The New Agriculturist - Reporting Agriculture for the 21st Century

Book reviews

Biofuels for TransportBiofuels for Transport
Global potential and implications for sustainable energy and agriculture
Worldwatch Institute
Published by Earthscan
2007, 452pp, ISBN 978 1 84407 422 8(Hb), £49.95

Like it or not, the age of biofuel has arrived and is here to stay. But the convergence of the markets for fuel, food and fibre - the "three Fs" - has ignited a debate where the arguments have tended to be polarised. Either biofuels are inherently good - the panacea to widespread oil dependence and fuel insecurity, promoting employment and spreading wealth to some of the poorest regions in the world. Or they are inherently bad, with any potential benefits being eclipsed as feedstock production gobbles up agricultural estates, large corporations eject smallholders from their land, and food prices are driven beyond the means of the poor. But, as this authoritative study from the Worldwatch Institute shows, the debate is not so clear-cut.

The report is essential reading for researchers and policymakers at all levels. It cuts through opposing arguments with data on all aspects of biofuel use in transportation, from issues concerning the environment, international trade, and technology strategies, to social implications, certification schemes and next-generation feedstocks.

As an alternative fuel source for transport, the potential of biofuel is impossible to ignore. As the report states, biofuel is "the only large near-term substitute for the petroleum fuels that provide more than 95 per cent of the world's transportation energy." Consequently, governments around the world are increasing production of feedstocks - sugarcane, soybeans and oilseed rape - and formulating policies to introduce mixes of bio- and fossil fuels for domestic vehicles. Venezuela anticipates an ethanol blend of 10 per cent could provide one million jobs in its sugarcane ethanol industry by 2012. In China, nine million jobs could result from the large-scale processing of agricultural and forestry products into liquid fuels in the long term. Brazil has saved some US$50bn on imported oil since its switch to biofuel during the oil price shocks of the 1970s. The allure of biofuel is hard to deny.

A key conclusion of the report is that the impact on rural populations is highly dependent on the form biofuel production takes, and the policies that governments adopt. On the one hand it notes that although production of feedstock is labour-intensive and has potential to rehabilitate rural communities where unemployment is endemic, "sugarcane, in particular, has an ugly history of exploiting temporary workers" and "could raise food prices and contribute to hunger." On the other hand "biofuel programmes... could help to address the root of world hunger: poverty." To maximise the poverty-reducing potential of biofuels, the report calls for policies to promote smallscale, labour-intensive production rather than a preponderance of "large plantations of monocultures controlled by wealthy producers, who could drive farmers from their land..."

Ultimately, the report envisages two "worlds" of biofuel production, one involving large, hi-tech corporations and the other small, low-tech facilities, "focused primarily on poverty alleviation through rural energy provision and local agri-industry development..." The authors believe both worlds can coexist, but warns that "one thing is certain: the more involved farmers are in the production, processing and use of biofuels, the more likely they are to benefit from them." The report's clarion call is clear and urgent: to share the benefits of biofuel across society - the time for action is now.

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Poverty: An international Glossary (2nd ed)Poverty: An international Glossary (2nd ed)
Edited by Spicker, Alvarez Leguizamon and Gordon
Published by Zed books in association with CROP
2007, 246pp, ISBN 978 1 84277 823 4(Pb), £15.99

Surprisingly compact, this succinct lexicon explains over 200 technical terms that the student or practitioner of international development should aim to be able to quote verbatim. While the choice of entries occasionally borders on the bizarre, for example, "Australian Definitions of Poverty" comes under "A", and, at a page-and-a-half, is also one of the longest in the book. Others are extremely brief, like the four-line description of "Income inelasticity of demand", the welfare dimension of which might have been aided by an individual entry for Marginal Propensity to Consume. Overall, the Glossary contains concise and enlightening explanations, like "Fourth World", referring to chronically deprived communities in developed countries, and definitions of poverty in Islam and the Arab world. This second edition also invites Latin American scholars to the editorial board, both to highlight the variance in poverty definitions around the world, and to challenge, as the foreword acknowledges, the first edition's exclusively Western paradigm. While not the ultimate of development reference books, the Glossary illustrates the scope of poverty analysis and, with its thorough referencing, both directs and impels the reader to further study.

