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Iron for organic pigs May 16th, 2021 by

Organic agriculture is on the rise, but as the sector grows and more farmers convert from conventional to organic farming, regulations are continuously fine-tuned. Finding a balance between animal welfare and the heavy debt burden many conventional farmers have due to past investments in modern pig houses is a delicate exercise, as I recently learned from my friend, Johan Hons, a long-time organic farmer in north-eastern Belgium.

“When some 40 years ago a neighbour farmer offered to let me use one of his vacant stables, I bought my first Piétrain pigs (a Belgian breed of pig) and started rearing. In those early years, my pigs always got sick and we needed to supplement iron. A few years later, Vera and I were able to start our own farm. We were convinced that organic farming was the only way food should be produced, so I gave my pigs the space to roam around in the field. Ever since then, they never needed any iron injections and they never got sick,” Johan says.

Iron is an essential mineral for all livestock, especially for piglets. Iron-deficient piglets will suffer from anaemia: they will remain pale, stunted, have chronic diarrhoea and if left untreated they will die. Worldwide, piglets are commonly injected with a 200 milligram dose of iron a few days after birth. Although this intramuscular injection is effective against anaemia, it is very stressful to the piglets.

In a natural environment a sow acquires enough iron from the soil during rooting behaviour, which she passes on to the suckling piglets through her milk. But most pigs in conventional farming in Belgium are raised on slatted floors and have no access to soil. Sows only have enough iron reserves for their first litter. Piglets of the second and third litter would already have a shortage of iron and become sick, unless given supplements.

Under Belgian regulations, organic meat pigs are allowed only one medical treatment for whatever illness. If a second treatment is given, pigs can only be sold in the conventional circuit and hence farmers do not get a premium price. With more conventional farmers eager to convert to organic to earn a higher income, members of Bioforum, the Belgian multi-stakeholder platform for organic agriculture, debated whether iron injections could be considered as a non-medical treatment.

As a member of Bioforum, Johan suggested an alternative: “When the sow delivers in the sty, I daily give her piglets a few handfuls of soil from the moment they are one week old. I put it out of reach of the sow, otherwise she would eat it, and continue doing so until the piglets are a few weeks old and allowed outside. Just like human babies, the piglets have a curious nature and by giving them early access to soil, they immediately build up their immunity.”

For Johan caring for animals is knowing what they need and providing them with all the comfort throughout their life. This starts at birth-giving.

However, his suggestion initially got a cold reception at the forum, whose members also includes retailers. Most farmers who want to convert to organic do not have the possibility of letting their pigs roam on the land, showing the dire realities of conventional farms in Belgium, where concrete is more abundant around the pig houses than soil.

And however creative they found Johan’s suggestion to provide piglets with soil in the stables, this was not considered a feasible option. Conventional farmers have invested heavily in modern pig houses with slatted floors and automated manure removal systems and bringing in soil would obstruct the system. Adjusting such houses to cater for organic farming is an expense few farmers are willing to make.

Belgian authorities decided that, because of lack of commercial alternatives to iron injections, they would be temporarily accepted in organic agriculture, on the condition that the iron formulation is not mixed with antibiotics.

A sustainable food system is at the heart of the European Green Deal. As the European Commission has set a target under its farm to fork strategy to have 25% of the land under organic agriculture by 2030, it will need to reflect on how far the regulations for organic agriculture can be stretched, as well as on possible measures to support farmers to convert.

If left to the pigs to decide, they would surely opt for more time outdoors and less concrete around their houses, not a tweak in the regulations to declassify iron injection as a medical treatment.

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Inspiring platforms

Access Agriculture: hosts over 220 training videos in over 85 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 new social media platform where anyone from across the globe can upload their own videos related to natural farming and circular economy.

Our threatened farmers May 9th, 2021 by

Supermarkets in the USA bulge with everything from strawberries to steak, but this generous supply is threatened by a destructive agro-industry. In the recent book Perilous Bounty, Tom Philpott outlines looming disasters in California and the Midwest.

The Central Valley of California produces an astounding 80% of the world’s almonds and half of the pistachios, besides a lot of the fresh fruits and vegetables eaten in the USA. This phenomenal production is irrigated with water that is mined, and can never be replaced. The Central Valley used to be a vast wetland. From 1930 to 1970 a network of dams and canals were built to capture snowmelt from the Sierra Madre mountains, for irrigation.

But the rainfall out west is erratic and some years there is not enough snow to irrigate all the nut trees, so well water makes up the difference. So much water has been pumped that the ground level has fallen by 29 feet (8.8 meters). As the subsoil shrinks, it loses capacity; it can now hold less water than before.

