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Not sold in stores October 14th, 2018 by

I love supermarkets; whenever I visit a new country I think of the local supermarket as a kind of interactive food museum, with its own unique groceries on display.

But the supermarket also has a stranglehold on what we eat and grow, as I learned last week when I heard a talk by Lauren Chappell, a plant pathologist at the University of Oxford. Dr. Chappell explained that carrots come in white, pink and even purple varieties, in a rich diversity of sizes and shapes. We only think of the long, tapered orange varieties as the one and only true carrot because supermarkets will only buy varieties like Nairobi and Nantes, the stereotypical carrots. Some British chefs love the white and purple “heritage carrots,” but you won’t find them at the supermarket.

It’s the same with apples. Supermarkets only stock a handful of varieties, so that limits what even small-scale commercial farms can grow. On a recent visit to the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) gardens at Wisley, in southern England, I was delighted to see a whole orchard filled with 40 different kinds of apples. There was a large, bright pink variety, Rubinola, with a marvelous, spicy flavor, and a green Russet with a lumpy, almost toad-like skin, but an amazing, tart clean taste. These varieties, curated by the RHS, are rarely sold in stores, but keeping them alive is an important safeguard of our planet’s biodiversity. This rich gene pool is crucial for future efforts to breed fruit and vegetables that are adapted to tomorrow’s climate and to upcoming pests and diseases.

Preserving diverse food crops is also essential for a rich and varied diet. Gardens and small farms help to preserve our edible biodiversity.

Various institutions also encourage people to conserve genetic resources, for example by promoting farmers’ rights to seed, as we will see in next week’s blog story.

Other related blogs

Bolivian peanuts

From uniformity to diversity

Innovative processing (such as an apple juice factory on a truck) can help people to save time, and to maintain their orchards of local fruit trees (see The juice mobile).

Videos on farmer rights to seed

Farmers’ rights to seed: Malawi

Farmers’ rights to seed: Guatemala

To see the future October 7th, 2018 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación

When Francisco Condori stopped working as a bricklayer in La Paz, Bolivia, he returned as a 23-year old to his home village of Cutusuma, near Lake Titicaca. He felt that because of his years in the big city he was missing some agricultural knowhow. So he consulted with the older people of Cutusuma.

More than anything, the elders taught Francisco what are now called “the indicators” that is, the signs of nature that tell when to plant and if it will be a good year. This is indispensable information in a place like the Altiplano, generally good land for farming, but sometimes hostile.  Frost, hail and drought can destroy crops at any time. That is why forecasting the weather is a specialty on the Altiplano.

For example a bird, the quiri quiri, makes nests like little ovens in the totora reeds of Titicaca and the small lake of Cutusuma. The bird seems to know how high the water will rise. In dry years it builds its nest low, and in rainy years it makes a nest high on the totora plant. Francisco learned to take a raft into the lake and seek out the nests. The height of the nest in the dry season indicates the level that the water will reach in the rainy season.

Don Francisco also learned to look for the sank’ayu cactus. If it bears fruit early, one should plant potatoes early, in October. If it fruits late, one should plant in November.

Besides looking for his own indicators, Francisco also listened to the weather forecast on the radio and on the TV, but it wasn’t always reliable. He and his friend Antonio remember that once the radio announced that there was going to be a frost and the farmers should “take care of their potato crop.” Francisco and Antonio just laughed, because it was June—winter and the dry season—and nobody had potatoes in the field.

In 1998 Francisco met Edwin Yucra, an agronomist with an interest in climate and in local knowledge. Edwin worked in Prosuko, a project that was supporting the development of sukukollus (planting beds inspired by the agriculture of the ancient civilization of Tiwanaku).

Edwin collaborated for years with Francisco and Antonio and their neighbors. In recent years, Edwin taught them that there was a free app on the Internet that farmers could download to predict the weather with the help of satellites and weather stations. Many farmers have smart phones nowadays which give them access to apps like this one, called Weather Underground.

By 2017 Edwin, now a professor at the Public University of San Andrés, worked in seven communities, including Cutusuma. They managed to build a small weather station in Cutusuma to register the weather, including temperature, wind and rain.

