must have been capable of bearing meaning alone.

I wonder what would have happened if the khipus had evolved for a much longer time? Given a few more centuries, would they have evolved into a full writing system to record human language, not with marks on a flat surface, but in three dimensions? It would have been a truly unique writing system, unlike any other the world has used.

Further reading

Urton´s study of the khipus is discussed at length in:

D’Altroy, Terence N. 2015. The Incas. New York: Wiley Blackwell. 547 pp.

Photo credit

Khipu on display at the Museo Larco, in Lima. Photo by Claus Ableiter.

Related blog stories

Stored crops of the Inka

Feeding the ancient Andean state

Feeding the Inca empire

Inka Raqay, up to the underworld

DESENREDANDO LA HISTORIA DEL KHIPU

Por Jeff Bentley, 27 de septiembre del 2020

La escritura estuvo vinculada a la agricultura desde los tiempos de los primeros escribas, cuando los contadores sumerios hacían marcas en forma de cuña en tablillas de arcilla húmeda para llevar la cuenta del comercio de granos y ganado. Estos números y símbolos se usaron por primera vez alrededor del 5.000 a.C. como un simple sistema de anotación para contar ovejas y cántaros de aceite de oliva, que con el tiempo evolucionó hasta convertirse en escritura verdadera por lo menos para el 3.500 a.C., como lo demuestran los himnos y mitos registrados. Los sistemas de escritura originales eran pocos: sólo los chinos y los mesoamericanos inventaron la escritura independientemente de los sumerios.

Todos los sistemas de escritura usan una superficie plana, y hasta que las fábricas hacían papel barato en el siglo XIX, el material para escribir era una limitación. La arcilla era voluminosa. La piedra era dura. El papiro era caro. Los pergaminos de pieles de animales eran tan valiosos que los viejos a menudo se raspaban para escribir algo nuevo; el texto antiguo era a menudo todavía visible y se llamaba palimpsesto. Los monjes budistas de Sri Lanka se tomaban la molestia de escribir escrituras en hojas de palma, cuidadosamente dispuestas en libros, mientras que raros manuscritos sánscritos sobreviven en corteza de abedul.

En las alturas de los Andes, el estado Inca usaba su propio sistema de registro de datos, basado en un medio completamente diferente: el hilo anudado, una técnica que había estado evolucionando desde por lo menos la época del Imperio Wari (450-1000 d.C.), mucho antes del Inka (1400-1533). El imperio multilingüe del Inca llegó desde Ecuador hasta Chile, con millones de súbditos. Las comunidades conquistadas pagaban impuestos al imperio, en forma de textiles, maíz y chuño guardados en almacenes (qollqa) y como un turno de trabajo de un año cada siete años (mit’a).

Para tabular todas estas obligaciones, el imperio usaba el khipu, nudos en una cuerda. El entendido en la materia, el khipu kamayoq, o maestro de nudos, comenzó con un largo cordón central, con cuerdas secundarias y terciarias que se abrían en abanico como las ramas de un árbol. Cada cuerda contaba una historia. El significado se distinguía por el tipo de fibra (algodón vs pelo de llama), si se retorcía a la izquierda o a la derecha, por el tipo de nudo, por cien colores diferentes de hilo y por la posición de los nudos.

Los nobles conquistados eran obligados a enviar a sus hijos a vivir en la ciudad capital, Cusco, donde los muchachos tomaban un curso de cuatro años sobre el mito y la historia del Inca, y sobre el idioma oficial (el quechua). Dos años de su educación se dedicaron al estudio del khipu.

El khipu era lo suficientemente preciso como para registrar los datos del censo de toda una provincia, los soldados de un ejército, o los impuestos. Los maestros de nudos también usaban los khipus para ayudar a memorizar y recitar mitos e historias.

Los conquistadores españoles entendieron que los khipus guardaban datos con precisión, y los hicieron dictar para transcribirlos como fuentes de la historia de los incas. Los khipus fueron incluso permitidos como evidencia en las cortes coloniales, donde los litigantes discutían quién era el dueño de tal terreno o título, o demandaban el reembolso de los alimentos suministrados a los soldados españoles, según lo registrado en las cuerdas anudadas.

El conocimiento de cómo hacer un khipu se extinguió una generación después de la conquista, pero el antropólogo de Harvard, Gary Urton, especialista en los khipus, argumenta que no eran una máquina de sumar (como algunos pensaban), ni tampoco eran redacción. Sin embargo, eran un magnífico dispositivo mnemotécnico, perfectamente preciso para registrar números exactos en los cientos de miles.

Los khipus moderadamente simples podían ser interpretados por sí mismos, sin memorizar el contenido. Los Incas organizaron una red de corredores que irradiaban desde Cusco a través del reino. Cada mensajero (chaski) correría durante unos 20 km, antes de transmitir su información al siguiente mensajero. Un equipo podía cubrir hasta 240 km al día, pero tal vez se necesitaban 150 chaskis para correr de Quito a Cusco, unos 2900 km. Para evitar tergiversar su mensaje por completo, cada chaski entregó al siguiente un khipu, que viajó solito, sin su creador, y debe haber sido capaz de llevar el significado por sí solo.

Me pregunto qué habría pasado si los khipus hubieran evolucionado durante mucho más tiempo. Dados unos pocos siglos más ¿habría evolucionado hacia un sistema de escritura completo para registrar el lenguaje humano, no con marcas en una superficie plana, sino en tres dimensiones? Habría sido un sistema de escritura verdaderamente único, como ningún otro que el mundo haya usado.

Para leer más

El estudio de Urton de los khipus está ampliamente descrito en:

D’Altroy, Terence N. 2015. The Incas. Nueva York: Wiley Blackwell. 547 pp.

Crédito de la foto

Khipu exhibido en el Museo Larco, en Lima. Foto por Claus Ableiter.

Relatos relacionados del blog

Stored crops of the Inka

Feeding the ancient Andean state

Alimentando al Imperio Incaico

Inka Raqay, up to the underworld

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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