The Midwest used to be a home for diversified family farms, rotating crops of corn, wheat, oats and rye, and even growing fruits and vegetables. Cattle ate fodder produced on the farm itself. Since the 1960s, this integrated system has been replaced by a simpler one, of just maize (corn) and soybeans, while the livestock have been sent to factory farms. Crops and animals are now grown on separate farms. The hog mega-barns are so far from the grain farms that the pig manure cannot be used as fertilizer. Instead, the manure finds its way to the Mississippi River and on to the Gulf of Mexico, where it has created a dead zone the size of New Jersey, destroying a thriving fish and shrimp industry. The soil is now eroding at an estimated rate of 5.4 tons per acre per year (13.5 tons per ha). The rich black soil is vanishing fast.

A handful of corporations buy meat (Tyson Foods, Cargill, JBS, and Smithfield Foods—owned by the Chinese WH Group) and just four companies make most of the chemical fertilizer in the USA, so farmers are forced to take the prices offered by these few buyers and sellers. This price squeeze forces many family farmers out of business. Between 1940 and 2018, the number of farms in Iowa declined from 213,000 to 86,000, a loss of 60%.

Much of this chemical-intensive farming system operates at a loss, but is made profitable by Federal Crop Insurance, operated by private companies, but subsidized by the US government.

Agriculture does make money for big companies. Monsanto, a corporation that made agrochemicals, saw its value rise from $5 billion in 2000 to $66 Billion in 2018, when Bayer bought the company. During these years, Monsanto consolidated its hold on the seed and pesticide industry. Almost all of the maize, soybean and cotton in the USA is now grown from varieties that have been genetically modified to withstand herbicides, especially glyphosate, sold under the brand name Roundup. At first, farmers loved it. They could plant the genetically modified “Roundup Ready” seed and then spray the emerging plants with herbicides, killing all the weeds and leaving the maize or soybeans fresh and green.

The problem is that weeds invariably evolve resistance to the herbicides. So, seed companies engineer new crop varieties that can withstand more herbicides. Then the weeds become resistant to those herbicides. And farmers have to spend more on seeds and chemicals.

There is a way out. In California, agroecologist Stephen Gliessman grows grapes without irrigation. In the Midwest, farmer-innovators like David Brandt and Tom Frantzen work with researchers to create integrated livestock-cereal farms where cover crops rebuild the soil with organic matter.

I was heartened to read about these inventive farmers. But there are other things we can all do, to live better and eat better. We can:

Plant a garden.

Buy locally, from family farmers.

Eat organic food.

Vote for lawmakers who support anti-trust legislation.

Push for more research on organic farming and agroecology.

Further reading

Philpott, Tom 2020 Perilous Bounty: The Looming Collapse of American Farming and How We Can Prevent It. New York: Bloomsbury Publishing. 246 pp.

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A Greener Revolution in Africa May 2nd, 2021 by

After settling in the USA in the 1990s, Isaac Zama would visit his native Cameroon almost every year, until war broke out in late 2016, and it became too dangerous to go home. About that same time a new satellite TV company, the Southern Cameroons Broadcasting Corporation (SCBC), was formed to broadcast news and information in English. (Cameroon was formed from a French colony and part of a British one in 1961).

In 2018, Isaac approached SCBC to start a TV program on agriculture to help Southern Cameroonians who could no longer work as a result of the war, and the thousands of refugees who sought refuge in Nigeria. The broadcasters readily agreed. With his PhD in agriculture and rural development from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and his roots in a Cameroonian village, Isaac was well placed to find content that farmers back home would appreciate. “I did some research on the Internet, and I found Access Agriculture,” said Isaac. “I liked it so much that I watched every single video.”

Isaac soon started a TV program, Amba Farmers’ Voice, which began to air every Sunday at 4 PM, Cameroon time. It is rebroadcast several times a week to give more people a chance to watch the program. With frequent power cuts many are not able to tune in on Sundays.

The program is broadcast live from Isaac’s studio in Virginia. He starts with a basic introduction in West African Pidgin. “If I’m going to show a video on rabbits, I start by explaining what a is rabbit,” Isaac explains. “And that we can learn from farmers in Kenya how to build a rabbit house, and to care for these animals.” After playing an Access Agriculture video on the topic (in English), Isaac comments on it in Pidgin, for the older, rural viewers who may not speak English. His remarks are carefully scripted, and based on background reading and research.

