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Repurposing farm machinery September 20th, 2020 by

Many farmers in Europe and North America are burdened with debts due to the heavy investments they have made over the years to buy farm machinery. A new tractor easily costs 100,000 Euro or more. New agricultural policies often force farmers to change as well. When environmental policy outlawed the spread of liquid manure on the surface of the field, manufacturers quickly adapted: manure is now directly injected into the soil. But this may oblige farmers to get rid of machinery that still works. What solutions can research offer to repurpose farm equipment? These thoughts have gradually come to my mind, living in a farming village in north-eastern Belgium and observing the various changes.

Farmers creatively adapt in many ways. Our friend, Johan Hons, uses a leek planter to transplant sweet maize seedlings on his organic farm to reduce the need for weeding. Like many farmers, Johan has his own workshop where he adjusts equipment to suit his needs.

American and European farmers see the soaring prices of equipment as one of their key challenges. Besides, equipment has become so complicated and repair is stymied by proprietary software and a lack of available parts. As a response, many farmers are now buying simpler, and much cheaper second-hand tractors from the 1970s and ’80s.

Also, local service providers have repositioned themselves and taken over many of the farm operations. And the fewer local service providers there are, the more pressure they can put on farmers, often charging fees that further eat into farmers’ meagre profit margins. Many machines, like the ones that inject liquid manure into the soil, have become so big that they are often wider than the country lanes, damaging them and forcing cyclists to jump off the road to save their lives whenever these machines roar by.

But there are also positive changes in the development of new machinery, which are not about making them bigger and heavier. Until last year, our local machine provider needed three tractors to collect grass for silage. One tractor raked up the grass and filled a wagon pulled by a second tractor. Meanwhile, a third tractor hauled the grass to the farmstead, to fill the silo, before running back to the field so the second tractor could empty its load. No time was wasted. This year, I noticed a single machine picking up the cut grass. This meant that the tractor then needed to drive to the farm where the silage was made, but to finish this entire field with just one tractor only took an hour longer than with three tractors and drivers, a big savings in labour, machinery and fuel.

Due to tillage and use of agrochemicals, many soils have become depleted of organic matter and soil life. As agricultural policies for decades have supported industrial agriculture, all farmers own their own pesticide spraying equipment. So, will these become obsolete when farming transitions to more sustainable models? Or could pesticide spraying machines be used to spray the soils and crops with Effective Microorganisms or other natural biofertilizers, to bring life back into our soils and boost crop health in a natural way?

To enable the transition to more sustainable farming, appropriate machines will be required. In the Netherlands, Wageningen University & Research (WUR) has been studying intercropping for several years, involving conventional and organic farmers. By growing a variety of crops in narrow strips they were able to attract beneficial insects and slow the spread of crop disease. The researchers also found that yields are similar to those found in monocultures and labour requirements are comparable too. Reading their study, I immediately thought how intercropping would work in a highly mechanised setting. Adjusting machinery will likely be part of the solution.

With the action plan laid out in the European Green Deal, the EU aims to be climate neutral by 2050. Different sectors of society each have a responsibility to make this happen. For agriculture, the ‘Farm to fork strategy’ stipulates that by 2030 pesticide use has to be reduced by 50% and chemical fertilizers by 20% in order to make food systems more sustainable.

Clearly, equipment manufacturers will continue to adjust the design of machinery, but this also comes at a cost. To keep as many farmers in business as possible, some creative thinking will be required on how to strike a balance between supporting industry to innovate and finding ways to repurpose the already available machinery park that farmers have already invested in. European family farmers are ready to adapt, but they are also being run out of business. Policy and research should lend them a hand, by inventing and promoting appropriate small machinery that can be used to serve multiple purposes. 

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Read more

More nature in fields through strip cropping. https://weblog.wur.eu/spotlight/more-nature-in-fields-through-strip-cropping/  

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

Credit: The photo on harvesting an intercrop is from Wageningen University & Research. The bottom photo of intercropped field with flowers is by Fogelina Cuperus.

Flying pest control robots September 13th, 2020 by

My friend Steve Peck is a novelist and a professor of evolutionary ecology, whose work on mathematical models of insect populations led him to the topic of one of his short stories, about a tiny flying robot, modelled after a dragonfly. The robots would cruise the countryside, looking for insect pests, which it killed, while sparing the beneficial insects. The story seemed pretty far-fetched when it was published in 2012.

I recently told the dragonfly robot story to another friend, Keith Andrews, an entomologist with years of experience in pest control in Central America. Keith immediately seized on the robot idea. “How did it run, on photovoltaic cells? Did it collect its prey in a kind of stomach or just kill them?”

