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In print

Science, agriculture and the politics of policy: the case of biotechnology in India Science, agriculture and the politics of policy: the case of biotechnology in India

By Ian Scoones
Published by Orient Longman
Available from
2006, 429pp, ISBN 81 250 2942 7(Pb), £15.95

In 1999, the southern Indian state of Karnataka elected a new state government, and a new chief minister. Keen to promote himself as 'tech-savvy', the minister created a 'vision group' and launched a state-level policy that aimed to make the biotechnology industry the next big thing in Karnataka, following the success of the IT boom. In time the government's pro-biotech stance enabled the planting and later, releasing, of GM cotton varieties; meanwhile dissenting groups developed into networks of opposition, and polarised pro and anti GM positions were formed. These tensions do not, of course, apply only to Karnataka, but are central to the future of India, a country where despite huge grain reserves and rapid economic development, 650 farmers in Karnataka committed suicide in the 2002-3 season and rural livelihoods are widely acknowledged to be in crisis. Or so, at least, claims Ian Scoones in his latest analysis of the intersection between agriculture, politics and development.

Agricultural biotechnology, writes Scoones, means more than just the sum of its various technologies; it represents a narrative about the future. For some it symbolises the renewal of growth and innovation of a kind last seen during the Green Revolution; for others it represents external commercial domination, elite expertise and a threat to poor, marginalised agricultural communities. Almost all biotech supporters want it to be pro-poor, but he argues, achieving this requires more than just selecting the right technologies (e.g. disease or drought resistance), or economic niches. How systems of regulation operate is a case in point. Currently, regulatory systems around the world follow a developed country pattern, where the safety of the product is the only concern. But such systems, he argues, ignore the values, politics and ethics that are also intimately linked to the decision to support or reject biotechnologies.

Such values can be found in the context of science itself. The biotech revolution has taken agricultural research out of the field, subject to the vagaries of the weather and the priorities of farmers, and into the lab. This has led to a new understanding of what is 'good science'. It has favoured an agricultural system where all the knowledge is to be found in the seed, rather than in the skills and ingenuity of farmers. The costs involved in biotech research also favour a mass market, one-size-fits-all, 'deskilled' production system, with farmers under contractual relations with seed and other input suppliers. The range of technologies available to farmers may also be artificially limited by multinational companies, who need market dominance to be profitable. And for the scientists themselves, success and esteem may come from having their latest patent application accepted, their innovations protected and the development process thrown into chaos by piracy and strict market controls.

Scoones is not opposed to biotechnology per se. If developed in an appropriate policy context - rather than the current alliance of big business and political agendas - genetic technologies, he believes, have much to offer. For public sector biotech research, further funding should be made available, but should be tied to 'open source' property arrangements and the matching of technologies with publicly defined needs. Above all, both agricultural policies and systems of innovation must be responsive to the needs of diverse users in different settings, not least the poor. Only if this is done will biotechnology achieve the developmental gains that its supporters espouse.

Articulate, if densely written, Science, agriculture and the politics of policy is extremely pertinent, not only to the future of agriculture in India but throughout the developing world. Beyond the specifics of biotechnology in Karnataka, Scoones asks the reader to consider broader questions: what impact can the new global industries have on poverty reduction, and what are the wider consequences of choosing one technology vision over another?

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Capitalism as if the world mattersCapitalism as if the world matters

By Jonathon Porritt
Published by Earthscan
2005, 304pp, ISBN 1 84407 192 8(Hb), £18.99

The front cover of Capitalism as if the world matters quotes the UK's Financial Times, saying that Porritt has 'a message that businesses may find they are surprised to agree with'. The book is premised on our planet's growing 'ecological crisis', the scientific evidence for which he believes is now 'rock solid', and something which both governments and businesses cannot ignore. Porritt begins by describing 'our unsustainable world', arguing that economic growth cannot continue forever, and that 'on a finite earth, physical growth must eventually end'. He then goes on to outline a 'framework for sustainable capitalism', using scientific principles such as the law of thermodynamics to justify his conclusions. The final section of the book discusses how to confront denial and create 'better lives in a better world'.

Central to Porritt's argument is the message that sustainable development is as much about the well being of humans as about the natural world. He suggests that parallel measures of the quality of life need to be developed to accompany the usual measures of economic growth such as GDP. He supports ecological tax reform, the pursuit of happiness and an interest in mental health and community rather than economic goals, as a positive step towards a 'better world'. But ultimately, as commented by Lord May, President of the UK's Royal Society, 'if capitalism and free markets cannot be bent towards sustainability - towards being part of the solution - then I believe there is no solution. Hence the importance of this book. Read it.'

