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Listen before you film December 4th, 2022 by

Listen before you film

Vea la versión en español a continuación

Smallholder farmers always have something thoughtful to say. At Agro-Insight when we film videos, we often start by holding a workshop where we write the scripts with local experts. We write the first draft of the script as a fact sheet. Then we share the fact sheet with communities, so they can validate the text, but also to criticize it, like a peer review.

This week in a peri-urban community on the edge of Cochabamba, Bolivia, we met eight farmers, seven women and a young man, who grow organic vegetables. Their feedback was valuable, and sometimes a little surprising.

For example, one fact sheet on agroecological marketing stressed the importance of trust between growers and consumers, who cannot tell the difference between organic and conventional tomatoes just by looking at them. But these practiced farmers can. They told us that the organic tomatoes have little freckles, and are a bit smaller than conventional tomatoes. That’s the perspective that comes from a lot of experience.

The fact sheet on the potato tuber moth, a serious global pest, had background information and some ideas on control. The moth can be controlled by dusting seed potatoes with chalk (calcium carbonate), a natural, non-metallic mineral. The chalk contains small crystals that irritate and kill the eggs and larvae of the moth. This idea caught the farmers’ imagination. They wanted to know more about the chalk, and where to get it and how to apply it. (It is a white powder, that is commonly sold in hardware stores, as a building material). Our video will have to make carefully explain how to use chalk to control the tuber moth.

The reaction that surprised me the most was from the fact sheet on soil analysis. The fact sheet described two tests, one to analyze pH and another to measure soil carbon. The tests were a bit complex, and a lot to convey in one page. I was prepared for confusion, but instead, we got curiosity. The women wanted to know more about the pH paper, where could they buy it? What would pH tell them about managing their soils? Could we come back and give them a demonstration on soil analysis? Smallholders are interested in soil, and interested in learning more about it.

As we were leaving, we thanked the farmers for their time and help.

They replied that they also wanted to thank us: for listening to them, for taking them into account. “It should always be like this.” They said “New ideas should be developed with farmers, not in the office.”

Paul and Marcella and I will be back later to make videos on these topics, to share with farmers all over the world. Listening to smallholders early in the video-making, before getting out the camera, helps to make sure that other farmers will find the videos relevant when they come out.



Jeff Bentley, 4 de diciembre del 2022

Los pequeños agricultores siempre tienen algo interesante que decir. En Agro-Insight, cuando filmamos vídeos, solemos empezar por celebrar un taller donde escribimos los guiones con expertos locales. Escribimos el primer borrador del guion en forma de hoja volante. Luego compartimos la hoja volante con las comunidades, para que puedan validar el texto, pero también para que lo critiquen, como una revisión por pares.

Esta semana, en una comunidad periurbana de las afueras de Cochabamba, Bolivia, nos reunimos con ocho agricultores, siete mujeres y un joven, que cultivan verduras orgánicas. Sus comentarios fueron valiosos, y a veces un poco sorprendentes.

Por ejemplo, una hoja volante sobre la comercialización agroecológica destacaba la importancia de la confianza entre los productores y los consumidores, que no pueden diferenciar los tomates ecológicos de los convencionales con sólo mirarlos. Pero estas agricultoras experimentadas sí pueden. Nos dijeron que los tomates ecológicos tienen pequeñas pecas y son un poco más pequeños que los convencionales. Esa es la perspectiva que da la experiencia.

La hoja informativa sobre la polilla de la papa, una grave plaga a nivel mundial, tenía información de fondo y algunas ideas sobre su control. La polilla puede controlarse cubriendo las papas de siembra con tiza (carbonato cálcico), un mineral natural no metálico. La tiza contiene pequeños cristales que irritan y matan los huevos y las larvas de la polilla. Esta idea llamó la atención de los agricultores. Querían saber más sobre la tiza, dónde conseguirla y cómo aplicarla. (Se trata de un polvo blanco que se vende en las ferreterías como material de construcción). Nuestro video tendrá que explicar cuidadosamente cómo usar la tiza para controlar la polilla del tubérculo.

