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Stopping malaria in Europe August 15th, 2021 by

Nederlandse versie volgt hieronder

Historical breakthroughs have often been made by applying ideas from elsewhere. This dawned on me once more while reading Fiammetta Rocco’s inspiring book Quinine – Malaria and the quest for a cure that changed the world. Without the stubbornness and perseverance of a Jesuit priest in the 17th century, the population of Europe would have been further decimated by malaria, currently only known to be a tropical disease, on top of the devastating plague or black death, which killed at least 4 million people during that time.

While the kings of Spain, Portugal, France, England and the Netherlands were fighting naval battles to gain or keep control over colonies, marsh fever was common in many parts of Europe with temporary wetlands. In Italy it was called mal’aria, a contracted form of mala aria or bad air, as the disease was thought to be caused by inhaling the unhealthy vapours of marshes.

Medical science had hardly advanced since the times of ancient Greece. Fever was considered a disease, not a symptom, caused by the imbalance of the four humours or basic elements which were believed to make up the human body: blood, yellow bile, black bile and phlegm. A patient with fever was said to be suffering from a fermentation of the blood resulting from too much bile. As fermenting blood behaved like boiling milk, producing a thick froth that had to be removed before the patient could recover, the preferred treatment for fever was bleeding or purging with laxatives, or both. The “cure” was often worse than the disease.

For a long time, advances in medical science were greatly influenced by religion. According to the philosophy of their Spanish founder, Ignatius of Loyola, Jesuits were not to become doctors but rather to focus on people’s souls, yet many took a great interest in human health, studied anatomy and played a significant role in establishing pharmacies across the globe during the 17th century. Some of them even changed the course of medicine.

Brother Augustine Salumbrino, like many of the young Jesuits who were posted in Peru, made it a priority to learn Quechua and some took a deep interest in understanding local knowledge to the native Andeans’ way of life. The rich Quechua language showed that the Incas had deep knowledge of anatomy and medicinal plants.

The Jesuits at missions in Cusco, a city in the Peruvian Andes at about 3400 meters altitude, noticed that after being exposed to dampness and cold the native people drank a powdered bark from the cinchona tree, dissolved in hot water, to stop shivering. Salumbrino, passionate to help the poor in Lima, on the coastal plain, decided to test the bark on a few patients who were suffering from tertian and quartan fever (two types of malaria that cause fever periodically in 48 hour and 72-hour intervals, respectively).

Salumbrino’s reasoning was a typical example of applying a basic principle to a different context: if the bitter bark stops people in the high Andes from shivering from cold, it may also stop people in the lowlands shivering from fever. As modern science now knows, the active component in the tree bark is quinine, which relaxes muscles and calms the nervous impulse that causes shivering. What Salumbrino could not have predicted, is that the bark not only stopped the shivering, but actually also cured the fever. Double luck.

While Salumbrino devoted his life to supplying quinine to Jesuit missions across the globe, he worked with local people to plant more trees, taught them how to remove the bark in vertical strips, so as not to kill the trees, processed the bark and established local and international distribution lines, one could rightly say that he laid the foundation for the quinine pharmaceutical industry. But it took some other events to have the drug recognised in Europe.

Despite the growing interest in natural history, including botany, the medical profession in 17th century Europe was still deeply conservative, with advances being further hindered by religious frictions between Catholics and Protestants. In England, Protestant physicians and pharmacists, all member of the Royal Society, openly criticised the effectiveness of what had become known as the “Jesuit powder”. They used all possible means, including the printing press, to stop its growing reputation. Yet popular demand remained high; it was hard to beat the news that the bark had successfully cured England’s King Charles II, the King of France, Louis XIV, and other royals who all praised its virtues.

Travelers coming from Rome or Belgium, by then the unofficial northern European centre of the Jesuit order, would still be wary of hand carrying or openly selling the bark to the people who needed it in southern England, because of the drug’s Catholic associations. As is often the case when people are desperate and supply cannot keep up with the demand, unscrupulous merchants soon began to adulterate pure quinine with other bitter-tasting barks.

While mainland Europe had a steady supply of Peruvian bark, larger supplies initially arrived in England mainly through pirates who seized Spanish vessels. It was only by the mid-18th century that commercial quantities of bark were shipped from Latin America to Europe. The drug industry flourished while people remained ignorant for centuries of how the disease was contracted. It was only in 1897 that Ronald Ross discovered that malaria parasites were actually transmitted by mosquitos.

While malaria is still prevalent in all tropical countries, few people now know that Europe got rid of malaria only in 1978 after swamps were drained, health infrastructure was greatly improved, and mosquitos were controlled.

