The New Agriculturist - Reporting Agriculture for the 21st Century

Book reviews

The gene revolution: GM crops and unequal developmentThe gene revolution: GM crops and unequal development
Edited by Sakiko Fukuda-Parr
Published by Earthscan
2007, 277pp, ISBN 978 1 84407 409 9(Pb), £22.95

When Monsanto was given permission by the South African government to sell Bt cotton seed for the 1997-8 season, the company was keen to demonstrate that the technology could work for small-scale farmers as well as large producers. Demonstration plots established on the Makhatini Flats in northern KwaZulu Natal - one of two regions in South Africa where smallholders grew cotton - proved so successful that by 2004, 90 per cent of cotton production on the Flats was under Bt cotton.

Whilst studies revealed that Bt cotton farmers were benefiting from higher yields and fewer pesticide applications, in 2005 production slumped. The cause was institutional rather than technical failure. Farmers had received credit to buy Bt seeds from a ginning company - Vunisa - in partnership with the Land Bank of South Africa. Unfortunately, the setting up of a rival ginning company in 2002 gave farmers an opportunity to avoid making repayments by selling their cotton to the new gin. After suffering substantial losses, Vunisa withdrew its credit provision, and within two seasons, cotton production on the Flats collapsed.

The experience of the Makhatini Flats illustrates one of the central messages of this well researched book, that achieving scientific advances can be relatively easy, compared with establishing the social and economic conditions necessary for progress. The contributing authors undoubtedly see GM crops as having enormous potential for resource-poor farmers, in allowing more efficient development of crops with tolerance to conditions such as saline soils, drought and pests. But the challenge is how to ensure that the technology supports growth, equity and sustainability.

The authors detail five detailed case studies of the GM experience in Argentina, Brazil, India, China and South Africa, which provide insights into the institutional and policy developments that determined the rate and extent of GM crop proliferation. Developing capacity for biotechnology at a national level demands, for example, substantial investment of scientific, financial and administrative resources. Beyond establishing laboratories and innovation centres, countries need to have a regulated seed market and legislation on intellectual property rights and biosecurity, amongst others. This book reviews how the five countries have tackled these issues, and draws lessons for others in the developing world.

As such, this book is a hugely valuable contribution to the dialogue and debate surrounding the future of genetic technologies for developing countries. Editor, Sakiko Fukuda-Parr, suspects The gene revolution will be criticised by hard-liners in both the pro and anti-GM camps. Her stated wish, however, is to build a middle ground, where issues of policy, institutional development and governance in relation to biotechnology can be discussed, and pathways for pro-development GM are explored.

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Dryland agricultureDryland agriculture
Agronomy monograph No.23, second edition
Edited by G.A. Peterson, P.W. Unger, and W.A. Payne
Published by the American Society of Agronomy
2006, 1026pp, ISBN 0 89118 16 1(Hb), US$145

In semi-arid East and West Africa, population pressure is increasingly forcing agriculture into marginal and forested areas. Crop yields, both per hectare and per capital are declining and environmental degradation is on the rise. Sustainable intensification of agriculture is desperately needed by a population that largely depends on agriculture for both food and income, but decades of development assistance and millions of dollars of investment have done little to reverse the environmental problems or intensify traditional farming systems. Such at least is the picture painted by a paper in this collection from three American scientific societies (American Society of Agronomy, Crop Science Society of America and Soil Science Society of America).

The first 300 pages of this substantial volume go over the background of dryland farming, including efficient use of water, soil and water conservation, soil fertility and crop choice. The remaining chapters provide a broad overview of the characteristics of, and challenges facing dryland agriculture throughout the world, with two chapters on Africa, two on South America and one each on South and East Asia. With such massive scope, detail is limited, making this a useful reference for students and lecturers more than, perhaps, a tool for researchers. However, there are suggestions for future research directions. In the case of East and West Africa, the author emphasises the need to reverse land degradation and soil fertility decline, and points out the need for better communication between the physical and socio-economic branches of science.

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Growing food: a guide to food productionGrowing food: a guide to food production
By Tony Winch
Published by Springer
2006, 333pp, ISBN 1 4020 4827 0(Hb), £46

Demystifying crop production for non-experts is the aim of this new handbook. As a reference book it succeeds quite well, covering the principles and practices used in agriculture and horticulture, from plant and soil characteristics, farming systems and crop types, to tools and storage. A second main section goes into more detail about the main food crops, including less common ones such as tef and Niger seed, and a chapter on under-exploited crops such as amaranth and Bambara groundnut. A final section looks at some issues to consider when planning or assessing agricultural development or rehabilitation programmes. This includes questions that field workers can use to assess current agricultural production and marketing, and suggestions for where improvements might be made. The language of plant biology and crop science is inevitably quite technical, and while the author has attempted to use simply terms where possible, effective use of the handbook still requires a fairly high level of English.

