The New Agriculturist - Reporting Agriculture for the 21st Century

Book reviews

Common Wealth - Economics for a Crowded PlanetCommon Wealth - Economics for a Crowded Planet
By Jeffrey Sachs
Published by Penguin
2008, 386pp, ISBN 978 0 713 99919 8(Hb), £22

To many, Jeffrey Sachs needs little introduction. Director of the Earth Institute, economic adviser to the UN and director of the organisation's Millennium Project, he has long worked as an economist at the highest levels - and courted controversy for much of his career.

Accessible, un-cynical and refreshingly optimistic, Common Wealth is also, unfortunately, rather simplistic in its view of humanity's combined ability to change the world for the better. Sachs argues that we can quite easily buy, spend and invest our way out of global poverty and achieve sustainable development en route. Lots of gain, but not much pain, it seems.

For Sachs, availability of money is key, and market forces - combined with government steering - will take care of the rest. Even peak oil, global warming and political corruption are, says Sachs, either readily surmountable or, given the technologies at our disposal, not too much of a problem. He even argues that the idea of nations ruthlessly pursuing natural resources in the future will become passé, yet why this should be is not clear; will natural resources cease to be scarce, or the pursuit of them fashionable?

Sachs' oversimplification of complex issues can become rather exasperating - and it appears in chapter after chapter. The challenge to banishing poverty from India, for example, "is to transform a densely populated subcontinent of subsistence farmers into a modern and largely urban society." How this will simultaneously eradicate the caste system that institutionalises - and, for some, even legitimises - poverty, is not discussed. Nor is it clear exactly how this new, prosperous, urban population will feed itself. Presumably, supplies of raw materials will appear out of thin air - thin indeed, given many of India's already overcrowded cities.

Likewise, the enduring and entrenched political tensions in the Middle East are resolved with a click of his fingers: settle the Israel-Palestine conflict and get all countries in the Middle East to renounce nuclear weapons. Then development can flourish. Easy indeed.

Similarly on Africa, Sachs is able to remedy the maladies of an entire continent in just a few pages. Although he acknowledges the role of bad governance in preventing the benefits of foreign aid being fully realised, it is dismissed simply as "a small part of the problem." What is needed, Sachs contends, is targeted investment and then benign, gregarious ripple effects will take care of the rest. In fact, echoing the frequently-criticised claims in his 2005 book The End of Poverty, Sachs argues that if G8 countries honour their commitments to aid, Africa will not need any external aid whatsoever by 2025.

If that doesn't make you choke on your Green Revolution rice, here is how: money will fix water shortages, money will fix disease and malnutrition, money will mean that climate and climate change do not matter, money will - presumably - find new ways of regenerating degraded soils and combating, negating or reversing desertification. And - if you're still reading - this money will also be sufficient to construct the necessary infrastructure to kick-start an entire continent. Africa will become fully-operational and productive, providing adequate living standards for a projected population of around 1.5 billion people - all in less than a single generation. Just keep sending the money.

Of course, it's not just money that's needed: according to Sachs, we also need "determined effort" buttressed by a large measure of "goodwill" to provide these "modest" funds. Presumably this money will also, somehow, provide an unhindered supply of raw materials and guarantee the invention of all those necessary scientific solutions not yet conceived.

Readers would be forgiven for thinking that in order to achieve such an imminent goal, urgent, decisive action would be necessary. But frustratingly, one of Sachs' "eight actions each of us can take" is to promote sustainable development through social networking websites. That means Facebook and the like.

Critics will condemn Common Wealth as little more than 400 pages of self-congratulatory back-patting for the UN and G8 governments. Meanwhile, supporters of Sachs will hail it as an invigorating and upbeat prescription for achieving global prosperity. But in writing for such a wide audience, Sachs has traded substance for accessibility, dumbing down complicated arguments and, in so doing, he fails to acknowledge a formidable herd of elephants-in-the-room.

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Asian crops and human dieteticsAsian crops and human dietetics
Usha Rani Palaniswamy
Published by The Haworth Press
2008, 206pp, ISBN 978 1 56022 312 2(Hb), £46.99

Asian culinary diaspora is hard to deny, with the worldwide spread of the continent's eating habits an excellent example of cultural diffusion. Palaniswamy's analysis casts scientific light on the health benefits of a variety of common ingredients in Asian - mostly South Asian - dishes. The quality of analysis - including the chemical make-up and medicinal properties of these so-called 'nutraceuticals' - is excellent, although photographs or illustrations of some of the more obscure entries would have been useful. Sometimes the referencing can become wearying, for example, the 22 pages of cited authors and papers accompanying the 44-page chapter on vegetables. But coverage is generally very good, with other chapters dedicated to grains, fruits, fats and oils, beans and nuts, and spices.

No room for ghee (clarified butter) or monosodium glutamate (MSG) here, but nevertheless this is readable, informative and will appeal to dieticians and food science students, as well as the casual reader interested in proving, scientifically, just how good for them last night's takeaway was.