Great breakthroughs often happen after people are exposed to ideas from elsewhere and when new scientific insights are gained. While this is true for humankind, most smallholder farmers in developing countries have limited opportunities to learn from their peers across borders, or from scientists. By merging scientific knowledge with local knowledge and presenting a wide range of practical local solutions, the videos hosted on the Access Agriculture video platform aim to overcome these challenges. The videos create opportunities for farmers to learn about the transmission of plant diseases through insect vectors and other topics on which farmers lack knowledge.


Photo of botanical drawing of quinine tree: copyright Biodiversity Heritage Library

Further reading

Fiammetta Rocco. 2003. Quinine – Malaria and the quest for a cure that changed the world. New York: Harper Perennial, pp. 384

Piperaki, E. T. and Daikos, G. L. 2016. Malaria in Europe: emerging threat or minor nuisance? Clinical Microbiology and Infection, 22:6, pp. 487-493.

Related blogs

Eating bark

Principles matter

Turtles vs snails

Inspiring platforms

Access Agriculture: hosts over 220 training videos in over 90 languages on a diversity of crops and livestock, sustainable soil and water management, basic food processing, etc. Each video describes underlying principles, as such encouraging people to experiment with new ideas.

EcoAgtube: a social media video platform where anyone from across the globe can upload their own videos related to natural farming and circular economy.


Malaria een halt toeroepen in Europa

Paul Van Mele, 15 augustus 2021

Historische doorbraken zijn vaak tot stand gekomen door ideeën van elders toe te passen. Dat drong weer eens tot me door toen ik het inspirerende boek Quinine – Malaria and the quest for a cure that changed the world van Fiammetta Rocco las. Zonder de koppigheid en het doorzettingsvermogen van een jezuïeten priester in de 17e eeuw zou de bevolking van Europa nog verder gedecimeerd zijn door malaria, waarvan nu alleen bekend is dat het een tropische ziekte is, bovenop de verwoestende pest of zwarte dood, die in die tijd aan minstens 4 miljoen mensen het leven kostte.

Terwijl de koningen van Spanje, Portugal, Frankrijk, Engeland en Nederland zeeslagen uitvochten om de controle over koloniën te krijgen of te behouden, was moeraskoorts aan de orde van de dag in vele delen van Europa met tijdelijke moerasgebieden. In Italië werd de ziekte mal’aria genoemd, een verkorte vorm van mala aria of slechte lucht, omdat men dacht dat de ziekte werd veroorzaakt door het inademen van de ongezonde dampen van moerassen.

De medische wetenschap had sinds de Griekse oudheid nauwelijks vooruitgang geboekt. Koorts werd beschouwd als een ziekte, niet als een symptoom, veroorzaakt door een verstoring van het evenwicht van de vier humusstoffen of basiselementen waaruit het menselijk lichaam zou bestaan: bloed, gele gal, zwarte gal en slijm. Van een patiënt met koorts werd gezegd dat hij leed aan een gisting van het bloed ten gevolge van een teveel aan gal. Omdat gistend bloed zich gedroeg als kokende melk, waarbij een dik schuim ontstond dat moest worden verwijderd voordat de patiënt kon herstellen, bestond de voorkeursbehandeling voor koorts uit aderlaten of zuiveren met laxeermiddelen, of beide. Het “geneesmiddel” was vaak erger dan de kwaal.

Lange tijd werd de vooruitgang in de medische wetenschap sterk beïnvloed door de godsdienst. Volgens de filosofie van hun Spaanse stichter, Ignatius van Loyola, mochten de jezuïeten geen artsen worden, maar dienden ze zich te richten op de ziel van de mensen. Toch hadden velen een grote belangstelling voor de menselijke gezondheid, bestudeerden zij de anatomie en speelden zij een belangrijke rol bij het oprichten van apotheken over de hele wereld in de 17e eeuw. Sommigen van hen hebben zelfs de koers van de geneeskunde veranderd.

Broeder Augustinus Salumbrino maakte er, net als veel van de jonge jezuïeten die in Peru waren gestationeerd, een prioriteit van om Quechua te leren en sommigen hadden een grote belangstelling in de lokale kennis en de leefwijze van de inheemse bevolking in het Andes gebergte. De rijke Quechua taal toonde aan dat de Inca’s een diepgaande kennis hadden van anatomie en geneeskrachtige planten.

De jezuïetenmissie in Cusco, een stad in de Peruaanse Andes op ongeveer 3400 meter hoogte, merkten dat de inheemse bevolking na blootstelling aan vocht en kou een poedervormige bast van de kinaboom dronk, opgelost in heet water, om het rillen te stoppen. Salumbrino, gepassioneerd om de armen in Lima, de hoofdstad gelegen aan de kust, te helpen, besloot de schors te testen op enkele patiënten die leden aan tertiaire en quartaire koorts (twee soorten malaria die periodiek koorts veroorzaken met een interval van respectievelijk 48 uur en 72 uur).