Francisco and Antonio go over the data from the station constantly. They log onto Weather Underground every day on their cell phones. They still listen to the forecast on the radio and on TV and they still make their own forecast based on the indicators, which their write on their Pachagrama (see blog story Predicting the weather), so they can track the weather over the year.

Don Francisco and don Antonio are conducting a deep study of the weather. They combine local knowledge with modern science. Thanks to this, Francisco has become a sort of expert and celebrity. His neighbors frequently ask him what the weather will be like. When don Francisco goes to market in the town of Batallas, the people there recognize him and ask him about the weather. In recent years Francisco has appeared on several TV channels explaining the weather, the indicators and describing climate change.

It is an example of how one can respect local, even ancestral knowledge, while still appreciating modern science.

CONOCER EL FUTURO

Por Jeff Bentley, 7 de octubre del 2018

Cuando don Francisco Condori dejó de trabajar como albañil en La Paz, Bolivia, volvió a sus 23 años a su aldea natal de Cutusuma, cerca del Lago Titicaca. Sintió que debido a sus años en la gran ciudad le hacía falta saber de la agricultura. Así que se fue consultando con la gente mayor de Cutusuma.

Los ancianos más que nada le enseñaron a Francisco lo que se llaman los “indicadores” o sea los señales de la naturaleza que dicen cuándo sembrar y si va a ser un año bueno. Esa información es indispensable en un lugar como el Altiplano, tierra productiva para el agro, pero a veces también hostil.  Heladas, granizadas y sequías pueden destruir los cultivos en cualquier momento. Por eso el pronóstico del tiempo es una especializad en el Altiplano.

Por ejemplo, una pájaro, el quiri quiri, hace sus pequeños nidos como hornito en las totoras de Titicaca y de la pequeña Laguna de Cutusuma. El pájaro parece que sabe dónde llegará el agua. En años secos hace su nido bajo, y en años lluviosos hace su nido en la parte alta de la planta de totora. Francisco aprendió a entrar en balsa a la laguna y buscar los nidos. La altura del nido en la época seca indica el nivel que el agua llegará en la época lluviosa.

Don Francisco también aprendió a revisar el cactus sank’ayu. Si daba fruto temprano habría que sembrar la papa temprano, en octubre. Si daba su fruto tarde, habría que sembrar en noviembre.

Además de buscar sus propios indicadores, Francisco también miraba el pronóstico de tiempo en la radio, y en la tele, pero no era siempre confiable. El y su amigo Antonio recuerdan que una vez la radio anunció que iba a haber helada y que los agricultores deberían “cuidar su papa.” Francisco y Antonio solo se reían, porque era junio—invierno y época seca—y nadie tenía papa sembrada.

In 1998 Francisco conoció a Edwin Yucra, ingeniero agrónomo con interés en el clima y el conocimiento local. Edwin trabajaba en Prosuko, un proyecto que apoyaba en desarrollar a los sukukollus (camellones agrícolas, inspiradas por el agro del antiguo imperio de Tiwanaku).

Edwin colaboró durante años con Francisco y Antonio y sus vecinos. Edwin, en los últimos años, les enseñó que había una aplicación gratis en el Internet que los agricultores podrían bajar y pronosticar el tiempo en base a satélites y estaciones meteorológicas. Muchos agricultores tienen smart phones hoy en día que les da acceso a estas aplicaciones como este, llamado el Weather Underground.

Para el año 2017 Edwin, ahora catedrático en la Universidad Mayor de San Andrés, trabajaba con siete comunidades, incluso Cutusuma. Lograron poner una pequeña estación meteorológica en Cutusuma para medir el tiempo, como la temperatura, viento y lluvia.

Francisco y Antonio revisan los datos de la estación constantemente. Chequean el Weather Underground cada día en sus celulares. Siguen escuchando el pronóstico en la radio y la tele y todavía hacen su propio pronóstico en base a los indicadores, lo cual apuntan en su Pachagrama (vea blog sobre Prediciendo el tiempo), para seguirlo durante el año.

