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No-till vegetables December 11th, 2022 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación

Ever since I read David Montgomery’s book, Growing a Revolution, I have appreciated the importance of no till. Forsaking the plow not only prevents soil erosion, but cares for beneficial micro-organisms living in the soil. But Montgomery doesn’t go into details about how to avoid plowing in a garden. Most gardening advice books tell you to pulverize the soil before planting vegetable seed. I don’t do that anymore.

I have tried to leave my garden soil unworked, scratching rows for the seed, with reasonable results, but the soil still seems a little hard.

I recently facilitated a workshop for script writers. One group wrote about tests to analyze the soil, including one that uses a plastic bottle and a cloth to measure particulate soil matter. A healthy soil has many small clumps of carbon.

For some added inspiration, the script writers and I went to Granja Polen, a small, ecological farm near Cochabamba, Bolivia. We were met by Willi Flores, who has worked at the farm off and on for 17 years, ever since he was in high school.

Willi showed us a system none of us had seen before for no-till vegetables.

They make a small, raised bed of soil about 20 cm high (8 inches). When the farmers made the vegetable beds, they enriched the soil with lots of small pieces of wood, like dead twigs and branches from eucalyptus and other trees on the farm.

After harvesting one crop of vegetables, the farmers avoid turning over the soil. They simply make a small hole in the soil and add a plug of soil with a seedling. The soil is so soft you can easily make a hole in it with your bare fingers. For added nutrients, the farmers add a little composted manure (from their three dairy cows) to the top of the vegetable bed.

Willi explains that the sprinkler irrigation washes the nutrients down to the roots of the vegetables.

The vegetable beds are never turned over and the wood in the soil slowly decomposes, over the years, providing a soft, rich soil, full of healthy carbon.

For the past four years, Paul has been using a similar technique in his garden: wood-rich raised vegetable and berry beds called hügelbeds, but the bare soil surface gets hard when it is exposed to the sun. It seems that the trick is to periodically add some composted manure to the surface and keep the soil covered all year round.

Related Agro-insight blogs

A revolution for our soil (A review of Growing a Revolution)

Hügelkultur

Acknowledgements

On this farm visit I was accompanied by Jhon Huaraca, Samuel Palomino and Eliseo Mamani, who are writing a video script on soil tests.

HORTALIZAS SIN LABRANZA

Jeff Bentley, 11 de diciembre del 2022

Desde que leí el libro de David Montgomery, Growing a Revolution, he apreciado la importancia de la cero labranza. Olvidándose del arado no sólo evita la erosión del suelo, sino que cuida a los microorganismos benéficos que viven en el suelo. Pero Montgomery no entra en detalles sobre cómo evitar el arar en un huerto. La mayoría de los libros de jardinería dicen que hay que pulverizar el suelo antes de sembrar las semillas de hortalizas. Yo ya no hago eso.

He intentado dejar el suelo en mi jardín sin trabajarlo, rascando las hileras para la semilla, con resultados razonables, pero la tierra todavía me parece un poco dura.

Recientemente he facilitado un taller para escritores de guiones. Un grupo escribió sobre pruebas para analizar el suelo, incluida una que usa una botella de plástico y una tela para medir las partículas de la materia orgánica. Un suelo sano tiene muchos pequeños grumos de carbono.

Para inspirarnos un poco más, los guionistas y yo fuimos a la Granja Polen, una pequeña granja ecológica cerca de Cochabamba, Bolivia. Nos recibió Willi Flores, que ha trabajado en la granja durante 17 años, desde que estaba en el colegio.

Willi nos mostró un sistema que ninguno de nosotros había visto antes para las hortalizas sin labranza.

Hacen un pequeño camellón de unos 20 cm de altura. Cuando los agricultores hicieron los camellones, enriquecieron el suelo con muchos trozos pequeños de leña, como ramitas muertas de eucaliptos y otros árboles de la finca.

Después de cosechar las hortalizas, los agricultores evitan remover el suelo. Simplemente hacen un pequeño agujero en la tierra y ponen un plantín en su pedazo de suelo. La tierra es tan blanda que se puede hacer fácilmente un agujero en ella con los dedos. Para añadir nutrientes, los agricultores añaden un poco de estiércol compostado (de sus tres vacas lecheras) en la superficie del camellón.

Willi explica que el riego por aspersión arrastra los nutrientes hasta las raíces de las verduras.