Salumbrino’s redenering was een typisch voorbeeld van het toepassen van een basisprincipe op een andere context: als de bittere schors voorkomt dat mensen in de hoge Andes rillen van de kou, kan het ook voorkomen dat mensen in het laagland rillen van de koorts. Zoals de moderne wetenschap nu weet, is het actieve bestanddeel in de boomschors kinine, dat de spieren ontspant en de zenuwimpuls kalmeert die rillingen veroorzaakt. Wat Salumbrino niet had kunnen voorspellen, is dat de schors niet alleen het rillen tegenhield, maar ook de koorts genas. Dubbel geluk.

Terwijl Salumbrino zijn leven wijdde aan het leveren van kinine aan jezuïetenmissies over de hele wereld, werkte hij samen met de plaatselijke bevolking om meer bomen te planten, leerde hij hen hoe ze de schors in verticale stroken konden verwijderen om de bomen niet te doden, verwerkte hij de schors en legde hij lokale en internationale distributielijnen aan. Men zou met recht kunnen zeggen dat hij de basis legde voor de farmaceutische industrie van kinine. Maar er waren nog andere gebeurtenissen nodig om het geneesmiddel in Europa te doen erkennen.

Ondanks de groeiende belangstelling voor natuurlijke historie, met inbegrip van plantkunde, was het medische beroep in het 17e eeuwse Europa nog steeds zeer conservatief, waarbij vooruitgang verder werd belemmerd door religieuze wrijvingen tussen katholieken en protestanten. In Engeland bekritiseerden protestantse artsen en apothekers, allen lid van de Royal Society, openlijk de doeltreffendheid van wat bekend was geworden als het “jezuïetenpoeder”. Zij gebruikten alle mogelijke middelen, waaronder de drukpers, om een halt toe te roepen aan de groeiende reputatie ervan. Toch bleef de vraag groot; het nieuws dat de bast met succes de Engelse koning Charles II, de koning van Frankrijk, Lodewijk XIV, en andere vorsten had genezen, was moeilijk te verslaan en prees de deugden ervan.

Reizigers die uit Rome of België kwamen, tegen die tijd het officieuze Noord-Europese centrum van de jezuïetenorde, waren nog steeds op hun hoede voor het vervoeren of openlijk verkopen van de bast aan de mensen die het nodig hadden in Zuid-Engeland, vanwege de katholieke associaties van het geneesmiddel. Zoals vaak het geval is wanneer mensen wanhopig zijn en het aanbod de vraag niet kan bijhouden, begonnen handelaars zonder scrupules al snel zuivere kinine te versnijden met andere bittere schorsoorten.

Terwijl het vasteland van Europa over een gestage aanvoer van Peruviaanse bast beschikte, arriveerden in Engeland aanvankelijk grotere voorraden voornamelijk via piraten die Spaanse schepen in beslag namen. Pas tegen het midden van de 18e eeuw werden commerciële hoeveelheden schors van Latijns-Amerika naar Europa verscheept. De geneesmiddelenindustrie floreerde terwijl de mensen eeuwenlang onwetend bleven over de wijze waarop de ziekte werd opgelopen. Pas in 1897 ontdekte Ronald Ross dat malaria-parasieten in feite door muggen werden overgebracht.

Hoewel malaria nog steeds in alle tropische landen voorkomt, weten maar weinig mensen nu dat Europa pas in 1978 van malaria af is gekomen nadat moerassen waren drooggelegd, de gezondheidsinfrastructuur sterk was verbeterd en muggen onder controle waren gebracht.

Grote doorbraken vinden vaak plaats nadat mensen zijn blootgesteld aan ideeën van elders en wanneer nieuwe wetenschappelijke inzichten zijn verkregen. Hoewel dit waar is voor de mensheid, hebben de meeste kleine boeren in ontwikkelingslanden beperkte mogelijkheden om te leren van hun collega’s over de grenzen heen, of van wetenschappers. Door wetenschappelijke kennis te combineren met lokale kennis en door een breed scala aan praktische lokale oplossingen te presenteren, proberen de video’s op het Access Agriculture videoplatform deze uitdagingen te overwinnen. De video’s bieden boeren de kans om meer te leren over de overdracht van plantenziekten door insectenvectoren en andere onderwerpen waarover boeren onvoldoende kennis hebben.


Photo of botanical drawing of quinine tree: copyright Biodiversity Heritage Library

Meer lezen

Fiammetta Rocco. 2003. Quinine – Malaria and the quest for a cure that changed the world. New York: Harper Perennial, pp. 384

Piperaki, E. T. and Daikos, G. L. 2016. Malaria in Europe: emerging threat or minor nuisance? Clinical Microbiology and Infection, 22:6, pp. 487-493.

