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By: ECHO Staff
Published: 2017-01-16

This article summarizes several of the plenary sessions presented at the 2016 ECHO conference in Florida. If you were unable to attend the conference, or would like to review some of the talks, many of them can be viewed on ECHOcommunity.  Other 2016 presentations that appear there include "Tropical legumes for sustained cropping on marginal soils," "Silvopastoral systems in Brazil," and "Culturing beneficial microbiology for farming." Talks given in previous years are also available on the website.

Biodigestion: Dr. Ann Wilkie

Dr. Ann Wilkie from the University of Florida spoke about biodigestion. This process produces biogas and also results in a high-nutrient organic fertilizer.

Biogas is a mixture of different gases, primarily methane (CH4), produced through anaerobic fermentation of organic material. The methane can be used in a manner very similar to natural gas. It is most efficiently and easily used for cooking. 

During biodigestion, much of the carbon in the organic feeder material is pulled off and converted to methane. Nutrients, including N, P and K, are left in the remaining bioslurry. These nutrients are in plant-available form and are excellent for use as a fertilizer. Bioslurry can be added to compost or directly applied to agricultural land.

A successful biogas system requires the presence of anaerobes, microorganisms that can break down organic matter in the absence of oxygen. Manure is a good option for starter material, but if that is not accessible, other options could include muck from the bottom of a pond, or even garden soil. After the system is established, any organic material can be used (for example, food waste); a permanent source of manure is not necessary.

Dr. Wilkie shared diagrams that contrast current agricultural practices with a more food-centric system (see Figure 5). Biodigestion takes “waste” products and turns them into a resource, integrating sustainable energy production, food security, and eco-sanitation. As Dr. Wilkie reminded us, “Waste is not waste until you waste it!”

EDN 134 Figure 5a
EDN 134 Figure 5b

Figure 5. Representation of current agricultural practice, compared to a food-centric approach to agriculture. Source: Dr. Ann C. Wilkie, University of Florida-IFAS, Conference Plenary Presentation.

Biodigestion can be done at a household level or on a large-scale level. At a post-conference workshop at ECHO’s Global Farm in Florida, Dr. Wilkie showed participants how to set up a trial-sized biogas system, to get us familiar with the system and to take away some of our confusion about the process. Step-by-step instructions for setting up two different kinds of biodigesters can be found at http://biogas.ifas.ufl.edu/ad_development/howto.asp 

Increasing Smallholder Resilience Through Agroforestry: Dr. PK Nair

Dr. P.K. Nair helped found the discipline of agroforestry. In his plenary talk, he first defined and described the issue of climate change. He stated that global warming has been convincingly documented. The causes are debated, but most scientists agree that human activity has contributed to it.

Resilience is necessary for ecological systems, including small-scale farms. Dr. Nair defined resilience as “the capacity for ecological systems to persist and absorb change,” or the ability of a system to tolerate disturbance (natural and/or due to human activities) and to restore itself. Dr. Nair pointed out that 70% of the world’s food is grown on farms that average 2.2 hectares (5.44 acres), and argued that sustainable farming methods are required to protect the ecological resources necessary to feed a growing global population.

Dr. Nair presented a very helpful summary of the differences in how economists and ecologists view our world (Table 1). In general, economists view the environment as part of the economy, but do not take into account the economy-driven destruction of earth’s natural systems; by contrast, ecologists view the economy as a subset of the environment and emphasize that economic activities depend on the earth’s ecosystem. Agroforestry, which provides many ecosystem services, can bridge the Economy – Ecology divide in fragile ecosystems and help improve the stability, sustainability and resilience of those systems. Dr. Nair gave many examples of such systems. He concluded with a description of “Cinderella systems,” which are agroforestry systems that have been practiced for a long time but rarely evaluated scientifically or mentioned in the literature.

