Women and children first at the table


Photo credit: WVC 2005-12-DRARIA WOMEN-41.jpg – with Gérard RUOT (SOS Village d’Enfants Draria, Algeria), Raymond JANSSENS (Representative of UNICEF ALGERIA) and Willem VAN COTTHEM (Ghent University, Belgium)

Within the framework of UNICEF’s project “Family gardens for the Saharawis refugees in S.W. Algeria” in 2005-2007, a workshop was organized in December 2005 to prepare a group of  women for the construction of their own kitchen garden in the Sahara desert and in the Village d’Enfants of Draria..  They learned how to apply the water saving and fertilizer saving soil conditioner TerraCottem (www.terracottem.com).  With some 2000 small family gardens in the Tindouf area (Algeria) constructed at the end of 2007, UNICEF’s project was a remarkable success.

About brown and green food revolutions, grasses and food crops

by Prof. Dr. Willem VAN COTTHEM (University of Ghent, Belgium)

If the lives of a group of people are at stake, “Women and children first” implies that the lives of women and children are to be saved first. If the lives of hungry and malnourished people are at stake, those of women and children are to be taken care of first.  That was one of my thoughts after reading Shannon Horst’s article entitled: “Africa needs a brown (not green) food revolution” in The Christian Science Monitor on July 6, 2010 :

Africa’s long-term food security will come from nurturing the soil, not manipulating expensive seeds


First of all I want to confirm that I agree with most, but not all, of Shannon’s excellent points.  One of my remarks is that some of her views are too generalized:  

  • I do not believe that all Western initiatives to help Africa risk to cause more damage to that continent.  Not all these initiatives are ‘grounded in manipulating seeds and increasing synthetic fertilizers to improve production’.  
  • It is my sincere conviction that nowadays not all the aid groups ‘put more money, more science, or more business savvy behind the same old approach’.  If this were the case, it would mean that ‘all scientists are looking in the wrong direction’.  If Shannon Horst is a scientist herself, she certainly feels accused as much as I am by that statement.
  • Not all the scientists ‘are focusing on how to grow bigger, more, and disease- and pest-resistant plants’.
  • Not all the scientists ‘focus on how to manipulate the plants rather than how to produce both healthy plants and healthy soil’.

I therefore take for granted that Shannon Horst is aware of the content of my contributions on three of our blogs:

  1. https://desertification.wordpress.com,
  2. http://containergardening.wordpress.com and
  3. http://www.seedsforfoood.org.
Women and children preparing their kitchen gardens in Draria (Algiers) at the local “SOS Village d’Enfants”- PHOTO Gérard RUOT – P5120032-SOS-042006-JARD.FA.jpg

While manipulating seeds and increasing application of synthetic fertilizers to enhance plant production can be qualified as ‘looking in the wrong direction’, these two points do not cover fully the content of what is called the Second Green Revolution.  There are no strong arguments to sustain the idea that the totality of this agro-industrial model ‘would further destroy Africa’s soil and water in the long run and exacerbate the problems: food insecurity, bare land, soil erosion, increased drought and then flooding when the rains finally do come; increased pests and invasive plants; and the collapse of the river systems and groundwater stores’.

Even at an overripe apple there may still be some tasty pieces!  

So, let us not blame all the ‘Western’ scientists to be part of what Shannon is seeing as some destructive machinery, called the Second Green Revolution, described as exclusively using technologies to boost farm yields.

Very fortunately, we all know numerous people, men and women, scientists, aid workers, members of international, national and non-governmental organizations, who are not looking in the wrong direction.  They are working continuously hand-in-hand with the rural and urban population on the African continent, like on all the other continents.  By the way, we certainly know many respected scientists, whose research work has been contributing or still contributes to the improvement of the living standards of the poorest human beings.  Many of them developed excellent and constructive methods or models, successful practices and inputs, applied in all kinds of development programs for the welfare of farmers and townspeople.

Grassland or farmland, or both?

Grasslands are dominated by grasses. Grassland with scattered individual trees is called savanna.

