Every month Trinidad del Rio, master student Organic Agriculture, writes a weblog
My name is Trinidad del Rio and before coming to Wageningen University I studied Agricultural Engineering in Universidad de Chile. After finishing my studies I worked for five years in a Research Centre belonging to the University. There, I collaborated in different research projects aimed to improve soils properties, ameliorating the efficiency in the use of water and fertilizers on vineyards and other fruit orchards.
After working, I realized that is indispensable to consider environmental issues in agricultural production and in development of rural communities, therefore I needed to improve my knowledge about agro ecology. That was the main reason why I decided to follow graduate environmental studies. After searching some possibilities of Master and considering Europe's leadership in sustainable development and organic agriculture, I came to the conclusion that the Master Organic Agriculture in Wageningen University was the program that better suits my professional goals. Also, due to the high student origin diversity that comes to study here, I’ll be enriched with diverse viewpoints and experiences.
I have special interest in making efficient use of natural resources without affecting productivity in farming systems and their relation to sustainability in order to reduce the impact of agriculture on human society and the environment, especially in the process that undeveloped and developing countries are undergoing. I don’t have specific ideas about what kind of institution or company I will work for in the future, although I know that somehow I will contribute to the sustainable development of agriculture in developing countries, possibly in Latin America.
…And finally I can say that I am almost finished with my thesis experience! I will be presenting my colloquium very soon and I hope it will all work out fine. It seems that although I have been working on the thesis report everyday (and almost all day), there is always something extra to elaborate on and thus there is always work to be done.
On another note; May has been a month of plenty of fun activities and celebrations. Wageningen is the place to be on the 5th of May especially. Every year a huge festival takes place here to celebrate Independence or “Liberation Day”, as it is called. It is a versatile celebration for people of all ages and takes place from morning till night. There are kids activities, diverse bands, a parade, theater performances, and various workshops which fill up the streets. As I live in the town center, my house was the meeting point for my friends and we all had lots of fun. The Kings Birthday celebration was also a nice day to enjoy walking around the local flea market.
On May 9th there was a presentation and debate at the University where Joel Salatin explained his innovative idea of farming. He was named “world’s most innovative farmer” by Time magazine and also features in Michael Pollan’s book: The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and the documentary films, “Food Inc.” and “Fresh.” It was a very interesting and inspiring evening. Joel Salatin is a clear example that food production is feasible as a business and can be done in an environmentally and socially conscious manner. Although the debate was centered around farming, it was also about our role as consumers in helping to create a viable future for the localized food system.
Regarding sports, this month I have been practicing tennis with a friend. We play mostly on weekends where you can play for free (if you have the sport rights) in very well maintained tennis courts. Although my friend is way better than me, I have fun and the sport helps keep me relaxed. This week I will probably join a female football international mini tournament that is organized by a friend. That way we can start getting in the mood for the upcoming World Cup!
Next month I will start working on my internship in Zambia. Since I probably won’t have much internet connection, this will be my last blog post. I hope you managed to get a rough idea about how life is here in Wageningen and learned a little bit more about the Master of Organic Agriculture programme.
This month I will be taking a detour from the usual format of the blog and show you Wageningen through the eyes of a fellow MOA classmate.
What is your name, and where are you from?
My name is Katja Kuivanen and I come from Finland, but I am half Zimbabwean. I did my bachelor studies at the University of Cape Town, in South Africa.
What made you decide to study Organic Agriculture/Agroecology?
I studied social anthropology at the undergraduate level and after graduating became involved in various rural development projects. This made me interested to learn more about sustainable agriculture and so I applied to do my Masters in Wageningen.
What are you doing right now?
At the moment I am working on my Minor Thesis at the Farming Systems Ecology chair group. I am conducting model-based analysis of smallholder farms in Northern Ghana. After the summer I will start on my Major Thesis research in the Caribbean or somewhere in central Africa. There are so many options and possibilities for research, which makes it hard to choose!
