The New Agriculturist - Reporting Agriculture for the 21st Century

Book reviews

 
Feeding people is easyFeeding people is easy
By Colin Tudge
Published by Pari Publishing
Website: www.paripublishing.com
2007, 178pp, ISBN 978 88 901960 8 9(Pb), £9.99/€14.50

Despite the title, which Colin Tudge himself describes as hyperbolic, it will never be "easy" to feed the world's population, which the UN estimates will be nine billion by 2050. The key message of this book is that feeding the world's population is possible, but only with realistic management of the world's resources and, most importantly, with realistic management of farming.

The problem, says Tudge, is that while industrialised agriculture may be extremely efficient in cash terms, environmentally, these systems are failing. "This is the crux. Success in modern agriculture, like everything else in the modern world, is gauged entirely by cash." Traditional farms, using only the power of humans or animals and no artificial pesticides or fertilisers, in general produce about 10 kilocalories (kcal) of food energy for every kcal of energy expended on cultivation. In modern industrialised farming this equation is reversed, and for every 10 kcals expended, mostly in the form of fossil fuel, one kcal is created in the form of food energy.

"Enlightened Agriculture" is his answer - traditional farming, aided and enhanced by science, and geared to achieving biological efficiency, with respect for both human dietary needs and environmental constraints. This could take the form of small, family-run farms, linked to markets and operating integrated systems of arable, horticultural and pastoral agriculture. The aim is to provide "plenty of plants, not much meat, and maximum variety" to ensure a balanced diet which is high in fibre and low in fat.

With the powers-that-be "losing the plot", Tudge states that is up to "us", the public, to "work around the people and the institutions that affect to be in charge but in truth are getting in the way." Thought-provoking and controversial, this book touches on many interesting topics including GMOs, and their relevance for the future of farming. Its central message, though perhaps bordering at times on utopian, is hard hitting. Feeding people may not be easy, but it is possible. "It may be too late. But it must be worth a try".

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Conservation of natural resources for sustainable agriculture:   training   modules   (CD-ROM)Conservation of natural resources for sustainable agriculture: training modules (CD-ROM)
Published by FAO
Website: www.fao.org/catalog/giphome.htm
Email: publications-sales@fao.org
2006, ISBN 978 92 5 005601 2(CD), US$44

With full documentation in both English and Spanish, this CD is an invaluable resource for conservation agriculture trainers and promoters. The training modules cover the introductory concepts and principles of conservation agriculture, use of cover crops, soil characteristics and management, tools and equipment, weeds, pests and diseases and interactions with livestock. The modules are well written, illustrated with photographs and charts, and also contain presentations in both Word and Powerpoint formats. There are also practical field exercises to consolidate the theory.

Systems for conservation agriculture inevitably differ from one area to another, so blanket prescriptions of best practice are inappropriate. The concepts and guidelines offered here, however, will provide an excellent foundation for introducing conservation agriculture, and training farmers or extension staff in the basic techniques they will need to convert from a conventional to a conservation-based system.

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Principles   of   plant   genetics   and   breedingPrinciples of plant genetics and breeding
By George Acquaah
Published by Blackwell Publishing
Website: www.blackwellpublishing.com/molcellbiol
2007, ISBN 1 4051 3646 4(Hb), £39.99

Written for undergraduate students, this excellent book will probably become a standard text. Recognising the increasing use of molecular tools in crop breeding, it offers comprehensive, clearly written coverage of the underlying science and methods of plant breeding, from general biological concepts to cultivar release and commercial seed production. A section on selected breeding objectives includes chapters on breeding for resistance to diseases, pests and abiotic stresses, breeding for physiological traits and for added value. The complementarity of classic methods and biotechnology is emphasised, and eight final chapters focus on the breeding of some major crops: wheat, maize, rice, sorghum, soybean, peanut, potato and cotton. Discussions from those working in plant breeding are interwoven, to illustrate how the principles are applied in practice. These include genetic improvement in cassava, genes for drought adaptation in sorghum, breeding quality protein maize, and participatory barley breeding at ICARDA.

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Communities, livelihoods and natural resources: action research and policy change in AsiaCommunities, livelihoods and natural resources: action research and policy change in Asia
Edited by Stephen R. Tyler
Published by IDRC/ITDG
Websites: www.itpubs.org.uk & www.idrc.ca
2006, 412pp, ISBN 1 85339 638 9(Pb), £16.95

In the poorest parts of rural Asia, natural resources such as land, forests, pastures and fish are for many, the only means of survival. They are also in decline, with decentralisation of management often adding to the problem. In such areas, people's lives and livelihoods are complex, and quick fix solutions through a single intervention are impossible. Building skills, providing relevant information on markets or technologies, helping people to get organised and giving them the confidence to have a go at solving their various problems is a more hopeful approach. But how can this best be done, and what role do researchers have in the process?