Table 1. Ecology - Economy Conflict
Ecologist's view Economist's view
Economy is a subset of the environment Environment as a part of the economy
All economic activities, indeed life, depends on earth's ecosystem Econmic theory does no explain the economy-driven destruction of earth's natural systems
Recognizes limits, constraints, and cycles - nutrient, water, ... Works linearly or curvilinearly
Ecological deficits mean we take (not borrow) from future generations Economic deficits mean we borrow from each other
Source: Dr. PK Nair, Conference Plenary Presentation

Planting the Rain: Brad Lancaster

Brad Lancaster is the author of Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands and Beyond, a two-volume guide on sustainable water-harvesting systems, with a third volume in progress. While telling the story of a mentor from Zimbabwe (Mr. Phiri), Lancaster shared eight principles for stewarding water resources. 

Despite frequent droughts, and without the benefit of incoming streams, Mr. Phiri transformed his dry, eroded 3-hectare farm into a place of abundance. Lancaster quoted Phiri as saying “Everyone plants trees, but almost nobody plants the water.” 

The principles Lancaster presented do not require modern technology; they can be implemented by simply making wise use of resources freely available in nature. The eight water harvesting principles Lancaster presented are:

  • Begin with long and thoughtful observation. 
  • Start at the top—or highpoint—of your watershed and work your way down.  
  • Start small and simple.
  • Spread the flow of water so that it will infiltrate the ground.
  • Always plan for an overflow route, and manage that overflow water as a resource.
  • Maximize living, organic groundcover.
  • Maximize beneficial relationships and efficiency by “stacking functions.”

Continuously reassess your system. 
Lancaster described specific techniques for putting these principles into practice. During a post-conference workshop, he also explained how to understand the path of the sun across a site, and how to then place plants and orient buildings to make the best use of sun and shade.

More can be learned by accessing Lancaster’s conference presentation, visiting his website (www.HarvestingRainwater.com), or purchasing his books (from Lancaster’s website or through ECHO’s bookstore [www.ECHObooks.org]).  

Applied Linguistics in Agriculture: Dr. David Ross

Each person has a worldview—a unique perspective through which he or she interprets the world. As vastly different worldviews intersect (for example, during cross-cultural development work), misunderstandings may result if one party is not sensitive to the other’s worldview. In his plenary talk, David Ross, president of the Graduate Institute of Applied Linguistics in Dallas, Texas, explained through case studies and publicity materials, how linguistics can affect agricultural development.

Applied linguistics is an “interdisciplinary field of linguistics that identifies, investigates and offers solutions to language-related real-life problems.” Spanning several realms of study including philosophy, anthropology, language and education, applied linguistics seeks to enhance understanding and promote sensitivity to differences in worldview. Table 2 describes some fundamental questions answered by every community’s worldview, and to what societal factors they relate:

Table 2. Worldview Fundamentals
Question Societal Factor
How do we survive? Economics
Who are we and where did we come from? Kinship
How do we interact with others? Social Structure
How do we control behavior? Politics
How do we interact with the supernatural? Religion
Source: Dr. David Ross, Conference Plenary Presentation


Sometimes well-intentioned agriculture projects fail due to insensitivity or intolerance towards differences in worldviews. Dr. Ross gave concrete examples of some such projects. He also explained how differences in cultural values can undermine a project, such as:

  • promoting individual farmers’ personal benefit when community benefit is of highest value (political factor)
  • promoting individual farmers’ personal benefit when conformity is a higher value (community decision-making factor)
  • ignoring historical or religious associations with proposed solutions (religious factor)

Dr. Ross shared that a main principle in applying linguistics to development is taking the time to learn language and culture (including worldview), to better understand and help communities meet their own felt needs. Ross also cautioned that careful thought must go into any publicity materials that are distributed, and explained the difference between illiteracy (inability to read or write) and functional illiteracy (the ability to read and write simple sentences with limited vocabulary, but inability to do so well enough to manage daily living and employment tasks).

Cite as:

ECHO Staff 2017. 2016 ECHO International Agriculture Conference Topic Summaries. ECHO Development Notes no. 134