The New Agriculturist - Reporting Agriculture for the 21st Century

Book reviews

The man who fed the worldThe man who fed the world
By Leon Hesser
Published by Durban House
Available from:
2006, 263pp, ISBN 1930754906 (Hb), US$ 24.95

"Norm-boy, it's better to fill your head now if you want to fill your belly later," were the words of wisdom given to Norman Borlaug as a young boy by his grandfather. And apt they were, because throughout his career as a leading scientist, Borlaug studied hard to feed not only his own family, but to avert famine in much of the world and in the words of Jimmy Carter, "saving hundreds of millions of lives."

Peppered with personal anecdotes of his experiences, doubts and devotion to his family, Leon Hesser's biography pays tribute to Borlaug's incredible achievements from a one-classroom school, to becoming recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. He introduces characters such as George Harrar of the Rockefeller Foundation, and the University of Minnesota's Professor E. C. Stakman, internationally recognised for his pioneering work in plant pathology, who encouraged and inspired Borlaug as a young scientist. With their support, Borlaug embarked on agricultural innovations that formed the foundation of a wheat revolution in Mexico, and fostered the 'Green Revolution' in Asia.

Borlaug's method emphasised intensive farming on existing fields to reduce the pressure on farmers to constantly slash and burn. The method produced more food from less land through the use of improved seed varieties with resistance to destructive diseases such as wheat stem rust. It also promoted better use of fertiliser, improved irrigation techniques and weed control. Such intensification of farming systems was, he believed, an urgent need: "Without aggressive agricultural research programmes" said Borlaug, "the world will soon be overwhelmed by the Population Monster."

As a result of the 'Green Revolution', Pakistan became self-sufficient in both wheat and rice production in 1968, and it has remained so to the present time. India has remained self-sufficient in all cereals since 1974, despite a doubling of its population. The achievements of Norman Borlaug, documented in this biography, have led the present American President George W. Bush to praise him as "an American hero and a world icon". His influence on agricultural production and technology has certainly been global, and he has been named the 'Father of the Green Revolution'.

Borlaug's methods however, have not always been popular, and the book also touches on fiercely debated issues often raised by environmental lobbyists. He defends his approach, and often voices his perspective on the work for which he is clearly passionate, throughout the book. Environmental lobbyists, he says, "have never produced a ton of food. If they lived for one month amid the misery of the developing world, as I have done for the past 60 years, they'd be crying out for fertiliser, herbicide, irrigation canals and tractors and be outraged that fashionable elitists back home were trying to deny them these things." Such views have shaped his painstaking efforts, and his drive towards better seeds for change.

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State of the World. Our Urban FutureState of the World. Our Urban Future
Edited by: Linda Starke
Published by W.W. Norton & Company
Available from:
2006, 250pp, ISBN - 10 0-393-32923-2 (Pb), US$ 18.95

Experiencing first hand the less than glamorous urban reality of the poorest people in the world, Anna Tibaijuka paints a repellent picture of development. "I have been stranded in traffic jams; I have visited men in hospitals suffering from preventable diseases caused by industrial pollution; I have met young women who were raped on their way to the closest public toilet shared by over 500 people", she says. A dramatic opening by Anna Tibaijuka, Executive Director of the United Nations HABITAT programme, this book offers an insight into the lives and diversity of the large and growing number of urbanites across the globe.

Highlighting the fact that developing and developed cities have much in common, this collection of essays delves beneath the urban horizon of skyscrapers and slums to reveal the problems and opportunities offered by urban development. This century will mark the historical shift from predominantly rural to urban dwelling. In this context the essays, written to appeal to a wide audience of students and scholars, explore how cities are managed and built, the consumption of energy, and the widening gap between demand and supply in over-populated cities such as Lagos, Nigeria. Can we hope for a peaceful and sustainable urban future?

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Africa & Development: Challenges in the new millenniumAfrica & Development: Challenges in the new millennium
Edited by: J.O Adesina, Yao Graham and A Olukoshi
Published by Zed Books
Available from:
2006, 228pp, ISBN - 1-84277-595-2 (Pb), US$ 24.99

The founding assumption behind the New Partnership for Africa's Development, NEPAD, was that governments in Africa must take more economic, political and social responsibility in their policy making to achieve progress. In a first major attempt by African scholars to evaluate NEPAD's achievements and failures, this book offers a detailed analysis of the way in which NEPAD works, tackling trade, gender issues and agricultural strategy.

Since the launch of NEPAD in 2001, it has been criticised for 're-hashing' or deepening structural adjustment policies that have plagued Africa for the last 25 years. Authors such as Adesina argue that it advocates 'trickle down' economics, which does not reduce poverty. Y.Z.Ya'u writes that NEPAD's response to the challenges presented by the digital era have been inadequate. In his chapter 'Confronting the digital divide', he says that steps to over-come disparities in ICT access, have in fact had "very little positive effect from a developmental point of view", despite in some cases being achieved two years ahead of target. With each chapter contributed by a different author, from Africa and around the world, the arguments presented make for an interesting debate on the next chapter of NEPAD's, and indeed Africa's development.