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Vital Signs 2006-2007: The trends that are shaping our future Vital Signs 2006-2007: The trends that are shaping our future

Compiled by the Worldwatch Institute
Published by WW Norton and Co.
2006, 160pp, ISBN 0 393 32872 4(Pb), US$16.95

In a world where startling statistics are being thrust before our eyes on a daily basis, it is perhaps increasingly difficult for the authors of Vital Signs to find something new to shock us. This year's snapshot of the 'trends that are shaping our future' includes figures on global warming that, while perhaps not surprising, deserve to be reiterated. 2005 was, according to NASA, the warmest year ever recorded; more shocking still, the five hottest years that have been recorded since measurement began in 1880 have all occurred since 1998. The impacts of that warming on ice caps and oceans have been well documented, but the report also highlights the plight of tens of millions of Chinese farmers who have been forced to retreat from a Gobi desert that is expanding by 26,000 square kilometres per year.

In response, production of biofuels - the subject of our Focus on - is on the rise. Fuel ethanol production increased by 19 per cent in 2005, and production of biodiesel rose by 60 per cent. This has had a knock on effect on food prices, with the world sugar price doubling between 2004-2006 thanks to massive consumption by Brazil's sugarcane-based ethanol industry. The report also documents trends in industry, transport, health and society, and conflict. Global spending on advertising increased to a record $570 billion in 2005, with nearly half of this spent in the US. Of that US expenditure, $56.6 billion went on direct mail advertising, producing 41.5 billion pieces of mail. Meanwhile, one in three of the world's urban dwellers live in 'slums', without access to one or more basic necessities, such as clean water or sanitation. And while over 80 per cent of New Zealand's population use the Internet, Germany has more than twice the number of users as the whole African continent, where Internet penetration has reached just 3 per cent.

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Commercialising medicinal plants: a southern African guideCommercialising medicinal plants: a southern African guide

Edited by Nicci Diederichs
Published by Sun Press
Available from
2006, 216pp, ISBN 1 919980(Pb), R180

While the use of medicinal plants in southern Africa is widely recognised for its cultural significance, as well as making an important contribution to primary health care and to livelihoods, the sector faces several challenges. Unsustainable harvesting is putting plant resources at risk, poor regulation is potentially putting human health at risk, and an influx of commercial producers is threatening small scale growers and traders. There is also very poor regulatory capacity to enforce sustainability or quality standards. This excellent guide does, however, offer some solutions.

Several chapters focus on practical subjects such as sustainable harvesting techniques (including a detailed case study on the harvesting of tree bark), propagation and cultivation methods, including plant-based pest control. Useful tools includes lists of questions to be asked when assessing plant resources or monitoring the impact of harvesting. There are fact sheets covering over forty popular species, and chapters focussing on the economics of setting up a commercial operation, chemical analysis of medicinal properties and legislative frameworks. Up to date, and illustrated with numerous photographs, this book is highly recommended for all involved in the development of medicinal plants, particularly in southern Africa.

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Promising crop biotechnologies for smallholder farmers in East Africa: Bananas and maizePromising crop biotechnologies for smallholder farmers in East Africa: Bananas and maize

Genetic Resource Policies: Briefs 19-26
Edited by Melinda Smale, Svetlana Edmeades and Hugo De Groote
Published by IFPRI, CIMMYT and IPGRI
To order online or download Pdf:
2006, 37pp, free to download or order

In Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda banana and maize crops are frequently devastated by pests and diseases, particularly in lowland tropical environments. Chemical control strategies are not economically viable for most smallholder farmers and as a result, national research programmes have focused on genetic transformation as a promising means to improve productivity. However, with no large-scale release of other genetically transformed food crops in Africa to draw on, how acceptable and suitable would modified banana or maize varieties be? What factors might affect rates of adoption, can rates of farmer demand be predicted, and what are the biosafety and biodiversity risks? This collection of eight papers, based on work by three CGIAR institutes and national partners, offers an assessment of the impact that genetically improved banana and maize might have, and answers to these important questions concerning their release.

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Fodder shrubs for dairy farmers in East Africa: Making extension decisions and putting them into practice Fodder shrubs for dairy farmers in East Africa: Making extension decisions and putting them into practice

By Charles Wambugu et al.
Published by World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) and Oxford Forestry Institute
Pdf version available for download
Copies can be obtained by contacting
2006, 169pp, ISBN 92 9059 183 8(Pb), free

Fodder shrubs such as calliendra, gliricidia, leucaena and sesbania have been the subject of considerable research, and their potential for dairy systems in East Africa is well established. While requiring reasonable rainfall and a fairly high labour input, fodder shrubs are easy to grow, take up little land and offer a solution to fodder shortages for many areas. For extension managers and field based extensionists in East Africa who are either considering the inclusion of fodder shrubs in their programmes, or are already promoting them but would like to do so more effectively, this guide will prove an extremely valuable resource.

