The New Agriculturist - Reporting Agriculture for the 21st Century

Book reviews

The Earth only enduresThe Earth only endures
By Jules Pretty
Published by Earthscan
2007, 287pp, ISBN 978 1 84407 432 7(Hb), £18.99

Happiness and connectedness are at the heart of Jules Pretty's vision of sustainable agriculture. But for many of us, he believes, the vital connections between ourselves and the natural world have been severed. His observation does not only apply to the urban populations that now comprise half of humanity. Rural life has also lost its connection to nature, with large scale monoculture just another example of how as a species we are threatening the resources that sustain us.

But in a world of expanding population and massive over-consumption, where does hope lie? Inspired by his extensive work among rural and urban communities from Brazil to Ukraine, Pretty is optimistic that the answers are not beyond reach. Food and farming are at the centre of the solution, with small, family farms playing a key role.

Afonso Klöppel, for example, farms on ten hectares in the southern Brazilian state of Santa Catarina. In the 1990s he farmed onions and tobacco but was unable to compete with larger operators, with his land becoming increasingly degraded. He converted to organic polyculture, and now grows over 50 different crops. "Yours is not a farm; how are you making money?" asks his monocropping neighbour. The answer lies in Afonso's connections - with nature, other farmers and consumers. Mucuna and crotolaria cover crops have restored his land to health; membership of a farmers' association gives him access to information and shared machinery; and he sells much of his produce direct to consumers.

Afonso's other secret is that he adds value to his farming produce, with a range of on-farm processing activities producing cheese, honey, pickles, tomato sauce and others. He now feels in control of what he is growing, how he is growing and selling it, rather than fighting to meet the demands of agro-industry. His improved happiness and self-esteem, repeated among thousands of farmers across the region, is also giving hope for a better future. Young people are returning to farms where the workload has become varied and interesting, and where their contacts with consumers give them a connection to the outside world. Feeling in control of their destinies, they are ready to invest in the land.

Citing similar stories from other parts of the developing world, Pretty asks whether the small, mixed farm model offers anything to the industrialised countries. It appears to have much in common with what a growing number of farmers are attempting in his home country, the UK. Adding value, earning a good proportion of the sales price and giving food a story - so people know what they are eating and where it comes from - are increasingly seen as vital to the financial viability of many UK farming businesses.

The final chapter offers some thoughts on what next. "Should we wait for wide-scale policy, institutional and market change to solve these problems? If so, the prospects are probably not good. Or shall we instead try to live our own lives differently... engage with the land as a dance, where endless places may encourage new revelations." In his keen observation of 'endless places' Pretty has found answers that will interest us all.

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The role of agriculture in development: Implications for Sub-Saharan AfricaThe role of agriculture in development: Implications for Sub-Saharan Africa
By Diao, Hazell, Resnick and Thurlow.
Published by International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI)
2007; 66pp; Order code RR153, US$10

Agro-pessimism has been a recent feature of development debates on Africa, with a growing chorus of voices denouncing the role of agriculture in poverty alleviation. This IFPRI report jettisons such claims, contending that agricultural development - particularly in the food staples subsector - is as vital as ever in the continent. Case studies from Ethiopia, Ghana, Rwanda, Uganda and Zambia find that broad-based agricultural growth, especially in conjunction with growth in the non-agricultural sector, is critical to poverty reduction and an important precursor to industrialisation.

Compelling and readable, the report reaffirms the ongoing significance of agriculture in development and serves as a decisive touché to the sceptics.

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Voices from the forestVoices from the forest
Malcolm Cairns, editor
Published by RFF Press
2007, 826 pp, ISBN 978 1 891853 92 0(Pb), US$50

Shifting cultivation - as the foreword to this weighty tome admits - has a "bad reputation". Also known as swidden, or slash-and-burn agriculture, the much-maligned practice has been blamed for deforestation, land degradation, and more recently, widespread smog. In fact, amongst many conservationists, it elicits disdain on a par with anathemas like whaling or illegal logging.

But there are two sides to every story, which Voices... explores through 65 Asian case studies, spanning Laos, Vietnam, The Philippines, China, India, Thailand, Papua New Guinea, and Malaysia. Perhaps surprisingly, the analysis finds shifting cultivation adaptable, diverse and sustainable, providing food and nutritional security for millions of rural poor. Furthermore, the farming techniques developed by cultivators over generations often prove more useful and less environmentally damaging than a lot of imported agricultural advice from many of the world's well-meaning scientists and policymakers.

Aimed at students, researchers and development workers, Voices... is a refreshing look at one of the most ancient, but enduring farming systems in the world.

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Recognising local innovation: experiences of Prolinnova partnersRecognising local innovation: experiences of Prolinnova partners
Compiled and edited by Chesha Wettasinha, Mariana Wongtschowski and Ann Water-Bayer.
Published by International Institute of Rural Reconstruction (IIRR)
Website: &
2006, 64pp ISBN 1 930861 16 0(Pb)

Although far-removed from the high-tech laboratories of formal academia, smallscale farmers are agricultural researchers in their own right and as sources of creativity and good ideas, they should be admired as valuable partners in innovation.

This Prolinnova programme ("PROmoting Local INNovation in ecologically-orientated agriculture and natural resource management") booklet aims to raise the profile of these talented farmers.

Four case studies (Ghana, Ethiopia and two from South Africa) are complemented by sections on identifying, celebrating and sharing innovations from both men and women, laying the foundations for a new era of farmer-led participatory research. Aimed at development professionals, Prolinnova hopes positive recognition of smallscale farmers will raise their self-esteem, making them more confident in collaborating with outside organisations.