Los camellones nunca se voltean y la leña en el suelo se descompone lentamente, a lo largo de los años, proporcionando un suelo suave y rico, lleno de carbono saludable.

Durante los últimos cuatro años, Paul ha usado una práctica similar en su huerto: un camellón lleno de leña llamado hügelbed, donde produce hortalizas y bayas, pero la superficie desnuda del suelo siempre se queda dura cuando está expuesta al sol. Parece que el truco es de vez en cuando agregar un poco de estiércol compostado a la superficie, y mantener el suelo cubierto todo el año.

Previamente en el blog de Agro-Insight

Una revolución para nuestro suelo

Hügelkultur

Agradecimientos

En esta visita a la finca me acompañaron Jhon Huaraca, Samuel Palomino y Eliseo Mamani, que están escribiendo un guion de video sobre análisis de suelos.

 

Toxic chemicals and bad advice November 27th, 2022 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación

Imagine a situation where dangerous products are sold to anyone who wants them, with no license or prescription. You would expect that under such conditions, at least the vendors would be competent, able to advise the customers at least based on the manufacturers’ recommendations.

Sadly, in the Andes, pesticide dealers usually fail to give their customers proper advice.

In a recent study in Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador, an experienced team of agriculturalists, mostly from the region, measured the accuracy of advice given at farm supply shops. Their method was ingenious and elegant. A local person (a farmer or an agronomy student) would enter the shop and ask for help with a specific plant health problem, one of the most serious pests or diseases of a major local crop (such as maize or potatoes).  The shopkeeper was not caught off guard with a rare pest or disease. The pretend customer would describe the pest or disease accurately, in local rhetoric, without scientific names or other academic terms. The shopkeeper would make a diagnosis and recommend a product to solve the problem.

On average, across the three countries, the advice was wrong 88.2% of the time, out of 1,489 pesticide retailers. The dealers also favored the more toxic chemicals.

The dealers mis-diagnosed the problem 23% of the time. Those who made an accurate diagnosis then recommended a product for the wrong group of organisms (such as an insecticide for a fungal disease) 13% of the time. They recommended the product for a pest that was not indicated on the label 51% of the time, and gave the wrong dose (ranging from eight times too high or 5 times too low) 52% of the time. There is no reason to think that the situation is much different in most of the rest of the world, outside of the Andes.

Selling agrochemicals with such sloppiness and incompetence only increases the risks to human health and the environment, while also allowing the pest to develop pesticide resistance more quickly. Yet Andean agrodealers only dispense accurate information 12% of the time.

Large agrochemical companies claim not to be accountable for the environmental damage and the frequent human catastrophes caused by the use of pesticides, saying that all the necessary information on proper use is indicated on the label. This blatantly ignores the reality of the retail trade. Authorities should raise taxes on toxic products, and invest this in research and development that supports alternatives, such as agroecology.

Further reading

Struelens, Quentin François, Marco Rivera, Mariana Alem Zabalaga, Raúl Ccanto, Reinaldo Quispe Tarqui, Diego Mina, Carlos Carpio, María Rosa Yumbla Mantilla, Mélany Osorio, Soraya Román, Diego Muñoz, Olivier Dangles 2022 Pesticide misuse among small Andean farmers stems from pervasive misinformation by retailers. PLOS Sustainability and Transformation 1, no. 6: e0000017.

QUÍMICOS TÓXICOS Y CONSEJOS MALOS

Jeff Bentley, 27 de noviembre del 2022

Imaginemos una situación en la que se venden productos peligrosos a cualquiera que los quiera, sin licencia ni receta. Uno esperaría que en esas condiciones, al menos los vendedores fueran competentes, capaces de asesorar a los clientes al menos basándose en las recomendaciones de los fabricantes.

Lamentablemente, en los Andes, los vendedores de plaguicidas no suelen asesorar adecuadamente a sus clientes.

En un reciente estudio realizado en el Perú, Bolivia y Ecuador, un experimentado equipo de ingenieros agrónomos, en su mayoría de la región, midió la exactitud de los consejos dados en las tiendas agropecuarias. Su método era ingenioso y elegante. Una persona del lugar (un agricultor o un estudiante de agronomía) entraba en la tienda y pedía ayuda para un problema fitosanitario concreto, una de las plagas o enfermedades más severas de un cultivo local importante (como el maíz o la papa).  Al tiendero no le agarraban en curva con una plaga o enfermedad rara. El supuesto cliente describiría la plaga o la enfermedad con precisión, en la retórica local, sin nombres científicos ni otros términos académicos. El vendedor hacía un diagnóstico y recomendaba un producto para solucionar el problema.