The show lasts an hour or more and allows Isaac to play several videos. Amba Farmers’ Voice has its own Facebook and YouTube pages. While his program is on the air, Isaac checks out the Facebook page to get an idea of how many people are watching. A popular topic like caring for rabbits may have 1,000 viewers just on Facebook. But most people watch the satellite broadcast. SCBC estimates that two to three million people watch Amba Farmers’ Voice in Cameroon, but many others also watch it in Nigeria, Ghana, Sierra Leone and even in some Francophone countries, like Benin and Gabon.

Some farmers reciprocate, sending Isaac pictures and videos that they have shot themselves, showing off their own experiments, adapting the ideas from the videos to conditions in Cameroon. Isaac heard from one group of “mothers in the village” who showed how they were using urine to fertilize their corn, after watching an Access Agriculture video from Uganda.

People in refugee camps watched the video on sack mounds, showing how to grow vegetables in a large, soil-filled bag. But gunny sacks were scarce in the refugee camp, so people improvised, filling plastic bags with earth and growing tomatoes in them, so they could grow some food within the confines of the camp.

Isaac mentioned that people were installing drip irrigation after seeing the video from Benin about it.

“That can be expensive,” I said. “People have to buy materials.”

“Not really,” Isaac answered. Gardeners take used drink bottles from garbage dumps, fill them with water, poke holes in the cap, and leave them to drip slowly on their plants.

After seeing the video from Benin on feeding giant African snails (for high-quality meat), one young man in the Southern Cameroons got used tires and stacked one on top of the other to make the snail pen. It’s an innovation he came up with after watching the Access Agriculture video. He puts two tires in a stack, puts the snails in the bottom, and feeds them banana peels and other fruit and vegetable waste. Isaac tells his audience “We don’t need to buy anything. Just open your eyes and adapt. See what you can find to use.”

Solar dryers were another topic that people adapted from the videos. To save money, they made the dryers from bamboo, instead of wood, and shared one between several families. As a further adaptation, people are drying grass in the solar dryer. Access Agriculture has four videos on using solar dryers to preserve high value produce like pineapples, mangoes and chillies, but none show grass drying. Isaac explains that you sprinkle a little salt on the grass as you dry it. Then, in the dry season you put the grass in water and it turns fresh again. Now he is encouraging youth to form groups so they can dry grass to store, to sell to farmers when forage is scarce.

I was delighted to see so many local experiments, just from people who watch videos on television, with no extension support.

All of this interaction, between Isaac Zama and his compatriots, the teaching, feedback and organisation, is all happening on TV and online. He hasn’t been to Cameroon since he started his program.  Isaac’s interaction with his audience amazes me. It’s a testimony to his talent, but also to the improved connectivity in rural Africa.

“People think that Africans don’t have cell phones,” Isaac says, “but 30% of the older farmers in villages have android phones. Their adult children, living in cities or abroad, buy phones for their parents so they can stay in touch and so they can see each other on WhatsApp.” Isaac adds that what farmers need now is an app so they can watch agricultural videos cheaper.

Dr. Isaac Zama wants to encourage other stations to broadcast farmer learning videos: “Those videos from Access Agriculture will revolutionize agriculture in Africa in two or three years, if our national leaders would just broadcast them on TV. The farmers would do it themselves, just from the information they can see on the videos.” Isaac is willing to collaborate with other TV stations across the world, to share his experience or to broadcast Amba Farmers Voice, but particularly with broadcasters in Africa who are interested in agricultural development

Related Agro-Insight blogs

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Watch the Access Agriculture videos mentioned in this story

How to build a rabbit house

Human urine as fertilizer

Using sack mounds to grow vegetables

Drip irrigation for tomato

Feeding snails

Solar drying pineapples, Making mango crisps, Solar drying of kale leaves and Solar drying of chillies

 

Fourteen ninety-one April 25th, 2021 by

Several friends have asked me, as an anthropologist, what I thought of Charles Mann’s book, 1491, so after finding a copy during Covid, I have to say that it’s one of the best books I’ve ever read.

I might have read it years ago if not for its subtitle: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus. I was expecting something New Age, about visits from outer space. But it’s not that at all.

Mann visited some of the major pre-Hispanic sites, and read widely, but as a journalist he also interviewed a lot of archaeologists, which makes for lively reading, and an excellent one-volume history of the New World.

Long isolated from the Old World, the Native Americans independently developed agriculture, the foundation for complex societies. But because the hemisphere had been isolated, her people had no previous exposure to European ills like smallpox, measles and hepatitis. This made the Native Americans immunologically naĂŻve, and susceptible to Old World diseases, which wiped out perhaps 90% of the New World population after Columbus. Every few years a new epidemic would carry off half the people.

