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In print

Vanilla: Travels in search of the luscious substance Vanilla: Travels in search of the luscious substance

By Tim Ecott
Published by Penguin
2004, 298pp, ISBN 0 718 14589 5(Hb), £16.99

Vanilla is now more valuable than at any time in its history. Its unique taste and smell have made it a key ingredient in many food products and drinks and a highly valued scent in candles and perfume. But its distinctive taste and smell come at a price. The vanilla orchid, now endangered in the wild, is the only orchid to produce an agriculturally valuable crop. Vanilla is also the most labour-intensive agricultural product in the world. But unlike other agricultural commodities, the quantities available for trading are relatively small. And every year, demand for vanilla is so high that nothing is left unsold.

These agricultural facts on vanilla may be general knowledge but the intricacies surrounding the multi-million trade of vanilla pods, for which people are sometimes murdered, are perhaps less well known. In this eminently readable book, Vanilla: Travels in search of the luscious substance, Tim Ecott investigates the secrecy behind the vanilla trade as well as the history, geography and economic importance of this unique crop. To do so he follows the vanilla trail through the Gulf Coast of Mexico, where vanilla originated, to the tropical islands where the crop now flourishes. Meeting with growers, brokers, processors and traders, Ecott provides fascinating insights into the lure of vanilla from some of the world's most intriguing places, including Taihiti, Réunion, Madagascar and the Seychelles.

Known by the Aztecs as tlilxochitl, the vanilla vine (Vanilla planifolia) is indigenous to Central America, particularly the south-eastern part of Mexico where is was used as a flavouring for the bitter drink Aztecs made from cacao. There are more than a hundred different species of vanilla orchid that grow throughout the tropics but only a few bear the pods that are valued for their aromatic flavour. And of these, V. planifolia is the species now cultivated worldwide. But as Ecott writes, "It is a harsh reality that the volume of processed foods produced in the world is too great to be satisfied by the two thousand tonnes (at best) of natural vanilla available each year." Therefore almost 90 per cent of the 'vanilla flavour' used in food today comes from synthetic vanillin and that is the taste, sadly, that most consumers know.

For those loyal to the prized flavour of real vanilla, it is an irony that the success of the crop may well lead to its demise as the price (currently over $400 per kilo) becomes unaffordable. Growing, processing and trading in vanilla is a skilled business but one which, as Ecott observes firsthand, is beset with risks. A producer and correspondent in news and current affairs with the BBC World Service, Ecott has written an enlightening and engaging narrative on vanilla that is highly recommended for anyone with an interest in travel and development.

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The State of Food and Agriculture 2003-4The State of Food and Agriculture 2003-04
Agricultural Biotechnology: Meeting the needs of the poor?

Published by FAO
2004, 225pp, ISBN 92 5 105079 1(Pb), $65 (also available as a free download from FAO's website)

FAO's annual flagship publication providing latest facts and figures on world agriculture has a new look for 2004. For the first time, as well as the usual data, graphs and tables, the publication also includes an in-depth report on an "important theme in agriculture and economic development". The chosen theme for this edition is the role of agricultural biotechnology, particularly transgenic crops, in poverty alleviation.

Drawing widely on expertise within FAO and outside (from the CGIAR centres, USDA, the John Innes Centre, various universities and international experts), and with contributions from Norman Borlaug and M.S. Swaminathan, the report provides a comprehensive, interesting and readable overview of agricultural biotechnology research, and the debates surrounding it, in the public sector. The authors see genetic engineering as "both a more precise extension of breeding tools that have been in use for decades and a radical departure from conventional methods", but their main concern is that the crops and traits of concern to the poor are being neglected. The conclusion is that biotechnology can help the poor, when appropriate innovations are developed and when poor farmers in poor countries have access to them on profitable terms.

The book is accompanied by a CD-ROM containing time series data in English, French and Spanish for 150 countries and regions, and FAOSTAT software.