La reacción que más me sorprendió fue la de la hoja volante sobre el análisis del suelo. La hoja volante describía dos pruebas, una para analizar el pH y otra para medir el carbono del suelo. Las pruebas eran un poco complejas, y mucho para transmitir en una página. Yo estaba preparado para la confusión, pero en lugar de eso, obtuvimos curiosidad. Las mujeres querían saber más sobre el papel de pH, ¿dónde podían comprarlo? ¿Qué les diría el pH sobre el manejo de sus suelos? ¿Podríamos volver y hacerles una demostración sobre el análisis del suelo? Los pequeños agricultores se interesan por el suelo y quieren aprender más sobre ello.

Cuando nos íbamos, dimos las gracias a las agricultoras por su tiempo y su ayuda.

Ellas respondieron que también querían darnos las gracias a nosotros: por escucharles, por tenerles en cuenta. “Siempre debería ser así”. Dijeron: “Las nuevas ideas deben desarrollarse con los agricultores, no en la oficina”.

Paul, Marcella y yo volveremos más tarde a hacer videos sobre estos temas, para compartirlos con los agricultores de todo el mundo. Escuchar a los pequeños agricultores al principio de la realización del vídeo, antes de sacar la cámara, ayuda a asegurarse de que otros agricultores encontrarán los videos pertinentes cuando se publiquen.

Toxic chemicals and bad advice November 27th, 2022 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación

Imagine a situation where dangerous products are sold to anyone who wants them, with no license or prescription. You would expect that under such conditions, at least the vendors would be competent, able to advise the customers at least based on the manufacturers’ recommendations.

Sadly, in the Andes, pesticide dealers usually fail to give their customers proper advice.

In a recent study in Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador, an experienced team of agriculturalists, mostly from the region, measured the accuracy of advice given at farm supply shops. Their method was ingenious and elegant. A local person (a farmer or an agronomy student) would enter the shop and ask for help with a specific plant health problem, one of the most serious pests or diseases of a major local crop (such as maize or potatoes).  The shopkeeper was not caught off guard with a rare pest or disease. The pretend customer would describe the pest or disease accurately, in local rhetoric, without scientific names or other academic terms. The shopkeeper would make a diagnosis and recommend a product to solve the problem.

On average, across the three countries, the advice was wrong 88.2% of the time, out of 1,489 pesticide retailers. The dealers also favored the more toxic chemicals.

The dealers mis-diagnosed the problem 23% of the time. Those who made an accurate diagnosis then recommended a product for the wrong group of organisms (such as an insecticide for a fungal disease) 13% of the time. They recommended the product for a pest that was not indicated on the label 51% of the time, and gave the wrong dose (ranging from eight times too high or 5 times too low) 52% of the time. There is no reason to think that the situation is much different in most of the rest of the world, outside of the Andes.

Selling agrochemicals with such sloppiness and incompetence only increases the risks to human health and the environment, while also allowing the pest to develop pesticide resistance more quickly. Yet Andean agrodealers only dispense accurate information 12% of the time.

Large agrochemical companies claim not to be accountable for the environmental damage and the frequent human catastrophes caused by the use of pesticides, saying that all the necessary information on proper use is indicated on the label. This blatantly ignores the reality of the retail trade. Authorities should raise taxes on toxic products, and invest this in research and development that supports alternatives, such as agroecology.

Further reading

Struelens, Quentin François, Marco Rivera, Mariana Alem Zabalaga, Raúl Ccanto, Reinaldo Quispe Tarqui, Diego Mina, Carlos Carpio, María Rosa Yumbla Mantilla, Mélany Osorio, Soraya Román, Diego Muñoz, Olivier Dangles 2022 Pesticide misuse among small Andean farmers stems from pervasive misinformation by retailers. PLOS Sustainability and Transformation 1, no. 6: e0000017.


Jeff Bentley, 27 de noviembre del 2022

Imaginemos una situación en la que se venden productos peligrosos a cualquiera que los quiera, sin licencia ni receta. Uno esperaría que en esas condiciones, al menos los vendedores fueran competentes, capaces de asesorar a los clientes al menos basándose en las recomendaciones de los fabricantes.

Lamentablemente, en los Andes, los vendedores de plaguicidas no suelen asesorar adecuadamente a sus clientes.