In 1491 there were a lot of people living in the Americas. The Amazon Basin was not an unbroken wilderness. Cassava and other crops supported dense populations of Amazonian farmers.

High in the Andes, early farmers domesticated the potato, sweetpotato, and other roots and tubers. These crops fed the Wari, Tiwanaku and Inca Empires with their fine masonry of giant stones, and the khipu: a unique system of recording information on knotted strings.

Ancient Mexicans domesticated maize, beans, squash, and chili. These were the basis for various civilizations, like the Olmecs, Toltecs, Mixtecs and the Maya (who had life-like sculpture and a full-blown writing system).

Mann reminds us that American Indians have rarely been given the appreciation they deserve for their achievements, many of which were made possible by agriculture.  1491 is not so much a new revelation as a superb compilation and a compelling narrative. Mann is amazed that this part of American history is not taught in high schools. It’s not, but it should be, and his book still deserves to be widely read.

Further reading

Mann, Charles C. 2005 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus. New York: Vintage Books. 541 pp.

Mann acknowledges William Denevan for his insight that before Columbus, the Amazon Basin had been densely inhabited by farmers growing permanent crops.

Denevan, William M. 2001 Cultivated Landscapes of Native Amazonia and the Andes. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press. 396 pp.

Related Agro-Insight blogs

Khipu: A story tied in knots

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Photos

Temple of the Moon, Teotihuacán, Mexico. Machu Picchu, Peru. Stela B, Copán, Honduras. Photos by J. Bentley

Peasants, not princes: the potato finds a home in Europe April 18th, 2021 by

The French philosopher Antoine Parmentier (1730-1815) introduced the potato into his country by having it planted with great fanfare in the king’s gardens. Guards were posted to protect the new crop, ostensibly to prevent thefts, but really to draw attention to it. When the guards were withdrawn overnight from the now mature crop, curious farmers snuck in and dug up the potatoes to plant in their own fields, just as the clever Parmentier had intended.

Some years ago I told this story from the podium of the National Potato Congress in Bolivia. My audience of Andean potato experts loved the tale, which is one reason why I must retract it now, for it is simply a bit of fake history, penned by Parmentier’s friend and biographer, Julien-Joseph Virey.

Perhaps I should have known better, but in the potato story I learned in grad school, European peasants resisted the tuber brought back by Spanish sailors fresh from the conquest of Peru in the 1530s. Europeans were used to eating cereals, and the potato lived underground, like the devil, or so went the story.

In a recent book, British historian Rebecca Earle sets the potato record straight. She points out that European peasants did eat root crops, like carrots and turnips.

Earle also shows that European peasants embraced the potato from the start, often growing it discretely in a home garden, for once a new crop was widely grown and sold, it acquired a market value and could be taxed and tithed.

According to court records from Cornwall in 1768, a clergyman sued one of his flock because she was growing potatoes without paying him a tithe. Witnesses testified that the potato had already been grown for many generations in Cornwall. The potato was also mentioned in Marx Rumpolt’s cookbook published in Frankfurt in 1681. During the Nine Years War (1688-1697) so many potatoes were grown in Flanders that soldiers were able to survive by pilfering potatoes from peasants’ fields.

The potato was widely grown all over Europe (in France, too) before Parmentier was born. Then as now, smallholder farmers were eager to experiment with new crops. Peasants spread the potato across Europe long before the nobles paid it much attention. Earle also writes that potatoes were being grown commercially in the Canary Islands by the 1570s, and shipped to France and the Netherlands.

In Earle’s analysis, after widespread hunger in the mid-1700s fueled popular revolts, kings began to realize that a well-fed, healthy population would be more productive. Rulers finally saw that it was in their own self-interest for the state to assume some responsibility to ensure that their subjects’ had enough food to eat.

Potatoes yielded as much as three times more food per hectare than rye and other grain crops. Monarchs, like King Louis XIV (patron of Parmentier) belatedly began to understand the advantages of potatoes and entered the history books as a promotor of the new crop. Other historical inaccuracies arose. Frederick the Great is erroneously portrayed as introducing Germans to the potato.

The myth that the conservative peasants were afraid to grow and eat potatoes, or that the potato was spread across Europe by emperors and philosophers has proven a pervasive piece of fake history. These stories burnished the reputations of the elites at the expense of the peasants and home gardeners. Many of the true potato promotors were women, who tended the home gardens, ideal spaces for the experiments that helped the potato become the world’s fourth most widely grown crop, now produced in nearly every country of the world. Yet further proof that smallholder farmers have always been eager to try new crops and other innovations.

