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Blocking out the food November 3rd, 2019 by

As alternative food systems develop, they may also be the most vulnerable, as I saw after the disastrous elections in Bolivia of this past 20 October. Many people suspected that the election had been rigged, and that the president had not actually won a fourth term.

In protest, the major cities began erecting barricades on all major streets, and many smaller ones. This is protest by self-inflicted economic wound. Many people cannot get to work. Many close their shops and hardly anyone will take their kids to school. The macro-economy takes a nose-dive.

On Friday, six days into the protests, the protest leaders announced on social media that the roadblocks would be lifted in the morning so people could buy food. So I went shopping.

One NGO I know runs a “solidarity basket”, like a subscription service. They pick up fresh vegetables from peri-urban farmers and sell them on certain Saturdays. This weekend the roadblocks had kept the NGO from collecting the produce from the farmers. I met the NGO in a city park, where they had two pickups, offering just onions, yoghurt and mogochinchi (dried peaches) produced by small-scale entrepreneurs, but not the vegetables. My friends understood the importance of the protest, but they were visibly upset that they couldn’t collect the vegetables, which is a way of helping poorer farmers, mostly women, to sell to sympathetic members of the middle class.

Every Saturday, an alternative shop I patronize brings vegetables from farms in the valley. They also bake bread. The owner, Paula, joked that her assistant had not been able to come in, so Paula had baked the bread herself. It fell when rising. She also quipped not to mind if the asparagus was a bit smashed. “I had to go get it on my bike”, she explained (to ride around the roadblocks).

That same Saturday the regular markets and the supermarkets were overwhelmed with people shopping for what was going to be a difficult week for everyone. Every shopping cart was in use, and the lines stretched from the cash register half way through the store.

While a few items sold out, like tuna fish in water, most foods were still in stock. Supermarkets can last for a few days without being resupplied.  

Government supporters added to the tension by announcing that they would counter the protests in the city by blockading the national highways, with the stated purpose of keeping food out.

Food suppliers and shoppers all have a vested interest in trading with each other. As the week wore on, the supermarkets closed their doors. The food dealers that stayed open were the oldest ones: family-owned shops, and open-air markets.

Unfortunately, this past week I was really looking forward to attending a seed exchange, where people would meet and trade their own local varieties of tree and crop seed. No money would exchange hands, just gifts and trade in seed. This was an innovative, even experimental addition to the alternative food system. Unfortunately, that was cancelled entirely. The newest parts of the food system can also be the weakest. Cities are vulnerable to a break in food supplies, and experiences like this one may be a wake-up call to strengthen local food systems.

Keep your cows in the family October 27th, 2019 by

In the 1980s, the Portuguese farmers I lived with kept two or three cows per household. Instead of hosing down the barns—the greatest use of water on dairy farms—the cows were stabled in a large room on the ground floor of the farm house. Every couple of days, farmers would lay down a clean bed of gorse, fern, heather and other wild plants. Instead of creating toxic lagoons of manure, the families would dig the manure out of the barns and spread it on their fields as organic fertilizer.

The parish of Pedralva, near Braga, Portugal, had four milking parlors. Twice a day the farmers (almost all women) would walk their cows down the lane to the milking parlor, where the operator, also a young woman, would milk the cows mechanically, record the amount of milk (clearly visible in a large, glass jar) and pipe the milk into a cold storage tank, to be picked up later by the dairy.

The milking parlor became a place where the farmers would chat and exchange ideas as they stood in line with their cows. I realize now that it was also a chance for the cows to get out of the house and take a stroll. The cows were not pets, but they all had names, enough to eat and drink, and they were never caged. The cows were usually fed on leftover maize stalks and pasture grass, although a handful of farmers with a dozen cows were starting to make silage. So, most of the feed was a byproduct of food production, rather than a diversion of human food to livestock.

The documentary film “Cowspiracy,” by Kip Anderson and Keegan Kuhn, tells of the complacency of Greenpeace, the Sierra Club, Surfrider Foundation, Rainforest Action Network, and Oceana: large, environmental organizations that ignore animal farming as a leading cause of climate change. Livestock account for 51% of global greenhouse emissions, while the whole transportation sector makes up just 13%. Cows make greenhouse gas as they fart out methane while the tractors and fertilizer factories all burn fossil fuel.