Savannas cover almost half the surface of Africa (not 70 %). They are characteristic for warm or hot climates with an annual rainfall from about 50 to 125 cm (20-50 inches), concentrated in 6 or 8 months of the year, followed by a dry period when fires can occur. The soil of a savanna is porous, rapidly draining water. It has only a thin layer of humus, which makes them inappropriate for agriculture.

Farmers sometimes cut down small parts of forests, burn the trees, and plant crops for as long as the soil remains fertile. When the field is abandoned a couple of years later, grasses take over and a savanna can be formed.

Elephants can convert woodland into grassland in a short period of time. Shannon Horst is right in saying that ‘Africa’s once vast, healthy savannas were produced by the hoofs and manure of vast herds of grazing animals and pack-hunting predators’.

Some activities are seen as environmental concerns regarding savannas: poaching, overgrazing and clearing of the land for crops. Nevertheless, I can’t imagine that people aiming at a Second Green Revolution would ever plan to turn all those grasslands (half of Africa!) into crop fields, risking the creation of another Dust Bowl or the collapse of all the grasslands.

As savannas are covering half of the African continent, the rural populations of these savannas are indeed ‘pastoralists or agropastoralists who do not farm’, although many of them do have a small garden.  Do we really suspect the international organizations or the big agri-business to plan the transformation of these pastoralists into farmers?

If half of the rural populations of Africa are pastoralists, the other half must be farmers. If half of the continent is covered with savannas, the other half of Africa’s landscape must be farmland in tropical or temperate climate, humid, semi-humid, arid or semi-arid climate zones.

I can’t believe that neither ‘Millions have already been spent by US and European aid organizations throughout Africa on unsuccessful farming programs’, nor that ‘these approaches to increasing food security focus on production without considering the social, economic, and biological consequences’.

To the best of my knowledge, many successful programs and projects with contributions of numerous famous international scientists, with expertise in their different disciplines and belonging to highly qualified institutes, have been set up in collaboration with the very best national experts, to improve agricultural and horticultural practices in almost every African country.  It is not even thinkable that all these programs merit the qualification ‘destructive’.

On the other hand, I gladly take Shannon’s point on the interesting aspects of Allan Savory’s work on the role of livestock for animal husbandry. My high esteem and appreciation go to his remarkable findings.

However, I must admit that I have a lot of difficulties to understand how Savory’s findings on

‘educating local people in practices that blend some older pastoral knowledge and techniques of animal herding with new understanding of how grazing animals, soils, plants, and organisms coevolved and function in a healthy state’ are applicable on Africa’s 50 % of farmland, an ‘ecosystem’ that is so completely different from grassland that the two impossibly can be compared.

Finally, I want to congratulate Shannon for her closing remark:

‘Does this mean we should not support technological innovation? Of course not.

But what we must do is find and support those technologies that not only solve a problem or achieve an objective, but also maintain or enhance the social, financial, and biological fabric of the whole system over the long term’.

If we accept that farmland and grassland are two different entities, with their own intrinsic finality, having a natural tendency to pursue their own good, one should treat them differently according to the traditional (local) knowledge.  That knowledge can be optimized by combining it with modern technologies, aiming not only at improving the live of ALL the rural people, farmers and herders, but also that of the urban people, who will participate in the success of a revolution, be it a brown or a green one, ‘enhancing the social, financial, and biological fabric of the whole system over the long term’.

Honestly, considering all this, I strongly believe that one should first improve the live of women and children in Africa.  Women deserve it to get a better live, because they play a key role in the ‘social, financial, and biological fabric’.  Children deserve it, because they carry the future of a continent in themselves.  Therefore, child malnutrition is a real shame.

The most important challenge for Africa is to improve food security, both on farmland and on grassland.  I am convinced that container gardening will play an important role in the achievement of that food security goal.  All over this beautiful continent women and children should sit first at the table and their daily fresh food on that table will undeniably come from their own kitchen garden and/or school garden, if only we really want to change nutrition as rapidly as the climate.


This text has already been posted on my desertification blog in 2010:


It got 3 comments and was edited today.



(1) Carole Gonzalez:

Wow, that is interesting. My “yes – but” – is that growing food plants in containers in villages is an adjunct to improving the grasslands.  There is much to be said for a paleo diet.  I am diabetic and must follow it to be healthy. Some but not much fruit, mostly green vegetables and meat must compose my diet.  I am looking to send Patrick Harry in Malawi some seeds of trees that grow well under arid circumstances and produce fruit without much or any care.