Gerelateerde blogs van Agro-Insight

Eating bark

Principles matter

Turtles vs snails

Inspirerende video platformen

Access Agriculture: bevat meer dan 220 trainingsvideo’s in meer dan 90 talen over een verscheidenheid aan gewassen en vee, duurzaam bodem- en waterbeheer, basisvoedselverwerking, enz. Elke video beschrijft de onderliggende principes en moedigt mensen zo aan om met nieuwe ideeën te experimenteren.

EcoAgtube: een nieuw social media platform waar iedereen van over de hele wereld zijn eigen video’s kan uploaden die gerelateerd zijn aan natuurlijke landbouw en circulaire economie.

Choosing to farm August 8th, 2021 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación

Growing up on a mixed dairy farm in Sacaba, Bolivia, Alicia García was always interested in agriculture. This year, Alicia and her sister built two greenhouses and grew winter tomatoes (in June and July, in Bolivia). But as the temperature dropped near freezing several times, the plants “burned” or died back. Alicia admits that the first winter was a learning experience. In Cochabamba tomatoes are a summer crop, so Alicia was surprised with the cold damage, but she is sure that next winter, she will manage better. To keep learning, she left one row of the damaged tomatoes standing, to see if they could recover, but she has replanted most of the greenhouse with lettuce and other leafy greens. Aphids are a tomato pest, but Alicia manages them with homemade sulfur lime and an ash-and-soap blend. Alicia fertilizes the soil with manure from her family’s cows and with biol (made from manure fermented in water).

As another innovation, Alicia is growing apples as an agroforestry system. (Earlier I wrote about some of the agroforestry pioneers in Cochabamba, Apple futures, Farming with trees). Alicia planted her apple seedlings a year and a half ago, and while they are still small she grows broad beans, onions, broccoli and cabbage in between the little trees. This makes use of the land, and keeps down the weeds.

She’s also had some help along the way. When she was just 13 she began taking farming classes from the Center for Technical Teaching for Women (CETM). For the past 10 years, Agrecol Andes (an NGO that promotes agroecology) has helped Alicia and other farmers to sell their ecological produce in coordination with the municipal government (see blog An exit strategy). Last year, Alicia and her sister built two greenhouses, with support from a government program, The Rural Alliances Project Rurales (PAR).

This experience shows that a young woman can be interested in agriculture enough to assume long-term commitments like a greenhouse and an apple orchard. Alicia has a lot in her favor: institutional support for training, investment and marketing, a family that provides land and manure, and she lives in an attractive community. The family home is just past the edge of the small city of Sacaba, which has all the basic services (like banks, hospitals, and shopping). And Sacaba itself is a half-hour drive from the big city of Cochabamba. In Bolivia, rural migration is draining the countryside, but small cities like Sacaba are growing rapidly. The city also offers opportunities for farmers. Every Friday, Alicia and other farmers meet at a city park in Sacaba to sell produce to local people.

I asked Alicia why she had gone into farming. I thought she might say to make money. She surprised me a bit when said “What I like is the chance to work with nature.”

In other words, a lifestyle decision. She finds the work enjoyable, and she likes to farm without chemicals. Alicia explained “My parents never used pesticides on their farm. Even when the neighbors sprayed their maize and potatoes, my parents didn’t.”

Alicia is now in university and has one year left to finish her degree in architecture. After graduation she would like to open her own office and go into landscaping, combining architecture with her love of plants and the outdoors.

Alicia doesn’t farm like her parents did. They didn’t grow vegetables or fruit trees, but she builds on their experience and with appropriate help, was able to start a greenhouse and an orchard while still attending university. Agriculture can capture the imagination of the best and brightest young people.


Thanks to Alicia for receiving us in her orchard and in her greenhouse. Thanks to Ing. Alberto Cárdenas and Ing. Alexander Espinoza for organizing this visit, where consumers were able to meet farmers. Alberto and Alexander work for the Agrecol Andes Foundation, in Cochabamba. Alicia and Alberto commented on a previous version of this story.

Previous Agro-Insight blogs

Strawberry fields once again

Friendly germs


Por Jeff Bentley, 8 de agosto del 2021

Al crecer en la finca lechera de su familia en Sacaba, Bolivia, Alicia García siempre se interesó por la agricultura. Este año, Alicia y su hermana construyeron dos invernaderos, y lograron producir tomates de invierno (junio y julio, en Bolivia). Pero como la temperatura bajó cerca de cero grados varias veces, las plantas se “quemaron” o sea se murió parte de su follaje. Alicia reconoce que el primer invierno fue una experiencia de aprendizaje. En Cochabamba los tomates son un cultivo de verano, así que Alicia se sorprendió con los daños causados por el frío, pero está segura de que el próximo invierno se las arreglará mejor. Para seguir aprendiendo, dejó una hilera de tomates dañados en pie, para ver si se recuperaban, pero ha replantado la mayor parte del invernadero con lechuga y otras verduras de hoja verde. Los pulgones son una plaga del tomate, pero Alicia los controla con sulfocálcico y un caldo de ceniza y jabón. Alicia abona la tierra con el estiércol de las vacas de su familia y con biol (hecho de estiércol fermentado en agua).