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Land and sustainable development in AfricaLand and sustainable development in Africa
Edited by Amanor and Moyo
Published by Zed Books
2008, 226pp, ISBN 978 1 84277 913 2(Pb), £17.99

Land reform and social justice were placed high up the agenda at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in South Africa in 2002. But fears that smallholder farmers, among others, would be excluded from the development process resulted in a simultaneous event, organised by the Landless People's Movement. Much of the analysis contained here grew out of papers presented at this alternative pro-poor forum.

In speaking up for landless people, Amanor and Moyo argue that current land tenure laws merely reinforce the injustices of colonialism. Although independence brought reform of land tenure, the new laws served the interests of the new "ruling elites" and the injustices to landless groups prevailed. The problem for neoliberals promoting sustainable development in Africa, they suggest, is that current laws protect existing landowners and must be changed, and the land redistributed more equitably.

With in-depth studies from South Africa, Zimbabwe, Malawi, Kenya, Botswana and West Africa, the authors call for "a new agenda for sustainable development…concerned with notions of social redistribution of natural resources and land, and public participation in control over appropriation and accumulation of land." Essential reading for anyone keen to learn more about how the legacy of colonialism still has far-reaching implications for livelihoods in Africa, and some possible ways to improve them.

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Poverty and waterPoverty and water
Edited by Hemson, Kulindwa, Lein and Mascarenhas
Published by Zed Books in association with CROP
2008, 210pp, ISBN 978 1 84277 962 0(Pb), £19.99

It may be a little known fact, sitting in the long shadow of its headline-dominating brethren, but achieving water security is the UN's 7th Millennium Development Goal.

As the world population steams ahead to its anticipated 2050 level of nine billion people, pressure on water supplies will increase rapidly: with more mouths to feed, more agricultural land will need to be brought into production, much of it requiring irrigation. In fact, 70 per cent of the world's available freshwater is already used to water crops. But there is much more to water than physical scarcity, as an expert panel of contributors firmly establishes here, over the course of ten chapters. With case studies from Bangladesh, Nigeria, South Africa and Tanzania, they examine the reciprocal relationship between water and poverty and sift through the murky world of politics, big business and water exploitation.

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Ecological restorationEcological restoration
Andre F Clewell & James Aronson
Published by Island Press
2007, 216pp, ISBN 978 1 59726 169 6(Pb), US$30

Somewhat unsurprisingly, ecological restoration is "the process of assisting the recovery of an ecosystem that has been degraded, damaged or destroyed." But the authors of this introduction to the practice embrace a wider, holistic definition, that takes into account both environmental and social components.

Engagingly written, it is aimed at those working directly in the conception, planning and management of ecological restoration projects, as well as students and those with a general interest in a discipline of growing importance.

The accompanying photographs, in what the authors call "virtual field trips", are very poor quality black-and-white reproductions, serving to break up the text rather than provide a more lucid visual representation of the discipline. But somehow this lack of sleek, professional images adds to the book's authentic charm as a manual for the practitioner, written by real people who have been getting their hands really dirty.

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State of the world 2008 - Ideas and opportunities for sustainable economiesState of the world 2008 - Ideas and opportunities for sustainable economies
By Worldwatch Institute
Published by Earthscan
2008, 260pp, ISBN 978 1 84407 498 3(Pb), US$18.95

When the price of a product fails to reflect certain costs - for example, environmental damage - the phenomenon is known as 'market failure'. Apply this concept across a global economy with ever-increasing biophysical constraints and, according to Worldwatch Institute director Christopher Flavin, the need to make the transition to sustainable economics is profound.

Far from a doom-and-gloom compendium of our powerlessness to rein in the runaway trains of carbon emissions and biodiversity loss, for example, the expert authors outline some hopeful alternatives and the progress being made towards achieving them. These cover renewable energy, innovations in cleaner production, the use of commons resources, reform of trade policy and many more.

A welcome break from the persistent pessimism and nail-biting eschatology of many contemporary titles, this will appeal to policymakers and environmentalists as much as those simply keen to find out more about what can be - and is being - done to bring, as Flavin puts it, the world "economy into balance with the global ecosystem."

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Planting and establishment of tropical treesPlanting and establishment of tropical trees
By David Upton with Peter de Groot
Published by Commonwealth Secretariat
Available in the US from Stylus Publishing
2008, 142pp, ISBN 978 0 85092 708 5(Pb), £23

This excellent volume is the last in a series of five practical guides to propagating and planting tropical trees. It has many points to recommend it: extremely clear and straight-forward writing; attractive and helpful line-drawn illustrations; spiral bound and organised as a series of photocopiable sheets, ideal for training purposes, with cross references to relevant sections in other volumes in the series. The aim of the series as a whole is to encourage growing, planting and care of trees 'on any site, by anyone, at any scale'.

The manual opens with a section on planning the tree planting project, with a useful flowchart to show the best sequence of tasks, from preliminary investigations to implementation. Trees, it emphasises, must be matched to site; inadequate information on the planting site, particularly the soil type, is the most common cause of failure. A section on establishment of trees includes mulching, pruning and staking techniques, and a further section covers protection of trees from dangers such as animals, fire, harmful insects and diseases. Planting trees is usually a long term project which deserves and depends on attention to detail. This manual, particularly in combination with other titles in the series, provides the necessary detail in a very user-friendly format.

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May 2008