(2) Frank Ziddah:

“Tons of “super” seeds of rice, maize, cassava and other local staples in various parts of Africa are made available by international development agencies every now and then. The problem with their programmes is that those agencies and their regional or local partners fail to effectively market and convince farmers [mostly educated] to make the switch. Hence, a year or so later adoption and usage rates are not surprisingly [very] low. In short, their efforts fail. Going forward I would suggest a 2-prong approach: better soils + better seeds. “

Frank Ziddah: Having read the post at Scribd, I must agree to your concluding remarks “the most important challenge for Africa is to improve food security,” using solutions suited to Africa’s soil and ecosystem.

(3) Tony Simeone: Very informative exchange that clearly articulates your interest and philosophy on land use – AND recipients of benefits.


See also:



Success stories about food crops and drought-resistant plants





by Prof. Dr. Willem Van Cotthem (Ghent University, Belgium)

Please read this article at:


First get information, then the seeds


Africa: New App to Connect Kenyan Farmers With Climate-Smart Seeds

By Chris Arsenault


A new app launched in Kenya on Wednesday could help millions of farmers adapt to climate change by offering information on the best seeds for changing growing conditions, agriculture experts said.


The free “MbeguChoice” app is the first tool of its kind in sub-Saharan Africa, and was developed by a 25-year-old Kenyan software engineer. “MbeguChoice” means seed choice in Swahili.

It comprises an online database which is also available via a website, and could be expanded to other countries if its roll-out proves successful, officials behind the project said.

“The platform provides information on special characteristics (of different kinds of seeds) for drought tolerance, and the best altitude and area for growing a particular crop,”

Read the full article: allAfrica

Speeding urgently needed seeds of major food crops to communities in West Africa

Photo credit: UN News Centre

Photo: FAO

Ebola: World Bank will provide seeds to farmers in West Africa to ward off hunger


The World Bank Group announced today that it has mobilized some $15 million in emergency financing to provide a record 10,500 tons of maize and rice seed to more than 200,000 farmers in the countries most-affected by the unprecedented Ebola outbreak, in time for the April planting season.

“Agriculture is the lifeline of the economies of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone,” said Makhtar Diop, World Bank Vice-President for Africa. “By speeding supplies of urgently needed seeds of major food crops to communities in West Africa, we are jumpstarting recovery in rural areas and preventing the looming specter of hunger in the countries hardest hit by Ebola.”

According to the World Bank, “more than one million people could go hungry unless they have reliable access to food and emergency measures are taken immediately to safeguard crop and livestock production.”

A recent World Bank Group report shows that the Ebola crisis has taken a heavy toll on the economies in all three countries, and the agriculture and food sectors have been particularly hard hit.

“Reports show that desperate farming families have resorted to eating stored seed originally intended for use in the next cropping cycle. Rural flight has caused harvest-ready crops to wither in the fields,” the World Bank said in its announcement.

Read the full article: UN News Centre


See also: https://www.facebook.com/groups/seedsforfood/



A kitchen garden for work and “Seeds for Food” (Willem Van Cotthem)

Agroforestry and container gardening


Prof. Dr. Willem VAN COTTHEM
Honorary Professor University of Ghent (Belgium)
Beeweg 36 – BE 9080 ZAFFELARE (Belgium)

We have been discussing with colleagues and friends the need to link forestry and agriculture (agroforestry) in order to motivate local people in the drylands to do the fieldwork of a reforestation project by offering them first a family garden at the very start of the project.

Hungry people with an empty stomach don’t plant thousands of trees easily and with enthusiasm. We have never been in favor of ‘Food for Work’, because it is not changing the cause of hunger.  We would rather change it into ‘A Kitchen Garden for Work’.

The ‘Seeds for Food’ action is heading for a remarkable success (http://www.seedsforfood.org) and ‘Zaden voor Voedsel’ (https://www.facebook.com/groups/306683870332/).  People from all over Europe, even from Canada and the USA, are nowadays sending us seeds of vegetables and fruit trees.  After proper treatment they are sent for free to different development projects in the drylands, e.g. to refugee camps, where people start constructing family (kitchen) gardens and school gardens.