En promedio, en los tres países, el consejo fue erróneo el 88,2% de las veces, de los 1.489 vendedores de plaguicidas. Los comerciantes también se inclinaron por los productos químicos más tóxicos.

Los comerciantes se equivocaron en el diagnóstico del problema en el 23% de las ocasiones. Los que hicieron un diagnóstico correcto recomendaron un producto para el grupo de organismos equivocado (como un insecticida para un hongo) el 13% de las veces. Recomendaron el producto para una plaga que no estaba indicada en la etiqueta el 51% de las veces, y dieron la dosis equivocada (entre ocho veces demasiado alta y cinco veces demasiado baja) el 52% de las veces. No hay razón para pensar que la situación sea muy diferente en la mayor parte del resto del mundo, fuera de los Andes.

Vender agroquímicos con tanta dejadez e incompetencia sólo aumenta los riesgos para la salud humana y el medio ambiente, al tiempo que permite que la plagas desarrollen resistencia a los plaguicidas más rápidamente. Sin embargo, los agro-comerciantes andinos sólo dispensan información precisa el 12% de las veces.

Las grandes empresas agroquímicas afirman no ser responsables de los daños ambientales y de las frecuentes catástrofes humanas causadas por el uso de plaguicidas, diciendo que toda la información necesaria sobre el uso adecuado está indicada en la etiqueta. Esto ignora descaradamente la realidad del comercio minorista. Las autoridades deberían aumentar los impuestos sobre los agro-tóxicos, e invertir los fondos en la investigación y desarrollo que apoyen alternativas, como la agroecología.

Lectura adicional

Struelens, Quentin François, Marco Rivera, Mariana Alem Zabalaga, Raúl Ccanto, Reinaldo Quispe Tarqui, Diego Mina, Carlos Carpio, María Rosa Yumbla Mantilla, Mélany Osorio, Soraya Román, Diego Muñoz, Olivier Dangles 2022 Pesticide misuse among small Andean farmers stems from pervasive misinformation by retailers. PLOS Sustainability and Transformation 1, no. 6: e0000017.

A climate film November 13th, 2022 by

A movie about rural people, filmed with them, in their communities, is rare, even more so when it touches on important topics like climate change.

In the Bolivian film Utama, directed by Santiaga Loayza, the main characters, Virgilio and Sisa are an elderly couple living on the Bolivian Altiplano, in a two-room adobe house. They still love each other, after many years together. Virgilio has never forgiven his son, for moving to the city, years ago. When the couple´s grandson, Cléver, comes to visit, the old man is angry. He feels that Cléver’s father has sent him to take Virgilio and Sisa to the city.

The stunning photography shows the stark beauty of the hills and mountains rising from the high plains. The characters are believable and authentic. The title, Utama, means “our home” in the Aymara language.

The story takes place near the end of a long drought, exacerbated by climate change. Virgilio, Cléver and some of the neighbors hike to a mountain top to perform a ritual to bring the rain, which never comes. Some families leave for the city. Virgilio develops an agonizing cough, refuses to let Cléver take him to the hospital, and dies at home.

The elderly couple is played by José Calcina and Luisa Quispe, who are married in real life, and are from the community where the movie was filmed, Santiago de Chuvica, in Potosí, Bolivia. They were cast because of their obvious affection for each other. This realism is accentuated when the couple speak to each other in Quechua, a native language of Bolivia.

Loayza had previously visited Santiago de Chuvica while making a documentary film. In reality, the village is an outpost for travelers visiting the famous Salar de Uyuni, a giant salt flat, an ancient lake bed surrounded by sparse vegetation.

This is one of the most remote parts of Bolivia, and one of the most marginal environments for agriculture in the world. Quinoa is the only crop that will grow here. Until the mid-twentieth century, local farmers made their living by packing out quinoa on the backs of llamas, to trade for food in other parts of Bolivia. It was an ingenious, and unusual cropping system, based on one crop and one animal.

But as the world gets hotter and dryer, places like Chuvica will only become more stressed.