Don Francisco y don Antonio están haciendo un estudio profundo del clima. Combinan el conocimiento local con la ciencia moderna. Gracias a eso Francisco se ha convertido en una especie de experto y celebridad. Sus vecinos frecuentemente le preguntan cómo va a ser el tiempo. Cuando don Francisco va al pueblo de Batallas para hacer mercado le reconocen los del pueblo y le preguntan sobre el tiempo. En los últimos años Francisco ha salido en la tele y en varios de los canales explicando el tiempo, los indicadores y que el clima está cambiando.

Es un ejemplo de que se puede respetar el conocimiento local y hasta ancestral, con amor a la ciencia moderna.

The smart phone generation September 30th, 2018 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación.

Colleagues from the Public University of San Andrés in La Paz have been teaching groups of farmers to use a free app called Weather Underground, which allows users to forecast the weather in their location. This week my colleagues wrote a fact sheet for farmers on how to use Weather Underground. I went with one of the agronomists, Alex Borda, to validate his fact sheet in the farm community of Choquenaira, on the Bolivian Altiplano.

Young farmers in Bolivia have smart phones, and like young people in the city, they use Facebook and other applications. So, farmers should be eager to download and use apps from the web to predict the weather, which is so important for agriculture.

First we met with Pascual Choque, 80, who was sitting with his friends in the shade of a large stack of bricks. Don Pascual was born at a time when many rural communities lived in the semi-slavery of the haciendas, large farms managed by powerful landlords. The Revolution of 1952 brought many social changes and new freedoms, including access to education and information. Don Pascual went to school, became a teacher and now, among other things, works in a radio station. He interviews agronomists and PhDs on his morning show, broadcast at five o’clock, when rural people are eating breakfast and listening to the news.

Don Pascual read the fact sheet. As a retired school teacher, he read out loud quite quickly, but he said that the only thing he understood from the fact sheet was that the climate is changing. “That is true,” he said, “the rains used to come at the same time each year. Not anymore.”

Alex read the fact sheet with some other farmers, but they also struggled to make sense of the text. It had unfamiliar terms like “click”, “select an option” and “close the app”. I started to feel frustrated, just like Alex. I have helped to validate many fact sheets and this was the first time that the people said that they understood almost nothing.

We kept walking until we reached a small station of the Agricultural School of the Public University of San Andrés. I was surprised find this outpost in the immensity of the Altiplano, with no houses nearby. The station was small—some llama corrals, tractors and sun burnt buildings and there were few people around. We managed to speak with some professors. As we were about to leave I saw two young women dressed in work clothes. They were agronomy students. “Let them read your fact sheet” I suggested to Alex. He came back pleased a few minutes later. The students liked his fact sheet and said that “there was nothing difficult to understand about it”. The youth understood his fact sheet. They have smart phones, and know how to discuss these magical pocket computers.

Today from the Andes to Africa one hears that the youth are leaving the countryside. To attract the ones who are staying, it will be necessary to try new digital options to help manage agricultural information. The older generation took advantage of the new technology of their times, like schools and radio. This generation is also looking for new information technologies, even some that support agriculture. I have little doubt they will be interested in a free way to predict the weather using their cell phones.

LA GENERACIÓN SMART PHONE

30 de septiembre del 2018, por Jeff Bentley

Compañeros de la Universidad Mayor de San Andrés en La Paz han estado enseñando a grupos de agricultores a usar una aplicación gratis llamada el Weather Underground, que permite a los usuarios pronosticar el tiempo para su ubicación. Esta semana mis colegas han escrito una hoja volante sobre para agricultores sobre cómo usar el Weather Underground. Fui con uno de los ingenieros, Alex Borda, a validad su hoja volante en la comunidad campesina de Choquenaira, en el Altiplano de Bolivia.

Los jóvenes campesinos en Bolivia tienen smart phones, e igual que en la ciudad, usan Facebook y otras aplicaciones. Entonces, a los campesinos les debería gustar bajar y usar aplicaciones del web para pronosticar el tiempo, ya que la agricultura depende del clima.

Primero nos encontramos con Pascual Choque, de 80 años, sentado con sus amigos en la sombra de un gran bulto de ladrillos, para construir una nueva casa. Don Pascual nació cuando muchas comunidades rurales vivían en la semi-esclavitud de las haciendas, fincas grandes manejadas por poderosos terratenientes. La Revolución del 1952 trajo muchos cambios sociales, incluso el acceso a la educación y la información. Don Pascual asistió al colegio y llegó a ser docente y, entre otras cosas, trabajó en una radio.  El se entrevista con ingenieros y doctores en su programa por la mañana, a las 5, cuando la gente rural desayuna y escucha las noticias.