We are convinced that people, in particular children, are strongly interested in container gardening.  We have published photo albums on Facebook about some simple experiments we did at home, growing avocado seeds in plastic bottles and yogurt pots:


We also produced a number of YOU TUBE films on this subject, e.g. Building a bottle tower for container gardening : http://youtu.be/-uDbjZ9roEQ

 2009-11-20 AVOCADO P1020917

 Avocado seed (Persea americana) in a mini-greenhouse made of 2 yogurt pots (Photo WVC P1020916)

It is astonishing to see how visitors at home are amazed when looking at the wonderful aspects of developing seedlings in simple bottles or pots, not to mention the educational value of having all the stages of seedling development within hand reach. This should be done at every school. There is no better way to show youngsters the beauty of young trees and vegetables.


Avocado seedling developing in a yogurt pot with potting soil (Photo WVC P1030547)


Seedling developing in a mineral water bottle. Root development can be observed. (Photo WVC 2010-02-03 AVOCADO P1030533)

If ever we could convince all the school children of this world to grow some seedlings of fruit trees in pots and bottles at school, they could plant them at home or in the schoolyard and contribute to the greening of the earth.  Wouldn’t it be remarkable if one could find fruit trees growing everywhere?  Something to alleviate hunger starting from seeds in pots or bottles? Something to take care of our environment by collecting all the otherwise littered bottles and pots?

 2009-12-30 AVOCADO P1030100

Left: avocado seedling with three shoots. Right: an avocado seedling in the small bottom part of a yoghurt pot (see the start of the experiment with the mini-greenhouse above) – Photo WVC P1030100


Strong avocado seedling in a mineral water bottle, ready to be planted in the field. (Photo WVC P1030529)

So, let us collect seeds in every country, seeds of vegetables, seeds of the fruits we are eating (normally thrown in the garbage bin or on the compost heap) and offer these “germs of new life” for free to the hungry of this world. Offering an opportunity to grow food crops in millions of family gardens and to grow fruit trees wherever we can plant them, is a straight way (an avenue, a highway!) to taking care of hunger, poverty and climate change. We are no dreamers, but scientists and social workers, tired of all that endless talking, talking, talking, but fit enough to offer full-heartedly their experience and expertise through supporting and participating in very practical actions.

Let’s reach hands to promote this inexpensive method.

Seeds to save our food heritage (YES!)

Read at :


Why the Most Powerful Thing in the World Is a Seed

“The Seed Underground” is a love letter to the quiet revolutionaries who are saving our food heritage.

Janisse Ray celebrates the local, organic food movement but fears we’re forgetting something elemental: the seeds. According to Ray, what is happening with our seeds is not pretty. Ninety-four percent of vintage open-pollinated fruit and vegetable varieties have vanished over the last century.

Ray begins The Seed Underground: A Growing Revolution to Save Food by explaining how we lost our seeds. Feeding ourselves has always been a burden for humans, she explains. “So when somebody came along and said, ‘I’ll do that cultivating for you. I’ll save the seeds. You do something else,’ most of us jumped at the chance to be free.”

But, according to Ray, when the dwindling number of farmers who stayed on the land gave up on saving seeds and embraced hybridization, genetically modified organisms, and seed patents in order to make money, we became slaves to multinational corporations like Monsanto and Syngenta, which now control our food supply.


Saving Seeds to Save a Culture (Foodtank)

Read at :


Navdanya: Saving Seeds to Save a Culture

“Seed is the first link in the food chain. Saving seeds is our duty, sharing seeds is our culture,” says Dr. Vandana Shiva, founder of Navdanya, an organization whose mission is to conserve and save seeds, promote sustainability, teach healthy eating and cooking, and foster the success of women farmers in Indian.

Navdanya, which translates to “Nine Seeds,” represents the nine crops that are essential to India’s food security. It sees women as an essential party of agriculture because, in Shiva’s words, “when women do farming, they do it for life…they do it for their children, they do it for nutrition, they do it for taste.” Currently, the seed savers have collected approximately 5,000 crop varieties of indigenous seeds, which are then made available to Indian farmers, free of charge.