Although not shown in the movie, some parts of Bolivia are far more favorable to farming, with spring-like weather much of the year, where many crops will grow. People are also leaving these areas for the city. Whole communities are emptying out. In the provincial valleys of Cochabamba it is common to see few homes except for ruined, empty farm houses. The grandparents who lived there may have died, but their heirs are still tilling the fields, commuting from town. Farming is often the most resilient part of rural life, and the last to be abandoned.

Climate change is a real problem, and will turn some people into environmental refugees. But villagers are also leaving more favorable farm country, pulled by the opportunities for jobs, education, health care and commerce in the cities. If rural-to-urban migration is seen as a problem, then country life needs to be made more comfortable, with roads, electricity, potable water, schools and clinics.

At the 2022 Sundance Film Festival Utama won the World Cinema Grand Jury Prize: Dramatic Competition.  Hopefully other filmmakers will make more movies on climate change, and on rural life. There are lots more stories to tell.

Previous Agro-Insight blogs

High Andean climate change

Recovering from the quinoa boom

Videos on climate

Recording the weather, also available in Spanish, Quechua and Aymara

Forecasting the weather with an app, also available in Spanish, Quechua and Aymara

Additional reading

Sagárnaga, Rafael 2022 Alejandro Loayza: Hay que hacer que el mundo escuche tus historias. Los Tiempos 13 Feb pp. 2-3.

El País 2022 ‘Utama’, la historia de amor frente al olvido en el Altiplano que sorprendió en Sundance

Recovering from the quinoa boom October 30th, 2022 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación

In southwestern Bolivia, a whole ecosystem has been nearly destroyed, to export quinoa, but some people are trying to save it.

Bolivia’s southern Altiplano is a harsh place to live. Although it is in the tropical latitudes it is so high, over 3800 meters, that it often freezes. Its climax forest, the t’ular, is only a meter tall, made up of native shrubs, grasses and cactuses.

For centuries on the southern Altiplano, farmers grew quinoa, an annual plant with edible seeds, in the shelter of little hills. No other crop would grow in this high country. People herded llamas on the more exposed plains of the Altiplano. The farmers would take quinoa in packs, carried by llamas, to other parts of Bolivia to trade for maize, fruit and chuño (traditional freeze-dried potatoes) as well as wool, salt and jerky.

In about 2010 quinoa became a fad food, and export prices soared. Bolivian plant breeder, Alejandro Bonifacio, who is from the Altiplano, estimates that 80% of the t’ular was plowed under to grow quinoa from 2010 to 2014.This was the first time that farmers cleared the dwarf forest growing on the open plains.

After the brief quinoa boom ended, in some places, only 30% of the lands cleared on the t’ular were still being farmed. The rest had simply been turned into large patches of white sand. The native plants did not grow back, probably because of drought and wind linked to climate change.

At the start of the quinoa boom, Dr. Bonifacio and colleagues at Proinpa, a research agency, realized the severity of the destruction of the native ecosystem, and began to develop a system of regenerative agriculture.

In an early experience, they gathered 20 gunny bags of the seed heads of different species of t’ulas, the native shrubs and grasses. They scattered the seeds onto the sandy soil of abandoned fields. Out of several million seeds, only a dozen germinated and only four survived. After their first unsuccessful experience with direct seeding, the researchers and their students learned to grow seeds of native plants in two nurseries on the Altiplano, and then transplant them.

So much native vegetation has been lost that it cannot all be reforested, so researchers worked with farmers in local communities to experiment with live barriers. These were two or three lines of t’ula transplanted from the nurseries to create living barriers three meters wide. The live barriers could be planted as borders around the fields, or as strips within the large ones, spaced 30 to 45 meters apart. This helped to slow down soil erosion caused by wind, so farmers could grow quinoa (still planted, but in smaller quantities, to eat at home and for the national market, after the end of the export boom). Growing native shrubs as live barriers also gave farmers an incentive to care for these native plants.

By 2022, nearly 8000 meters of live barriers of t’ula have been planted, and are being protected by local farmers. The older plants are maturing, thriving and bearing seed. Some local governments and residents have started to drive to Proinpa, to request seedlings to plant, hinting at a renewed interest in these native plants.

The next step in creating a new regenerative agriculture was to introduce a rotation crop into the quinoa system. But on the southern Altiplano, no other crop has been grown, besides quinoa (and a semi-wild relative, qañawa). In this climate, it was impossible even to grow potatoes and other native roots and tubers.

