The New Agriculturist - Reporting Agriculture for the 21st Century

Book reviews

The future control of foodThe future control of food
Edited by Tansey & Rajotte
Published by Earthscan
2008, 266pp, ISBN 978 1 84407 429 7 Pb, £19.99

We may live in the Information Age, but who really knows about the complex and far-reaching rules that govern the global food system? The often confusing, murky world of intellectual property (IP) rights - for example, patents, plant breeders' rights, trademarks and copyrights - are all, according to Geoff Tansey and Tasmin Rajotte, legal symbols of control. When combined with myriad international regulations that enforce them, IP represents a formidable obstacle to future food security.

In his introduction, Tansey is not the first, and certainly won't be the last, to observe that the coexistence of 850million undernourished people in some parts of the world with an obesity epidemic afflicting 1billion people in others is indicative of something intrinsically wrong with our food production and distribution systems. But he is one of the few to argue with clarity and conviction the role of IP in this systemic contradiction and failure.

The debate over IP is, accordingly, fierce. Proponents argue that IP provides the necessary incentives, rewards and security for investments in research and development. Others, like Tansey, believe it "creates scarcity where there need be none," and that it would be a "more accurate reflection of reality if we stopped using the term 'intellectual property rights' and instead talked of 'business monopoly (or exclusionary) privileges'."

Take a humble slice of bread. If you eat it, you deprive someone else of the chance to do the same. But sharing the knowledge of how to make bread does not necessarily reduce the amount of bread available to you. Dissemination of knowledge, in the widest possible terms, Tansey contends, is therefore a good way of sharing the benefits of that knowledge. But the prevalence of IP in food production and distribution can obstruct this process, by "transforming knowledge from a shared public good into a private good."

This kind of analogy is indicative of the editors' approach to what is potentially a rather languid subject; they help bring the debate to life and make the nuts-and-bolts of the arguments clear and accessible to all.

Divided into three parts, with contributions from many experts in the field, The Future Control of Food is a comprehensive guide to the international negotiations and rules on IP and the implications for biodiversity and food security. It covers the history, promotion and proliferation of IP, its impact on the sustainability of the global agricultural system, and the responses from civil society to the creeping tide of IP.

The target audience is - in an unpatented nutshell - everyone: the general public, researchers, academics, farmers, corporations and decision-makers worldwide. And Tansey makes the reasons for this wide appeal abundantly clear, since "we are, but should not be, playing a high stakes poker game with the sustainability of agriculture upon which all our lives - directly and indirectly - depend."

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Food security - indicators, measurement, and the impact of trade opennessFood security - indicators, measurement, and the impact of trade openness
Edited by Guha-Khasnobis, Acharya and Davis
Published by Oxford University Press
2007, 371pp, ISBN 978 0 19 923655 8 Hb, £55

Nearly 3 million children and 300,000 women die from malnutrition every year in developing countries, with those in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia worst affected. Curiously, the foreword to this in-depth collection of studies on food security excludes any figure for men, but the policy prescriptions contained within are not all gender-specific.

The underlying issue in this volume is that the importance of hunger and food security needs to be revisited and revamped. For too long, it is argued, the attention of policymakers has been dominated by longer term strategies to reduce poverty, while the hungry get hungrier still.

Based on a two-year project by the UN University World Institute for Development Economics Research, the Indian Council of Social Science Research and FAO, contributing writers seek to redress the balance by focusing on some of the less-researched areas in food security at national, household and individual levels.

With case studies from Vietnam, Pakistan and India, together with analysis of trade openness and the impact of the WTO, a comprehensive case is made for development workers, policymakers, students and researchers to re-evaluate the importance of food security relative to other Millennium Development Goals. After all, the hungry "need immediate relief", regardless of gender.

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The global food economyThe global food economy
By Tony Weiss
Published by Zed Books
2007, 217pp, ISBN 978 1 84277 795 4 Pb, £16.99

How can obesity and malnourishment co-exist in a global food market? How can both grain surpluses and famine prevail in a global society? Jean Zeigler, Special Rapporteur of the UN Commission on Human Rights, sums up the need for action to tackle the crises and contradictions in the global food economy starkly: "It is an outrage that in the 21st century one child under the age of five will die every five seconds from hunger-related diseases...Yet where is the fight against hunger?"

