An insider’s view of subsistence agriculture

A slight break from the norm – I wanted to share what I’d leant about agriculture in The Gambia. I travelled up river to Janjanbureh with a girl who was spending 2 years living in a village close to the Senegalese border in the east. It was fascinating to hear her point of view based on her experience of village life, and it made me realise how different attitudes and education are over there. I had plenty of time to think about how to lift people out of poverty, and whether science is the way to go.

One of her roles is to educate the villagers about ways of improving productivity. This includes crop rotation, planting nitrogen-fixing plants, using manure as fertiliser, and not removing all the plant matter (stubble etc) from the field at the end of the season. So it’s simple stuff to us, but it’s not common practice there and people are reluctant to accept it. She worried that if she didn’t show instant results then people went back to their old ways.

So we already have knowledge that could improve productivity, but education holds that back. So we could merrily develop the best agricultural system imaginable, but we shouldn’t assume that just because we know it’s good it will be instantly accepted and adopted.

As for technologies that could improve productivity, there are no mechanical tools. I helped a lady harvest rice with a blunt knife, one stem at a time. But maybe that’s no bad thing – people need livelihoods and I didn’t see evidence that lack of man power meant crops couldn’t be harvested. I’ve no idea how ploughs, harrows, mechanical harvesters etc increase yields.

There are, however, pesticides. Disturbingly, our local guide said pesticides are applied for red-billed hornbills. If that’s true, I find spraying for birds very worrying. So will better pesticides help? The ones they have are badly used and they can’t afford newer ones. Is making different types going to change that? The government does spray from planes when there are outbreaks of locusts and that seems like a pesticide worth using.

This post seems long enough already and there are lots of questions, so I’ll stop here and continue soon. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts.


About Rebecca Nesbit

I am author of a popular science book 'Is that Fish in your Tomato?' exploring the fact and fiction of GM crops. In my work and leisure so far, I have trained bees to detect explosives, used a radar to study butterflies for my PhD, written a novel, taken the train from London to China, organised Biology Week, sold science jewellery on Etsy, and traveled to four continents with Nobel Laureates. Best off all, I've made lots of friends whose support I very much appreciate. Thank you! Please visit my website:
This entry was posted in Advances in technology, Food security, Personal observation. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to An insider’s view of subsistence agriculture

  1. I’ve never heard of pesticides being used against birds… I mean I know some insecticides have knock on consequences to birds (see DDT and bioaccumulation) but I’ve never heard of them being used specifically against birds…how odd.

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