En un reciente estudio realizado en el Perú, Bolivia y Ecuador, un experimentado equipo de ingenieros agrónomos, en su mayoría de la región, midió la exactitud de los consejos dados en las tiendas agropecuarias. Su método era ingenioso y elegante. Una persona del lugar (un agricultor o un estudiante de agronomía) entraba en la tienda y pedía ayuda para un problema fitosanitario concreto, una de las plagas o enfermedades más severas de un cultivo local importante (como el maíz o la papa).  Al tiendero no le agarraban en curva con una plaga o enfermedad rara. El supuesto cliente describiría la plaga o la enfermedad con precisión, en la retórica local, sin nombres científicos ni otros términos académicos. El vendedor hacía un diagnóstico y recomendaba un producto para solucionar el problema.

En promedio, en los tres países, el consejo fue erróneo el 88,2% de las veces, de los 1.489 vendedores de plaguicidas. Los comerciantes también se inclinaron por los productos químicos más tóxicos.

Los comerciantes se equivocaron en el diagnóstico del problema en el 23% de las ocasiones. Los que hicieron un diagnóstico correcto recomendaron un producto para el grupo de organismos equivocado (como un insecticida para un hongo) el 13% de las veces. Recomendaron el producto para una plaga que no estaba indicada en la etiqueta el 51% de las veces, y dieron la dosis equivocada (entre ocho veces demasiado alta y cinco veces demasiado baja) el 52% de las veces. No hay razón para pensar que la situación sea muy diferente en la mayor parte del resto del mundo, fuera de los Andes.

Vender agroquímicos con tanta dejadez e incompetencia sólo aumenta los riesgos para la salud humana y el medio ambiente, al tiempo que permite que la plagas desarrollen resistencia a los plaguicidas más rápidamente. Sin embargo, los agro-comerciantes andinos sólo dispensan información precisa el 12% de las veces.

Las grandes empresas agroquímicas afirman no ser responsables de los daños ambientales y de las frecuentes catástrofes humanas causadas por el uso de plaguicidas, diciendo que toda la información necesaria sobre el uso adecuado está indicada en la etiqueta. Esto ignora descaradamente la realidad del comercio minorista. Las autoridades deberían aumentar los impuestos sobre los agro-tóxicos, e invertir los fondos en la investigación y desarrollo que apoyen alternativas, como la agroecología.

Lectura adicional

Struelens, Quentin François, Marco Rivera, Mariana Alem Zabalaga, Raúl Ccanto, Reinaldo Quispe Tarqui, Diego Mina, Carlos Carpio, María Rosa Yumbla Mantilla, Mélany Osorio, Soraya Román, Diego Muñoz, Olivier Dangles 2022 Pesticide misuse among small Andean farmers stems from pervasive misinformation by retailers. PLOS Sustainability and Transformation 1, no. 6: e0000017.

The long, slow dawn of farming November 20th, 2022 by

In a recent book, The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity, David Graeber and David Wengrow summarize recent archaeological and ethnographic literature, to rethink the start of the state, social inequality, agriculture, property, monarchies, the enlightenment, and much else.

As they explain, agriculture did not start a revolution leading immediately to cities, monarchies and stratified societies with specialized artisans. Current archaeology suggests that wheat and rice may not have been fully domesticated until 3,000 years after people first began planting these crops. The early development of farming was long and slow.

When agrarian cities did eventually emerge, they were also slow to embrace autocratic rule. The earliest Mesopotamian cities, from about 3500 BC, show no signs of royal rulers for at least their first 500 years. In ancient Ukraine, sites large enough to be called cities were occupied for at least 800 years (4100 to 3300 BC) without the palaces and lavish burials left behind by kings.

Some agrarian societies also seem to have been able to shake off authoritarian rulers.  For example, in Mexico, the ancient city of Teotihuacán was certainly led by a central authority from AD 100 to 200, when the Pyramids of the Sun and the Moon and the Temple of the Feathered Serpent were built, complete with human sacrifices during the construction. But after AD 300 signs of authoritarianism vanished: for example, human sacrifices stopped, and Teotihuacán was rebuilt to provide decent “social housing” for most of the 100,000 or so residents, until this central Mexican city was abandoned about AD 550.

On the Greek island of Crete, art from the Minoan Civilization (especially from 1700 to 1450 BC) depicts women in positions of leadership, holding staffs of command, performing fertility rites, sitting on thrones and meeting in assemblies with no men present. Graeber and Wengrow speculate that women in this classic agrarian civilization may have formed governing councils which ruled by consensus.