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Food WarsFood Wars: The global battle for mouths, minds and markets

By Tim Lang and Michael Heasman
Published by Earthscan
2004, 365pp, ISBN 1 85383 702 4(Pb), £19.99

The world of food production and supply and its implications for environmental and human health, and for national economies, is frighteningly complex. It's also an area of huge contention, with numerous visions, models and driving forces encompassing new agricultural technologies, environmental degradation, and changing patterns of disease and lifestyle choices. Food wars are rife, whether over the use of chemicals in crop production, the rise in corporate power or the efficiencies of food distribution. However, the policy forming processes that determine the winners and losers in such wars tend to be as fragmented and piecemeal as the issues are diverse.

What is needed then, say the authors of Food Wars, is a new food policy that links environmental and human health. What shape such a policy might take will depend on the outcome of a clash between three competing models of food supply: the current, productionist model; a life sciences model, drawing heavily on the potential of biotechnology; and an agroecological model that emphasises organic production. Each of these alternatives claims it can raise production and deliver health benefits through food. Food Wars analyses their claims to superiority in the context of some key battlegrounds: changing patterns of diet and disease; environmental crises; capturing the consumer; and controlling food supply. Lively and accessible, this book will be of interest to general reader and expert alike.

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Ploughing up the farm Ploughing Up the Farm: Neoliberalism, modern technology and the state of the world's farmers

By Jerry Buckland
Published by Fernwood Publishing (Canada) and Zed Books (rest of the world)
Websites: and
2004, 260pp, ISBN 1 84277 367 4(Pb), £14.99 (also available in hardback)

World farming is in crisis. Buckland begins by observing the paradox: "farmers and farm communities are vitally important to global society and economy," yet "farmers the world over are facing pressures that are eroding their livelihoods and their capacity to provide these goods and services." This book focuses on the last 20-50 years and the global changes that have affected farmers, in particular the market, international trade and modern technology. Changes that, it was claimed, would help farmers have in fact trapped many of them in a "price and production squeeze"; farmers are still some of the world's poorest people, and global food security is only a distant goal. Ploughing up the farm presents a clear and comprehensive analysis of the issues, and offers solutions. A farmer-led approach to food security is Buckland's vision, that places food security ahead of economic growth, healthy farms and farm communities ahead of corporate profit, and rich on-farm biodiversity ahead of high-yield mono-cropping. Crucial to achieving this is state and international support for farmers, and this book aims to raise awareness at this level. It is highly recommended reading for all, but particularly policy makers, concerned with farming, poverty and development.

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The Atlas of Water The Atlas of Water: Mapping the world's most critical resource

By Robin Clarke and Jannet King
Published by Earthscan
2004, 127pp, ISBN 1 84407 133 2(Pb), £12.99

Readers of New Agriculturist will be familiar with global water issues. This colourful publication presents these issues in facts, figures, graphics and maps, and the result is an attractive and very useful book. It also carries a message: we know the answers to the water problems the world faces, now we need to invest in them. And "Most importantly, our water-secure future must be based on three foundations: water equity, water conservation, and water democracy." Highly recommended.

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Wastewater use in irrigated agricultureWastewater use in irrigated agriculture: Confronting the livelihood and environmental realities

Edited by C.A. Scott, N.I. Faruqui and L. Raschid-Sally
Published by CABI
2004, 208pp, ISBN 0 85199 823 2(Hb), £45.00
Limited number of paperback copies available from IWMI and IDRC (Email: and

With an estimated 10 per cent of all crops grown being irrigated with wastewater, a book on the benefits, hazards and options for achieving greater safety for consumers and users is timely. IWMI (the International Water Management Institute) and Canada's IDRC (International Development Research Centre) have collaborated to bring together a practical and useful set of contributions from those with experience in the hydrology, use, health hazards and water treatment options of wastewater from Africa, Asia, Latin America and Middle East. Wastewater ranges from the 'grey' water that is the outflow of baths, showers and washing machines to 'black' industrial wastewater. While grey water is usually free of pathogens but rich in phosphates from soap and detergent, industrial wastewater can contain residues of heavy metals, organic solvents and, increasingly, hormone residues from pharmaceutical production. Not surprisingly, many farmers prefer grey water as nutrient-rich and more beneficial to crops than ordinary irrigation water. But once the water is contaminated with faeces, the farmers and ultimate consumers risk infection by pathogenic bacteria and parasites. The long-term hazards of industrial wastewater are much greater and, in the case of hormones, not yet certain.