NGOs suggested that farmers rotate quinoa with a legume crop, like peas or broad beans, but these plants died every time.

Bonifacio and colleagues realized that a new legume crop would be required, but that it would have to be a wild, native plant. They began experimenting with native lupines. The domesticated lupine, a legume, produces seeds in pods which remain closed even after the plant matures. When ancient farmers domesticated the lupine, they selected for pods that stayed closed, so the grains would not be lost in the field. But the pods of wild legumes shatter, scattering their seeds on the ground.

Various methods were tried to recover the wild lupine seed, including sifting it out of the sand. Researchers eventually learned that the seed was viable before it was completely dry, before the pod burst. After the seed dried, it went into a four-year dormancy.

In early trials with farmers, the wild lupines have done well as a quinoa intercrop. Llamas will eat them, and the legumes improve the soil. When the quinoa is harvested in March, April and May, the lupine remains as a cover crop, reaching maturity the following year, and protecting the soil.

The quinoa boom was a tragedy. A unique ecosystem was nearly wiped out in four years. The market can provide perverse incentives to destroy a landscape. The research with native windbreaks and cover crops is also accompanied by studies of local cactus and by breeding varieties of quinoa that are well-adapted to the southern Altiplano. This promises to be the basis of a regenerative agriculture, one that respects the local plants, including the animals that eat them, such as the domesticated llama and the wild vicuña, while also providing a livelihood for native people.

Further reading

Bonifacio, Alejandro, Genaro Aroni, Milton Villca & Jeffery W. Bentley 2022 Recovering from quinoa: regenerative agricultural research in Bolivia. Journal of Crop Improvement, DOI: 10.1080/15427528.2022.2135155

Previous Agro-Insight blogs

Awakening the seeds

Wind erosion and the great quinoa disaster

Slow recovery

Related videos

Living windbreaks to protect the soil

The wasp that protects our crops

Acknowledgements

Dr. Alejandro Bonifacio works for the Proinpa Foundation. This work was made possible with the kind support of the Collaborative Crop Research Program (CCRP) of the McKnight Foundation.

RECUPERÁNDOSE DEL BOOM DE LA QUINUA

Por Jeff Bentley, 30 de octubre del 2022

En el suroeste de Bolivia, todo un ecosistema casi se ha destruido para exportar quinua, pero algunas personas intentan salvarlo.

Es difícil vivir en el Altiplano sur de Bolivia. Aunque está en latitudes tropicales, está tan alto, a más de 3.800 metros, que a menudo se congela. Su bosque clímax, el t’ular, sólo tiene un metro de altura, formado por arbustos, hierbas y cactus nativos.

Durante siglos, en el Altiplano sur, los agricultores cultivaron quinua (una planta de ciclo anual y tallo herbáceo) con semillas comestibles, al abrigo de las pequeñas colinas. Ningún otro cultivo crecía en esta zona alta. En las llanuras más expuestas del Altiplano, la gente arreaba llamas. Los campesinos llevaban la quinua cargados por las llamas, a otras partes de Bolivia para intercambiarla por maíz, frutas, chuño, lana, sal, y charqui.

Hacia 2010, la quinua se convirtió en un alimento de moda y los precios de exportación se dispararon. El fitomejorador boliviano Alejandro Bonifacio, originario del Altiplano, calcula que entre 2010 y 2014 se aró el 80% del t’ular para cultivar quinua.

Tras el breve auge de la quinua, en algunas zonas solo el 30% de las tierras desmontadas en el t’ular seguían siendo cultivadas. El resto simplemente se había convertido en grandes manchas de arena blanca. Las plantas nativas no volvieron a crecer, probablemente por la sequía y el viento atribuible al cambio climático).

Al comienzo del boom de la quinua, el Dr. Bonifacio y sus colegas de Proinpa, una agencia de investigación, se dieron cuenta de la gravedad de la destrucción del ecosistema nativo, y comenzaron a desarrollar un sistema de agricultura regenerativa.

En una de las primeras experiencias, reunieron 20 gangochos conteniendo frutos con las diminutas semillas de diferentes especies de t’ulas, los arbustos nativos y pastos. Esparcieron las semillas en el arenoso suelo de los campos abandonados. De varios millones de semillas, sólo germinaron una decena que al final quedaron cuatro plantas sobrevivientes. Tras su primera experiencia frustrante con la siembra directa, los investigadores y sus estudiantes aprendieron a cultivar semillas de plantas nativas en dos viveros del Altiplano con fines de trasplantarlos.

