Wednesday, September 30, 2015

José Graziano da Silva on Seed Security

27 August 2015, Svalbard, Norway - Varieties of one of the world’s most important staple crops will be stored for perpetuity deep in the Arctic ice today. José Graziano da Silva, Director-General of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) is joining scientific experts and delegations from Peru, Costa Rica and Norway to witness a ceremony here this afternoon that will help to preserve these vital crops for future generations.

Food Security and Nutrition Online Courses

Hi there -

If you want  to increase your knowledge of nutrition, agriculture and food security, consider enrolling in these free courses offered by USAID Agrilinks and FAO ELearning platform. They were released recently so feel to disseminate. 

1) COURSE: Nutrition-Sensitive Agricultural Programming

Overview: Welcome to USAID’s online training course on nutrition-sensitive agricultural programming! This comprehensive three-hour course is explicitly designed to support the Feed the Future nutrition-sensitive agricultural programming guidance. Developed by the Bureaus for Food Security and Global Health, the course introduces the fundamentals of nutrition-sensitive agriculture and provides guidelines for practitioners to use when designing programs that promote access to nutrient-rich foods and dietary diversity.

2) COURSE: Nutrition, Food Security and Livelihoods: basic concepts
Overview: This very interactive and short module addresses the basic terms and concepts relating to food and nutrition, malnutrition, food security and livelihoods. Understanding these concepts is indeed very important in order to be able to assess the nutrition situation, to design and implement programmes, investments and policies that address nutrition problems, and to evaluate the nutritional outcomes of programmes, investments and policies.
The French and Spanish versions will be available in November 2015. This course is the first module of a set of modules around Nutrition and Food systems. We hope to develop the two next modules by the end of the year. We will keep you informed!

3) COURSE: Agreeing on causes of malnutrition for joint action
Overview: This module guides you through the simulation of a workshop process in the fictional country of Namambar. You will learn how to use a methodology based on malnutrition problem-and-solution trees to support joint planning for combating food insecurity and malnutrition, and building resilience. Through this course, you will also improve your understanding of the multisectoral causes of malnutrition, and gain new facilitation skills for successful participatory workshops.
The module is available in English and French. The Spanish version will be available in November 2015

Tuesday, September 01, 2015

Wheat Rust: A Threat to the Afghan Bread

Wheat Cropping Systems in Afghanistan Central Highlands. Lal, Ghor. (c) 2015
Farmers in the Afghan Central Highlands depend on wheat as their main source of calories. Wheat is the key ingredient to make naan and other products that keep rural families somewhat nourished through the winter months.

There are two types of wheat cropping systems: irrigated and rain-fed. The irrigated wheat crops abound in the narrow valleys, usually intercropped with potatoes and fodder crops.  Wealthy farmers own this fertile land and they tend to produce surplus grain. Poorer farmers plant rain-fed wheat on mountain slopes in late fall. Dependent on the snowmelt, ground moisture retention, and sparse rain showers, rain-fed wheat is a lot more susceptible to changes in weather patterns and voracious livestock.  Rain-fed wheat also has lower yields and it's usually grown by replacing natural vegetation that would otherwise preserve a healthy watershed.

These problems, however, are minor compared to the potential impact of the “polio of agriculture” - Wheat Rust (UG99). Named after being identified in Uganda in 1999, this fungal infection affects wheat crops, leaving the stems with scaly red pustules. Farmers affected by the ‘rust’ could lose up to a third of their crops. For a region where farmers are subsistence or below subsistence, the rust's impact could be devastating for the family diet.

Cow and Donkey  Traditional Wheat Thresher. Lal, Ghor (c) 2015 
Carried by the wind, billions of spores can travel miles virtually unstoppable. In 2008, UG99 hit Iran, possibly coming from Yemen.  While the border between Iran and Afghanistan is close to 1,000 km according to the Rust Tracker, UG99 hasn't trespassed into Afghan territory to date. Unfortunately, it's a matter of time until the spores find an adequate host and establish a new home in the Central Highlands.

Decades of war has left research institutions and extension services underfunded. In the district where I'm based, the Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Livestock (MAIL), has three extension workers and one motorcycle to cover about 400 communities. The NGO community has little understanding about the formal and informal mechanisms for seed security. In other words, we don't know where and how farmers access and manage their seeds, particularly for the less-profitable rain-fed wheat.

All these factors leave the country very ill-prepared for a potential attack of UG99. Hopefully, by the time that happens, research from CGIAR centers (CIMMYT and ICARDA in particular) will assist in the cultivation of new rust-resistant varieties, ready to be deployed throughout the country. -As they say here - Inshallah.