Seeds for Food on Dutch TV (Willem Van Cotthem)

An interview for the Dutch YV :



Het laatste deel van de EO-uitzending op Nederland 2 (Aflevering 322/Georgië 3 van 23 februari 2012) waarin vooral de actie “Zaden voor Voedsel” op een sublieme wijze belicht werd.

Last part of the EO-programme on “The Netherlands help” / Nederland 2 (Part 322/ Georgia 3 of Feb. 23, 2012), in which mainly the action “Seeds for Food” was illustrated in a magnificent way.

Video on combating desertification with “Seeds for Food” (Willem Van Cotthem)

My newest video is in Dutch language, but anyone can understand the message : the images are speaking for themselves :


Its Dutch title is :


It’s a part of a series of the Dutch Evangelical Broadcasting Organisation (EO, English: Evangelical Broadcasting), called “Nederland Helpt” (The Netherlands help).

This video shows some aspects of a Flemish initiative, called “Zaden voor Voedsel” (Seeds for Food).  See also www.seedsforfood.org.

Sustainable food production / Duurzame Voeding (Tim JOYE-LNE Flanders / Willem VAN COTTHEM)

In Dutch : Sustainable food production (duurzame voeding)

by Tim JOYE – LNE Flanders


Importing seeds of food crops : it’s against the law (Willem Van Cotthem)

In 2007, I have launched the action “Seeds for Food” (http://www.seedsforfood.org)  . This initiative, aiming at offering free seeds of food crops to hungry people in developing countries is a fantastic success, seeds of tropical and subtropical food crops being sent almost every day to my personal address.

I select those seeds per species, give them the necessary treatment and offer them for free to development projects almost all over the world.

So, what’s wrong with this ?

The problem is that in many countries import of seeds is prohibited.  Recently, I received a message indicating that I even could get in trouble with this action.

Well, you will find my reaction on that message below.  Maybe, you want to comment on this ?  You can do so by sending an email to willem.vancotthemadgmail.com.


Dear Friend,

You are completely right, it is forbidden to import :

“Plants, parts thereof, and plant produce including trees and shrubs, potatoes and certain other vegetables, fruit, bulbs, and seeds – unless permitted to do so”

This became a rule in many countries after they got invaded by some imported “wild, invasive species without any predator”, e.g. some noxious weeds or some animals (like the rabbits in Australia).

But I can easily show that this rule (law) is nonsense in some aspects for seeds of food crops !

If one is not allowed to import seeds (because of the danger that with these seeds some parasites or wild invasive seeds could be imported), why is a country accepting that cargo ships full of cereals (corn, rice, wheat, etc.) from all over the world are importing their load freely in any harbour ?  Don’t mention the mice and the rats traveling with the cereals !

Why do the authorities accept that in and around every harbour of this world foreign (sometimes invasive) weeds are growing, fruiting, seeding freely ?  There is even a particular “harbour flora” !

Why do the governments accept that on every airport, in every railway station, in every bus station, foreign plants are growing, imported with the airplanes, trains and cars (they are called adventitious species)?

Would we really mind if one or another food crop would start developing freely in a dryland country where people lack food ?  What would people say if the deserts would be gradually covered with the date palms we imported, with tomatoes, onions, radishes, …?

Would we still need to invest billions in building “Great Green Walls” with non-edible, wood producing, commercially interesting trees ?


I could go on for a long time with examples, but I leave it to this last one :  every tourist entering a country is importing with her (his) body a lot of foreign organisms (bacteria sticking to our hands, seeds sticking to our shoes and luggage, etc.).  Nobody is penalizing those “importers of prohibited goods”, although we are continuously transmitting bacteria and viruses when we shake hands with the people we meet (and they are “offering” us their free bacteria too) !

And thus, sorry for the expression, that prohibition of importing seeds of food crops is “bullshit” (which is an organic fertilizer).

My advice : don’t worry about importing well-treated seeds of food crops. People should understand that we only want to help the poor to a bit of fresh food.

And if they don’t accept, will I be put in jail ?


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