Further reading

Earle, Rebecca 2020 Feeding the People: The Politics of the Potato. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 306 pp.

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CAMPESINOS, NO PRĂŤNCIPES: ACOGIENDO LA PAPA EN EUROPA

Por Jeff Bentley, 18 de abril del 2021

El filósofo francés Antoine Parmentier (1730-1815) introdujo la papa en su país haciéndola sembrar a bombo y platillo en los jardines del rey. Se colocaron guardias para proteger el nuevo cultivo, aparentemente para evitar robos, pero en realidad para llamar la atención. Cuando los guardias se retiraron de la noche a la mañana del cultivo ya maduro, los campesinos curiosos se colaron y desenterraron las papas para sembrarlas en sus propios huertos, tal y como pretendía el astuto Parmentier.

Hace algunos años conté esta historia desde el podio del Congreso Nacional de la Papa en Bolivia. A mi público de expertos andinos en la papa le encantó el relato, lo cual es una de las razones por las que debo retractarme ahora, ya que es nada más que una historia falsa, escrita por el amigo y biógrafo de Parmentier, Julien-Joseph Virey.

Tal vez debería haberlo sabido, pero en la historia de la papa que aprendí en la universidad, los campesinos europeos se resistieron al tubérculo traído por los marineros españoles recién llegados de la conquista de Perú en la década de 1530. Los europeos estaban acostumbrados a comer cereales, y la papa vivía bajo tierra, como el diablo, o al menos así me contaban.

En un libro reciente, la historiadora británica Rebecca Earle aclara la historia de la papa. Señala que los campesinos europeos sí comían cultivos de raíces, como zanahorias y nabos.

Earle también demuestra que los campesinos europeos adoptaron la papa desde el principio, a menudo cultivándola discretamente en el jardín de su casa, ya que una vez que un nuevo cultivo se extendía y se vendía, adquiría un valor de mercado y podía ser gravado y diezmado.

Según las actas judiciales de Cornualles de 1768, un clérigo demandó a un miembro de su congregación, porque ella cultivaba papas sin pagarle el diezmo. Los testigos declararon que la papa ya se había cultivado durante muchas generaciones en Cornualles. La papa también se menciona en el libro de cocina de Marx Rumpolt, publicado en Frankfurt en 1681. Durante la Guerra de los Nueve Años (1688-1697) se cultivaron tantas papas en Flandes que los soldados pudieron sobrevivir robando papas de los campos de los campesinos.

La papa se cultivaba ampliamente en toda Europa (también en Francia) antes de que naciera Parmentier. En aquel entonces, igual que hoy en día, a los pequeños agricultores les gusta experimentar con nuevos cultivos. Los campesinos difundieron la papa por toda Europa mucho antes de que los nobles le prestaran mucha atención. Earle también escribe que en la década de 1570 ya se cultivaban papas comercialmente en las Islas Canarias y se enviaban a Francia y los Países Bajos.

Según el análisis de Earle, después de que el hambre generalizada a mediados del siglo XVII alimentara las revueltas populares, los reyes empezaron a darse cuenta de que una población bien alimentada y sana sería más productiva. Los gobernantes finalmente vieron que les interesaba que el Estado asumiera alguna responsabilidad para garantizar que sus súbditos tuvieran suficientes alimentos para comer.

Las papas producían hasta tres veces más alimentos por hectárea que el centeno y otros cultivos de cereales. Los monarcas, como el rey Luis XIV (mecenas de Parmentier), empezaron a comprender tardíamente las ventajas de la papa y entraron en los libros de historia como promotores del nuevo cultivo. Surgieron otras inexactitudes históricas. Federico el Grande es presentado erróneamente como el introductor de la patata para los alemanes.

El mito de que los campesinos conservadores tenían miedo de cultivar y comer papas, o que la papa fue difundida por toda Europa por emperadores y filósofos, ha resultado ser una pieza omnipresente de la historia falsa. Estos relatos han servido para engrosar la reputación de las élites a costa de los campesinos y los jardineros. Muchos de los verdaderos promotores de la papa fueron mujeres, que cuidaban los huertos caseros, espacios ideales para los experimentos que ayudaron a que la papa se convirtiera en el cuarto cultivo más extendido del mundo, que ahora se produce en casi todos los países del globo. Una prueba más de que los pequeños agricultores siempre han estado dispuestos a probar nuevos cultivos y otras innovaciones.

Lectura adicional

Earle, Rebecca 2020 Feeding the People: The Politics of the Potato. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 306 pp.

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