These (and other) examples of agriculture-and-cities without monarchies have been obscured in our current view of “Western Civilization”. Certainly in the past 2000 years, monarchs ruled with absolute power. But can these warlike states with their arrogant kings and their humiliated subjects really be called “civilized”?

“How did we get things so wrong?” Graeber and Wengrow ask, without answering their own question.

After I put the book down, I thought how we are getting it wrong a second time. True, in a way the nature of authoritarianism has changed, and concentration of power has shifted. However, world governments are allowing multinational corporations to dominate the global food supply, to have control over seeds, fertilizer, and even food processing and sales.

There are things we can do to help keep agriculture close to its democratic origins.

  • Plant a garden
  • Buy food from local, family farmers
  • Buy organic and agroecological produce
  • Support local food traditions
  • Experiment with organic soil fertility and other methods that allow you to avoid using chemicals in farming or gardening
  • Lobby your government to apply anti-trust legislation to large corporations in agriculture

Further reading

Graeber, David and David Wengrow 2021 The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Fuller, Dorian Q. 2010 An emerging paradigm shift in the origins of agriculture. General Anthropology 17(2): 1, 8-12.

Previous Agro-Insight blogs

In Against the Grain, James C. Scott also concludes that early agriculture in the Near East was sustainable, based on self-governing villages for thousands of years before states developed in that cradle of civilization. Paul and I like his book so much that we have reviewed it twice:

The early state and the bad old days

Against or with nature

We have also written before about the rising food oligarchy

Grocery shops and farm shops

GMOs by hook and by crooks

Formerly known as food

Fighting farmers

Family farms produce more food and jobs

Damaging the soil and our health with chemical reductionism

Our threatened farmers

The village hunter


A climate film November 13th, 2022 by

A movie about rural people, filmed with them, in their communities, is rare, even more so when it touches on important topics like climate change.

In the Bolivian film Utama, directed by Santiaga Loayza, the main characters, Virgilio and Sisa are an elderly couple living on the Bolivian Altiplano, in a two-room adobe house. They still love each other, after many years together. Virgilio has never forgiven his son, for moving to the city, years ago. When the couple´s grandson, Cléver, comes to visit, the old man is angry. He feels that Cléver’s father has sent him to take Virgilio and Sisa to the city.

The stunning photography shows the stark beauty of the hills and mountains rising from the high plains. The characters are believable and authentic. The title, Utama, means “our home” in the Aymara language.

The story takes place near the end of a long drought, exacerbated by climate change. Virgilio, Cléver and some of the neighbors hike to a mountain top to perform a ritual to bring the rain, which never comes. Some families leave for the city. Virgilio develops an agonizing cough, refuses to let Cléver take him to the hospital, and dies at home.

The elderly couple is played by José Calcina and Luisa Quispe, who are married in real life, and are from the community where the movie was filmed, Santiago de Chuvica, in Potosí, Bolivia. They were cast because of their obvious affection for each other. This realism is accentuated when the couple speak to each other in Quechua, a native language of Bolivia.

Loayza had previously visited Santiago de Chuvica while making a documentary film. In reality, the village is an outpost for travelers visiting the famous Salar de Uyuni, a giant salt flat, an ancient lake bed surrounded by sparse vegetation.

This is one of the most remote parts of Bolivia, and one of the most marginal environments for agriculture in the world. Quinoa is the only crop that will grow here. Until the mid-twentieth century, local farmers made their living by packing out quinoa on the backs of llamas, to trade for food in other parts of Bolivia. It was an ingenious, and unusual cropping system, based on one crop and one animal.

But as the world gets hotter and dryer, places like Chuvica will only become more stressed.

Although not shown in the movie, some parts of Bolivia are far more favorable to farming, with spring-like weather much of the year, where many crops will grow. People are also leaving these areas for the city. Whole communities are emptying out. In the provincial valleys of Cochabamba it is common to see few homes except for ruined, empty farm houses. The grandparents who lived there may have died, but their heirs are still tilling the fields, commuting from town. Farming is often the most resilient part of rural life, and the last to be abandoned.