Livestock in the USA produce 30 times more feces than people. Fecal slurry from cows and pigs is kept in “lagoons” that often leak into rivers. In tropical countries forests are cleared to make pastures. Much of the forest burned in Bolivia this year was being cleared to graze cows for beef exports to China.

In Eat for the Planet, journalists Nil Zacharias and Gene Stone raise similar concerns, especially about the use of water. In the USA it takes 2000 liters of water to make a liter of milk, 15,000 liters of water to produce a kilo of meat. More corn, soybeans and wheat is produced to feed animals than humans, requiring vast amounts of water, energy and land.

Add this all together and it makes sense that the livestock sector is responsible for 51% of human-caused greenhouse gases.

Food and Animal Welfare, a recent book by Henry Buller and Emma Roe, raises concerns about the cruelty inflicted on the animals themselves. Cows, pigs and chickens have inherited instinctive behaviors from their wild ancestors: chickens like to build nests for their eggs, pigs love to dig into the moist earth, and cows enjoy grazing in the sunshine. The animals become stressed when they are unable to act out these behaviors.

On small, family farms, animals are usually handled in kinder, more environmentally sound ways. Adopting this approach on factory farms is costly and easy to avoid where regulation of animal welfare is poor and consumers don’t know or don’t care about the stresses animals face when penned up all day, every day, unable to move.

Cruelty to animals, deforestation, fecal pollution, the extravagant waste of water and the use of food grains to feed animals are all real problems of agriculture if the animals are just seen as cogs in the factory. But I have seen family farms in Latin America, Africa and Bangladesh where animals are treated a bit like they were in Portugal in the 1980s. The animals are kept clean without big hoses of water. The manure is used as fertilizer instead of being stored in lakes of filth. The animals eat at least some crop residues and spend at some time outdoors. The cows do still fart on family farms, but most other environmental problems are mitigated. Governments and the public should be thinking of more ways to encourage shorter food chains, decent prices for family farmers, enforcement of better standards, and research on appropriate technologies.

Further reading

Bentley, Jeffery W. 1992 Today There Is No Misery: The Ethnography of Farming in Northwest Portugal. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

Buller, Henry, and Emma Roe 2018 Food and Animal Welfare. London: Bloomsbury Publishing. 222 pp.

Zacharias, Nil and Gene Stone 2018 Eat for the Planet: Saving the World One Bite at a Time. New York: Abrams Image. 160 pp.

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Videos about caring for animals on smallholder, family farms

Hand milking of dairy cows

And many other livestock videos on Access Agriculture

Poisoning our friends October 20th, 2019 by

Except for entomologists, no one knows more about insects than farmers. Wherever researchers have bothered to talk to smallholders about insects, whether in Honduras, Nepal, or among the Dogon of Mali, or the KayapĂł of the Brazilian rainforest, we see that rural people know the names of hundreds of insects and spiders. This is especially true of critters that are conspicuous (such as the big ones that are active during the day) or those that make themselves important, e.g. by eating crops.  

However, a recent, quantitative global literature review by Kris Wyckhuys and colleagues confirms that farmers know little about beneficial insects, especially in industrialized countries. As we saw in this blog last week, it is fairly easy to notice toads and other relatively large animals eating insect pests. Many farmers know that birds, frogs and cats are natural enemies of pests. Yet Wyckhuys found that worldwide, farmers mention on average only 0.9 insects or spiders that help to control insect pests.

Farmers can have sophisticated knowledge of certain, individual insect species. For example, Paul Van Mele and colleagues have described Vietnamese farmers who used weaver ants to control pests in fruit orchards. Such cases are, however, disappointingly rare. Weaver ants are big, diurnal, and easy to spot in their treehouse nests sewn together from leaves. Farmers were also motivated to watch weaver ants because they prey on insects like fruit flies in high-value orchards.  Most other natural enemies of insect pests, “farmers’ friends” go unnoticed. Hardly any rural people know about other common natural enemies of pests, such as parasitic wasps, insect-eating fungi and nematodes.

Farmers tend to use more pesticides in cash crops, and know fewer natural enemies for these crops, than in food staples. The use of pesticides is growing worldwide, while the pest problems are as bad as ever. Farmers are born experimenters, but to find alternative to pesticides, they need to know more about the natural enemies of insect pests.