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Agricultural trade policy in developing countries during take-offAgricultural trade policy in developing countries during take-off
By Michael Stockbridge
Published by Oxfam GB
2007, 59pp, ISBN 978 0 85598 584 4(pb), £12.95

There is a debate in economics as old as the discipline itself: how "free" should international trade be, and how much influence should national governments have over it? This no-frills Oxfam report looks at the agricultural trade policies of six developing countries which have experienced unusually high rates of economic growth - Malaysia, South Korea, Botswana, Indonesia, Chile and Vietnam. It finds that in spite of their different approaches, government intervention has been pivotal to success: from the subsidies paid to farmers to sustain prices in Botswana, to import licensing and quota systems in South Korea. The findings put the report's authors on a familiar ideological collision course with the World Trade Organisation, whose policy prescriptions have long championed the "hands-off", laissez faire approach of market liberalisation. Although the report requires a basic grounding in economic theory, it goes to show that despite several decades of neo-classical hegemony, the debate is still alive and well.

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Producer organisationsProducer organisations
A guide to developing collective rural enterprises
Chris Penrose-Buckley
Published by Oxfam GB
2007, 184pp, ISBN 978 085598 575 2(Pb), £8.50

In a globalised economy, smallscale farmers are often outgunned by larger commercial producers. A weak bargaining position compounded by the withdrawal of state support services has left many unable to compete on the open market. Collective action in the form of Producer Organisations (POs) has been one approach to empowering smallscale farmers to enable them to compete in local, regional and world markets. But still they have often lacked a wide range of vital support services to operate effectively. This Oxfam Skills and Practice book examines the experience of POs in case studies, from Palestine, Vietnam, El Salvador, Mozambique, Albania and others. A training manual of sorts, this book is aimed specifically at educating NGO staff to help establish strong and sustainable POs.

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Fertilizer use in African agricultureFertilizer use in African agriculture
Lessons learned and good practice guidelines
Morris, Kelly, Kopicki and Byerlee
Published by World Bank
2007, 160pp, ISBN 978 0 8213 6880 0(Pb), US$20

Experts agree that African soils are in pretty bad shape, but there is much debate about what should be done to improve them. The World Bank's remedy is fertiliser - lots of it, and now. This report summarises the findings of a major Bank study into ways to promote increased fertiliser use on the continent in order to help countries meet their agricultural development goals. Although it concedes that organic fertilisers "can and should be an integral part of soil management strategies", they are not always available - and, used in isolation, may not be sufficient. The report finds that there is also a pressing need to address underlying structural problems to assist in increasing fertiliser use at every stage from improved research and extension services to institutional reform and training. The accompanying CD contains a self-styled "interactive policymaker's toolkit" to help guide the perplexed through the "confusing maze" of fertiliser policy-making.

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Reconstructing agriculture in AfghanistanReconstructing agriculture in Afghanistan
Edited by Adam Pain and Jacky Sutton
Published by FAO/Practical Action Publishing
2007, 320pp, ISBN 978 1 85339 634 2, £19.95

"Could we have done it better in Afghanistan? The answer is clearly yes," states the FAO's Prabhu Pingalia, in the foreword to this critical analysis of reconstruction and development work in the troubled Central Asian country.

At the time of intervention in 2001, he argues, the reconstruction agenda of state-building and market-driven development was too simplistic. It overlooked key features of contemporary Afghanistan, such as the "volatile interrelations among environment, human society and successive political pressures" which hampered efforts by the international community to make the country food secure.

Over the course of 12 chapters, key practitioners and food security analysts provide their take on the situation, examining issues from the role of women, and difficulties in assessing the country's nutritional situation, to reasons for the boom in poppy cultivation. The result is a thorough, evidence-based study detailing the successes and failures of intervention, which places short- and long-term food security at the top of the agenda.

Aimed at students, researchers and development practitioners, this is a valuable resource for those wishing to understand the complexities of reconstruction in Afghanistan and the implications for future post-conflict intervention in volatile states.

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A disaster in search of success - Bt cotton in global southA disaster in search of success - Bt cotton in global south
International Institute for the Environment and Development
2007, DVD-PAL, 50 mins, $18

Bt cotton, a genetically engineered cotton variety, was supposed to revolutionise the lives of cotton farmers around the world, offering resistance to major pests, eliminating the need for pesticides and improving yields.

This documentary, produced by women farmer-filmmakers from India, explores the experience of small Bt cotton farmers in the country as well as those in Indonesia, Thailand, Mali and South Africa, and it finds widespread condemnation of the once-championed variety, which has largely failed to live up to expectations. Rather than improving livelihoods, the film shows that many farmers are now worse-off, after the price of cotton tumbled, the cost of seed rose, and yields struggled to match those of non-GM varieties.

The film assumes some prior knowledge of the background to the Bt cotton saga, as the key issues emerge gradually and somewhat sporadically. The common theme across all the case studies is widespread condemnation of many governments' eager endorsement of Bt cotton without proper trials.

Aimed at a wide audience of researchers, students, practitioners and anyone keen to learn more about the Bt cotton experience from the farmers themselves.

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November 2007