What do you do when you are not studying?
During the week I stay in the computer labs till late, so I don’t have much time or energy left for rigorous hobbies. However, on the weekend I work as a bartender at the International Club and enjoy going out dancing or for dinners with friends. I would like to start doing more outdoor sports since spring has arrived and the weather is lovely.
If you could give 3 tips to future MOA students, what would they be?
- Ask as many questions as you can. Don’t depend on other peoples assumptions- find out for yourself!
- Try to attend as many extracurricular events, conferences and workshops as you can. Wageningen has so much to offer in the field of sustainability and you should grab every opportunity.
- Don’t be afraid to try something new. I did not have any experience in agricultural sciences before coming to Wageningen and I have taken courses in subject areas that were totally foreign to me such as plant biology and soil science, and have managed in the end.
Could you give an example of one interesting opportunity or experience you had in the last month?
A colleague (Renee van Dis) and I were interviewed by a Dutch national newspaper on our views on the latest IPCC report and the potential role of agro-ecology in climate change mitigation and adaptation measures. Our picture was taken too and it was indeed a great experience to see the published article in press.
After a long trip, loaded with very heavy luggage (because I was carrying soil, water and leaf samples) I returned safe and sound back to The Netherlands. Fortunately the weather was quite nice and it is constantly improving, so it was not so difficult to adapt. Some of the trees are already in bloom, they look so beautiful!
I am very happy to see my friends again and enjoy spring together doing fun things like having picnics, taking bike trips, making barbecues, etc. I also picked up sports once again. There are many options to choose from and I started with indoor biking and jogging at the gym. Now that it is getting warmer, however, I often go jogging outdoors at Wageningen’s botanical gardens, for example. On top of this, I joined an all-female football team- we train and play every Wednesday. Although we have a professional coach, it is not too serious and we have a good time!
Regarding my thesis work, I started processing the data I have so far although I had to refresh my knowledge on statistical techniques since I had forgotten a bit! I am also learning how to chemically analyze the samples I brought back with me in the lab. Time is going so fast and I don’t have forever to complete my thesis, given that I still need to do my internship. In fact, I have been thinking about pursuing a “Minor Thesis” instead of an internship; this is also an option here.
This month, a friend of mine from a university in Chile visited me. He is currently a PhD student at the school of Geography, Planning and Environmental Management of the University of Queensland, Australia. As his topic is somehow related to agriculture, I invited him to make a presentation at Wageningen University about the project he is working on in South America. It went pretty well, I think it was very interesting for most of the audience. The title of his presentation was: “Assessing the impacts of land cover change on climate in southern South America”.
It is almost the end of my thrilling thesis experience here in Indonesia. I have met and visited amazing people and places, and I have learned a lot. But I also had a small accident that kept me on rest at home for two weeks, but all is well. During the fieldwork, I established a nice relationship with the farmer and his wife. They were amazingly nice. Although we don’t speak the same language, somehow we could communicate and share magical moments together, enjoying the happiness in its simplicity. Beside, I also made some friends in town. I will really miss them.
Regarding my work, last month I collected soil samples; leachate and outflow water for further N analysis in Wageningen; I measured some parameters in every plot such as azolla coverage, water pH and leaf chlorophyll content; and analyzed ammonia emissions using a spectrophotometer at Brawijaia University.
I am currently staying in Malang city, nearby the University since I have finished the field measurements. I was asked to give a small lecture to the bachelor students in the class of management of agricultural systems. The presentation was about the work I have being doing here and also about the agriculture situation in my country, Chile. It was a nice experience, the students were very participative considering that they are quite shy and they are not used to speak in English during courses. At the end of the class, I felt more like a celebrity than a teacher since every student wanted to take a picture with me, it was very funny.
Next Monday I will join a seminar were I will also do a presentation and next Tuesday I return to The Netherlands. I am grateful of this experience but also looking forward to see all my friends in Wageningen and process the data for the last step of my thesis.