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The world guideThe world guide
Published by New Internationalist
2007, 624pp, ISBN 978 1 904456 56 8(Pb), £34.99

Utterly indispensable, the 11th edition of The World Guide is essential reading for any academic, professional, or fervent follower of global affairs. A reference book of encyclopaedic proportions, the Guide covers - in readily digestible detail - the history, society, environment and government of every country in the world in alphabetical order.

Easy to read and crammed with up-to-date statistics, facts, maps and charts, this compendium of useful information also gives more than a passing nod to human rights, development and global social justice.

By way of a prelude to the country-by-county profiles, an introductory chapter on current global issues sets the scene - from climate change, aid, and fossil fuels to gender equality, corruption, and Islamic finance. For quick reference, the guide also includes a fold-out political world map and a detailed World in Figures section.

Compiled by New Internationalist in conjunction with the Third World Institute in Uruguay, this is an authoritative, exhaustive and highly accessible manual of world facts and frictions.

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People and animalsPeople and animals
Traditional livestock keepers: guardians of domestic animal biodiversity
FAO Inter-Departmental Working Group on Biological Diversity for Food and Agriculture
Published by FAO
Website: &
2007, 142pp ISBN 978 92 5 105684 4(Pb), US$45

According to its authors, domestic animal diversity is being lost "at an alarming rate" and this user-friendly study explores the importance of small-scale farmers in guarding the world's stock of genetic resources.

But their task is not an easy one: while local livestock breeds around the world are being crossbred with, or replaced by, higher-yielding breeds, traditional lands are under pressure from agriculture, nature conservation and industry.

The report's 13 case studies are divided into five regional chapters - subtropical mountain ecosystems; tropical mountain conditions; temperate conditions; humid tropical areas; and arid and semi-arid zones. These cover zebu cattle farming in Tajikistan, domesticated camelids in Bolivia, Basothu mare camps in Lesotho, Somba cattle in Togo and yak breeding in Bhutan.

This awareness-raising study calls for decision-makers to conserve animal genetic resources through formal legal and institutional planning.

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Beyond food productionBeyond food production
The role of agriculture in poverty reduction
Edited by Fabrizio Brescianti and Alberto Valdes
Published by Edward Elgar Publishing
Website: &
2007, 240pp, ISBN 978 92 5 105534 2(Hb), £59.95

Most incidences of poverty are concentrated in rural areas and farming is a major source of income to the rural poor. Therefore, the argument goes, agricultural growth is a good way to reduce poverty. In reality, however, things are not quite so clear-cut.

Produced by the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), Beyond Food Production takes a closer, statistic-led look at some of the issues affecting rural agricultural communities en route to development. The results from studies on three continents are intriguing, if divergent, but the jargon-heavy analysis is aimed at readers with a firm grounding in econometrics.

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Tropical food chainsTropical food chains
Governance regimes for quality management
Edited by: Ruerd Ruben, Martinus van Boekel, Aad van Tilburg & Jacques Trienekens
2007, 309pp, ISBN 978 90 8686 027 2(Pb), US$65

Imported tropical foods - like pineapple, mango, and cashew - are popular in the developed world. But poorly organised international supply chains often mean that smallscale producers in developing countries do not reap maximum rewards.

Case studies from Costa Rica, Ivory Coast, Kenya, Ethiopia, Ghana, India and China consider the technical, managerial and socio-economic factors affecting producers, with recommendations for making the supply process more sleek, transparent and, ultimately, more profitable to smallholders.

Aimed at professionals and practitioners involved in the design, management and assessment of both domestic and international supply chains for tropical products.

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Facilitating multi-stakeholder partnerships: lessons from ProlinnovaFacilitating multi-stakeholder partnerships: lessons from Prolinnova
Compiled and edited by Will Critchley, Miranda Verburg and Laurens van Veldhuizen
Published by International Institute of Rural Reconstruction (IIRR)
Website: &
2006, 55pp, ISBN 1 930261 15 2(Pb)

Smallscale farmers often have good ideas, but in order to reap the rewards, these ideas need to be shared.

To address this, the Prolinnova programme brings multi-stakeholder partnerships to the fore. It proposes that effective collaboration between farmers, researchers, extension staff and marketing professionals is essential in turning a good idea into an innovation with widespread benefits.

This concise booklet looks at ways to foster participatory innovation development (PID) at a regional, national and global level, drawing on lessons from Prolinnova projects in Africa and Asia.

Development professionals interested in the mechanics of agricultural innovation and management will find this a useful, readable resource.

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Traditional trees of Pacific islands: their culture, environment, and useTraditional trees of Pacific islands: their culture, environment, and use
Edited by Craig Elevitch
Published by Permanent Agriculture Resources
Available from
2006, 816pp, ISBN 0 9702544 5 8(Hb), US$90 (plus shipping)

At over 3 kg, this heavyweight volume is certainly the ultimate resource book on Pacific island trees. Beautifully laid out, and illustrated with over 800 photographs it offers comprehensive coverage of the 80 most important species. The 'traditional' in the title does not signify indigenous; for example there are numerous varieties of mango found across the tropical and sub-tropical Pacific but none of them originate from the region. But all the trees documented in this book have become interwoven in Pacific culture, whether for their fruit, nuts, timber, bark or other products.

For each species, information has been gathered from fields such as ethnobotany, forestry, biology, ecology, horticulture and agro-forestry. Sections include propagation and cultivation practices, environmental preferences, disadvantages, diseases, uses and products, in addition to biological and genetic descriptions and information on distribution. As well as being an invaluable resource for anyone from home gardeners to commercial producers, it is also a timely record of indigenous knowledge which might otherwise be soon lost, as traditional products are displaced by modern alternatives.

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September 2007