The story doesn’t say what powered the dragonflies, just that they snipped off bits of their prey to store in a mechanical stomach, so that researchers could identify the bugs later from their DNA.

Real life dragonflies do hunt and kill other insects, to eat. But once a predatory insect is full it rests. A robot wouldn’t need to pause and digest, and could be programmed to just keep up the slaughter all day.

“A robot would be great for that plague of locusts in Africa,” Keith said. “It wouldn’t have to damage an insect much to disable it. A good zap right between the eyes or even to the thorax or abdomen would put a grasshopper out of business.”

A pest control robot could be instructed to target only the pest species of interest, and not kill anything else. It would be the ultimate ecological pest control strategy.

Since Steve published his story eight years ago, the pieces for a dragonfly robot have started to come together.

For starters, flying robots are getting better.

In The Fate of Food, Amanda Little writes that inventors already have a prototype weed-killing robot called See & Spray, that uses a large set of digital photos to distinguish cotton seedlings from weeds. As a tractor pulls See & Spray across the field, the device spots the weeds and squirts them with herbicide. (No doubt future generations of the technology may invent alternatives to herbicide; the point is that the robot can recognize weeds).

Little also describes a robot, already in commercial use, that kills sea lice, parasites of farmed salmon, by zapping the pests with a laser (in the recent blog The Fate of Food).

If you’re wondering if digital software could work to identify pests on small farms, it’s already being done. Researchers at IITA (International Institute of Tropical Agriculture) in Kenya have invented an app called Nuru (Swahili for “light”) that instantly compares thousands of photos of diseased and healthy plants to distinguish between cassava brown streak disease, cassava mosaic disease and cassava green mite damage. The app is already being tested by 28,000 farmers in Kenya.

Art can inspire technology ahead of its time. Novels fueled the idea of space travel, but engineers made it happen. I can only hope that some young robotics designers will read Steve Peck’s story.

Further Reading

Little, Amanda 2019 The Fate of Food: What We’ll Eat in a Bigger, Hotter, Smarter World. New York: Harmony Books. 340 pp.

Peck, Steven L. 2012 Dragonfly Miscalculations. The Journal of Unlikely Entomology.

RTB 2019 Smarter farming: Using apps to diagnose crop health problems. In RTB 2019 Building for better science. Annual Report 2019. Lima, Peru. CGIAR Research Program on Roots, Tubers and Bananas. Available online at: www.rtb.cgiar.org/2019-annual-report

Digital African agriculture September 6th, 2020 by

In the report Byte by Byte, seventeen African and international experts shed some optimistic light on the digital future of agriculture in Africa. In many ways, the continent is ahead of other regions of the world.

Africa is leading the world in cell phone finance. In Kenya in 2007, Vodaphone started M-Pesa for the mobile network operator, Safaricom. M-Pesa, (from “M” for mobile, and “pesa,” the Kiswahili word for money) offers simple financial services on the phone. Customers go to a small shop to exchange cash for online money which they can save or send to anyone else in Kenya who has a mobile phone. It is an effective way for rural and poor people to send and receive money. People in the city can send cash back home, to invest in agriculture, for example.

M-Pesa was so popular that mobile money has been replicated in Malawi, Uganda and many other African countries. Rural Africans who were underserved by banks were able to make use of the little shops that sprang up all over the small towns and in peri-urban neighborhoods.

Mobile finance is not the only innovative digital service in Africa. Other companies are offering tractor services online. TROTRO Tractor is a platform in Ghana that allows farmers to hire a tractor (and a driver), like getting a ride from Uber. Other companies use cell phones to sell agricultural supplies, or to connect farmers to buyers of agricultural produce. The largest telecommunications company in Zimbabwe has been providing weather insurance to farmers on a mobile platform since 2013. The National Network of Chambers of Agriculture of Niger (RECA) has been providing commodity price information online to farmers since 2011.

The Third Eye project in Mozambique has used drones to get an aerial view of farmers’ fields, and make recommendations on irrigation for 2,800 smallholder farmers, mostly women.

Digital technology makes sense for Africa, which has a young population. Young Africans like digital technology as much as youth on other continents. One advantage is that phones are also relatively inexpensive in Africa. I’ve seen smartphones for sale in Kenya for under $40. There are some limitations. Airtime tends to be expensive in Africa, and only about half of the population is on the electric grid.

Many Africans work around the lack of electricity, paying to charge their phones at weekly markets, barbershops or other small businesses when shopping in town. The popularity of cell phones has sparked a growing demand for small solar panels that are becoming a common site, propped up in the bright sunshine outside of an earthen house.

African farmers need appropriate new agricultural technology as well as digital devices. As more African households get online, it will be easier to reach them with digital extension, including videos.

