Community-driven change

With the increasing pace of modern-day agriculture, often the health of the environment and consumers’ well-being is overlooked. This is evident across the globe, with many farmers opting for high-intensity farming to maximize crop and meat yields to meet consumer demands.

However, some groups of people are working towards more sustainable agriculture, through development of community-based projects and indigenous-based technology. By adopting indigenous knowledge, technology can be adapted to harness local resources better. The outcome of these projects look a little different, depending on whether it is for a developed or developing country. I want to share two case studies from the UK and Indonesia, both of which use the local community to develop and build technology that are environmentally-friendly, sustainable and educational. As someone who is both Indonesian and British, I have seen a few of these examples first-hand, engaged in conversations with project leaders and played a minor role in setting up similar projects.

A UK-based case study which has helped to demonstrate community-based agriculture is Riverford Organic Farmers Ltd. In the late 1980s, Guy Watson turned to organic farming and started distributing his locally-grown produce to family and friends via a weekly vegetable box scheme. Quickly, the network of box-scheme deliveries expanded, now with more than 47,000 boxes delivered a week to customers around the country. The focus of this scheme is to grow varieties for their flavor rather than their appearance, avoiding the use of pesticides, instead adopting integrated pest management. The boxes’ contents range from root vegetables to soft vegetables and salads, to fruit and meats. In order to deliver high quantities of boxes across the country, Riverford has formed a mutual co-operation of British farmers who are committed to organic, sustainable farming, and together they produce, pack and supply the boxes. They pride themselves in the quick turnaround of supply, with food taking no more than 2 days from harvesting to delivery.


Guy Watson with one of the various Riverford veg boxes.

Another case study, this time from Indonesia, involves Rus Alit from the Bali Appropriate Technology Institute (BATI). I have personally met him and stayed with him. Born and raised in Bali, Indonesia, he noticed the difficulties elderly people in his village faced collecting water. Villagers were unable to access the nearby spring, meaning they had to hike long distances and rough terrain to access clean water. Although the village spring was inaccessible, the rate at which it pumped water – 38 drums every 24 hours – was perfect for a technology boost. Rus designed a prototype of a hydraulic ram pump, which enables water to be powered from a source that is lower than the desired outsource. Village leaders were skeptical about the technology, but once they saw the prototype in action, it was enough to encourage them to adopt the system and build it, along with Rus’ guidance. The villagers now had a pump that delivered water from the once-inaccessible spring into a holding tank in the village. Soon enough each house had piping which delivered clean water. Not only was the pump easy and cheap to install, it also instilled a desire in Rus to develop more sustainable, cheap and simple technology for communities around Indonesia that would otherwise struggle to get hold of this technology. As a result, BATI was born. Rus spends time developing technology alongside rural indigenous communities, working with their resources and knowledge. The mandate is that once a community has learned how to use a particular technology, they teach and help nearby communities. Twice a year, BATI runs week-long courses for eager learners from across Asia. They come away with new knowledge of building water pumps, roads and bridges, learning sustainable agriculture, irrigation and animal husbandry. These skills, no longer taught in our modern society, have helped shape the future of many rural and indigenous communities not only in Indonesia, but across Asia. All because of one man and BATI.

The development of community and indigenous-based technology for sustainable development has helped to create a more resilient society, a society that knows how to use their environment to their advantage, ensuring they always have enough food and water. However, there is a difference between the technology and projects showcased here. With countries like Indonesia, there is a greater focus on developing technology and agriculture systems that are not only sustainable, but will increase community health, either through increased yields of staple crops from smallholdings or the provision of clean water. The technology needs to be appropriate for the local indigenous community, utilizing local resources and requiring no or little outside energy sources, reducing environmental footprint. With countries like the UK, communities lean towards developing a more organic way of farming, with preferences for produce taste rather than appearance. The price of food is no longer the main driver for growing food; if foods are produced in an organic or sustainable way, consumers will pay.