Como otra innovación, Alicia ha plantado manzanos como sistema agroforestal. (He escrito sobre algunos de los pioneros de la agroforestería en Cochabamba, Manzanos del futuro, La agricultura con árboles). Alicia plantó sus plantines de manzano hace un año y medio y, mientras son pequeños, ella cultiva habas, cebollas, brócoli y repollo entre los arbolitos. Así aprovecha la tierra y evita las malezas.

A lo largo de los años Alicia ha tenido apoyo de varios tipos. A los 13 años empezó a pasar clases de agricultura en el Centro de Enseñanza Técnica para la Mujer (CETM). Desde hace tres años la Fundación Agrecol Andes, una ONG que promueve la agroecología, ayuda a Alicia y a otros agricultores a vender sus productos ecológicos (véase el blog, Estrategia de salida), con un sistema participativo de garantía, a través de un convenio con el Gobierno Municipal de Sacaba.  El año pasado, Alicia y su hermana construyeron dos invernaderos, con el apoyo de un programa gubernamental, el Proyecto de Alianzas Rurales (PAR).

Esta experiencia demuestra que una mujer joven puede interesarse por la agricultura lo suficiente como para asumir compromisos a largo plazo, como un invernadero y un huerto de manzanos. Alicia tiene mucho a su favor: apoyo institucional para la capacitación, la inversión y la comercialización, una familia que le proporciona la tierra y el abono, y vive en una comunidad atractiva. Vive cerca de la pequeña ciudad de Sacaba, que tiene todos los servicios básicos (como bancos, hospitales y tiendas). Y Sacaba está a media hora en auto de la gran ciudad de Cochabamba. En Bolivia mucha gente está abandonando las comunidades rurales, pero las ciudades pequeñas como Sacaba están creciendo rápidamente. La ciudad también ofrece oportunidades para los agricultores. Todos los viernes, Alicia y otros agricultores se reúnen en un parque de la ciudad de Sacaba para vender productos a la población local.

Le pregunté a Alicia por qué se había dedicado a la agricultura. Pensaba que diría que lo hacía para ganar dinero. Me sorprendió un poco cuando dijo: “Lo que me llama la atención de la agricultura es la naturaleza”.

En otras palabras, una decisión de estilo de vida. El trabajo le resulta agradable y le gusta cultivar sin productos químicos. Alicia también explicó: “Mis padres nunca usaron químicos. Incluso cuando los vecinos fumigaban su maíz y sus papas, mis padres no lo hacían”.

Actualmente, Alicia está en la universidad y le queda un año para terminar la carrera de arquitectura. Después de graduarse le gustaría abrir su propia oficina y dedicarse al paisajismo, combinando la arquitectura con su amor por las plantas y el trabajo al aire libre.

Alicia no trabaja la tierra como lo hacían sus papás. Ellos no cultivaban verduras ni árboles frutales, pero ella se basa en la experiencia de ellos y, con la ayuda adecuada, pudo poner en marcha un invernadero y un huerto mientras seguía asistiendo a la universidad. La agricultura puede captar la imaginación de las jóvenes listas y bien preparadas.


Gracias a Alicia por recibirnos en su huerto y su invernadero. Gracias a los Ing. Alberto Cárdenas y Alexander Espinoza por organizar esta visita, entre consumidores y agricultores. Alberto y Alexander trabajan para la Fundación Agrecol Andes, en Cochabamba. Alicia y Alberto comentaron sobre una versión previa de este blog.

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Dung talk August 1st, 2021 by

Nowhere in the world do take people dung more seriously than in South Asia. For ages cow dung has been a valuable resource. In the countryside people collect fresh dung by hand, shape it into small balls and press it against the walls of houses to allow it to dry. Sometimes the dung balls are skewered onto one-meter long sticks. The dried dung is used as fuel to cook meals. In dryland areas where fuelwood is scarce, these dung sticks are especially important.

Dung is also used as fertilizer, and in India people prepare it in various ways. Sometimes they mix the dung with cow urine, chickpea flour, molasses and water and let it ferment for about a week to allow the microorganisms to multiply. Farmers use the solid or liquid preparations as a seed coating, to keep pests away and to help the seed to grow. Applied to crops as a fertilizer, the dung preparations also help to revive the soil. These and other traditional practices add organic matter to the soil while supporting a cover of vegetation year-round. This is increasingly seen as a way to achieve food security and cool our planet. The Community-Based Natural Farming Programme in Andhra Pradesh, India, has embraced these technologies and is promoting them to millions of smallholder farmers, setting an example to the world.

