The conversation fluctuates between a legendary Tunki coffee and a brand new pisco, Larroca, served up cold, in accordance with the tastes of its creator: Bernardo Roca Rey, architect of the Novoandino cuisine, exquisite epicure, president of the Peruvian Society of Gastronomy (APEGA), and the current promoter of the rescue and rehabilitation of Peru’s millions of acres of agricultural terraces.

How was this project born?
In the Ministry of Culture, during my time as Viceminster for Cultural Heritage, I had the the opportunity to be close to the issue of the terraces. Conserving the walls of the terraces is what the ministry must do with its archaeologists, and it works, but it is expensive. The other way is that the farms work them, and in so doing, they will also provide maintenance. If there are a million hectares of terraces, 700,000 of those are abandoned.

Up until 1999, there were programs to map the Andean terraces, but they have been abandoned. Days ago, in Mistura, we managed to gather together seven ministers to talk about the Andean diet, and one of them was Trivelli (Minister of Development), who has done studies of the terraces. APEGA goes hand-in-hand with two ideas: nutrition and social inclusion. In both cases, the Andean terraces are important to recuperate. If there are a million hectares, that’s a little bit more than 10% of all the arable land used for cultivation in Peru, and it’s a shame that that land isn’t being used.

What is the Ministry of Culture doing about it?
They have abandoned all of the projects that existed. There isn’t even a complete map of the terraces in Peru, where they are and which they are. They’ve identified barely 50% of them.

Is mapping the first step for their recuperation?
The first step is a pilot project: take 500 hectares and adopt them. The objective is that these lands, which are the most productive in Peru, offer the Peruvian restaurants of the world the Andean grains that are so fashionable. For years, I have been promoting the Novoandina cuisine, and among those crops are quinoa, oca, mashua, products which will soon be fashionable. We started with quinoa twenty years ago, and it’s a success today.

What is the idea? To give value added through the denomination of origin; having products that are introduced with the gastronomic boom and also grown on Andean terraces, some of which are three thousand years old. That a restaurant in Paris, for example, adopts a terrace and once a year offers roasted, glazed mashua. What you will have then is a cultural phenomenon which will allow for value to be added to the product, and the farmer will be well-paid.

Additionally, if they are crops from the VRAE, where there are many terraces, it can be another type of assistance. For example, the U.S. government and restaurants in the U.S. could receive those crops, which are also organic. Everything goes hand-in-hand: biodiversity, ancestral crops, new cuisine, boutique agriculture, all of those go together and break the inertia. And that the state puts in $500 million to save a certain number of terraces.


Where will you realize the pilot project?

The closer to Lima, the easier. In APEGA, we have a project with the Interamerican Development Bank, which has given us $3 million as a nonrefundable amount for supply chains, and with part of that we could begin to work on this subject.

I firmly believe that the Andean diet is related to the terraces, so that all of the ministry portfolios are related to this: Tourism, Agriculture, Social Inclusion and Health. The issue is in the hands of the state. I have calculated that it takes an average of $5,800 to recover one hectare. In APEGA, we can recover 100, but with the state or help from abroad, we could recover thousands. Some villagers in Ayacucho are already willing, and the corn that they haven’t grown for a while could be cultivated there. There is a fungus, which in Mexico they eat and call huitlacoche, which contaminates the corn crops, and in Cusco, the infected corn are just tossed out. It would be interesting to grow the infected corn, in order to sell the fungus, which elsewhere is worth much more than the corn itself. The same monks cress plant that I am growing in my garden can be used to produce “Incapers,” in place of regular capers.

Going back in time, what was your first contact with the Peruvian terraces?
I was a boy, because my family led me to this and traveled a lot. I remember being very young and lying down on a terrace in Machu Picchu and looking at the stars, thinking that this was the best thing you could ever do. Who would have guessed that I would end up having to care for them myself…

If we develop them, Peru, instead of having 1.2 million kilometers, would have 2 million. That is, we would be as big as a flat country like Mexico.

 

By Maribel de Paz  (“Caretas” magazine from PERU). 

Translated and adapted by Nick Rosen, October 4, 2012

 

Food for hungry mouths, feed for animals headed to the slaughterhouse, fiber for clothing and even, in some cases, fuel for vehicles—all derive from global agriculture. As a result, in the world’s temperate climes human agriculture has supplanted 70 percent of grasslands, 50 percent of savannas and 45 percent of temperate forests. Farming is also the leading cause of deforestation in the tropics and one of thelargest sources of greenhouse gas emissions, a major contributor to the ongoing maul of species known as the “sixth extinction,” and a perennial source of nonrenewable groundwater mining and water pollution.