Further reading

Malabo Montpellier Panel 2019. Byte by Byte: Policy Innovation for Transforming Africa’s. Food System with Digital Technologies, Dakar.

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Two friends, one name August 30th, 2020 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación

Our name is such a key part of our identity that it can be unsettling to have the same name as an idiot, or it can feel good to have the same name as the hero in the movie. In English there is not really a word for two people with one name. A “namesake” is “one who is named after another or for whom another is named,” according to Merriam-Webster. We do have some roundabout phrases; we can say “That’s my name, too.” But Spanish has a specific word, tocayo, for two people with one name.

Tocayo is a friendly way to refer to a third person. In the office, a colleague may say to another, “Why don’t you ask my tocayo if he wants to go to the field with us tomorrow.” A more formal alternative would be to call such a person by first and last name.

On a short course I once asked an agronomist named Juan to interview some farmers. The agronomist came back all smiles. He had met a farmer who was also called Juan, and they were able to generate a bit of rapport by calling each other tocayo.

And finally, in Bolivia, if people are struggling with my name, I can always generate some slight humor by saying that “Jeffery Sachs is my tocayo.” The joke works because Sachs and I are both Jeffs, but we don’t know each other.

The Royal Academy Spanish Dictionary defines “tocayo” as a person with the same name, but neglects to add that it has the connotation of friendship. You wouldn’t use “tocayo” with your boss, an enemy, or an underling.

A few years ago, a publisher asked me to write an article on Honduras for an encyclopedia of countries and cultures.  After I submitted my final copy, I wished I had written something about “tocayo”. I consoled myself by thinking that some other anthropologist would include the notion in an article on another Spanish-speaking country. But no one did. I read all four volumes, and no one mentioned a concept for two people sharing the same name, in any country.

“Tocayo” is not a universal concept, but it does pop up in other languages and cultures. It is naamgenoot in Dutch, somo in Kiswahili and মিতা (mita) in Bengali.

Words are linguistic tools that help us to understand and navigate a tricky world. Names are personal, so if we share one with a friend, it makes sense to have a word for such a relationship.

Further reading

Real Academia Española 2014 Diccionario de la Real Academia de la Lengua Española. 23rd edition. Madrid: Espasa Calpe.

Bentley, Jeffery W. 2001 “Honduras,” pp. 979-990. In Melvin Ember & Carol R. Ember (eds.) Countries and their Cultures. New York: Macmillan Reference USA. 4 Vols. 2549 pp.


Thanks to Paul Van Mele for help with the Dutch word, to Musa Naviye for the Kiswahili and to Md. Harun-ar-Rashid for the Bengali term.


Por Jeff Bentley, 30 de agosto del 2020

Nuestro nombre es una parte tan íntima de nuestra identidad que puede ser inquietante tener el mismo nombre que un idiota, o puede sentirse bien tener el mismo nombre que el héroe de la película. En inglés no hay realmente una palabra para dos personas con un nombre. Tenemos algunas frases indirectas; podemos decir “Ese es mi nombre también”. Pero el español tiene una palabra específica, tocayo (o tocaya), para dos personas con un nombre.

Tocayo es una forma amigable de referirse a una tercera persona. En la oficina, un colega puede decirle a otro: “¿Por qué no le preguntas a mi tocayo si quiere ir al campo con nosotros mañana?” Una alternativa más formal sería llamar a esa persona por su nombre y apellido.

Una vez le pedí a un agrónomo llamado Juan que entrevistara a algunos agricultores. El agrónomo regresó con una sonrisa. Había conocido a un agricultor que también se llamaba Juan, y lograron generar un poco de confianza al llamarse tocayo.

Y finalmente, en Bolivia, si la gente no logra captar mi nombre, siempre puedo generar un poco de humor diciendo que “Jeffery Sachs es mi tocayo”. El chiste funciona porque Sachs se llama Jeff, igual que yo, pero no nos conocemos.

El Diccionario de la Real Academia Española define “tocayo” como una persona con el mismo nombre, pero se olvida de añadir que tiene la connotación de amistad. No usarías “tocayo” con tu jefe, un enemigo o un subalterno.

Hace unos años, me pidieron escribir un artículo sobre Honduras para una enciclopedia de países y culturas.  Después de presentar mi copia final, se me ocurrió que me hubiera gustado escribir algo sobre el tocayo. Me consolé pensando que algún otro antropólogo lo incluiría en un artículo sobre otro país hispano. Pero nadie lo hizo. Leí los cuatro tomos, y nadie lo mencionó, para ningún país del muncho.

“Tocayo” no es un concepto universal, pero sí aparece en varios otros idiomas y culturas. Es naamgenoot en holandés, somo en suajili y মিতা (mita) en bengalí.