However, when sharing ideas between countries, sometimes deeply held practices need to be re-examined. As I mentioned in my previous blog it is important to understand the scientific principles underpinning technologies, so that farmers can then adapt these to their own context.

For example, a few years ago one of our Indian partners was developing a video on good microbes, and I insisted that he asked local experts if other dung could be used, not just from cows. A few weeks later he reported back that everyone had agreed, only cow dung should be used. Sheep or goat dung would be no good.

This set me thinking a lot. While we were still making that video, I was able to fix a meeting with Camilla Toulmin, former Director of the International Institute for Environment and Development. While her focus had been on policy research about agriculture, land, climate and livelihoods in dryland regions of Africa, I knew that her PhD research on natural resource management in Mali had touched on the use of manure. After an hour on skype, we had shared a lot of information, but were still unsure if sheep dung was as good a source of beneficial microbes as cow dung.

As I mulled over my conversation with Camilla, I kept thinking back to one time in a village in northern Ghana when we had screened a video about using animal manure in farming. A woman in the audience had asked, “Why do you only show cow manure? Cows belong to men! As we women, do not have cows, but only sheep and goats, can we not do anything with this dung to fertilize our land?”

That was a few years ago. Now that I have a few sheep of my own, and can try out things myself, I have some new insights. Microbes need food and water to grow. In dryland areas, or when animals graze on dry pasture, their droppings dry out pretty fast. The good micro-organisms in the dung may start to die. On lush vegetation, the droppings of my sheep are much larger than the typical small balls one imagines when thinking of sheep droppings. When I prepare my solution of good microbes I collect the dung when it is still fresh.

Indian farmers and experts may be right about cow dung being the most suitable resource in the drylands. Sheep droppings may just dry out too fast to keep the good microbes alive. But in the rainy season or in more humid countries, sheep dung may have lots of beneficial micro-organisms. And for women in northern Ghana, who don’t have cow dung, sheep and goat droppings may still add much needed nutrients to their soil. As soil microbiologist Walter Jehne said: “We should promote the principles and not be dogmatic about it. If you only have reindeer, you may as well make organic manure from their dung, and do not need cow dung.”

Communicating technologies to farmers cross-culturally requires that we move beyond time-honoured recipes. We need to understand the underlying principles and explain them as well as we can. There is gold in more than one type of dung.

Related blogs

Principles matter

Trying it yourself

Reviving soils

Effective micro-organisms

Friendly germs

Earthworms from India to Bolivia

A revolution for our soil

Related videos

Good microbes for plants and soil

Organic biofertilizer in liquid and solid form

Coir pith

Mulch for a better soil and crop

Vermiwash: an organic tonic for crops

Making a vermicompost bed

Inspiring platforms

Access Agriculture: hosts over 220 training videos in over 90 languages on a diversity of crops and livestock, sustainable soil and water management, basic food processing, etc. Each video describes underlying principles, as such encouraging people to experiment with new ideas.

EcoAgtube: a social media video platform where anyone from across the globe can upload their own videos related to natural farming and circular economy.

Eating the experiment July 25th, 2021 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación

Even though farmers and agricultural scientists share the same field of study, they have completely different experimental styles.

This past year in Ecuador, Ph.D. candidate Israel Navarrete was encouraging farmers to experiment, and he was struck by how much time it took them just to pick a research question. While organizing three small groups of farmers in the province of Cotopaxi, Israel found that the local people could take up to three meetings just to pick a topic. Some farmers felt that the other group members weren’t listening to them. (Hurt feelings are as normal in peasant communities as in university departments).

One of Israel’s small groups, made up entirely of women, was dedicated to growing potatoes and black maize. Like the farmers I wrote about recently from Lake Titicaca, the Ecuadorian women had problems with tuber moths destroying their seed potatoes. These farmers from Cotopaxi eventually decided to see if they could control the moths by treating their seed potatoes with garlic extract and with “cementina” (a local type of construction lime).

Israel encouraged them to do multiple replicates of the experiment. Replicates (simultaneous repetitions of the experiment) are a hallmark of the scientific method, and they are especially important in agriculture where each plot of earth, each batch of seed is slightly unique, like snowflakes. An idea has to be tried several times to see if the result is consistent, and is not just a chance occurrence.

But the farmers of Cotopaxi declined to use replicates, and simply tried the lime and garlic on one batch of seed. The solution seemed to work, so Israel encouraged the women to try it again, perhaps in different treatments (such as the lime alone, or the garlic alone, and both together). But the farmers refused. They were satisfied with the results.

As Israel explained this experience, he tried to hide his frustration that the farmers would not work on the experiment in more detail. He was philosophical about the results. He said, “The farmers take a complicated idea and test it in a simple way, while researchers take a simple idea, and test it in a complicated way.”