The factor that binds these countries together is the desire to make agriculture more sustainable, for the sake of the environment and well-being of consumers. There is an urgent need to peel back the principles of farming (terrestrial or aquaculture) to highlight sustainable farming practices which are accessible to all communities whether they are developed or developing. Inventors can be made anywhere; it is essential that the next generation is taught the importance of the environment and sustainable agriculture, and the skills to develop appropriate technology to meet the requirements of each community. Only then can communities shift towards creating a self-preserving society.

Now I just have to play my part.



Feature image: rice fields in the early morning in a small village in Bali, Indonesia (O.Cousins).


Community, technology, sustainability

Three important words. Community. Technology. Sustainability. In this day and age it is absolutely crucial that our scientific advances become more sustainable if we are to maintain and grow our agriculture communities and develop better technology for feeding and taking care of the world.


Last week I attended the AC21 International Graduate School 2017 at Universitas Gadjah Mada (UGM) in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. Around 45 students attended the week-long summer school, with Indonesia, South Africa, Australia, Americas, Europe, Thailand, Japan and China represented. The title of the summer school was ‘Community and indigenous-based technology for sustainable development towards resilient society’. This topic was given to us in a variety of different ways, through lectures, workshops, community service, internship and excursions. It was highlighted that universities need to become a bridge between the work they do (whether it is science or humanities) and the surrounding communities. By doing this, it creates an awareness in the students towards problems faced by their surrounding communities. In turn it can create a healthy relationship between university and community and aid in developing research-based community service.

The two lectures that stuck with me the most were presented by lecturers from UGM. Dr. Murtiningrum not only highlighted the importance of soil in agriculture, but how water plays a role in soil physics and behaviour. She got us to think about how the area of arable soil available in Indonesia affects how the people farm. She got us into groups of 7, and told us stand on a piece of newspaper; at first, only one person was allowed on the newspaper, then 3, then all 7 group members. She made us think strategically in how to maximise space yet still fit all of our group on that newspaper sheet. This is how the Indonesian farmers must think, they must be strategic in their farming practices, otherwise they cannot maximise crop yields or economic yield.

Prof. Irfan Dwidya Prijambada gave a very energetic seminar on community empowerment for sustainable technology transfer. He is a key helper in developing community service projects between communities and undergraduate students from UGM. He talked about projects he has helped to set up through UGM. Community service is compulsory for final year students. These students spend a few months usually in a local village getting to know the community. Whilst there, they share their knowledge to help set up a project that will benefit the community; in return they learn a lot more from their village hosts – interpersonal skills, life skills, communication skills, cultural skills. I saw firsthand some of the work Prof. Prijambada has done with local communities and villages to create sustainable farming practices and economic ventures. We visited a local cacao plantation, where they grow and graft their own cacao trees, harvest the pods and process them. Once processed, they get turned into delectable chocolate!


In addition to seminars, we visited UGM’s own agriculture school, and had a tour around the facilities. It has everything from livestock, to tropical fruit and veg crops, to biogas production to composting factory. It was encouraging to see how passionate the people were about the environment and recycling.



We also participated in making traditional herbal medicine. Jamu is traditional Indonesian medicine, made from different herbs and spices to treat an assortment of illnesses or to improve vitality. We visited Merapi Farma Herbal where they turned jamu-making into a successful business. With the help of some of the workers, we made crystallised ginger. It was really tasty and did not taste like medicine at all!


The week-long program reiterated how fast our world is changing, and how important it is to for communities to be able to keep up with these changes. Visiting the different communities showed me that people can be very resilient and adaptable to changing climates, both environmental, and socio-economical. This resilience is key to developing technologies that will improve community sustainability; in turn, the sustainable development of a community will improve its resilience.