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Debating shifting cultivation in the Eastern Himalayas: Farmers' innovations as lessons for policyDebating shifting cultivation in the Eastern Himalayas: Farmers' innovations as lessons for policy
Compiled by Elisabeth Kerkhoff and Eklabya Sharma
Published by ICIMOD
Download or order from:
2006, 92pp, ISBN 92 9115 009 6(Pb), US$10/15

Rotational agroforestry with a burn phase, better known as slash-and-burn or shifting cultivation, is the dominant land use in large areas of north eastern India, the Chittagong Hills of Bangladesh, eastern Bhutan, south west China and parts of Nepal. More than ten million hectares of land in South Asia are farmed in this way, and most of those who practise shifting cultivation are classified as very poor, living on less than a dollar a day. Slash-and-burn systems are frequently blamed for loss of forest cover and land degradation, and both development initiatives and policies have tried to replace these systems with permanent forms of land use. In the Eastern Himalayas, however, such attempts have largely failed.

This book, based on discussions from a workshop organised by the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), examines why traditional shifting cultivation continues to be preferred in the region. In seeking to redress the negative stereotypes, the discussions focus on how shifting cultivation in hilly areas can conserve both forests and biodiversity, in contrast with either permanent crop farming or monocrop tree plantations. Nor does shifting cultivation have to mean subsistence agriculture: niche forest products are available for commercialisation, and organic crop production may also be an option. Rather than seeking to replace traditional systems, policy makers should be looking to promote farmers' innovations, and so enhance both the environmental and socio-economic benefits that well-practised shifting cultivation can offer.

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Soil Fertility and Plant Nutrition in the Tropics and SubtropicsSoil Fertility and Plant Nutrition in the Tropics and Subtropics
By A. Amberger
Published by: International Fertilizer Industry Association and International Potash Institute
2006, 96pp, ISBN 2-9523139-0-3 (Pb), Free

Soils in tropics and sub-tropics are typically low in fertility, due to high temperature and rainfall. But healthy soil is vital for food production, and this book explores the possibilities and constraints for growing crops in the many different types of soil found in these countries. Amberger defines scientific characteristics of soil such as texture, consistency and porosity, and advises on methods to reduce soil erosion, such as zero or minimum tillage. Further recommendations are given on improved fertiliser usage and water management for sustainable crop production, while conserving soil resources.

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Strategies for Sustainable Land Management in the East African HighlandsStrategies for Sustainable Land Management in the East African Highlands
Edited by John Pender, Frank Place and Simeon Ehui
Published by the International Food Policy Research Institute
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2006, 483pp, ISBN 0-89629-757-8 (Pb), US$20, free to download

The highlands of East Africa are some of the most densely populated areas in the whole of Africa, supporting the majority of the region's rural population. They span a wide variation in climate and landscape, from lush forests to arid plateaux, but share many common problems, including low productivity and poor natural resource management. As a result they make an ideal focus for this series of contributions by experts in natural resource management policy. A useful guide for policy analysts and practitioners, the book draws on studies in Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda to cover issues related to market access, deforestation, and overgrazing, and considers a number of possible strategies, including use of improved seeds and inorganic fertiliser.

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The state of food insecurity in the world 2006The state of food insecurity in the world 2006
Published by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization
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2006, 40pp, IBSN 92-5-105580-7 (Pb), US$15, free to download

Halving the number of undernourished people by no later than 2015 was the goal of the World Food Summit (WFS) when it outlined its work in 1996. Over ten years later, there has been almost no progress in reducing global hunger, according to this mid-term review. This report analyses under-nourishment by region, in the context of conflict or instability, and outlines the path towards achieving the WFS commitments. Despite the apparent lack of progress, the authors stress that "much has been accomplished in securing a top place for hunger on the development agenda", and highlights studies which suggest that, even in the world's poorest countries, reducing hunger is possible.

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Tropical Dairy FarmingTropical Dairy Farming
By John Moran
Published by Landlinks Press
2005, 295pp, 0-643 09123-8 (Pb) £34.95

In South East Asia, demand for livestock products is expected to double in the next two decades, and fresh milk will have to be produced locally as well as internationally. But because dairy cattle and their products are not part of the cultural heritage for the people of South East Asia, management and training in dairy farming is vital in countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines. This book is designed as a manual to guide dairy production advisors in this region, to increase the productivity of small-scale dairy farmers. Focusing on feeding techniques, nutritious minerals and vitamins, the guide offers advice on cost-effective feeds and storage methods, healthy or normal animal weights, and cultivation of appropriate fodder crops. It also outlines obstacles to management in tropical countries, such as disease.

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May 2007