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Sweet Negotiations: Sugar, Slavery, and plantation agriculture in early BarbadosSweet Negotiations: Sugar, Slavery, and plantation agriculture in early Barbados
By Russell R. Mernard
Published by the University of Virginia Press
Available from:
2006, 224pp, ISBN 0-8139-2540-1 (Hb), US $39.50

Things are not always as they first appear, so the saying goes. On a research trip to Barbados during the 1990s, Russell Mernard's intentions were simply to "add precision to some of the central arguments of the sugar-revolution hypothesis." The notion of a 'sugar-revolution' being something that he took for granted, he had hoped to pin down dates, and to understand better the contribution of the Dutch to funding the 'sugar revolution'. But, focusing on the 1640s, when trade became central to the island's economy, Mernard's research raised more questions than it could answer. This book is the result of his findings.

The author questions the notion that sugar had thoroughly transformed Barbados by bringing African slavery and plantation agriculture to the island. It seems instead, he argues, that plantation agriculture and African slavery had preceded sugar to the island, making the sugar boom possible.

His exploration of land and labour, slavery and the consequences of the sugar trade far beyond the sandy shores of Barbados, questions the notion that a sugar revolution existed at all. In fact he suggests such classifications in history can be "more an obstacle than an aid to understanding the process they were designed to illuminate." The book intends to re-shape previous ideas about Britain's American empire, raising questions that are pertinent not only from a historical perspective, but from a racial perspective as well.

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Agricultural R&D in the developing world: Too little too late?Agricultural R&D in the developing world: Too little too late?
Edited by: Philip G. Pardey, Julian M. Alston, and Roley R. Piggot
Published by the International Food Policy Research Institute
Available from:
2006, 398pp, ISBN 0-89629-756-X (Pb), Available for download

Scientific research in the 21st century is shifting, write the authors, "delving deeper into the genetics of life, with potentially profound and pervasive implications for agriculture world wide." Examination of the agricultural research agenda in countries around the globe, from India, China and Indonesia to Brazil and Colombia, reveals "scientific apartheid taking place." With changing science policy, modern biotechnology and intellectual property rights, once freely available technology may no longer be accessible.

The developing world, they say, is in danger of being left behind by, or denied access to agricultural technologies. In a chapter on 'Developing-Country Perspectives', the authors argue that shifting science and funding patterns for agricultural research imply a need to re-think national policies, pointing out that developing countries are likely to have to become more self-reliant in developing new agricultural technologies. For the countries where agriculture is the backbone of the economy, this book provides an up-to-date and detailed analysis of the changing research policy agenda, making it a vital resource for policy makers, scientists and all involved in the future of agricultural research.

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Genes are Gems: Reporting Agri-BiotechnologyGenes are Gems: Reporting Agri-Biotechnology
By Rex Navarro, S Gopikrishna Warrier and Crispin Maslog
Published by the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT)
Available from:
2006, 136pp, ISBN 92-9066-495-9 (Pb), US $ 5

If you are "afraid of biotechnology and genetically modified crops," then, write its authors, this book could be for you. A reference book for journalists, this guide is condensed from a series of media workshops held in Asia and Africa, funded by ICRISAT, the ISAAA and UNESCO, and attended by biotechnology experts. While the media tends to focus on transgenic technology, which has made GM possible, this guide aims to spell out the bigger picture. Such transgenic technology, point out William Dar, Director General of ICRISAT, and Randy Hautea, Global Co-ordinator of ISAAA, is "only a part of the entire gamut of biotechnologies." The book goes on to explain the potential of this wider range of technologies for supporting sustainable agriculture, and for reducing the risks of small-scale and marginal farmers. Doubters may remain unconvinced, but the authors deserve credit for attempting to shed some light, instead of heat, on a complex and ideologically-charged debate.

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International journal of Agricultural Sustainability: Volume 4 Issue 1International journal of Agricultural Sustainability: Volume 4 Issue 1
Edited by Jules Pretty
Published by Earthscan
Available from:
2006, 93pp, ISBN Print ISSN 1473-5903 Online ISSN 1747-762X, Available to download

"A global food system that leaves a large share of the population in a state of poor health and nutrition, is not a desirable food system," notes Per Pinstrup-Andersen in the opening essay in the latest issue of this international journal, now published by Earthscan. Changing the status quo and achieving a connection between improved health and nutrition and market forces will require radical steps, but without such action, any efforts to achieve improvements in those sectors will, he believes, be "futile". Six other essays in this issue explore a wide range of topics, including the sustainability of organic pig farming in the Netherlands, the effects of repeated soil wetting and drying on lowland rice yield under the System of Rice Intensification (SRI), and the roles of market and research led innovations in realising the potential of the lupin, an Andean legume.

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Farm power and mechanization for small farms in sub-Saharan AfricaFarm power and mechanization for small farms in sub-Saharan Africa
By Brian G Sims and Josef Kienzle
Published by the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO)
Available from:
2006, 86pp, ISBN 1814-1137 (Pb), US $26.00

Whereas in the 1960s agriculture accounted for 50 per cent of Africa's exports, it now accounts for only 20 per cent. This publication reviews and presents several recent studies on small-scale agriculture in sub-Saharan Africa, which confirm that the farm power situation, a vital component of small farm assets, is deficient almost everywhere. Even now, say the authors, the Millennium Development Goal of halving the proportion of people suffering extreme poverty by 2015, "is unlikely to be unattainable until well into the 21st century." A shortage of farm power seriously constrains agricultural productivity, and soil degradation is another grave concern, reducing yields across Africa, particularly in Ethiopia. This book outlines the crucial role of farm power. In seven chapters, it works through different interventions and mechanised options for small-scale farmers, their benefits and implications, from hoes to draught animal power.

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March 2007