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Travels around the sun December 31st, 2013 by

When Copernicus proved that the Earth revolved around the sun he didn’t actually look at the sun. He took exacting measurements of star positions for years, and applied complex math to the data (Gribbin, John 2002 Science: A History). Such taxing observation, is beyond the skills (and patience) of most people. Except for a few specialists, most of us are content to learn about the solar system in school, and the heliocentric model is at least consistent with what we are able to see in the sky.

Much of science is like this: replicable, but with difficulty. Most college graduates who read the newspaper know about biodiversity, although most of us lack the taxonomic skills to identify a new species. We understand that the active ingredients in fertilizer are nitrogen, potassium and phosphorous, but few of us have done the experiments to confirm this. These three elements themselves are so difficult to observe in their pure form that they were not even known in ancient times.

Yet FFS (farmer field schools) assume that smallholders must rediscover scientific findings on their own. Occasionally this is realistic, like when showing that some insects can be managed by holding off on the insecticide, and letting the natural enemies eat the pests.

Much of agricultural science is as counter-intuitive and as difficult to observe as the Earth travelling around the sun. Striga seeds are as small as dust particles, and they sprout deep under the soil, and only when stimulated to germinate by the nearby root of another plant. When uprooted, a mature striga plant really does seem to have grown from the root of its victim, a cereal plant. So logically, many African smallholders think that striga comes from the roots of another plant.

In a recent visit to the village of Gnamana, in Mali, I met with four men who were not only farmers but FFS trainers. They had been through striga field school training and they had taught striga field schools. Then the men saw the striga videos. One of them, Mama Fabe, said that until he saw the videos he had not realized that striga comes from seed. He had learned a scientific truth on a video that he had not been able to glean from his own experience. (See a blog below for a description of the striga videos).

In a recent blog on Benin, Paul mentioned some gaps in farmer knowledge, e.g. mistaking natural enemies for pests. While filling in these knowledge gaps is important, it is not enough. Smallholders also need technical solutions that parallel the new scientific ideas. They need both science and technology.

For example, the videos explain that striga is spread by seed in the soil, and that legumes kill this seed. These new ideas are coupled with a technical solution: intercropping legumes with cereals.

During our recent study in Mali, in many villages we met farmers experimenting with mixes of legumes-&-cereals, but few people were planting exactly as they had seen in the video (e.g. three rows of cowpea and two rows of maize). The farmers were experimenting with other cereals like millet and sorghum, and with peanut (a legume). Some were planting the two crops together in the same hole. Some were planting the legume in every other hole, in every other row. Some were planting three lines of sorghum and four of cowpea, or three of cowpea and one of sorghum, Etc.

Farmers will experiment with a new technology, if the underlying science is explained to them. Even if the technology is only three-quarters baked, or is best adapted to another environment, the farmers will perfect the techniques, for their own circumstances. Smallholders don’t need to replicate the basic research, but they do need new scientific ideas, and new technology to experiment with.

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