Wyckhuys suggests that some of the world’s half trillion-dollar subsidies for agriculture could be devoted to agro-ecological education. Farmers will never find alternatives to pesticides unless they understand that most insects are beneficial. As farmers use insecticides to kill pests, they unwittingly poison their friends, the insects that eat and kill those pests.

Further reading

Van Mele, P 2008 “The importance of ecological and socio-technological literacy in R&D priority setting: the case of a fruit innovation system in Guinea, West Africa.” International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability 6: 183–94.

Wyckhuys, K.A.G., K.L. Heong, F. Sanchez-Bayo, F.J.J.A. Bianchi, J.G. Lundgren and J.W. Bentley 2019 “Ecological Illiteracy Can Deepen Farmers’ Pesticide Dependency.” Environmental Research Letters 14: 093004

Related videos

Promoting weaver ants in your orchard

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See also the many other farmer learning videos about Integrated Pest Management on www.accessagriculture.org.

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Toads for watermelon October 13th, 2019 by

The south coast of Jamaica is just right for growing watermelon, where I recently saw the fruit stacked under the shade trees in front of comfortable farm houses. Farmers can earn a tidy living from selling melons on the local market and to the hotels and resorts.

But the trick is to get enough water. In the dry season, a tanker truck will deliver 1000 gallons (almost 4,000 liters) for $50. Most of the farmers economize on water by using drip irrigation. For many years, farmers have saved on water by using mulch, made from the light-weight Guinea grass.

Professional crews cut and dry the grass, which is grown in small fields scattered among the patches of watermelon.  The grass crews lay out a neat carpet of mulch, which not only keeps the soil moist, but also suppresses weeds, and creates a soft, clean bed for the fruit to grow, so it develops an attractive, green rind all the way around the fruit. After harvest, the grass decomposes, enriching the soil with organic matter.

I learned about this while visiting Jamaican farmer Junior Dyer, with a group of colleagues. We asked when Junior watered his plants. He said at 9 or 10 AM. “I never water at night,” Junior explained, because if he does that frogs and toads come into the field to eat the insect pests, but then the amphibians stay for the night, digging holes into the moist soil and disturbing the roots. The frogs and toads still come and eat the insect pests when watering is done in the morning, but then they bed down on the edge of the field.

Junior also showed me some of his 13 beehives, which he moves around to pollinate his melons, cantaloupe and cucumbers. I asked Junior if he used insecticides to control major insect pests such as whiteflies, thrips and especially aphids, which transmit disease (like watermelon mosaic virus). He admitted, a bit reluctantly, that he did use insecticides. I asked how he managed that without killing his bees. Junior replied that he looks for insecticide labelled as bee-friendly. In truth, insecticides are never good for bees, but some are less toxic than others.

Junior’s extension agent, Jermaine Wilson, said that Junior belongs to a farmers’ group, but that the farmers had already observed on their own that toads and frogs are beneficial creatures. Farmers see them eating insects. Beneficial amphibians are an example of how valuable local knowledge often develops around a topic that is culturally important (like watermelon pests) and easy to observe (like toads eating bugs). I found it encouraging that Junior appreciated the frogs and toads, even though they tend to eat larger insects rather than the really small ones that are the main pests in Jamaican watermelon.

I admired the efficient system the Jamaicans have for producing watermelon, even though they still largely rely on insecticides, with little organic production. But the Jamaican farmers are moving in the right direction by encouraging frogs and toads, and beekeeping will certainly motivate them to further reduce insecticides. Watermelons are a fairly sustainable, commercial crop from family farms. The bees pollinate the melon flowers, and the fruit grows nestled in a bed of mulch, precision-watered with drip irrigation. It’s a nice blend of appropriate technology and local knowledge, with frogs and toads contributing along the way.

Acknowledgements

RADA (Rural Agricultural Development Authority) graciously hosted my visit to Saint Elizabeth Parish, Jamaica, as part of the 10th Annual Meeting of GFRAS (Global Forum for Rural Advisory Services).

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Gauchos for hire October 6th, 2019 by

Picture a gaucho astride a horse on a homemade saddle, galloping like a centaur across the limitless plains of Argentina. Above his broad brimmed hat, he twirls three balls (bolas) tethered together, to fling at the feet of a fleeing bull. The rawhide cords of the bolas wrap around the lower legs of the bull and bring it crashing to the ground.