Don Pascual leyó la hoja volante. Como profesor jubilado lee muy bien y muy rápido en voz alta, pero dijo que lo único que entendió de la hoja volante era que el clima está cambiando. “Es cierto,” dijo, “antes las lluvias venían en su debido día. Ya no.”

Alex leyó su hoja volante con otras campesinas, pero tampoco entendían muy bien la hoja volante. Tenía vocabulario desconocido como “hacer clic”, “seleccionar una opción” y “cerrar la aplicación”. Yo empecé a frustrarme, junto con Alex. He acompañado a muchas hojas volantes y esa era la primera vez que la gente decía que no entendía casi nada.

Seguimos caminando hasta llegar a la pequeña estación de la Facultad de Agronomía de la Universidad Mayor de San Andrés. Era para mí una enorme sorpresa ver la estación en la inmensidad del Altiplano, pero no había más casas. La estación era pequeña—unos corrales de llama, tractores y edificios tostados por el sol. Había poca gente. Logramos hablar con algunos profesores. Estábamos pot irnos cuando vi a dos jóvenes vestidas en ropa de trabajo. Eran estudiantes de agronomía. “Que ellas lean tu hoja volante” sugería a Alex. El volvió unos minutos después todo contento. A ellas les gustó la hoja volante y dijeron que “no tenía nada difícil de entender”. Las jóvenes entendían su hoja volante. Ellos tienen teléfonos inteligentes, y saben discutir esas computadoras de bolsillo.

Hoy en día desde los Andes hasta Africa se oye que todos los jóvenes quieren abandonar el campo. Para atraer a los que quieren quedarse, será necesario probar nuevas opciones de tecnología digital para manejar información agrícola. Sus abuelos aprovecharon de las nuevas opciones de sus tiempos, como el colegio y la radio. Esta generación también busca nuevas tecnologías de información, incluso para el apoyo del agro. Les debe interesar una forma gratis de pronosticar el clima con su celular.

Battling the armyworm September 23rd, 2018 by

In the 1500s, when men on sailing ships were casually spreading crop plants from one continent to the next, maize came to Africa. Fortunately many of the maize pests stayed behind, in the Americas. But slowly, trade and travel are re-uniting maize with its pests. A caterpillar called the fall armyworm is the latest American pest to reach Africa, and in two years it has spread across the continent, threatening one of Africa’s staple food crops.

Just as maize originally came to Africa without its American pests, the fall armyworm arrived without its natural enemies, including a couple of dozen species of tiny parasitic wasps. This has helped the armyworm to spread faster.

Governments panicked over the arrival of the fall armyworm. Some tried massive campaigns to eradicate it manually, as in Rwanda, where large teams of people destroyed the caterpillars by hand. Others began widespread campaigns to spray farmers’ fields with insecticide. Fortunately, there are alternatives to insecticides, as explained in two new videos, directed by Paul Van Mele and beautifully filmed by Marcella Vrolijks, both of AgroInsight.

The videos explain that fall armyworm damage often looks worse than it really is. The caterpillars eat gaping holes in the maize leaves and defecate what looks like wet sawdust all over the plants. But the plants usually recover and produce a full ear, in spite of early damage to the young plant.

Conveniently for farmers, the fall armyworm is also a cannibal. Each one lives alone in the maize whorl and eats any smaller armyworm that comes in. So a maize plant rarely has to suffer more than one armyworm at a time.

Although the armyworm left its specialized natural enemies behind, once it arrived in Africa it met with generalist, native predators like ants, earwigs, ladybird beetles and other beneficial insects that soon began to attack and eat the caterpillars.

The FAO (the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization) organized farmer field schools to teach farmers armyworm ecology and control. Farmers who took these schools were soon using techniques from Latin America, such as applying soil to the maize whorls. But farmers in Kenya also created innovations of their own, such as rubbing cooking grease onto the maize plant to attract ants to kill armyworms, and sprinkling fine sand mixed with tobacco snuff into the maize whorls.

