A fruitful diary in 2008, and now … ?

Photo credit: WVC 2007-01

UNICEF’s Representative Raymond JANSSENS and his delegation visiting one of the hundreds of family gardens in the refugee camps of S.W. Algeria (Sahara desert)

THE DIARY OF : “Family gardens, school gardens and urban gardening against the actual food crisis”

by Willem Van Cotthem

See more: European Tribune

Six years after publishing my contribution at the EUROPEAN TRIBUNE,  I am still reading with great interest the comments in the diary. However, enchanted by so many positive reactions in 2008, I remain wondering why this message has not been leading to new initiatives in the field.

UNICEF’s project of “Family gardens in the refugee camps of the Saharawis in S. W. Algeria” was a remarkable success in 2005-2007. Why was it stopped ?

The diary about my posting in the European Tribune in 2008 was extremely fruitful.  And now ?

Here are some interesting comments:

gardening against the actual food crisis (4.00 / 5)
Sounds like this story could be relatedIndependent – Malawi’s farming revolution sets the pace in Africa

A green revolution taking place in the fields of Malawi has, in three years, turned a nation that was once reliant on international aid to feed half its population into a food exporter. In doing so, it has set an example for other developing countries struggling to feed themselves. But it has done it all against the express wishes of Britain, the United States and the World Bank – its largest donors.

Malawi suffered a catastrophic drought in 2005. The World Food Programme estimated that five million people – out of a population of 12 million – needed food aid and many villages reported people dying of starvation.

A new government, led by Bingu wa Mutharika, believed the problem was straightforward. Farmers were using seeds that were highly susceptible to disease and weevils, and too few were using fertiliser. If farmers could afford high-yield maize seeds and fertiliser, the government argued, they would be able to grow enough food. At a cost of £30m, the government launched a subsidisation scheme. With a state coupon, the price of a bag of fertiliser fell from 6,500 kwacha (£23) to 900, while a 2kg bag of hybrid maize seed dropped from 600 kwacha to 30.

keep to the Fen Causeway

by Helen (lareinagal at yahoo dot co dot uk) on Mon May 5th, 2008 at 02:39:34 PM EST

Re: gardening against the actual food crisis (4.00 / 5)
Thanks Helen.  You are completely right : the recent “Green Revolution”in the drylands of Malawi is at least partly due to small-scale horticulture by the rural population.  NGOs play a very important role in this (r)evolution.  Their successes should inspire donors, and not only the largest ones, to provide substantial financial aid for duplication of these “best practices” at the largest national and even international scale.Food aid can only be a temporary relief, because it is never eliminating the causes of the drought catastrophe. Think at my variant of the Chinese proverb : “Don’t bring these people food, teach them how to grow it”.

Prof. Dr. Willem Van Cotthem Beeweg 36 – B 9080 Zaffelare (Belgium)

by willem vancotthem (willem.vancotthem@gmail.com) on Tue May 6th, 2008 at 03:34:19 AM EST
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Re: Family gardens, school gardens and urban gardens (4.00 / 3)
Welcome to ET, Willem.I tend to agree with you that small farming (and, why not, urban etc gardening, about which I have a diary in preparation, with application to Europe)is likely to feed people more and better than large-scale industrial plantation enterprises.

But can you tell us why the drought management techniques you propose could not be used by big farms as well as small?

by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Mon May 5th, 2008 at 03:59:37 PM EST

Re: Family gardens, school gardens and urban garde (4.00 / 2)
Hello afew.  Small-scale gardening in rural or urban areas is more effective for the poor, hungry people than the industrial farms, for different reasons.  It is determined by daily actions at their own level and not by sophisticated mechanization or high-tech production schemes.  Return on investment is always significantly higher, because investment in simple horticultural tools and materials is low and production is always close to the kitchen, without intermediary transport and stocking costs.The drought management techniques I mentioned (water stocking soil conditioners) can certainly be used by big farms too.  However, it is my personal experience that it is very difficult to convince industrial farmers to change their traditional farming methods (e.g. use of mineral fertilizers and fine-tuned irrigation systems).  Investment in “new” soil conditioners seems only possible after years of experimentation.  But the day will come …

Prof. Dr. Willem Van Cotthem Beeweg 36 – B 9080 Zaffelare (Belgium)

by willem vancotthem (willem.vancotthem@gmail.com) on Tue May 6th, 2008 at 03:50:59 AM EST
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Re: Family gardens, school gardens… (none / 0)
Can someone provide some numbers on family/urban/school garden productivity? It’s important to get a handle on this, in terms of kilocalories per day on an annualized basis.Adult diets are around 2000 kilocalories per day (about 2.3 kilowatt-hours, if you prefer those units for some inscrutable reason — about like a 100 W light bulb).

