The New Agriculturist - Reporting Agriculture for the 21st Century

Book reviews

Starved for science - how biotechnology is being kept out of AfricaStarved for science - how biotechnology is being kept out of Africa
By Robert Paarlberg
Published by Harvard University Press
2008, 235pp, ISBN 978 0 674 02973 6 (Hb), £16.95

If you can get an ex-US president to co-write your foreword, you must have something important to say. And Jimmy Carter clearly believes Robert Paarlberg's indictment of the international community's reluctance to endorse agricultural biotechnology hits the spot.

In Starved for Science, Paarlsberg's prose is as hard-hitting as the title suggests. His argument is essentially this: science can save Africa's smallholder farmers, so chemical fertilisers and genetically modified organisms (GMOs) should be welcomed with open arms, and the necessary research funding provided without delay.

But - and according to Paarlberg, it is a very big, bad but - a conspiracy of wealthy countries and myopic NGOs stands in the way. Their unfounded fears of "Frankenstein foods," have led to a preference for organic methods and diverted research efforts away from biotechnology. This, Paarlberg argues, is unacceptable for Africa, where two-thirds of the population are smallholder farmers desperate to boost productivity.

He writes: "Low income, food deficit nations are being advised by governments and pressure groups in privileged nations to reject agricultural biotechnology, mostly because this is a technology the rich countries themselves do not happen to need." As a result, African farmers are "planting heirloom varieties in polycultures rather than scientifically improved varieties in monocultures… In effect, rich outsiders are telling African farmers it will be just as well for them to remain poor."

This, clearly, is fighting talk and Paarlberg is not afraid to point the finger at the big boys - the UN, USAID and Greenpeace - all subject to the sharp end of his tongue. However, he will also face many wagging fingers for establishing a stance that deems organic practices unscientific.

Paarlberg highlights some mind-bending paradoxes, for example the refusal of drought-stricken Zambia to accept US maize for its three million hungry people because it was grown from GM seed. And the US$1.4 billion-worth of food aid given to Africa by the US in 2005, while less than ten per cent of that - only US$134 million - was provided for agricultural programmes.

When it comes to fertiliser, Paarlberg's "best technical solution", which is no great revelation, is to combine chemical and organic practices. This complementary approach, buried halfway through the book, amid an avalanche of accusations, seems a reasonable compromise for competing ideologues. What critics of Paarlberg will find frustrating is the extent to which the rest of his narrative jettisons organic farming as a luxury of richer nations - an indulgence of a people who can afford to be sceptical because they are not hungry.

It is no surprise that chemical fertiliser tops Paarlberg's shopping list for Africa's poor farmers. But there is no mention of how to cope with skyrocketing prices - driven by global oil price surges - which threaten to lock farmers into a system of fertiliser-dependency at a time when it is fast becoming unaffordable. What is surprising is that Jimmy Carter didn't give Paarlberg a gentle nudge at this juncture, presiding as he did over the 1979 oil shocks that turned his term in the White House into an uncomfortable era of thrift and stagflation.

Paarlberg makes constant reference to the much-famed Green Revolution in Asia as a showpiece for the power of science in agricultural reform. But again, critics will claim that it is not an easily-replicable model and may be unsustainable in the longer term. In Africa itself, Bt cotton has been one of the most widely-documented GMO catastrophes on record. Surely it is no wonder governments are sceptical.

Starved for Science adds to the growing body of work on the biotechnology debate, summarising clearly and fervently the arguments in favour of a more "scientific" approach. But while Paarlberg has clearly pricked the conscience of one former US head-of-state, convincing the rest of the world promises to be an uphill battle.

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Propitious esculent: the potato in world historyPropitious esculent: the potato in world history
By John Reader
Published by Random House
2008, 315pp, ISBN 978 0 4340 131800(Hb), £18.99

With 2008 being the UN's International Year of the Potato, now is a good time to both contemplate and celebrate the lowly staple. First domesticated in the highlands of Peru, the once-poisonous potato is now grown, consumed and loved by millions of people around the world and is the third-most important food crop.

In this detailed chronicle, Reader marries the biology and social history of the potato with experiences from his own incursions into the potato homelands of the Andes. He documents the spread of the crop across Europe and the rest of the world, covering everything from the well-known, for example, the Irish potato, to the less well-known - the problems caused by late blight in Papua New Guinea. A concluding chapter outlines the potential of the potato for providing food security in the future as the world population booms and environmental sustainability becomes increasingly important.

Warm and consuming, this gently-paced account both chronicles and pays homage to the potato and is written by a man who clearly has a soft spot for the simple spud.

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International development studies: theories and methods in research and practiceInternational development studies: theories and methods in research and practice
By Sumner & Tribe
Published by SAGE Publications
2008, 176pp, ISBN 978 1 4129 2945 5(Pb), £18.99

The relatively amorphous discipline of development studies has endured several years of critical introspection, not least over what constitutes the subject itself. Here, the authors acknowledge that there has been "considerable confusion over the wide range of divergent conceptualizations" of development studies. These have been influenced by many factors, not least ethnocentric analysis - the way the social, cultural and economic backgrounds of the analysts themselves can influence their approaches and findings.

As a result, significant "soul searching" has culminated in this well-written, self-reflexive text. What constitutes development is the primary concern, together with establishing a working definition of "high quality" development research.

Aimed at a wide sweep of the development community - from researchers and postgraduates to non-academics - those who the authors argue can really help transform development theory and research into practical gains. Helpful information boxes do well to break up the text, which, despite its rather abstract, analytical content, is written in a light, bright, accessible style.