Farmer field schools are an excellent way to teach insect ecology, but field schools only reach a small percentage of the farmers who need the new information. Fortunately, the farmers who have not been able to take field schools will be able to learn from those who have, by watching the fall armyworm videos, which are available for free in English, French, Amharic, Kiswahili and Ki-Embu, with Arabic, Portuguese and Spanish versions coming soon. More translations will help to spread the word about non-chemical control of fall armyworm.

Watch or download the fall armyworm videos

Scouting for fall armyworms

Killing fall armyworms naturally

Related blogs

Armies against armies

Innovating with local knowledge

Further reading

Poisot, Anne-Sophie, Allan Hruska, Marjon Fredrix, and Koko Nzeza 2018 Integrated management of the Fall Armyworm on maize: A guide for Farmer Field Schools in Africa. FAO.

Our current knowledge of fall armyworm ecology owes a lot to earlier research in Latin America, including:

Andrews, Keith L. and José Rutilio Quezada 1989 Manejo Integrado de Plagas Insectiles en la Agricultura: Estado Actual y Futuro. El Zamorano, Honduras: Departamento de Protección Vegetal, Escuela Agrícola Panamericana.

Acknowledgement

The videos on fall armyworm are developed in collaboration with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) with funding from the McKnight Foundation’s Collaborative Crop Research Program (CCRP).

Photos by Eric Boa.

The scientific name of the fall armyworm is Spodoptera frugiperda (Lepidoptera: Noctuidae).

Golden urine September 16th, 2018 by

Cities are throwing away a fortune in urine, I learned the other day while visiting Dr. Noemi Stadler-Kaulich, a German agro-forester and long-time resident of Bolivia. The urine from an average person contains $85 dollars´ worth of phosphorous in one year, Noemi explained. Urine is rich in phosphorous, nitrogen and potassium, the main elements of fertilizer (chemical or organic). A metropolitan area like Cochabamba, with 1,200,000 people, flushes away over $100 million worth every year, Naomi explained, just in the phosphorous from urine, turning the valley’s main river, the Río Rocha, into an open sewer.

Noemi has dry latrines on her farm near the town of Vinto, on the edge of the Cochabamba metropolitan area. If you have never sat a dry latrine it can take some getting used to. There is a large hole for feces and a smaller one, up front, to collect the urine, which can be used right away as fertilizer. After defecating, one walks around to the back of the latrine and adds a handful of wood ash to the deposit, which is composted once the container is full. Dried, composted human feces are an excellent, dry fertilizer with little or no smell.

I used to have a nice dry latrine in Honduras. It used no water and made little odor. But dry latrines do take a little management. At the time I was worried about pathogens and had samples from dry latrines analyzed at a laboratory in Tegucigalpa. The samples were free of the most common parasites and pathogens. Dry latrines compost the night soil for at least six months, which helps to kill pathogens. Still, this demands some competent management.

At our home in Cochabamba, we began recycling urine about a year ago. Urine is easy to collect in a jar or bottle or while sitting on a chamber pot. You can mix urine with water or apply it straight to the soil, near plants. We put most of our urine on the compost pile, where the pee helps to speed up the decomposition of paper and dry plants. Urine in a compost heap has no smell at all; perhaps in part because the nitrogen in urine quickly breaks down into ammonia.

I have not yet been able to confirm Noemi’s estimate of the value of phosphorous in urine, not to mention the potassium and nitrogen, but urine is certainly worth something as fertilizer. Recycling urine also helps to save water. Conventional toilets waste up to six liters of precious water to flush 300 ml of urine.

As it is now, modern conventional agriculture applies nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium (NPK) to crops, and (at least some of) the nutrients become part of the living plants, which are eaten by people and later discarded as human waste. No doubt in the future clever people will find other clean, convenient ways to recycle this NPK, without wasting water. In the meantime, saving urine as fertilizer is a golden opportunity.

Related video

Human urine as fertilizer

Further reading

Andersson, E. (2015). Turning waste into value: using human urine to enrich soils for sustainable food production in Uganda. Journal of Cleaner Production, 96, 290-298.

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