It has been one month since I arrived in Indonesia. Everything is good over here but way different to the life I was living in Wageningen. I am staying in a small village where I am the only Western person and sometimes I feel like a Martian since I feel: I look so weird to the locals. The main mode of transport here is motorbike. For long distances Uma (a PhD student) carries me on the back of her motorcycle. And sometimes I also use a borrowed bike to go to the field and carry out measurements. I need to get used to riding on the other side of the road since here the way of traffic is different. Everything runs on the left, so cars and trucks overtake on your right side.
People are very nice and friendly. I just keep smiling since I don't understand anything and most of the people don't know English. Fortunately I can have daily conversations with Uma; with the others it is just “hello, how are you?” - and that’s the end of the conversation. I'm learning basic words like “thank you”, “please”, “good morning”, “you are welcome”, “hello”, “good bye”…The problem is that I started learning Indonesian and later I realized that here people speak Javanese (which is way more complicated) so now I know a little mixture of both. The food is delicious (and spicy). Besides all kinds of rice and noodles dishes with different preparation methods, tofu and tempeh (a whole soybean fermented product); there are lots of wonderful fruits and vegetables. Some of which I have never tried before.
Regarding the thesis, the trial is going fine so far. I started the measurements while learning about rice production from soil preparation onwards. Sometimes I also visit Brawijaya University to use some facilities. There I have met some students and teachers. Beside the activities with regard to the thesis, I have participated in a field excursion with two bachelor students, where we visited other farms. It is very interesting to see such different kinds of ways of producing rice according to landscapes variations. In mid-December, we joined a very nice activity. It was kind of a “Farmers harvest meeting” where most of the farmers from the area gathered and together gave thanks for the recent harvest. They also talked about possible problems and how they should solve them as neighboring farmers. Every family brought a special meal and at the end everyone shared the food.
Time flies and I am already in Indonesia. This month I will explain more in detail about my research study. My thesis is part of the project ‘Complex rice systems’ of the PhD candidate Uma Khumairoh, where the integration of rice with other production components such duck, fish and azolla is used. Last year, she carried out her MSc. thesis research in complex rice agro ecosystems where more complex systems got much higher rice yields and revenues in a season with very adverse weather conditions.
For the ones who don’t know, azolla is an aquatic fern, which has a symbiotic association with cyanobacteria that fix nitrogen. It can be used as green manure, animal feed and could also bring certain changes to the physical, chemical and microbiological properties of the floodwaters, which may potentially decrease ammonia emissions to the environment.
Many studies have shown the importance in Asia of the integrated systems in increasing and stabilizing yield and lowering the need for chemical inputs. The combination of fish, azolla and ducks with rice farming can result in nutrient enhancement, pest control and feed supplementation. Natural resources management in tropical wetland rice fields through integrated production systems is a promising approach to sustainability in rice farming and addressing ecological matters pertaining to the preservation of rice field ecology and aquatic biodiversity. The integration of fish into rice farming provides protein, especially for subsistence farmers who manage rain-fed agricultural systems. Rice fields provide shade and organic matter for fish, which in turn oxygenate the soil and water, eat rice pests and favor nutrient recycling. These farming systems, as part of an integrated ecosystem in line with the local cultural, environmental and economic conditions, are composed of complementary sub-agricultural ecosystems and play important ecological service roles, such as bio-control, N fixation and landscape enhancement. Traditional low input rice–fish farming systems have a significant function in protecting the global environment and maintaining its bio-diversity.
My thesis will be focused on exploring how the complexity level of these systems can affect losses through ammonia volatilization, nitrate leaching and water outflow in organic rice production systems using duck manure together with different combinations of fish, ducks and azolla in relation to conventional production system (only urea). The supposition is that more complex systems can potentially decrease N losses and therefore reduce the environmental impacts.
Now is time to put theory into practice in the field. I just arrived few days ago to Indonesia so next month I will tell you how it goes with the trial and also a bit of my experience living in this totally different culture.