To restrain the environmental impact of agriculture as well as produce more wholesome foods, some farmers have turned to so-called organic techniques. This type of farming is meant to minimize environmental and human health impacts by avoiding the use of synthetic fertilizers, chemical pesticides and hormones or antibiotic treatments for livestock, among other tactics. But the use of industrial technologies, particularly synthetic nitrogen fertilizer, has fed the swelling human population during the last century. Can organic agriculture feed a world of nine billion people?

In a bid to bring clarity to what has too often been an emotional debate, environmental scientists at McGill University in Montreal and the University of Minnesota performed an analysis of 66 studies comparing conventional and organicmethods across 34 different crop species. “We found that, overall, organic yields are considerably lower than conventional yields,” explains McGill’s Verena Seufert, lead author of the study to be published in Nature on April 26. (Scientific American is part of Nature Publishing Group.) “But, this yield difference varies across different conditions. When farmers apply best management practices, organic systems, for example, perform relatively better.”

In particular, organic agriculture delivers just 5 percent less yield in rain-watered legume crops, such as alfalfa or beans, and in perennial crops, such as fruit trees. But when it comes to major cereal crops, such as corn or wheat, and vegetables, such as broccoli, conventional methods delivered more than 25 percent more yield.

The key limit to further yield increases via organic methods appears to be nitrogen—large doses of synthetic fertilizer can keep up with high demand from crops during the growing season better than the slow release from compost, manure or nitrogen-fixing cover crops. Of course, the cost of using 171 million metric tons of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer is paid in dead zones at the mouths of many of the world’s rivers. These anoxic zones result from nitrogen-rich runoff promoting algal blooms that then die and, in decomposing, suck all the oxygen out of surrounding waters. “To address the problem of [nitrogen] limitation and to produce high yields, organic farmers should use best management practices, supply more organic fertilizers or grow legumes or perennial crops,” Seufert says.

In fact, more knowledge would be key to any effort to boost organic farming or its yields. Conventional farming requires knowledge of how to manage what farmers know as inputs—synthetic fertilizer, chemical pesticides and the like—as well as fields laid out precisely via global-positioning systems. Organic farmers, on the other hand, must learn to manage an entire ecosystem geared to producing food—controlling pests through biological means, using the waste from animals to fertilize fields and even growing one crop amidst another. “Organic farming is a very knowledge-intensive farming system,” Seufert notes. An organic farmer “needs to create a fertile soil that provides sufficient nutrients at the right time when the crops need them. The same is true for pest management.”

But the end result is a healthier soil, which may prove vital in efforts to make it more resilient in the face of climate change as well as conserve it. Organic soils, for example, retain water better than those farms that employ conventional methods. “You use a lot more water [in irrigation] because the soil doesn’t have the capacity to retrain the water you use,” noted farmer Fred Kirschenmann, president of Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture at the “Feeding the World While the Earth Cooks” event at the New America Foundation in Washington, D.C., on April 12.

At the same time, a still-growing human population requires more food, which has led some to propose further intensifying conventional methods of applying fertilizer and pesticides to specially bred crops, enabling either a second Green Revolution or improved yields from farmlands currently under cultivation. Crops genetically modified to endure drought may also play a role as well as efforts to develop perennial versions of annual staple crops, such as wheat, which could help reduce environmental impacts and improve soil. “Increasing salt, drought or heat tolerance of our existing crops can move them a little but not a lot,” said biologist Nina Fedoroff of Pennsylvania State University at the New America event. “That won’t be enough.”

And breeding new perennial versions of staple crops would require compressing millennia of crop improvements that resulted in the high-yielding wheat varieties of today, such as the dwarf wheat created by breeder Norman Borlaug and his colleagues in the 1950s, into a span of years while changing the fundamental character of wheat from an annual crop to a perennial one. Then there is the profit motive. “The private sector is not likely to embrace an idea like perennial crop seeds, which do not require the continued purchase of seeds and thus do not provide a very good source of profit,” Seufert notes.

Regardless, the world already produces 22 trillion calories annually via agriculture, enough to provide more than 3,000 calories to every person on the planet. The food problem is one of distribution and waste—whether the latter is food spoilage during harvest, in storage or even after purchase. According to the Grocery Manufacturers Association, in the U.S. alone, 215 meals per person go to waste annually.

“Since the world already produces more than enough food to feed everyone well, there are other important considerations” besides yield, argues ecologist Catherine Badgley of the University of Michigan, who also compared yields from organic and conventional methods in a 2006 study (pdf) that found similar results. Those range from environmental impacts of various practices to the number of people employed in farming. As it stands, conventional agriculture relies on cheap energy, cheap labor and other unsustainable practices. “Anyone who thinks we will be using Roundup [a herbicide] in eight [thousand] to 10,000 years is foolish,” argued organic evangelist Jeff Moyer, farm director the Rodale Institute, at the New America Foundation event.