Words and ideas I offer here may be used freely and without attribution.

by technopolitical on Mon May 5th, 2008 at 05:08:28 PM EST

Re: Family gardens, school gardens… (none / 0)
The range of climates, micro-climates, technological level, cultivar availability, weather patterns, land use patterns, farming/gardening practices – to name a few – of urban areas, considered globally, make it impossible to determine useful comparative statistics.In general, horticultural techniques yield more food value per land area and diverse agricultural production operations (many different crops and mixed-use areas) yield the highest food value.

Skepticism is the first step on the road to truth. — Denis Diderot

by ATinNM on Tue May 6th, 2008 at 01:28:00 AM EST
[ Parent ]

Re: Family gardens, school gardens… (4.00 / 2)
Hello technopolitical.  I take the point of the next comment below : it is almost impossible to make valuable statistics on comparative horticultural productivity because of the dramatic differences in location, climatic variation, soil quality etc.Data on adult diets and the number of kilocalories or joules are undeniably important. However, one should also take into account that the daily consumption of fresh food (vegetables and fruits) plays an extremely important role in public health, particularly for children, because of a significant enhancement in vitamins and mineral elements. Having a small family garden or a school garden will perhaps not solve ALL the food problems of the rural or urban poor, but it certainly will avoid a number of classical diseases and hunger.

Prof. Dr. Willem Van Cotthem Beeweg 36 – B 9080 Zaffelare (Belgium)

by willem vancotthem (willem.vancotthem@gmail.com) on Tue May 6th, 2008 at 04:04:37 AM EST
[ Parent ]

Re: Family gardens, school gardens and urban garde (none / 1)
Thank you Prof. van Cotthem for this diary.

Application of water stocking soil conditioners, keeping the soil moistened with a minimum of irrigation water, and seeding or planting more drought tolerant species and varieties will definitely contribute to solve the food crisis.

This is exciting information as it implies a means to halt the desertification of sub-Sahara Africa, a path to reclaiming land lost to desertification, as well as the developing world’s food crisis.

A triple win.

Skepticism is the first step on the road to truth. — Denis Diderot

by ATinNM on Tue May 6th, 2008 at 01:45:21 AM EST

Re: Family gardens, school gardens and urban gardens (4.00 / 2)
Sincere thanks ATinNM. With my team at the University of Ghent (Belgium), I have developed this water and fertilizer stocking soil conditioner.  In more than 20 years it has shown its benefits for horticulture, agriculture and forestry in the drylands.  Several humanitarian projects in Africa and Asia have been remarkably successful.  Actual projects in Algeria (Tindouf area) and India (Tamil Nadu) show the same positive results.The question remains : why is it so difficult to convince the donors to invest in large-scale application of this cost-effective technology. Like you said, it is “a means to halt the desertification of sub-Sahara Africa, a path to reclaiming land lost to desertification, as well as the developing world’s food crisis.”

When will this message be understood ?

Prof. Dr. Willem Van Cotthem Beeweg 36 – B 9080 Zaffelare (Belgium)

by willem vancotthem (willem.vancotthem@gmail.com) on Tue May 6th, 2008 at 04:34:41 AM EST
[ Parent ]

Getting funding to distribute TerraCottem (4.00 / 3)
Thank you for this informative and inspiring article.willem vancotthem: why is it so difficult to convince the donors to invest in large-scale application of this cost-effective technology.

In the article about that Helen referenced above, it says that Malawi’s largest donors (Britain, the United States and the World Bank) initially refused to fund Malawi’s “revolutionary” program that provided subsidies to farmers to buy high-yield seeds and fertilizer.  However, upon seeing the results, “international donors [including Britain], after early scepticism, now support the scheme”.

willem vancotthem: Several humanitarian projects in Africa and Asia have been remarkably successful.  Actual projects in Algeria (Tindouf area) and India (Tamil Nadu) show the same positive results.

What is the visibility of these programs to the decision makers in large donor organizations and bureaucracies?  Do you have anyone inside them to champion the use of your soil conditioner?