This month I started writing my thesis proposal and I am pretty excited about it. I will work assessing environmental sustainability from rice agro-ecosystems with different levels of complexity in Java, Indonesia. At the end of November I will travel to Indonesia to carry out the field experiments. It is a completely new experience for me, and I expect not only to learn about rice production and technical issues but also about the people and their culture.
Agricultural activity in Indonesia is dominated by small farming systems. It has become the fourth largest population country in the world. And despite the rise in meat and cereal production which quadrupled and doubled respectively from 1979 till 2009, there are still 19.9 million of undernourished people. Nutrients are fundamental for agricultural production. As in many other production systems, in flooded rice fields in Indonesia part of the applied fertilizers are lost by various reasons, consequently polluting the environment and harming production costs. It is therefore essential to find a more efficient production system in order to generate an impact on food security, environmental wellbeing and farmers income using the less inputs as possible (mainly nutrients as fertilizers). Regarding N use in rice production systems, internal N flows are those that farmers can control to increase productivity which could have an impact on overall N use efficiency.
Re-introducing mixed farming in an organic system could be the answer to overcome a restriction in organic fertilizer availability. Animals play a significant role in organic farming through their distribution of animal waste as an organic recourse. Natural resources management in tropical wetland rice fields through integrated production systems is a promising approach to introducing sustainability in rice farming and addressing ecological matters pertaining to the preservation of rice field ecology and aquatic biodiversity. These farming systems, as part of an integrated ecosystem in line with the local cultural, environmental and economic conditions, are composed of complementary sub-agricultural ecosystems and play important ecological service roles, such as bio-control, nitrogen fixation and landscape combination.
Next month I will explain more in detail about how these complex agro-ecosystems are organized and how each production component may contribute to the whole rice farming sustainably in terms of social, economic and environmental aspects.
If you decide to pursue the Masters program in Organic Agriculture, you will probably decide to take part in the course: Analysis and Design of Organic Farming Systems. This is an amazingly intense, jam-packed course that allows you to experience the process of re-designing a real organic farm.
In the first week, we learned how to use a range of modeling software to assess, analyze and re-design farms in order to maximize the sustainability of systems according to economic, environmental and labor aspects. We worked with models as tools for generating optimum crop rotations, calculating Nitrogen balances and assessing the influence of landscape on on-farm pest suppression, for example.
In the second week, we traveled to a beautiful farm in France and stayed there for 10 days. Besides having learned a lot during the trip- it was a fun experience too and a time to get to know our fellow students and teachers better; especially since we worked in small groups with one teacher. Describing, measuring and observing the different aspects of the production system were part of the daily schedule. Through action research, which included discussions with the farmers themselves, we gained a deeper understanding of the different farm components: soils, animals, crops and landscape and their interactions within the system. Most significantly, I learned that to propose changes to a farm, it is very important to take into account the personalities, knowledge, willingness and abilities of farmers.
Finally, back in Wageningen, we integrated what we had learned during the course during the last weeks. The goal was to develop improvements for the real situation we encountered in France- in other words to optimize the system. We came up with a lot of ideas, and were challenged to incorporate them into the models and evaluate different indicators in the short and long term and at different scales. But also the other way around: adjusting the results generated from the models to the real context of the farm.
As I mentioned before, during the farm excursion we were well entertained: A nice group of students and teachers, music around the fire, games, dancing with hula-hoops, poetry recitals and delicious food. Moreover, we had three optional excursions to other organic farms nearby with the possibility to learn more about different systems and approaches in the region.
I would like to share my experience of the course I took last month: Applied Environmental Education and Communication. This is one of the possible social sciences related courses you can take in the Master of Organic Agriculture. It really contributed a lot to my training and I gained useful insights to apply in the future. As you can imagine, to work in the field of Organic Agriculture you don’t only need to learn how to produce food in an environmentally sound way; but also incorporate the social- (policies and education) and economic aspects (planet, people and profit).