Se ha perdido tanta vegetación nativa que no se puede reforestarla toda, así que los investigadores trabajaron con los agricultores de las comunidades locales para experimentar con barreras vivas. Se trataba de dos o tres líneas de t’ula trasplantadas desde los viveros para crear barreras vivas de tres metros de ancho. Las barreras vivas podían plantarse como bordes alrededor de las parcelas, o como franjas dentro de los campos grandes, con una separación de 30 a 45 metros. Esto ayudó a frenar la erosión del suelo causada por el viento, para que los agricultores pudieran cultivar quinua (que aún se siembra, pero en menor cantidad, para comer en casa y para el mercado nacional, tras el fin del boom de las exportaciones). El cultivo de arbustos nativos como barreras vivas también incentivó a los agricultores a cuidar estas plantas nativas.

En 2022, se han plantado casi 8.000 metros de barreras vivas de t’ula, que se protegen por los agricultores locales. Las plantas más antiguas están madurando, prosperando y formando semilla. Algunos residentes y gobiernos locales han comenzado a llegar a Proinpa, para pedir plantines para plantar, lo que indica un renovado interés en estas plantas nativas.

El siguiente paso en la creación de una nueva agricultura regenerativa era introducir un cultivo de rotación en el sistema de la quinua. Pero en el Altiplano sur no se ha cultivado ningún otro cultivo, aparte de la quinua (y un pariente semi-silvestre, la qañawa). En este clima, era imposible incluso cultivar papas y otras raíces y tubérculos nativos.

Las ONGs sugirieron a los agricultores que rotaran la quinoa con un cultivo de leguminosas, como arvejas o habas, pero estas plantas morían siempre.

Bonifacio y sus colegas se dieron cuenta de que sería necesario tener un nuevo cultivo de leguminosas, pero que tendría que ser una planta silvestre y nativa. Empezaron a experimentar con lupinos nativos. El lupino domesticado es el tarwi, una leguminosa, produce semillas en vainas que permanecen cerradas incluso después de que la planta madure. Cuando los antiguos agricultores domesticaron el lupino, seleccionaron las vainas que permanecían cerradas, para que los granos no se perdieran en el campo. Pero las vainas de las leguminosas silvestres se rompen, esparciendo sus semillas por el suelo.

Se intentaron varios métodos para recuperar la semilla de lupinos silvestre, incluido tamizando la arena. Los investigadores descubrieron que la semilla era viable antes de estar completamente seca, antes de que la vaina reventara. Una vez seca, la semilla entraba en un periodo de dormancia de cuatro años.

En los primeros ensayos con agricultores, los lupinos silvestres han funcionado bien como cultivo intermedio de la quinoa. Las llamas los comen y las leguminosas mejoran el suelo. Cuando se cosecha la quinoa en marzo, abril y mayo, el lupino permanece como cultivo de cobertura, alcanzando la madurez al año siguiente y protegiendo el suelo.

El boom de la quinoa fue una tragedia. Un ecosistema único estuvo a punto de desaparecer en cuatro años. El mercado puede ofrecer incentivos perversos para destruir un paisaje. La investigación con barreras vivas nativas y cultivos de cobertura también va acompañada de estudios de cactus locales y del fitomejoramiento de variedades de quinua bien adaptadas al Altiplano sur. Esto promete ser la base de una agricultura regenerativa, que respete las plantas locales, incluidos los animales que se alimentan de ellas, como la llama domesticada y la vicuña silvestre, y al mismo tiempo proporcionando un medio de vida a la gente nativa.

Lectura adicional

Bonifacio, Alejandro, Genaro Aroni, Milton Villca & Jeffery W. Bentley 2022 Recovering from quinoa: regenerative agricultural research in Bolivia. Journal of Crop Improvement, DOI: 10.1080/15427528.2022.2135155

Previamente en el blog de Agro-Insight

Despertando las semillas

Destruyendo el altiplano sur con quinua

Recuperación lenta

Videos sobre el tema

Barreras vivas para proteger el suelo

La avispa que protege nuestros cultivos

Agradecimiento

El Dr. Alejandro Bonifacio trabaja para la Fundación Proinpa. Este trabajo se hizo con el generoso apoyo del Programa Colaborativo de Investigación de Cultivos (CCRP) de la Fundación McKnight.