The case studies in this book offer some answers, lessons learned from eleven IDRC research projects which took place between 1997 and 2004. Examples include community based natural resource management projects from Cambodia, Vietnam, Mongolia and Laos, developing systems for co-management of pastures, enclosure of community fisheries and forest tenure agreements, among others. They describe what the researchers did, and why, how they interacted with communities, what worked and what did not, and what they learned from the process. Further case studies, nearly all of which are written by national researchers, chart the impact of local action on policy development in Cambodia, China, Bhutan and The Philippines. Final chapters discuss key issues, including pro-poor research, gender and inequality, governance reform and policy influence, and future directions for practice and research.

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Stepping stones to improve upon functioning of participatory agricultural extension programmes: Farmer field schools in UgandaStepping stones to improve upon functioning of participatory agricultural extension programmes: Farmer field schools in Uganda
By Prossy Isubikalu
Published by Wageningen Academic Publishers
2007, 215pp, ISBN 978 90 8686 021 0(Pb), €39/US$39

When first introduced in Indonesia as a way to improve pest control in rice crops, the philosophy behind the Farmer Field School (FFS) was one of farmer-centred learning. Top-down approaches had failed; farmers needed an environment in which they could experiment, innovate and learn. External support from extension officers could help guide the process, for example shaping experiments to ensure they produced useful data, but ultimately farmers were given control of their learning.

As the FFS has been spread around the world, its basic format has been adapted. And in Uganda, writes Isubikalu, the role of farmers in determining what they learn has been lost. Instead, the FFS curriculum has been decided by higher level actors - researchers and funding organisations - and is focussed on introducing externally developed technologies. This, Isubikalu argues, is ineffective in achieving the intended goal of FFS - poverty reduction. The system therefore needs radically redirecting, through careful examination of its structure, and of the roles of the various actors. The revised model will focus on catalysing, promoting and building on local innovations.

Originating as a PhD thesis, Isubikalu's work is written more to satisfy the demands for thoroughness from examiners, rather than the need of the ordinary reader for concise, punchy presentation of the essentials. However, for those interested in local innovation and how to achieve true participation of rural people in development decision-making, it is certainly worthy of attention.

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Induced resistance for plant defence: a sustainable approach to crop protectionInduced resistance for plant defence: a sustainable approach to crop protection
Edited by Dale Walters, Adrian Newton and Gary Lyon
Published by Blackwell Publishing
Website: www.blackwellpublishing.com
2007, 269pp, ISBN 978 1 4051 3447 7(Hb), £105

Plants are, essentially, pretty tough and able to resist the vast majority of pathogens that exist in nature. When plants do fall victim to disease it is often because they have failed to engage their natural defences quickly enough, in response to an infection. Yet for over a hundred years it has also been recognised that plants can learn to respond faster. Exposure to a wide variety of agents, including fungi, bacteria and extracts from certain plants, can increase the sensitivity of a plant to a broad range of pathogens, enabling rapid detection and response to infection and, as a result, disease resistance. Harnessing that ability could lead the way to a broad spectrum, long lasting and environmentally benign system of crop protection. The challenge for plant scientists, however, is to understand exactly why and how induced resistance to disease occurs.

In the last 40 years, understanding of the phenomenon of induced resistance, and how it operates at a cellular level has increased dramatically. Transferring that knowledge to crop development at field level is yet to be realised. By bringing together the current state of knowledge, with contributions from a global pool of experts, this book aims to support that process. Detailed and technical, much of the book is devoted to cellular aspects, including disease signalling and defence mechanisms. There is also discussion of the trade-offs associated with induced resistance, work to integrate the phenomenon into crop production and protection, and the commercial exploitation of induced resistance.

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Honeybee diseases and pests: a practical guideHoneybee diseases and pests: a practical guide
By Wolfgang Ritter and Pongthep Akratanakul
Published by FAO
Website: www.fao.org/catalog/giphome.htm
Email: publications-sales@fao.org
2006, 41pp, ISSN 1814 1137(Pb), US$20

Published in 2006, this technical report from the FAO is actually a revision of a much earlier work, "Honey bee diseases and enemies in Asia". The revision does not appear to have broadened the geographical scope, so beekeepers outside Asia are likely to be disappointed by this new edition. For those involved in apiculture training in Asia, the report could offer a useful reference, to be supplemented by more locally specific information, such as on the availability of chemical treatments. There is good coverage of microbial diseases, parasitic mites, and of larger insect and vertebrate pests. In each case the cause, symptoms and control options are clearly indicated.

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July 2007
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