This course was very different to any previous courses I took in my program. I was more used to natural science and technical approaches and I really enjoyed taking this detour into the social realm. It opened my mind in many ways and also inspired me for the future. Before taking the course I was under the impression that social courses were quite vague and not very practical. However, I realize that I learned very important tools for communicating and educating for sustainability.
In my opinion; this course covers a lot of essential aspects that are sometimes overlooked; like using arts, emotions, connecting with your childhood memories and use of other senses to experience nature. Furthermore, I really liked that we had the chance to experience what we were taught in class through excursions and group work.
Moreover, we were exposed to relevant approaches (emancipatory and instrumental) and innovative concepts such as cradle-to-cradle design, empowerment processes, sustainable neighborhoods and a lot of considerations and methods, which are important for effective communication for sustainability. The connection between education, communication and my technical studies was made clear and the importance of incorporating the social part i.e. how to achieve real changes in relation to sustainable agriculture was emphasized.
Only when people change their attitudes and behavior, will a meaningful transformation regarding sustainability take place. I mean, scientists can share knowledge, new technologies and solutions for particular problems; but if the communication and education process fails, then nothing will happen. Therefore, I think one of the most valuable lessons I learned during this course is that education and communication is not only about sharing knowledge but is a much more complex process that demands a level of sensitivity and understanding of human behavior.
Organic Agriculture, or Agroecology, is not only about technical decisions but also about everything involved in the food production process: there are ecological, social (political) and economical aspects. This month Miguel Altieri, a Ph.D. and Professor of Agro ecology visited us from U.C. Berkeley. During his visit, the University and the Farming System Ecology chair group organized debates to discuss contingent issues related to agriculture. After attending the activities, I’m more convinced that an agroecology approach in agriculture is the only way to achieve the end of hunger in the world while protecting our environment. Now I will continue describing some fallacies about agriculture and also support my writing using the ideas of Altieri’s presentation:
Currently, the main concern in agriculture is how to increase production of food in order to solve the world hunger problem of the current fast growing population. This concern is not entirely representative because it ignores other issues contributing to world hunger besides than production. First, the model of industrial agriculture that dominates today, has failed to feed the world. There are still almost one billion people who are hungry without any justification and approximately another 1.3 billion tons of food produced for human consumption is actually being wasted in Europe and the United States. Each one of us throws away about 100 kg of food, when put together we could be feeding the whole continent of Africa. Nearly 40% of the world’s grain (660 million tons of grain) supplies feed animals. This is the equivalent in calories to feed 3.5 billion people (more than half of the population). Multinationals or governments that support growing biofuel crops and export commodities have recently grabbed more than 200 million hectares, 75% of that land is from the African continent and they aren’t using it to grow crops to feed any hungry people.
Together with this economical model and their trade agreements, for instance in Mexico, small farmers were basically expelled from the land due to the subsidized corn in the United State and these farmers cannot compete with the price. So now they become workers for the industrial agriculture in the United States. In California 90% of the workers come from Mexico and most of them were farmers before this model displaced them. Haiti in 1986 was almost self-sufficient in rice production; they only imported seven thousand tons. After opening to the free trade agreements in 1996, the country was importing 196 thousand tons at an extremely high cost. But the cost of rice went up and hunger increased because this imported rice was in the hand of speculators, so the price was manipulated. Something similar also happened in Mexico were the price of imported corn from the U.S is getting more expensive over time and it is now aggravated with biofuels plantations.
In conclusion, the world already produces enough food to feed from nine to ten billion people. Currently, about 360 million small farmers that only occupied 20% of the land can produce 50% of this food. Industrial agriculture only produces about 30% of the food. Most of agro industrial production goes to biofuels and to feed confined animals. Therefore the call to double the food production by using special techniques is basically to justify more of the same (i.e. to justify more transgenic crops). Increasing yield is a necessary condition but not sufficient enough to meet peoples’ need for food.