To learn more about Wheat Rust check out this excellent video from the Borlaug Global Rust Initiative:

Friday, August 28, 2015

Low-cost Potato Storage Technologies in Afghanistan's Central Highlands

Bamyan Valley cover with potato crops. Aug 2015 (c) Rafael Merchan
Growing potatoes in Afghanistan’s Central Highlands is easy. The narrow valleys in the provinces of Bamyan, Ghor, and Daikundi abound with rich, meters-deep, fertile soil. Its surrounding mountain peaks accumulate a thick snowpack during winter, providing plenty of water during spring and summer.  Using an intricate system of ancient irrigation canals managed by the farmers, every corner of the valley gets its share of water for the thirsty crop.

Sure there are some practices that could be done better. Farmers tend not to select potato seeds, planting many varieties as evidenced by the different colors in the potato flowers. There are viruses affecting the plants (early and late blights, Black scurf, and others), and from time to time farmers get considerable pest damage. Broadcast fertilizer is often wasted, rows are also very wide (wasted space where weeds can take hold), and the ridges are sometimes too high to properly absorb water.

But despite these issues, potatoes in the Central Highlands grow very well. The problem, however lies elsewhere.  Farmers in this region don't have an effective mechanism to store potatoes over winter.

Instead, farmers either sell their produce during harvest, or bury the potatoes in large pits they dig on their plots. None of these options are good.

During harvest – late August to early October – the price of potatoes usually drops from $.65 (US)  before harvest to no more than $.10. While this is not unusual for agricultural products,  farmers in Afghanistan are particularly vulnerable as they have few marketing opportunities to bargain for better prices or store the potatoes until prices come back up.

Potatoes damaged from frost (c) CRS
Those farmers who opt for traditional pits gamble with their harvest. When farmers open their pits in April/May, they often find half of their potatoes rotten or with freeze damage. This happens because dormant potatoes continue to 'breathe' during winter. Inside the pit the conditions get very hot and humid – a perfect environment for decay to take over the harvest. A 50% post-harvest loss is tantamount to losing half of your yearly income, as potatoes in region tend to be the only source of cash for farmers apart from goats and sheep.

In response to this, the organization I work  for has introduced a system that takes advantage of traditional practices, and improves it to reduce post-harvest loses. The Ventilated Improved Pit Storage (VIPS) – is a cheap and effective alternative to traditional pits. VIPS incorporates ventilation pipes and simple temperature and moisture management practices to improve traditional potato storage practices. Costing less than $10 (US), VIPS enable farmers to store potatoes until the following spring for seed, consumption, and sale (use this link can find more technical information about VIPS or watch a short video about it).

VIPS used a showcase in community in Chaghcharan. (c) CRS
The technology was introduced a couple years ago and now it’s spreading like wild fire.  Abdul Bashir, one of the farmers participating in the project, said that people in his village - Akhta Khana Bala, Chaghcharan District – were very skeptical at first. “We didn't think this pit would be any different from ours.” However, when they opened the VIPS in April, community members saw that none of the potatoes were rotten or frozen. Like Abdul Bashir, there are now more than 150 farmers in Chaghcharan district who have replicated the VIPS in their communities without project support.

VIPS Design (c) CRS/UC Davis
Promoting improved agricultural practices that are technically-sound, inexpensive, and culturally appropriate results in farmers’ trust. Farmers are too resource-poor to change their behavior for something they may consider risky unless they are totally convinced the technology works. Building their trust by showing how a practice can make a difference in their life is the best way to achieve agricultural development and increase the income of farmers.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Grains and Leaves: Weekly Ag-Related News, Events, and Others

Hi there fellow readers -

Here are some good links for your weekly reading list. Suggestions are always welcome. Happy reading.
  • GMO-Free salt! The WSJ on how companies are finding profitable adding the 'GMO-Free' label to things that don't even have genes. 
  • Meanwhile Scotland ban all GMO grown in the country, which amounts to a remarkable 0%!  reports Politico 
  • Fred Perlak - one of Monsanto's renowned scientist behind Bt corn - gives a fascinating interview to the folks at Inquiring Minds. Also check out his Q&A session at Redditt 
  • Thinking of buying organic? Not so quickly, the NYT reports on how organic food accounted for 7% of the foods recalled in 2014 - up from 2% last year. Now, if you're craving burgers, you may be better off buying 'organic'. The Washington Post describes how ground beef from grass-fed, antibiotic-free,  has fewer chances of having 'superbugs' (nasty bacteria). 
  • Now this one got me worried - according to the Washington Post, eggs are getting more expensive and are not longer the cheapest source of animal protein. In some places they are almost six cents a piece! Luckily, here in Afghanistan they're still about 7 AFA (11 cents)
  • For NGOs interested in doing 'Local and Regional Procurement' (a much better way to do food aid), check out CRS's new guide: MARKit: Price Monitoring, Analysis and Response Kit. It gives practitioners tools to monitor and adjust your program to market fluctuations. Also, if you're looking for other field-tested technical information on development interventions? Check out: 