With so many farmers facing water shortage for their crops, it is unrealistic - and wasteful - to expect them to deny themselves use of a free resource, hazardous or not. Much better for those responsible for urban water and waste management to implement effective water treatment systems, reducing health hazards while maintaining availability of a vital resource. Wastewater use in irrigated agriculture is a useful contribution to achieving this win-win option.

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Restocking pastoralists Restocking Pastoralists: A manual of best practice and decision support tools

By Claire Heffernan with Louise Nielsen and Federica Misturelli
Published by ITDG Publishing
2004, 120pp, ISBN 1 85339 589 7(Pb), £12.95

Distributing livestock to pastoralists as a form of disaster relief, rehabilitation and development is a relatively new approach initiated by Oxfam in the late 1970s. Recognising the promise of restocking as sustainable aid, donor agencies followed suit and larger scale restocking projects have become common across Africa, Asia and Latin America. Not all have been successful, however. In order to reflect and learn on experiences so far, DFID supported a two-year study on restocking policy and practice, in which 85 projects were examined and approximately 700 restocked households interviewed. Over 30 NGOs, donors and governments also participated. The findings have been distilled into this concise and extremely useful manual, which offers "best practice and decision support tools that can increase the number of positive project outcomes". The first part of the book provides a background to restocking, while the second gives flexible methods for practitioners, based on the livestock and poverty assessment methodology. Described as "the complete guide to successful restocking of pastoralists", this is an essential book for anyone working in this field.

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Positive developments Positive Developments: A photographic exhibition by NR International in association with the Eden Project

Published by NR International
2004, 114pp, ISBN 0 9546452 0 0(Pb), £5

The UK's NR International and the Eden Project joined forces in May 2004 to present an exhibition of images and background stories from projects under the Department for International Development (DFID)'s Renewable Natural Resources Research Programmes. This book is an output from the exhibition, reproducing all 49 photos and stories entered in the competition. The positive stories told by this colourful collection certainly show the diverse and important work that is being supported by DFID's research programmes. The stories include promoting healthy seed yam production in Ghana (the winning photograph), use of pheromones (instead of insecticides) for stem borer control in rice fields in Bangladesh, and helping potato farmers to access better food and markets in Bolivia. Taken by the researchers themselves, these photographs show the value of visual documentation of research results.

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Communication for rural innovation Communication for Rural Innovation: Rethinking agricultural extension (3rd edn)

By Cees Leeuwis with contributions from Anne van den Ban
Published by Blackwell Publishing Ltd
2004, 422pp, ISBN 0 632 05249 X(Pb), £24.99

Described as the third edition of the previously titled Agricultural extension published (in English) in 1988 and 1996, this is in fact a completely new book, rewritten to reflect changing thinking in agricultural extension, and the needs of the more diverse groups now applying communication strategies for development in agriculture. As definitions of communication broaden ("an important process that people use to exchange experiences and ideas"), so the theory of communication expands, and this book brings the reader up to date with that theory. Practice is also not neglected: about one-quarter of the book is devoted to "media, methods and process management". Communication for rural innovation is of relevance to anyone working to bring about change in the agriculture and rural development sectors. Although its size and detail may limit its appeal to dedicated communicators wanting to improve their knowledge and skills, it is highly recommended to all groups nonetheless.

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Municipal forest management in Latin America Municipal Forest Management in Latin America

Edited by Lyès Ferroukhi
Co-published by CIFOR and IDRC
2003, 235pp, ISBN 979 3361 05 0 or 1 55250 131 0(Pb), $20 (also available as a free download from CIFOR and IDRC websites)

As local government becomes stronger in Latin American countries, this book looks at the effects of this on forest management in six countries: Bolivia, Brazil, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras and Guatemala. With a chapter devoted to each, the authors seek to answer what powers have been transferred to local governments and why; what forestry initiatives local governments have taken; and what the outcomes of these experiences have been, and the factors that influenced these outcomes.

As well as documenting and analysing the very diverse experiences in the six countries, Municipal forest management bravely attempts to identify common elements that may allow lessons to be learned. Improving municipal participation for the benefit of local communities and forests is an aim of the authors, and they hope that a wide range of stakeholders will read this contribution, to increase their understanding of municipal forest management in practice.

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1st November 2004

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