Climate change is a real problem, and will turn some people into environmental refugees. But villagers are also leaving more favorable farm country, pulled by the opportunities for jobs, education, health care and commerce in the cities. If rural-to-urban migration is seen as a problem, then country life needs to be made more comfortable, with roads, electricity, potable water, schools and clinics.

At the 2022 Sundance Film Festival Utama won the World Cinema Grand Jury Prize: Dramatic Competition.  Hopefully other filmmakers will make more movies on climate change, and on rural life. There are lots more stories to tell.

Previous Agro-Insight blogs

High Andean climate change

Recovering from the quinoa boom

Videos on climate

Recording the weather, also available in Spanish, Quechua and Aymara

Forecasting the weather with an app, also available in Spanish, Quechua and Aymara

Additional reading

Sagárnaga, Rafael 2022 Alejandro Loayza: Hay que hacer que el mundo escuche tus historias. Los Tiempos 13 Feb pp. 2-3.

El País 2022 ‘Utama’, la historia de amor frente al olvido en el Altiplano que sorprendió en Sundance

Micro-chefs November 6th, 2022 by

Nederlandse versie hieronder

In this era when many societies have embraced fast food and convenient, ready-made meals, it was refreshing to watch a documentary on the Korean Air flight back home recently, showing how citizens, chefs and scientists across the globe are increasingly waking up to the importance of nurturing and promoting local food cultures.

Dustin Wessa, the presenter in the documentary, “The Chef of Time,” is an American chef who has been living in Korea for 15 years, specialising in fermented food and beverages, such as Makgeolli, a milky and lightly sparkling rice wine. In his opening statement, the friendly chef explains in fluent Korean that the most complex tastes are not created by people, but by millions of micro-organisms (yeasts, lacto-acid bacteria and moulds) which he playfully calls “micro-chefs”. If we want to use the help of this army of cooks, we need time and patience, which Wessa lists as key ingredients for the preparation of delicious food and beverages.

While showing nature’s beauty and picking up a handful of forest soil, Dustin Wessa illustrates the rich diversity of micro-organisms and explains that they are all around us: in the air, soil, on plants and every part of the planet. A Korean scientist explains in lay-man’s language that fermentation and decay are basically the same process whereby micro-organisms break down components in nature. But unlike decay, fermentation is of immediate benefit to people for food preservation and production.

About 4,000 years ago the first fermented breads were made in Egypt. Most likely natural yeasts flying around in the air had landed on wheat dough that was kept in the open air. From this moment on, yeasts would be part of the sourdough, causing the dough to rise.

While many societies across the world have independently developed fermentation techniques, it was not until the 19th century that people began to understand that micro-organisms were causing food and beverages to ferment or to spoil. (Helped by the discovery of the microscope, Louis Pasteur studied microbial fermentation and came to understand how heat killed bacteria. This led to the name ‘pasteurization’).

In many countries across the world, just one species of commercial yeast is used to make bread, beer and wine, namely Saccharomyces cerevisiae. Different strains of this single-celled fungus microorganism are mass multiplied in laboratories to serve different purposes. Micro-organisms in the food industry have become an expensive ingredient. Annually, Korea has imported for millions of dollars of yeast for use in its highly popular bakery and pastry industry.

Doing research on micro-organisms in nature is a complex matter as there are millions of species and countless interactions between them and their environment. Up to now, about 1,600 species have been identified which have economic importance in food preservation and preparation worldwide. A small fraction of the estimated 150,000 useful species.

When Korean scientists discovered a local yeast that could be used in bread making, they were quick to mass multiply and market it, saving the country millions of dollars.

The documentary does further justice to the importance of treasuring local microbial diversity by putting it all in a global perspective. When the entire world depends on just a few commercial species to prepare food, our food system would become highly vulnerable and prone to the vagaries of commercial and political interests.

To avoid making the same mistakes as with seeds of major food crops, which are in the hands of a few large corporations, we need to ensure that local micro-organisms remain a public good, protected from private capture. Only by doing so, we will be able to keep local food cultures alive.