Prophets vs. Wizards October 9th, 2022 by

In his 2018 book, The Wizard and the Prophet, Charles Mann portrays two men, contemporaries, whose competing visions of the future shaped the world we live in now. They may have only met once. Both were from humble backgrounds.

William Vogt (1905-1966), whom Mann calls “the prophet,” was raised by a single mother on Long Island, New York, when it was covered in farms and forests, dotted with villages. When Vogt was a young man, this pastoral landscape was swallowed up by systematic suburbanization, one of the first of its kind in the North America. Vogt mourned the loss of the places where he once hiked and delighted in watching birds. He carried a lifelong dread of population growth.

This view was hardened by his formative fieldwork, where he lived on the guano islands off the Pacific Coast of Peru. Sent to find out why the bird populations were crashing, Vogt realized that the cormorant population rose and fell as the El Niño events favored or killed off the coastal fish. Vogt recommended that if the government wanted to restore the island ecology, they should stop mining guano, then kill the cats, rats and chickens, and leave the islands to the birds.

Vogt may no longer be well known, but he encouraged Roger Peterson to write the first ever field guide to birds (still a beloved series of books). For a time Vogt directed Planned Parenthood, and his 1949 bestseller, Road to Survival, influenced writers like Rachel Carson (Silent Spring) and Paul Ehrlich (The Population Bomb). Mann credits Vogt with sparking the modern environmentalism and the anti-population growth movement.

Mann’s “wizard,” Norman Borlaug (1914-2009), grew up on a small farm in Iowa. He got a chance to go to college, barely, in 1932, after his father bought a tractor, freeing up enough labor that the Borlaug children could leave the farm. This left a lifelong impression on Borlaug: technology could give people opportunities.

After studying plant pathology at the University of Minnesota, Borlaug was tapped by the Rockefeller Foundation to go to Mexico to breed wheat that was resistant to rust, a fungal disease. Borlaug identified with Mexican farm families who often went hungry. He decided that it was his job to help them to grow enough to eat. Doggedly crossing and testing thousands of wheat varieties, Borlaug, who had no formal training in plant breeding, managed to produce a variety that was rust-resistant. The plants were also short, which meant that if sown with chemical fertilizer, the large heads of wheat would not cause the plants to topple over. This new wheat had an enormous impact on the world. Indira Gandhi bought 18,000 tons of Borlaug’s wheat. He sent two shiploads of seed from Mexico, allowing India to grow enough wheat to free itself of food aid. Borlaug’s model was also used to develop high-yielding rice in Asia. The International Center for Wheat and Maize Breeding (CIMMYT) in Mexico would grow out of Borlaug’s Rockefeller project.

Borlaug recommended that the new wheat be planted with irrigation, chemical fertilizer and pesticides: a package that became known as the Green Revolution, credited with saving a billion lives. The Green Revolution also led to water logging, soil degradation, chemical-resistant pests and social problems as some landlords dismissed tenant farmers after bumper harvests tempted land owners to farm all of their own land with machinery rather than with low-paid labor.

Vogt visited Borlaug once in the early days, in Chapingo, Mexico. As the prophet he was, Vogt realized that growing more wheat would let more people inhabit the Earth, and Vogt tried, unsuccessfully, to have Borlaug’s project shut down. The two men despised each other after that.

Vogt’s life ended in obscurity, and suicide. Borlaug won the Nobel Prize and lived to be an old man. He once visited the university where I worked in Honduras, and the students who met him found him to be kind and unassuming. Instead of rehearsing his accomplishments, he asked them to tell him where about they were from.

Mann’s book includes a long discussion in the middle, about the world’s main problems. Today a host of wizards and prophets debate how to find enough food, clean water, and renewable energy, while fending off climate change.

Mann avoids taking sides and refuses to try to blend prophesy and wizardry. That is for us, the readers, to do. In recent decades, the world has made real progress solving problems. Hunger and poverty are in retreat. Formal, legal slavery has ended. Human rights are more widely recognized. Like Mann, I also ask: can’t we find a way to feed, house and clothe everyone without destroying the world we live in?

Further reading

Mann, Charles C. 2018 The Wizard and the Prophet: Two Remarkable Scientists and their Dueling Visions to Shape Tomorrow’s World. New York: Vintage books. 616 pp.

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