Compact and readable, Tony Weiss confronts, head-on the forces that have brought about the paradoxes in the production and distribution of food around the world.

His analysis documents the uphill battle of import-dependent farmers in less-developed countries as they deal with multinational corporations; government subsidies paid to producers in richer nations that make it difficult for unsupported producers to compete; the environmental impact of the extant grain-livestock complex; and the role of the WTO in enforcing the status quo. In effect, Weiss takes a detailed look at how this situation arose, became compounded and now how it can be changed in favour of a more humane food economy.

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An economic assessment of banana genetic improvement and innovation in the Lake Victoria region of Uganda and TanzaniaAn economic assessment of banana genetic improvement and innovation in the Lake Victoria region of Uganda and Tanzania
IFPRI Research Report 155
Edited by Smale & Tushemereirwe
Published by International Food Policy Research Institute
2007, 188pp, ISBN 978 0 89629 764 5 Pb, US$10 or free to download

Bananas are a vital source of income and nutrition to many smallholder farmers in East Africa, but bioengineering pest- and disease-resistant varieties is notoriously difficult. Nevertheless, improved cultivars have been making an impact in the region, and uptake of newly-released transgenic bananas has been promising. Combined with new management practices, these new varieties could translate into increased production, improved food security and multiple social benefits.

This in-depth report details the findings and implications of a number of studies from Uganda and Tanzania, with particular emphasis on cooking bananas. And the lessons learned extend well beyond both East Africa - and bananas.

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Can NGOs make a difference?Can NGOs make a difference?
Edited by Bebbington, Hickey and Mitlin
Published by Zed Books
2007, 358pp, ISBN 978 1 84277 893 7

Scrutiny of the NGO sector must surely be welcomed and this tome takes a critical look at whether these well-intentioned organisations offer realistic, successful alternatives to the dominant development models - those of the "neo-liberal world order". But be forewarned: this is a tough read.

While some of the contributions are lively, informative and thought-provoking, supported by a strong selection of case studies, others are not. Several wearying chapters fail to avoid the sector's frequent pitfall of producing dry analytical narratives requiring prodigious levels of concentration.

Chapter titles like "Challenges to participation and democracy: perverse confluence and displacement of meanings" will not be short listed for any Plain English Award. Worse still, diagrams like the confounding, if not inane, "Fig 2.1 Trajectories of NGO Impact" (p51) do little to lighten the reader's load. These and other perplexing moments divert attention and page space from what is, and should be, a serious debate.

In theory this ought to be a timely moment for critical reflection on a sector often accused of doing little more than propping up the policies of national governments. Unfortunately, "Can NGOs Make A Difference" itself fails to live up to expectations.

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Integrated pest management for crops and pasturesIntegrated pest management for crops and pastures
Paul Horne & Jessica Page
Published by Land Links
2008, 136pp, ISBN 978 0 643 09257 0 Pb, AU$49.85

Integrated Pest Management (IPM) - the use of complimentary methods to control pests in crop production - continues to gain credence on a global level. And although Horne and Page look at the role of IPM in Australian farming, the concepts, approaches, problems and solutions are all useful touchstones for the implementation of IPM strategies in the developing world.

The authors compare and contrast IPM with traditional pest control techniques, and highlight the importance of identifying and monitoring pests and beneficial species once IPM is in place. They also elaborate on the three IPM control methods - biological, cultural and chemical - in the formulation of effective, complementary pest control strategies. Readable and informative, Horne and Page provide a valuable analysis of and insight into the discipline, which will appeal to scientists, extension workers, development professionals and researchers.

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Feed supplementation blocksFeed supplementation blocks
FAO Animal Production and Health Paper 164
Edited by Makkar, Sanchez & Speedy
Published by FAO
2007, 262pp, ISBN 978 92 5 105438 3 Pb, US$52

Nutrient block technology has proven a successful alternative to higher-priced supplements like oil cakes. Relatively easy to make, and adopted in over 60 countries, urea-molasses nutrient blocks have become an important, cost-effective source of nitrogen for livestock farmers

This FAO report looks at the use and success of urea-molasses multi-nutrient blocks in Bangladesh, China, India, Thailand, Venezuela, Viet Nam, Sudan, and Malaysia. Aimed at students, researchers, extension and development workers and farmers, it provides detailed analysis of the ways the technology has improved animal productivity and farmer incomes.

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March 2008