Friday, January 30, 2015

Goat Cheese Paradise - Shvil Izim

One of my favorite parts of visiting other countries is getting to know farmers. While I don't hold anything against large, mechanized farming, I'm a lot more interested in farmers that are more attuned to the environmental limits of their work, and are willing to challenge the conventional wisdom of modern agriculture.  Progressive farmers always offer a unique perspective, leaving you with new ideas and inspiring you to update your long-neglected blog.

Welcome to “Shvil Izim” or “Goat Path” a wonderful family-run goat farm, specializing in Agrotourism. Located in the serene rolling hills of Moshav Tal Shachar – Central Israel – Goat Path offers an excellent refuge from the busy streets of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Similar to Kibbutz, Moshav are communities organized around farming, where cooperation and democratic values are central to the community. In contrast to Kibbutz, however, each farmer owns and manages their own farm.

Two of those farmers are Ruth and Alon, the couple that started "Goat Path" farm in 2004. I had contacted Ruth a couple weeks ago about the possibility of attending one of their cheese-making courses. I’m expecting to have copious amounts of goat milk when the snow starts to melt in the Afghan central highlands, and what better way to preserve it than with some tasty chevre and feta.  So when Ruth graciously agreed to host us, we scheduled our visit to “Goat Path” as our first stop on our itinerary.

We visited the farm on an unusually rainy Friday, so the farm wasn't as packed as it would have been otherwise – Friday’s are their busiest days. We started out with a brief chat with Alon. He told us more about the farm, his background, and farming in Israel. Like pretty much any other country, small farmers often struggle to cope with the regulations and taxations of central governments that have little interest in the needs of small farmers.

According to Alon, he needs about 400 goats to have a herd that is economically viable. With only 40, the farm relies on people like us who are willing to pay a premium to try excellent cheese right at its source.

After the intro talk, we headed to the pen where Alon keeps his Alpine goats – one of the best breeds out there for milk production. On average, he gets about 3 liters per day, though some of his best performers can produce up to 6 liters. There were heaps of fodder everywhere, which explains why the goats look plump and healthy.

Alon then picked five goats and brought them up to the milking platform. Being a small farmer doesn't mean you have to neglect ag technology. The farm has a mechanized milking machine made by Afimilk that individually tracks each goat's production with chip technology. That way, Alon can identify goats that may show signs of trouble or ones with excellent production traits.

This time, however, went the old-fashioned route. Equipped with surgical gloves and a hair net to filter the milk, we sloppily started milking one of the goats. We only needed about a litter, so with Alon’s help we got there pretty quickly.

We then took the precious milk back to the farm where the magic began. Alon told us we were going to make Circassian goat cheese – a simple fresh cheese that requires less than an hour of preparation. We began by warming the milk to about 80 degrees C. Although it’s not needed, we added a tablespoon of yogurt to activate some cultures and then another tablespoon of vinegar to generate curds. I was surprised at how quickly the whey started to emerge. With great care, we took out the whey and filtered the curds. To finish it off, we added a pinch of salt, zetar and nigella seeds. So simple and yet so delicious.

Waiting for us to finish up a wonderful day was a plate of 5 different locally-made cheeses, ranging from fresh to several months aged.

All in all, a plate of cheese paired with delicious local wine was the perfect way to end our lesson - and a rainy Friday.  If you're looking for a place to reconnect with nature and enjoy local cheeses, give Alon and Ruth a visit. They'll be happy to show you around what's become their business and home.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Saying bye to East Africa

After a wonderful year in Malawi and Zambia, Agdes is now moving to Afghanistan. The pictures below capture the highlights of my time in the warm heart of Africa. More updates coming soon about the new location. For more pics, check out 

Market in Chikwawa, Malawi

Indigenous Veggies - Chikwawa, Malawi

Local community in Nsanje, Malawi

Local maize silo, Chipata, Zambia

Local traders buying maize - Kasungu, Malawi

SILC/VSL Group, Chipata, Zambia

Cotton field - Zambia

Local stables. Mongu, Zambia

Input dealer - Kasungu, Malawi