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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 2003-04
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 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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