For those with little experience of fodder shrubs, there are simple tools for deciding whether or not they would be appropriate, for choosing species appropriate to the area, and for developing a sustainable seed supply and an effective promotion strategy. For those already working with fodder shrubs, further sections deal with identifying and solving problems with extension strategies, making the extension approach sustainable and giving farmers clear and accurate information on cultivation and management. Extremely reader-friendly, the guide is illustrated with excellent photographs, diagrams and tables.

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"To subsidise my income": Urban farming in an East African town "To subsidise my income": Urban farming in an East African town

By Dick Foeken
Published by Brill
2006, 239pp, ISBN 90 04 15202 4(Pb), €39

For urban households in East Africa who have access to land, either around or close to their home, producing a crop or keeping livestock is often a cultural norm. Since 1990 however, the need for urban agriculture has been strengthened by economic crisis. And while production of crops or livestock on urban land may not be as significant as the production that urban households - or their relatives - earn from rural land, it still makes an important contribution to livelihoods. In the words of several respondents in this book, it "subsidises my income", making possible a standard of living that would otherwise be unattainable. For the poorest households, urban agriculture can be particularly important, making a vital contribution to food security. However, research done in the Kenyan town of Nakuru suggests that poor households are very under-represented in urban farming.

Lack of access to land and capital are the two major constraints to their participation. In addition, those urban poor who do manage to grow a crop generally get much lower yields than wealthier groups, being unable to afford inputs, irrigation and extra labour. This well written account of urban farming in Nakuru touches on a wide range of issues: food security, income and employment, environmental impacts, constraints to production and the role of local authorities. It concludes by asking whether urban agriculture, despite its importance, can contribute to poverty reduction. With four-fifths of the poorest excluded from urban farming in the study area, it recommends that municipal planners set aside plots of land, either in or near urban areas, which can be rented at low cost by poor households.

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Sustainable developmentSustainable development

By Susan Baker
Published by Routledge
2006, 263pp, ISBN 0 415 28211 X(Pb), £19.50

Since first coming into regular usage in mid 1980s, when it played a prominent role in the work of the Brundtland Commission, the concept of sustainable development has become mainstream in understanding the relationship between development and the environment. It encapsulates a number of key criticisms of conventional development models, which tend to regard the environment purely as a resource for human betterment, view consumption as the most important contributor to human welfare and prioritise attainment by the individual above the common good.

Aiming primarily at university students and writing in clear, accessible language, Baker examines the history of the concept of sustainable development, its adoption by UN environmental summits, and its relevance in the context of key issues such as climate change and biodiversity management. There is also a critical assessment of Local Agenda 21, and the extent to which this global exercise in bottom-up engagement has brought about forms of governance that promote sustainable development. Final chapters focus on the prospects for and barriers to the sustainable development model in the industrialised world, the developing world and the transitional economies of Eastern Europe.

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Chain empowerment: supporting African farmers to develop markets Chain empowerment: supporting African farmers to develop markets

Edited by Hugo Verkuijl
Published by KIT, Faida MaLi and IIRR
Available for download
2006, 226pp, ISBN 9966 754 00 8(Pb), free

Vertical and horizontal integration may not sound like a very exciting subject, but don't be deceived. Drawing on nineteen case studies from across Africa, Chain Empowerment shows how farmers can earn more from what they produce, and turn unrewarding 'supply chains' into 'value chains' that offer benefits to all involved in the process of producing and marketing goods. Vertical integration essentially involves producers playing more roles within the chain, such as processing and other kinds of value-adding. Examples from the case studies include projects to boost fruit juice and honey production among communities in Tanzania and trading and milling of grains in Kenya.

Horizontal integration involves developing better management of the value chain, for example by better use of information, better understanding of the market and co-operation with other actors in the chain. There are numerous examples, some of which have featured in past editions of New Agriculturist, such as finding a niche for Ugandan vanilla and revitalising Mozambique's cashew industry. Chain empowerment particularly focuses on how intermediary organisations can work with farmer groups and others to transform supply chains. Information is presented in a well-structured way, emphasising practice rather than theory, making this a useful resource for NGOs and others working with farmers and farmer groups.

1st November 2006

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