The gauchos are often portrayed as a romantic even mythical figure, so it is easy to forget that they were workers in commercial agriculture, supplying the world’s markets with export beef, even in the early nineteenth century.

Argentine historian Ricardo Salvatore has written a book about the final, glory days of the gauchos (1829 to 1852), when Argentina was governed by Juan Manuel de Rosas. Now largely vilified in his home country as a dictator and populist, Rosas liberalized markets and freed them from the restrictions and high prices imposed under colonial rule. He awarded government contracts in public, on the steps of the police station, to those who submitted the lowest tender. Rosas insisted that the courts give equal legal treatment to rich and poor, black and white. He created a large army and filled it with rural men, but he also fed their widows and families with beef confiscated from enemy ranchers.

The Argentine civil wars dragged on for decades. Rosas and his party, the Federales, favored less government. They would eventually lose to the rebel Unitarios, who wanted a strong central administration. During the war many rural people, paisanos, migrated to the relative calm of the province of Buenos Aires. Along the way young men were arrested on charges of deserting the army. Fragments of their defense statements, transcribed by court clerks, make up most of the source material for Salvatore’s book.

The gauchos were, by Salvatore’s definition, illiterate. They also worked as ranch and farm hands, and led a simple life. They owned little more than some simple horse-riding tack and the clothes on their back: a shirt, jacket, poncho, home-made boots and a chiripá (a woven cloth worn around the waist, and tucked between the legs).

The vast pampas may have been unfenced but they were policed by small town judges (jueces de paz), and owned by ranchers, who employed the gauchos to raise cattle, and to grow a few crops. Products like dried beef, hides and tallow were carted to Buenos Aires and exported, mainly to Europe. Live cattle were herded to the city. On one single day, 27 February 1847, a whopping 19,073 animals were slaughtered. It’s not clear if this was a routine toll or just a bad day for cows. In those days the meat was salted and exported, before the invention of tinned food and refrigerated shipping.

During the long, violent wars of independence from Spain (about 1809 to 1825), all of the mainland Spanish-American countries, from Mexico to Argentina, emerged as self-governing republics. In Argentina, the struggle for independence had fostered an ideology of equality, which the gauchos held onto during the civil wars that broke out soon after independence was granted. Labor shortages also strengthened the gaucho’s position with their employers. Some would demand advance pay and then vanish. Others insisted on being paid daily, to earn more than the monthly salaries that ranch owners preferred. Employers also lured the gauchos into jobs with rations of beef, tobacco, and sugar. But money and rations weren’t enough to keep gauchos on the job. They insisted on being addressed respectfully. A foreman who barked out orders like a rude command could be challenged to a knife duel by a weather-worn gaucho.

In the mid 1800s, the Argentine ranch owners purposefully played down differences in social status. The ranchers wore the same clothes as their workers, ate almost nothing but meat, and lived in houses where the only furniture was a saddle hanging on the wall.

After the Argentine civil wars ended, Salvatore says that the gauchos faded from history. Deserters were no longer of interest to the small-town judges. And the distinction between Federal and Unitario was less important, so rural travelers stopped being arrested and questioned. Gauchos appear infrequently in the police records, now mostly described as “vagabonds.”

After the 1860s, the beef economy rapidly modernized, with the introduction of barbed-wire fences and railroads. Scottish, Irish and English migrants took over many of the gaucho’s jobs in the countryside. Italians worked in the city in commerce and in packing plants.

The gauchos migrated to the towns and to the frontiers and eventually intermarried with the newcomers. The gauchos were no longer a distinct social group by the end of the 19th century. Gone but not forgotten. Modern Argentina still has an egalitarian touch; even the waiters approach their customers tall and proud, addressing their customers like friends.  Perhaps the tough, friendly spirit of the gauchos lives on, at least a bit.

Further reading

Although Salvatore is Argentine, he wrote in English. Mateo García Haymes and Luisa Fernanda Lassaque’s Spanish translation is so cleverly done that it reads as though it had been written in Spanish.

Salvatore, Ricardo D. 2018 Paisanos Itinerantes: Orden Estatal y Experiencia Subalterna en Buenos Aires durante la Era de Rosas. Buenos Aires: Prometeo Libros.

Original version:

Salvatore, Ricardo D. 2003 Wandering Paysanos: State Order and Subaltern Experience in Buenos Aires Province during the Rosas Era. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press.

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