Next month I will continue developing these ideas…
When I decided to pursue a Masters in Organic Agriculture, people commented that the ‘organic philosophy’ was idealistic and utopic- the dreamer’s vision of food production. This view holds that organic agriculture cannot guarantee the word’s food supply, that it is less efficient than conventional agriculture, more expensive and last but not least; does not impart any health benefits to consumers.
After some months of study in Wageningen, I've realized that there are many myths surrounding organic farming and that it is, indeed, a much deeper philosophy and more complex system than most would imagine it to be. Although it is beyond the scope of this blog post to explore all these myths (perhaps even beyond the scope of a two year masters!), I will attempt a brief outline of the some of the main fallacies.
The most basic mistake lies in generalizing all organic and conventional agricultural systems and comparing them on these terms. It is widely acknowledged that developed and developing regions, or even farms in the same territory or country, might differ enormously in their use of inputs and technology, attained yields and edaphoclimatic conditions. That said; it is important to note that after conversion to organic, a farm’s productivity is initially lowered, especially if the land suffered the effects of degraded soils and deficient resource management. It is also true that yields eventually increase after soil organic matter and biodiversity are built up again.
However, even under the best conditions, organic systems may sustain lower crop yields than their conventional counterparts. Regarding this statement there are two key points to consider: First, declining fossil fuel stocks, soil phosphorous depletion, soil and water contamination and harmful emissions (and their side effects) are not problems to be solved in the future, they need to be dealt with right away. Unsustainable agricultural practices cannot be tolerated any longer, since our food security as a species depends almost entirely on natural resources that are currently been depleted. As a teacher once said: “the Green Revolution cannot be reproduced”- since we have (as yet) no other earth planet to destroy, we need to produce more but in a different way.
Another thing to take into account when comparing yields is the amount of inputs behind production. This determines not only the economic performance of the system but also the ability to maintain productivity over time without increasing inputs i.e. the efficiency of the system.
Not every organic farm is sustainable and vice versa. There is still lots of room for improvement. But certainly; a system that not only places value on conserving natural resources, but also ensures eco-friendly production by enhancing soil quality, increasing biodiversity and reducing pollution, is vital for the future of our planet.
Besides the issues I highlighted above, there are also other concerns that should be weighed up when comparing conventional and organic agriculture, such as animal welfare and socio-cultural aspects. Next week I will be tackling the topic of food security and safety in agro-ecological production!
Biofach 2013. Last February 14, we went to an excursion with my fellows of the Organic Agriculture Masterclass to Nuremberg (Germany), to meet the world's largest trade fair for organic products. This year Biofach was attended by 41,500 trade visitors from 129 countries (43% international share) and we were delighted with the high-quality, varied and innovative range of products from the 2,396 exhibitors at this year’s edition duo between BioFach and Vivaness. It is the mother of all organic product trade fairs and remains the international pacesetter for suppliers and buyers in the organic products sector. Before going there I imagined a big and interesting fair, but after been in Nuremberg, it exceeded all my expectations. Although I would have preferred more time to attend presentations, as most seemed very interesting to me.
We were very lucky because, as a group, we had not only the opportunity to meet and greet all kind of organizations and companies related to organic agriculture. There was also the option to attend to private lectures from Eosta (a leading international distributor of organic fresh fruits and vegetables) and IFOAM (the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements). In their presentations they talked about their mission and strategy, trends in the market and special topics dealing with organic agriculture and their specific role. Moreover we could discuss meaningful issues with them, which was such an enriching chance.
For me this trip to Germany was very beneficial in every sense: beside of discovering and tasting all kind of organic products from all around the world, I got new ideas of organic products to possibly develop in the coming years. I attended to interesting presentations about free GMOs productions; I met great people and a beautiful organic farm example as well. Over and above, I made contacts for an interesting internship possibility, an opportunity with which I am delighted.
Next month I will take nutrient management and organic plant production courses. In my next blog I will tell you more about those courses!