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The world of organic agriculture: statistics and emerging trends 2008The world of organic agriculture: statistics and emerging trends 2008
Edited by Willer, Yussefi-Menzler and Sorensen
Published by Earthscan
2008, 267pp, ISBN 978 1 84407 592 8, £35

Few people will need convincing that organic agriculture is developing rapidly, but here is the statistical proof. Worldwide, over 30 million hectares - some 700,000 farms - are now managed organically and the figure continues to rise year-on-year. Significant gains have been made in the developing world, with organic techniques improving productivity and helping address the problems of food security and climate change in Africa.

This 8th annual edition gives a concise, up-to-date overview of how the industry is growing on a global scale, with detailed studies of aquaculture, new standards and regulations, notable achievements, and the challenges ahead. Not only packed with facts and figures, it includes expert insights into the latest issues, from the adoption of the new East African Organic Products Standard to the state of organics in Iran. More general coverage includes information on crop production worldwide.

While the lack of an index makes the report rather hard to navigate, this is an indispensable manual for organic practitioners, researchers and those simply with a statistical interest in this rising force in world farming.

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Climate change and agriculture in Africa: impact assessment and adaptation strategiesClimate change and agriculture in Africa: impact assessment and adaptation strategies
By Ariel Dinar, Rashid Hassan, Robert Mendelsohn, James Benhin et al.
Published by Earthscan
2008, 205pp, ISBN 978 1 84407 547 8(Hb), £49.95

When considering the impact of higher temperatures and reduced rainfall on agricultural productivity in Africa, it is natural to think first of changing crop patterns. One of the interesting conclusions in this assessment of climate change and agriculture is greater potential offered by livestock keeping, particularly sheep and goats. Meanwhile, to maintain crop production, governments are urged to expand irrigation infrastructure in suitable areas, and farmers are encouraged to diversify their choice of crops. If that sounds like an overly brief recipe for success, the terseness reflects the style of this volume.

Overall, the book reads very much as a summary of a massive analytical operation. Survey teams studied agricultural systems in ten African countries, deemed representative of the continent as a whole. Results presented include their current farming practices in relation to climatic conditions, the economic impacts that various climate change scenarios (i.e. changes in rainfall and temperature) could have, and existing adaptation practices by farmers. Analytical methods are explained and some policy conclusions offered. However, for any one country, the information presented seems very brief; the book may therefore be of more interest to climate change researchers than ministries of agriculture.

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Management of nematode and insect-borne plant diseasesManagement of nematode and insect-borne plant diseases
Edited by Geeta Saxena and K.G. Mukerji
Published by The Haworth Press
2007, 315pp, ISBN 978 1 56022 135 7(Pb), £36.99

As students of integrated pest management will be well aware, protecting crops from pests and pest-borne diseases depends on a good understanding of the enemy and its place within the farm ecology. Drawing on expertise from the United States, Europe and Asia, this recent addition to the crop protection library targets students and researchers, offering them a useful compendium of current knowledge. Most of the chapters focus on a specific control technique, for example the use of genetically enhanced microbes, nematophagous fungi or biofumigation.

Understanding the biology and behaviour of the pests and the diseases they transmit is key to control, but is also complex. The chapter on nematodes, for example, contains descriptions of 16 different families, within each of which may be several genera that cause damage to crops. Sound management, it is stressed, depends on identifying the species, knowing its biology and population density at the time of planting, as well as the effectiveness, availability and possible side effects of different control options. Such information will not be easily available to farmers, particularly in developing countries, but crop protection researchers working on their behalf will find this a useful and accessible guide to an important subject.

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Affirming life and diversity: rural images and voices on food sovereignty in south IndiaAffirming life and diversity: rural images and voices on food sovereignty in south India
By the DDS Community Media Trust, PV Satheesh and Michel Pimbert
Published by IIED
2008, 60pp plus DVD, ISBN 978-1-84369-674-2 (Hb), £30

This 'box set' collection of twelve short films offers a fascinating perspective on south Indian lives and concerns. Made by the Community Media Trust, a group of around 20 poor women living in the Deccan plateau of Andhra Pradesh, the films document their work to preserve and develop local food systems in the face of external pressures. The action research process by which the films came to be made is also explained in an accompanying text. Key to the process was that the research should be "with, for and by people, rather than on them." The success of using film, in enabling illiterate people to document their experiences and get their voices heard at national and international levels, is inspiring.

Most of the films describe activities in the Deccan plateau, an area that is home to a rich agrarian culture, diverse crops and livestock and a wealth of local, farming knowledge. These are threatened, however, by various external influences, including a national food distribution service that undermines local production. In response, the Deccan Development Society and village level voluntary associations have developed an alternative 'Community Grain Fund' based on locally grown cereals and biodiverse farming systems. Their initiative, which is now providing lessons to India's policy makers, is presented in the first film. Others include the spread of a biodiversity festival, participatory development of a millet processing machine and experiences of growing Bt cotton. A rich resource for researchers, trainers and policy makers.

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Business for development: promoting commercial agriculture in AfricaBusiness for development: promoting commercial agriculture in Africa
By OECD Development Centre
Published by OECD Publishing
2008, 122pp, ISBN 978 264 044 692 Pb, £28

This second edition of Business for Development takes a look at the role of the private sector in stimulating innovation, generating employment and contributing to the development of African agriculture and the wider economy. The authors investigate how African agriculture can become more market-orientated, the importance of agro-food industries, and the action some governments are taking to transform their economies through commercial agriculture. This accessible publications reviews issues, such as "aid-for-trade" and the puzzle of why Africa's share in world agricultural trade is falling. Case studies from Ghana, Mali, Senegal, Tanzania and Zambia show the successes and failures of government intervention and NGO programmes in fostering agricultural development. This is a must read for governments, the NGO community and members of the private sector.

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July 2008