Much of the scientific method is designed to show universal truth. The experiment has to be replicable and described in numbers and published. After the data is collected, the experiment can be thrown away.

For the farmers, the experiment doesn’t have to be replicable. It only has to achieve results on their farm. It doesn’t need numbers because the farmers are looking for large qualitative differences. You either get rid of the tuber moths, or you don’t. And unlike the scientists, the farmers have to make a living from the actual experiment. In this case, the farmers planted the seed potatoes they had dusted with lime and garlic.

The scientists write up the experiment and publish. It is part of their job. The farmers learn from the experiment and then eat it. It is part of their life.

In spite of having remarkably different experimental styles, collaboration between smallholders and researchers is most valuable for the insights farmers have from years of making a living on the farm. A biologist may never have come up with the idea of fighting the tuber moth with lime and garlic.

People of different professions can have different goals and methods, even when they work on the same topic, which is all the more reason why they should share ideas with each other.

Related blog stories

Zoom to Titicaca


Israel Navarrete is an Ecuadorian expert on seed health, and a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Wageningen, in the Netherlands. His research is funded by the International Potato Center (CIP) and the McKnight Foundation’s Collaborative Crop Research Program (CCRP).

Further reading

Bentley, Jeffery W. 1994 “Facts, Fantasies and Failures of Farmer Participatory Research.” Agriculture and Human Values 11(2&3):140-150.


Photo by Veronika Vogel, courtesy of Israel Navarrete



Jeff Bentley 25 de julio del 2021

Aunque los agricultores y los científicos agrícolas comparten el mismo campo de estudio, tienen estilos experimentales completamente diferentes.

El año pasado, en Ecuador, el estudiante de doctorado Israel Navarrete animó a los agricultores a experimentar, y le llamó la atención el tiempo que les llevaba sólo elegir una pregunta de investigación. Mientras organizaba tres pequeños grupos de agricultores en la provincia de Cotopaxi, Israel descubrió que los lugareños podían tardar hasta tres reuniones sólo para elegir un tema. Algunos agricultores sentían que los otros miembros del grupo no les escuchaban. (Las roces y resentimientos son tan comunes en las comunidades campesinas como en los departamentos universitarios).

Uno de los pequeños grupos de Israel, formado exclusivamente por mujeres, se dedicaba a cultivar papas y maíz negro. Al igual que los agricultores y agricultoras del Lago Titicaca sobre las que escribí hace poco, las ecuatorianas tenían problemas con las polillas de la papa que destruían su semilla de papa. Estas agricultoras de Cotopaxi decidieron finalmente ver si podían controlar las polillas tratando su semilla con extracto de ajo y con “cementina” (un tipo de cal para la construcción).

Israel les animó a hacer múltiples réplicas del experimento. Las réplicas (repeticiones simultáneas del experimento) son un fundamento del método científico, y son especialmente importantes en la agricultura, donde cada parcela de tierra, cada lote de semillas es algo único, como los copos de nieve. Hay que probar una idea varias veces para ver si el resultado es consistente y no es una mera casualidad.

Pero las agricultoras de Cotopaxi se negaron a usar réplicas y se limitaron a probar la cal y el ajo en un solo lote de semilla. La solución pareció funcionar, por lo que Israel animó a las mujeres a probarlo de nuevo, tal vez en diferentes tratamientos (como la cal sola, o el ajo solo, y ambos juntos). Pero las agricultoras se negaron. Estaban satisfechos con los resultados.

Al explicar esta experiencia, Israel trató de ocultar su frustración de que los agricultores no quisieran trabajar en el experimento con más detalle. Se mostró filosófico sobre los resultados. Dijo: “Los agricultores toman una idea complicada y la prueban de forma sencilla, mientras que los investigadores toman una idea sencilla y la prueban de forma complicada”.

Gran parte del método científico está diseñado para mostrar una verdad universal. El experimento tiene que ser replicable y estar descrito en números y publicado. Una vez recolectados los datos, el experimento puede desecharse.

Para los agricultores, el experimento no tiene que ser replicable. Sólo tiene que conseguir resultados en su finca. No necesita números porque los agricultores buscan grandes diferencias cualitativas. O se elimina la polilla de la papa, o no. Y a diferencia de los científicos, los agricultores tienen que vivir del experimento en sí. En este caso, los agricultores sembraron la semilla de papa que habían rociado con cal y ajo.

Los científicos redactan el experimento y lo publican. Es parte de su trabajo. Los agricultores aprenden del experimento y se lo comen. Es parte de su vida.

A pesar de tener estilos experimentales bien diferentes, la colaboración entre los pequeños agricultores y los investigadores es valiosa por los conocimientos que tienen los agricultores tras años de ganarse la vida trabajando la tierra. Puede que a un biólogo no se le haya ocurrido nunca la idea de combatir la polilla del tubérculo con cal y ajo.