It was fascinating to meet so many people from so many different countries and cultures, many of whom came from totally different backgrounds to me. This program gave me the opportunity to mingle and interact with people across disciplines. And I can’t stress how important that is. Sometimes we get so tied down and stressed by focusing on one small aspect of the global picture, that we forget what our bigger picture is. Occasionally we need to come up for air, we need to get out of our bubble or comfort zone once in awhile and venture into the world of ‘that’s-not-my-field’. Who knows what knowledge we can gain by talking to people from another discipline. Who knows what collaborations are possible. You just have to get out there.

AC21 IGS 2017, it’s been a pleasure.



Community ❤


Feature image: 2017 AC21 grad students. All images unless otherwise stated taken by O.Cousins. 

Getting to the root of the situation

Water. Nature’s currency.

With climate change becoming more obvious everyday, drought is something that farmers are becoming more accustomed to. Climate change figures project that water availability will become more erratic in the near future, with high rainfall over a short period of time, followed by no or low rainfall over a longer period of time.

As a result crops need to be able to function better without adequate rainfall. Fortunately, adaptation is something most plants do well. Scientists from José Dinneny’s lab at the Carnegie Institution for Science have hit upon a strategy some grasses utilise during drought stress. Grasses produce crown roots, which are roots originating from basal nodes (nodes at the base of the shoots). Crown roots are the major channel for water uptake, and they develop relatively early  on in the plant’s growth. Plants use crown roots to sense the availability of water in the surrounding soil and subsequently stimulate further crown root growth. Dinneny’s team discovered that it is possible to induce changes in the root architecture, specifically the crown roots, when under drought stress. By subjecting the model grass Setaria viridis to water stress, crown root growth was suppressed. Root growth was analysed using the GLO-Roots luminescence imaging.

Fig 1 Atkinson et al 2014 wheat roots

Diagram representing a wheat root system with crown roots.

To simulate drought conditions, water stress was induced, with no further watering after germination. This resulted in plants accelerating through their growth development stages – early onset of flowering, increased leaf formation and tiller formation (shoots other than the main shoot of the plant). It also caused a dramatic decrease in crown root growth, with plants maintaining a more limited root system under water-deficient conditions. Dinneny’s team concluded that S. viridis did this as an austerity measure – slowing down their water uptake ultimately means less energy is utilised and so more of the water can be conserved in the plant shoots and not lost through transpiration.

plant roots A B

GLO-Roots luminescence imaging – The roots on the left (A) show changes in crown root growth 11 days after germination under well-watered (WW) and water-deficient (WD) conditions, while the roots on the right (B) were not imaged until 17 days after germination. Both sets of roots show suppressed crown root growth after a period of drought.

Interestingly enough, the fate of the roots can be reversed. When water-deficient plants were re-watered from the base of the pot after a period of dry, the plant could resume a more healthy root growth. In comparison, when the plants were re-watered from the top of the pot, the crown roots revive and development was reactivated. This suggests that the crown of the plant has the ability to sense local water availability in order to induce or pause crown root growth.

roots G

These series of images show the reactivation of crown root growth over time after water-deficient plants were re-watered (G).

So what does this all mean for agriculture?

Suppression of crown root growth was also shown to occur under drought conditions in other members of the Poaceae (grass) family. Sorghum, switchgrass and Brachypodium distachyon also showed strong suppression of crown root growth. In wildtype maize there was a near-complete suppression. Using this knowledge, it could change how plant breeders tackle the issue of variable water supply. Crops could be breed to have better responses to water deficiency, by enhancing the response of the crown roots. With further development of crop management strategies and new breeding techniques, improvement of the environmental and economic sustainability of food production can become a firm reality.

With climate change and the unreliability of rainfall, we don’t just need plants, we need clever plants.


Link to journal paper:

Sebastian J., Yee M.-C., Goudinho Viana W., Rellán-Álvarez R., Feldman M., Priest H. D., Trontin C., Lee T., Jiang H., Baxter I., Mockler T. C., Hochholdinger F., Brutnell T. P. and Dinneny J. R. (2016) Grasses suppress shoot-borne roots to conserve water during drought. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 113, 8861-8866.