Las palabras son herramientas lingüísticas que nos ayudan a entender y manejar un mundo difícil. Los nombres son personales, así que, si compartimos uno con un amigo, tiene sentido tener una palabra para tal relación.

Más información

Real Academia Española 2014 Diccionario de la Real Academia de la Lengua Española. 23ª edición. Madrid: Espasa Calpe.

Bentley, Jeffery W. 2001 “Honduras”, pp. 979-990. En Melvin Ember & Carol R. Ember (eds.) Countries and their Cultures. Nueva York: Macmillan Reference USA. 4 Vols. 2549 págs.


Gracias a Paul Van Mele por su ayuda con la palabra holandesa, a Musa Naviye por la del suajili y a Md. Harun-ar-Rashid por el término en bengalí.

Hybrid maize and chemical fertilizer fail to end poverty August 23rd, 2020 by

In 2005, Jeffery Sachs, macroeconomist at Columbia University, started the Millennium Villages Project. At 14 sites across Africa, the project intended to end poverty, to pull people above a daily income of $1.25 a day, by investing in health, education and agriculture. Sachs started the first, five-year phase of the project with almost $120 million in donations from a handful of wealthy folks.

As told in Nina Munk’s 2013 book, The Idealist, Sachs was intensely optimistic and sincere. The funding would allow him to try a model to end poverty; he hoped that after some initial success, governments and international agencies would follow with larger investments to end poverty worldwide.

The villages were actually big communities, with an average of about 6,000 residents. In each one, the project was led by an educated, local person who shared Sach’s vision.

Journalist Nina Munk followed Sachs for six years, and also visiting the villages on her own. Munk noticed that money was flowing into the villages, especially as measured by the number of people who built homes with metal roofs, instead of thatch. But Munk and some of the people she interviewed for the book wondered if this relative prosperity would last after the project ended. I wondered too, so I looked for a more recent evaluation of the project, and found one by Sachs himself, and his colleagues, published in 2018, based on surveys in 2015 at the end of the second and last five-year phase of the Millennium Villages Project.

The researchers saw some progress towards the UN’s Millennium goals, especially for malaria, HIV/AIDS and maternal health.

But the study found that the project had made no impact on poverty.

It is a stunning admission, and I admire the team’s honesty. Income in the Millennium Villages had increased a bit, but over the same decade most African economies had slowly improved. By the end of the project, the families in the Millennium Villages were no better off than households in the surrounding communities.

Paradoxically, the study found that the project had had a positive influence on agriculture, defined narrowly as the use of hybrid maize seed and chemical fertilizer, which Sachs and his team had encouraged, subsidized and distributed to the local people.

The use of hybrid maize seed and chemical fertilizer may explain why the project did not end poverty. Expensive seed and fertilizer make farmers dependent on buying these inputs every year. If the rains fail one year, farmers may lose their maize, but if they bought seed and chemical inputs, they may also go into debt for the seed and fertilizer. So, what Sachs’s team thought of as a positive influence may have in fact undermined the potential of agriculture to contribute to poverty reduction.

Agriculture is also too complicated to reduce to simplistic solutions like seed and chemicals. Maize is a major crop in parts of Africa, but not everywhere. As Munk describes for the village of Ruhiira, in southwest Uganda, although farmers did plant the maize seed, and harvest it, they were unfamiliar with the crop. The locals didn’t like to eat maize, had nowhere to store it, and were not connected to grain buyers, making the grain difficult to sell.

Although Sachs was naïve and reductionist about agricultural development, I suspect that he was right about the need for governments and bilateral agencies to make massive investments in health, education and electricity. Governments are now spending trillions of dollars to mitigate the pandemic lockdown.

But for agriculture to help end poverty, mere investment is not enough. How the money is invested also matters. As explained in the report Money Flows, investments in agroecology are needed to build more resilient domestic food systems that could reduce risks, and poverty.

Further reading

Biovision Foundation for Ecological Development & IPES-Food 2020 Money Flows: What Is Holding Back Investment in Agroecological Research for Africa? Biovision Foundation for Ecological Development & International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems.

Mitchell, Shira, Andrew Gelman, Rebecca Ross, Joyce Chen, Sehrish Bari, Uyen Kim Huynh, Matthew W Harris, Sonia Ehrlich Sachs, Elizabeth A Stuart, Avi Feller, Susanna Makela, Alan M Zaslavsky, Lucy McClellan, Seth Ohemeng-Dapaah, Patricia Namakula, Cheryl A Palm, and Jeffrey D Sachs 2018 The Millennium Villages Project: A retrospective, observational, endline evaluation. Lancet Global Health 6: e500–13.

Munk, Nina 2013 The Idealist: Jeffery Sachs and the Quest to End Poverty. New York: Anchor Books. 260 pp.

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