Related blogs

Korean food culture

The baker farmers

A market to nurture local food culture



In dit tijdperk waarin veel samenlevingen fastfood en gemakkelijke, kant-en-klare maaltijden hebben omarmd, was het verfrissend om op de vlucht van Korean Air naar huis onlangs een documentaire te zien die laat zien hoe burgers, chef-koks en wetenschappers over de hele wereld zich steeds meer bewust worden van het belang van het koesteren en bevorderen van lokale eetculturen.

Dustin Wessa, de presentator in de documentaire “The Chef of Time”, is een Amerikaanse kok die al 15 jaar in Korea woont en gespecialiseerd is in gefermenteerd voedsel en dranken, zoals Makgeolli, een melkachtige en licht mousserende rijstwijn. In zijn openingswoord legt de vriendelijke kok in vloeiend Koreaans uit dat de meest complexe smaken niet door mensen worden gecreëerd, maar door miljoenen micro-organismen (gisten, melkzuurbacteriën en schimmels) die hij speels “micro-koks” noemt. Als we de hulp van dit leger van koks willen gebruiken, hebben we tijd en geduld nodig, die Wessa noemt als hoofdingrediënten voor de bereiding van heerlijk eten en drinken.

Terwijl hij de schoonheid van de natuur laat zien en een handvol bosgrond oppakt, illustreert Dustin Wessa de rijke diversiteit aan micro-organismen en legt hij uit dat ze overal om ons heen zijn: in de lucht, in de bodem, op planten en op elk deel van de planeet. Een Koreaanse wetenschapper legt in lekentaal uit dat fermentatie en rotting eigenlijk hetzelfde proces is waarbij micro-organismen bestanddelen in de natuur afbreken. Maar in tegenstelling tot bederf is fermentatie van direct nut voor mensen voor het bewaren en produceren van voedsel.

Ongeveer 4000 jaar geleden werden in Egypte de eerste gegiste broden gemaakt. Waarschijnlijk waren in de lucht rondvliegende natuurlijke gisten terechtgekomen op tarwedeeg dat in de open lucht werd bewaard. Vanaf dat moment maakte gist deel uit van het zuurdesem, waardoor het deeg ging rijzen.

Hoewel veel samenlevingen over de hele wereld onafhankelijk van elkaar fermentatietechnieken hebben ontwikkeld, begon men pas in de 19e eeuw te begrijpen dat micro-organismen voedsel en dranken lieten gisten of bederven. (Geholpen door de ontdekking van de microscoop bestudeerde Louis Pasteur microbiële fermentatie en kwam hij erachter hoe hitte bacteriën doodde. Dit leidde tot de naam “pasteurisatie”).

In veel landen in de wereld wordt slechts één soort commerciële gist (gebruikt om brood, bier en wijn te maken, namelijk Saccharomyces cerevisiae. Micro-organismen in de voedingsindustrie zijn een duur ingrediënt geworden. Korea importeert jaarlijks voor miljoenen dollars aan gist voor gebruik in zijn zeer populaire bakkerij- en banketindustrie.

Onderzoek naar micro-organismen in de natuur is een complexe aangelegenheid, aangezien er miljoenen soorten zijn en talloze interacties tussen hen en hun omgeving. Tot nu toe zijn er ongeveer 1600 soorten geïdentificeerd die wereldwijd van economisch belang zijn voor het bewaren en bereiden van voedsel. Een kleine fractie van de naar schatting 150.000 nuttige soorten.

Toen Koreaanse wetenschappers een lokale gistsoort ontdekten die kon worden gebruikt voor het maken van brood, waren ze er snel bij om deze massaal te vermenigvuldigen en op de markt te brengen, waardoor het land miljoenen dollars bespaarde.

De documentaire doet verder recht aan het belang van het koesteren van lokale microbiële diversiteit door alles in een mondiaal perspectief te plaatsen. Wanneer de hele wereld afhankelijk is van slechts een paar commerciële soorten om voedsel te bereiden, wordt ons voedselsysteem zeer kwetsbaar en vatbaar voor de grillen van commerciële en politieke belangen.

Om niet dezelfde fouten te maken als met zaden van grote voedselgewassen, die in handen zijn van een paar grote bedrijven, moeten we ervoor zorgen dat lokale micro-organismen een publiek goed blijven, beschermd tegen private inbezitneming. Alleen zo kunnen we lokale voedselculturen in leven houden.

Related blogs

Korean food culture

The baker farmers

A market to nurture local food culture

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