Personas de distintas profesiones pueden tener objetivos y métodos diferentes, incluso cuando trabajan en el mismo tema, y justo por eso vale la pena que compartan ideas entre sí.

Historias relacionadas en el blog de Agro-Insight

Zoom al Titicaca


Israel Navarrete es un experto ecuatoriano en la sanidad de las semillas, y candidato a PhD en la Universidad de Wageningen, en los Países Bajos. Su investigación está financiada por el Centro Internacional de la Papa (CIP) y el Programa Colaborativo de Investigación de Cultivos (CCRP) de la Fundación McKnight.

Lectura adicional

Bentley, Jeffery W. 1990 “La Participación de los Agricultores en Hechos, Fantasías y Fracasos: Introducción a la Memoria del Simposio.” Ceiba 31(2):29-41.


Foto por Veronika Vogel, cortesía de Israel Navarrete


Principles matter July 18th, 2021 by

In this age of restricted travel, when webinars have taken the place of conferences, at first I missed face-to-face meetings a lot. But virtual events do allow one to get exposed to far more ideas than before. This is also the case when digital learning is introduced to farmers. Farmers are increasingly getting information online, like videos. But the videos have to be properly designed. Unlike following a cooking recipe on a Youtube video, in agriculture, recipes must be accompanied by basic principles, so that farmers can decide how to experiment with the new ideas.

I was reminded of this recently during a webinar on the Community-Based Natural Farming Programme in Andhra Pradesh, India. One of the speakers was Vijay Kumar, one of the driving forces behind the programme, which aims to scale up agroecology to millions of farmers in Andhra Pradesh. Vijay is a humble, highly-respected former civil servant. He is much in demand, so meeting him in person would be a challenge, but introduced by a mutual colleague, I was fortunate to have already met him several times on Zoom. Vijay appreciates that Access Agriculture stands for quality training videos that enable South-South learning. According to him, the collaboration with Access Agriculture offers opportunities to help scale community-based natural farming from India to Africa and beyond. It is fortunate to have strong allies who understand the challenges of scaling and that to be cost-effective, one cannot simply visit all the world’s farmers in person.

Still, many people think that farmers can only learn from fellow farmers who live nearby and speak the same language, and that training videos are only useful when they are made locally. The many experiences from local partners with Access Agriculture training videos show that farmers do learn from their peers across cultures, on different continents. Farmers are motivated when they see how fellow farmers in other parts of the world solve their own problems. Access Agriculture videos are effective across borders in part because they explain the scientific principles behind technologies, and not just show how to do things. Vijay is convinced that scientific knowledge and farmer knowledge need to go hand in hand to promote agroecology.

The second speaker at the natural farming conference was Walter Jehne, a renowned Australian soil microbiologist, who talked about the need to build up soil organic matter and micro-organisms as a way to revive soils and cool the planet. I was pleased that he also stressed the importance of principles. When one of the Indian participants asked Walter if he could provide the recipe, he smilingly and patiently explained: “We should focus on the underlying principles, as principles apply across the globe, irrespective of where you are. You need organic matter, you need to build up good soil micro-organisms and make use of natural growth promotors. If a recipe tells you to use cow dung, but you don’t have cows, what can you do? If for instance you have reindeer, their dung will work just as well. You don’t have to be dogmatic about it.”  In two of my earlier blogs (Trying it yourself and Reviving soils) I did exactly do that back home: use ingredients that were available to me: sheep dung, leaves of oak trees in the garden, wheat straw, and so on, but building on ideas from Indian farmers.

Farmers have creative minds and this creativity is fed by basic principles: while recipes surely help, a better understanding of underlying scientific principles are what matter most when it comes down to adaptation to local contexts. We, at Access Agriculture are thrilled to join Andhra Pradesh’s efforts to spread Community-Based Natural Farming across the globe.

Related webinars

365 Days Green Cover & Pre-Monsoon Dry Sowing (PMDS) – Walter Jehne – Streamed on 6th July 12:30 pm

Restoring the water cycles to cool the climate

Related blogs

Trying it yourself

Reviving soils

Effective micro-organisms

Friendly germs

Earthworms from India to Bolivia

A revolution for our soil

Damaging the soil and our health with chemical reductionism

Related videos

Good microbes for plants and soil

Organic biofertilizer in liquid and solid form

Coir pith

Mulch for a better soil and crop

Vermiwash: an organic tonic for crops

Making a vermicompost bed

Inspiring video platforms

Access Agriculture: hosts over 220 training videos in over 90 languages on a diversity of crops and livestock, sustainable soil and water management, basic food processing, etc. Each video describes underlying principles, as such encouraging people to experiment with new ideas.

EcoAgtube: a social media video platform where anyone from across the globe can upload their own videos related to natural farming and circular economy.

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