The New Agriculturist - Reporting Agriculture for the 21st Century

Book reviews

Black Gold DVDBlack Gold DVD
By Nick Francis and Mark Francis
Dogwoof Pictures
2007, 78 mins, ASIN: B000RWDXVE, £14.99

A much-anticipated DVD release, this award-winning documentary is a compelling, enlightening and unrepentant expose of the multi-billion dollar coffee industry, causing a worldwide stir since its cinema release in 2006.

Beautifully shot, Black Gold follows the indefatigable Tadesse Meskela of Ethiopia's Oromia Coffee Farmers' Co-operative Union, as he visits producers, auctions, trade fairs and western supermarkets, following the coffee cherry from the tree to the cup, while tirelessly campaigning for a fair price for his producers.

The tone of the film is set early during Meskela's meeting with coffee growers in southern Ethiopia. Here he breaks the news that their coffee eventually sells for ten times what they are paid to grow it. Their bewilderment is tangible, likewise their powerlessness to redress the balance.

The filmmakers' firing line is wide and varied, but many of the film's often unwitting targets are delightfully satirised: the insouciant latte sippers in New York, London and Trieste; the pitiful naiveté of staff in the Seattle branch of one multinational coffee chain who cogitate, with priceless irony, on "the lives that we're touching..." by selling non-Fairtrade coffee; the vainglorious World Barista Championships, also in Seattle, where self-styled western coffee-making connoisseurs showcase their talents.

These scenes are powerfully juxtaposed with those documenting the hardship of Ethiopian communities locked into poverty by low prices: village meetings where one coffee farmer is willing, literally, to sell the shirt on his back to help raise funds to build a school; a nutrition centre in the country's famine-hit Sidama region, where a frail toddler is turned away from a feeding centre for not being malnourished enough; the toil of penniless farmers hacking down their coffee plants to grow the controversial, but more profitable, narcotic herb khat; the export processing centre in Addis Ababa, where workers sort some of the world's premium coffee beans for less than US$0.50 a day.

Each example highlights the plight of underpaid coffee growers in Ethiopia and the multiplier effects this has throughout society. This is an unforgiving castigation of the coffee industry, its middlemen and the blissfully ignorant consumers in the developed world who are unable to see any moral imperative beyond their next caffeine fix.

When it comes to coverage of the 2004 World Trade Organization talks in Cancun, Mexico, the gloves really come off. Beyond simply coffee, it is an unsettling insight into the political environment in which developing countries have to fight for favourable terms-of-trade. There are scenes of chaos as some delegates are excluded from discussions while richer nations negotiate behind closed doors.

After a long, but eventually successful search for his coffee on the shelves of UK supermarkets, a crestfallen Meskela concludes, "Our hope is that one day the consumer will understand what he is drinking and will ask those people who are not having Fairtrade coffee to pay a fair price".

This is a timely documentary that gives the Fairtrade movement many human faces. But ultimately it is not is not just a film about coffee or fair trade, but also the mechanics of the global market as a whole, its governance and the ways in which individual consumers can make a real change to the livelihoods of real people. Essential viewing.

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Plan B 3.0 - mobilizing to save civilisationPlan B 3.0 - mobilizing to save civilisation
By Lester R Brown
Published by Earthpolicy Institute
2008, 370pp, ISBN 978 0 393 33087 8(Pb), US$17 (or free to download)

The need for a revised edition so soon after Plan B 2.0, Brown argues, is that while things seemed bad in 2005, things are now really, really bad. Sudden price hikes in oil and grain, the boom in biofuels, accelerated retreat of the Arctic ice sheet and the growing number of failing states are all indicative of - according to Brown - a civilisation teetering on the brink of an imminent and almighty collapse. In fact, as with previous editions, the alarmism of the first few chapters can leave you paralysed with apathy: surely it's already too late to save the planet, the only option being to scramble for the TV remote to catch live newsfeeds of global environmental meltdown.

But Plan B 3.0 contains as many potential remedies as it does calamities. Brown's arguments, largely echoed from Plan B 2.0, are charming and compelling, and his analysis hops from country to country in an engaging, worldly-wise fashion. In fact we're not necessarily all doomed - environmental ailments, he contends, can be tackled with existing technology plus a huge financial commitment from world governments, provided we take action with what he frequently refers to as "wartime speed".

One of his new ideas - shutting down all coal-fired power stations by 2020 - though logical, is controversial; it is also a belligerent poke in the eye to the ascendant economic powerhouse that is China, and something that will not be taken lying down.

Critics will claim that this is indicative of many of Brown's policy prescriptions: they are much easier said than done. But, in fairness to Brown, we have to start somewhere and there is certainly no time to lose. And, as he pertinently points out, the real question is can we afford to do anything else?

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Organic farming - an international historyOrganic farming - an international history
Edited by W Lockeetz
Published by CABI
2007, 282pp, ISBN 978 0 85199 833 6(Hb), £75

Organic farming has been around longer than many of us realise. Of course, all agriculture was organic once, but there is a difference between organic farming by default and by intent. Organic farming by intent emerged in the 1920s as a small but significant protest against the growing industrialisation of agriculture. Since then the movement has successfully cast off its counter-cultural trappings and become the undeniable force for reform that we know today - incorporating more than just pesticide-free farming, but also a whole new paradigm of social justice, forging links between science, health and morality. Over the course of 16 chapters, expert writers document the history, rise, acceptance and current challenges of organic farming in an accessible, concise and enlightening manner. An invaluable resource for researchers, policymakers and anyone interested in how organic farming has moved from the periphery and established itself firmly both on the landscape and in our moral consciousness.