Also, have you approached deep-pocketed private donors, such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the MacArthur Foundation?  It seems probable that some of these large charitable organizations would be very interested in supporting you.  And assuming the results of these pilot projects continue to be positive with only minimal (if any) harmful side-effects, then such major philanthropies may also have the connections and/or influence on governments to persuade them to use TerraCottem on a more wide-scale basis (in addition, obviously, to the money to fund them).

A language is a dialect with an army and navy.

by marco on Tue May 6th, 2008 at 06:07:55 AM EST
[ Parent ]

Re: Getting funding to distribute TerraCottem (none / 0)
Dear Marco.  You are completely right : international and private donors, even deep-pocketed ones, are well-known. They could (should) be interested in providing funds for large-scale application of “success stories”.  However, this picture changes as soon as “a good idea” is “commercialized”.  The soil conditioner TerraCottem, which I developed at the University of Ghent (Belgium), showed its potentialities all over the world : plants can be grown easily and successfully with a minimum of water and fertilizer.  So far, so good for our nice idea !  But from here to convince donors to finance larger quantities of such a “commercial” product (produced by a spin-off company of the Ghent University) is far more difficult.  That small TerraCottem company is not in a position to fund large programs at the global level.  Thus the money should come from donors.  The question is : will they contribute to the prosperity of a business company, even if that soil conditioner can help to solve the problems of drought, desertification and poverty ?  We all know that TerraCottem can be one of  the best tools to make the life of poor rural or even urban people quickly better by making small kitchen garden very productive.  But who wants to purchase such a commercial product for humanitarian projects ?  It will need serious lobbying and introduction of numerous files.  And I am not a lobbyist !  Who is interested ?

Prof. Dr. Willem Van Cotthem Beeweg 36 – B 9080 Zaffelare (Belgium)

by willem vancotthem (willem.vancotthem@gmail.com) on Sun May 11th, 2008 at 06:20:20 AM EST
[ Parent ]

Re: Family gardens, school gardens (none / 0)
welcome, professor!i enjoyed this diary, it is heartening to hear such good news from Academia, especially about issues as important as this.

i have seen consumer houseplants soil conditioners before, how is Terracottem different?

i have read in organic gardening magazines that simple rock dust adds great fertility to food gardening. i am thinking of going to the local quarry and getting a load to test out.

i have not heard of anyone doing this in my area, so they will probably give quite a funny look!

(rock dust is touted for its helping the longterm uptake of important nutirtional minerals in food crops, a bit OT from the thread about water retention, but similar enough not to be too much of a distraction, i hope).

if this works, wouldn’t it be a relatively inexpensive way to help the poor eat better from their own gardens, and wouldn’t it be smart to get this program running with the last of the fossil fuels we are burning so profligately? rock dust is heavy, and there’s only so much donkeys can carry!

thanks for adding your voice and reports of your good work to ET, we are fortunate to have more authoritative info on soil science joining us here. other than the quality of air we breathe and water we drink, (obviously very connected to the amount we waste on inefficient crop watering), what else can be more relevant to our continued survival as a species?

“We can all be prosperous but we can’t all be rich.” Ian Welsh

by melo (melometa4(at)gmail.com) on Wed May 7th, 2008 at 03:17:24 AM EST

Re: Family gardens, school gardens (none / 0)
Dear melo.  Thanks for your appreciation of my work on the soil conditioner TerraCottem, which is a compound of more than twenty different substances, working in synergy to produce more biomass with less water and less fertiliser.  In this it differs from most of the available soil conditioners, which are mostly single products, consisting of one or two chemical substances.  TerraCottem’s most important objective, apart from other application possibilities, is to help poor rural and urban people to more fresh food with a minimum of water and fertiliser.  Small kitchen gardens can be made in almost every free space, even on roofs.  One can also switch to container gardening in almost every kind of container (flower pots, bottles, barrels, old wheelbarrows, yoghurt pots, etc.).  One can find a lot of applications of container gardening on my blog containergardening.wordpress.com.  You are right in saying that rock dust can be used as a good fertiliser for poor soils.  Indeed, rocks contain a number of fertilising mineral elements and rock dust, mixed with a poor soil (e.g. sand) will certainly contribute to the enhancement in dosage of certain, but not all mineral elements.

Prof. Dr. Willem Van Cotthem Beeweg 36 – B 9080 Zaffelare (Belgium)

by willem vancotthem (willem.vancotthem@gmail.com) on Sun May 11th, 2008 at 06:37:28 AM EST
[ Parent ]

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