But there is unlikely to be a simple solution. Instead the best farming practices will vary from crop to crop and place to place. Building healthier soils, however, will be key everywhere. “Current conventional agriculture is one of the major threats to the environment and degrades the very natural resources it depends on. We thus need to change the way we produce our food,” Seufert argues. “Given the current precarious situation of agriculture, we should assess many alternative management systems, including conventional, organic, other agro-ecological and possibly hybrid systems to identify the best options to improve the way we produce our food.”

 

By David Biello  | S.A. / April 25, 2012

He was on Ecuador‘s bank notes and stamps, an evolutionary remnant, a money-spinning tourist attraction and an icon of internationalconservation. No one knew if he was gay, impotent, bored or just very shy. But he is thought to have been about 100 years old and in his primewhen he died on Sunday at the Charles Darwin research centre in theGalápagos Islands, although the giant tortoise known as Lonesome George and commonly called the “rarest animal on Earth” may in fact have been far older – or much younger.

In the 40 years he spent in a field on Santa Cruz Island, having been relocated from Pinta Island in 1972, the 200lb, 5ft-long animal showed little interest in either man or other tortoises. He mostly ignored thefemale company provided to encourage him to breed, kept his 3ft scraggy neck down in the long grass, and only responded to his keeper, Fausto Llerena, who runs a tortoise breeding centre.

“The park ranger in charge of looking after the tortoises found Lonesome George, his body was motionless,” said Edwin Naula, head of the Galápagos National Park. “His lifecycle came to an end.”

George was found near a water hole, but no one knows how or why he died, and evolutionary scientists are still baffled by his life in the volcanic Pacific islands 1,000km off Ecuador that inspired Darwin’s theories on evolution and which are now a global laboratory for conservation.

The last known representative of the giant Galápagos tortoise subspecies Chelonoidis nigra abingdoni had every reason to shun humanity, however. His relatives were exterminated for food or oil by whalers and seal hunters in the 19th century, and his habitat on Pinta was devastated by escaped goats. George possibly has relations on neighbouring Isabela Island, but it is more likely his whole subspecies is now extinct – the end of what is probably a 10m-year-old line.

On Monday, scientists who had spent time with George recalled his peculiar ways. “George was the last of his kind. He had a unique personality. His natural tendency was to avoid people. He was very evasive. He had his favourites and his routines, but he really only came close to his keeper Llerena. He represents what we wanted to preserve for ever. When he looked at you, you saw time in the eyes,” said Joe Flanagan, the head vet of the Houston zoo, who knew George for more than 20 years.

Scientists’ attempts to get George to mate with other giant tortoises from the Galápagos Islands and to eventually repopulate Pinta all failed and were often comical. Artificial insemination did not work, nor did a $10,000 reward offered by the Ecuadorean government for a suitable mate. In the 1990s, Sveva Grigioni, a Swiss zoology graduate student, smeared herself with female tortoise hormones and, in the cause of science, spent four months trying to manually stimulate him – to no avail.

In 2008 and 2009 George unexpectedly mated with one of his two companions, but although two clutches of eggs were collected and incubated, all failed to hatch.

Henry Nicholls, author of Lonesome George: The Life and Loves of the World’s Most Famous Tortoise, reported that George was irresistibly attracted to the late Lord Devon’s wartime helmet, presumably because it resembled the shell of a young tortoise. Even after being put on a diet, the celibate tortoise with the scraggy neck, who could have been expected to live until he was well over 200, remained obstinately alone.

Conservation scientists on Monday said George was important because he symbolised both the rapid loss of biodiversity now taking place around the world, and provided the inspiration to begin restoring it in places like the Galápagos Islands. “Because of George’s fame, Galápagos tortoises which were down to just a few animals on some islands have recovered their populations. He opened the door to finding new genetic techniques to help them breed and showed the way to restore habitats,” said Richard Knab of the Galápagos Conservancy, which is running giant tortoise breeding programmes with the Ecuadorean government.

In 1960, 11 of the Galápagos Islands’ original 14 populations of tortoises remained, and most were on the point of extinction. Today, around 20,000 giant tortoises of different subspecies inhabit the islands and most of the feral goats have been eradicated.

But George will be sorely missed for financial reasons, too. As the star of the islands and an icon of global wildlife, he helped attract 180,000 money-spinning visitors a year to the archipelago. He is likely to become a conservation relic and will probably be embalmed and displayed – alone still.

 

* By , environment editor, Guardian, 25 June 2012