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World Development Report 2008 - Agriculture for DevelopmentWorld Development Report 2008 - Agriculture for Development
Published by The World Bank
2007, 355pp, ISBN 978 0 8213 6807 7(Pb), £13.95

The last World Development Report on agriculture was published a quarter of a century ago and the pressing need for the international community to once again establish agriculture at the centre of development efforts is reflected in this timely treatise. The crux of it is that while most of the world's 880 million people, who live on less than US$1 per day, live in rural areas and depend on farming, directly or indirectly, for their livelihoods, only four per cent of official development assistance is channelled into agriculture. This World Bank report calls for efforts to address this anomaly in aid and to progress towards the United Nations' Millennium Development Goal on poverty and hunger.

But the importance of agriculture is not simply considered as a means of alleviating poverty and establishing food security for smallholder farmers. Agricultural growth is seen here as an important means of kick-starting economic growth as a whole in developing countries, leading to improved livelihoods through multiple ripple effects.

Over the course of 11 chapters, the report takes an in-depth look at the ways the international community can help give agriculture in developing countries the boost it needs to achieve this. Packed full of facts, figures, case studies and policy prescriptions, the report also contains detailed sections on the omnipresent biofuels debate, role of agribusiness in development, benefits of genetically-modified organisms and the need to tackle climate change.

Transforming agriculture to benefit the world's poor requires huge effort from international organisations and world governments. As World Bank Group President, Robert B Zoellick, says "We must level the playing field of international trade; provide global public goods... help developing countries address climate change; and overcome the looming health pandemics for plants, animals and humans." This is no easy task, but it needs to be addressed with the clock ticking.

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Sustainable development at risk - ignoring the pastSustainable development at risk - ignoring the past
By Jospeh H Hulse
Publsihed by Cambridge University Press India Pvt Ltd & International Development Research Centre
2007, 371pp, ISBN 978 81 7596 521 8(Hb), US$16

Although Hulse risks becoming bogged down in a quagmire of etymology and semiotics in order to establish working definitions of sustainable development, his 40 year career in international development academia means he is well placed to cut through the flack. Once the various strands of what constitutes the discipline have been pulled together, he examines its history, from ancient times to the present day, and all its myriad guises: poverty alleviation, food security, environmental protection, agricultural practice and more.

The analysis - based on strong research with an excellent chapter of case studies - will make unsettling reading for some. Hulse is not afraid to turn the guns on many aspects of international development culture - from the globetrotting gaggles of rhetoricians, who gather at opulent international conferences, to the role of western consumerism and political systems in perpetuating dependency among the world's poor. Persistent throughout is Hulse's call for the need to learn from the past in order to continually remould our concepts of what can work and how to create an all-inclusive, equitable new world order founded on sustainable development, however it is defined.

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Developing markets for agrobiodiversityDeveloping markets for agrobiodiversity
By Alessandra Giuliani
Published by Earthscan
2007, 126pp, ISBN 978 1 84407 468 6, £54

With 90 per cent of the world's food coming from just four major staple crops - maize, potatoes, rice and wheat - the potential effect on biodiversity should come as no surprise. The decline in crops and varieties has caused a fall in pollinators and pest controllers, and also leaves communities and countries vulnerable to climatic, economic and political pressures.

But despite the preponderance of the "big four" staples, neglected and underutilised plant species (NUS) can also provide nutrition, medicine and income for poor rural communities, and enhance biodiversity.

This research report, based on a pilot study of NUS in Syria, focuses on the underexploited benefits of figs, jujube (red date), laurel, caper, purslane and mallow. It covers the suitability of NUS to dryland areas, methods of production and a detailed analysis of its findings.

Written for policymakers, extension workers, scientists, students, researchers and NGOs, the aim is to encourage further development of the markets for NUS, while providing a valuable record of traditional knowledge.

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Agricultural diversification and smallholders in South AsiaAgricultural diversification and smallholders in South Asia
Edited by Joshi, Giuliani and Cummings
Published by Academic Foundation
2007, 626pp, ISBN 817188551 9(Hb), US$79.95

Food and farming are changing on a global level: with the advent of new technologies and greater global integration, demand for cereals and pulses is declining in favour of high-value foods such as fruit, vegetables, milk, meat, eggs and fish.

In theory these changes could benefit smallholders. Many have struggled to survive by producing staple food grains, whereas high value foods - being often labour intensive - offer smallscale farmers, with abundant family labour, opportunities to maximise their comparative advantage. But many in South Asia have failed to capitalise on these new markets for a number of reasons, which are explored in detail through contributions from over 40 experts.

The policy implications reach far beyond South Asia and will be of interest to anyone working to involve smallholders in the transformation of agriculture.

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Concise encyclopedia of crop improvementConcise encyclopedia of crop improvement
By Rolf HJ Schlegel
Published by Haworth Food & Agricultural Products Press
2007, 331pp, ISBN 978 1 56022 146 3(Hb), US$139.95

Although "concise", this reference manual is far from scant on facts. Over the course of six chapters, Schlegel dives headfirst into all aspects of crop breeding and improvement, providing coverage of the institutions, people, theories, methods and history of the discipline. With no stone left unturned, it is detailed and well-referenced, and ranges from the relatively simplistic systems of the Old World to complex present-day practices. Chapters are dedicated to biotechnology and genetic engineering as well as the omnipresent issues of intellectual property rights and patenting. Buttressed by a comprehensive glossary of technical terms, this is an all-encompassing compendium of nearly everything and everyone who has ever mattered in the world of crop improvement. It is clearly aimed at undergraduates, PhD students and experts in the field. Not for the uninitiated.

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January 2008