The New Agriculturist - Reporting Agriculture for the 21st Century

Book reviews

Eat your heart out - why the food business is bad for the planet and your healthEat your heart out - why the food business is bad for the planet and your health
By Felicity Lawrence
Published by Penguin
2008, 339pp, ISBN 978 0 141 02601 5(Pb), £8.99

The apparently indisputable virtue of choice is one of the founding principles of modern democracy - a belief in our ability to make informed decisions about the future. But in the developed world, food choices verge on the superfluous: low-fat, low-carb, wheat-free, sugar-free, free range…the list goes on and tediously on. But, as The Guardian newspaper's investigative reporter Felicity Lawrence makes abundantly clear, these "choices" are really just a façade. She believes that what most of us in the rich West eat is largely controlled and supplied by big business - in many cases supported by government subsidies. And if that's not enough, it's not even good for us.

Eat your heart out aims to shake both the reader and the food industry to their foundations. It is a comprehensive, in-depth exposé of food production, marketing and distribution systems, and how they are inextricably linked to decades of oil abundance. The first chapter, on the preponderance of the boxed, processed breakfast cereals in the British and American diets, is worth reading more than once. Lawrence is at once impressed and appalled by the way this predominance has been achieved: "Somehow they have wormed into our confused consciousness as intrinsically healthy," she writes, "when by and large they are degraded foods that have to have any goodness artificially restored." She positively revels in the head of Kellogg Europe's confession that without the added salt in the company's flagship Cornflakes cereal there would be more to taste if you ate the box they came in.

This is just one of a number of lids lifted by Lawrence. She lambastes supermarkets' centralised packing houses that take local food hundreds of miles away from their place of origin, only to package them in oil-derived plastics and drive them back to stores near the fields in which they grew. No respite either for the manufacturers of "bio"-yoghurts, whose gut flora-friendly pre-and probiotic drinks provide our ailing digestive systems with the nutrients excessive processing removed from our diets in the first place. And, nowhere to hide for those behind the environmental destruction and slave-like working conditions of the vast soya plantations in the Amazon. Needless to say, names like Cargill, Bunge and Unilever, to name but a few global food giants, pop up time and again.

In the closing chapter, "Food for tomorrow", Lawrence outlines her own vision of the future. She champions the 'whole food' approach, not just to maintain better health, but because processed food is unsustainable due to its dependency on an era of cheap oil, which is now, perhaps, in its endgame. Local, seasonal consumption together with organic production are central pillars in her ideal food system.

The amount of explosive information presented is compromised by the disappointing absence of an index, making it difficult to track down and re-examine some of the heart-stopping facts. But, for the best part, witty, wise and well-researched, Eat your heart out is timely, troubling and ultimately essential reading for the discerning western consumer, keen to make real changes while they still have a choice.

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Banana - the fate of the fruit that changed the worldBanana - the fate of the fruit that changed the world
By Dan Koeppel
Publsihed by Hudson Street Press
Website: and
2008, 283pp, ISBN 978 1 59463 038 5, US$23.95

Banana is the world's first cultivated fruit - originally farmed some 7000 years ago. Even certain translations of the Old Testament suggest the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden was actually a banana, not an apple. While we hear no end of discussions on the main world staples, banana rarely gets a look-in. But the fruit, in all its many shapes and sizes, keeps millions of people alive - and has done for millennia.

Koeppel's scientific anthology is full of fun facts that challenge traditional stereotypes surrounding this much-loved crop: banana is not a tree, but a herb; its fruits are actually giant berries; there are over 1000 varieties worldwide.

But Koeppel is also very concerned: the universally-adored banana has a terrifying enemy: Panama disease. The virulent root fungus that wiped out the first widely-traded banana - the Gros Michel - now affects its supposedly-immune successor, the seedless, sexless Cavendish. This impotent cultivar, now the most commonly traded variety around the world, could well prove the industry's undoing: as a genetic replica of its parents, the Cavendish is inherently weak because it is unable to respond to disease threats on its own. "Banana has changed the world, but for all practical purposes, it can't change itself," writes Koeppel.

According to Koeppel, the solution most likely lies in some form of genetic engineering, which in turn will face legal and popular resistance in many countries. But what alternatives are there when a new strain of Panama disease, tropical race four, is now destroying banana crops in Pakistan, Indonesia, the Philippines and spreading into Africa too? How long before it reaches the Caribbean, then Central and South America, taking the whole industry down with it? "Right now nobody knows if the banana can - or will - be saved," laments Koeppel, who has clearly bitten his fingernails down to the quick. But all is not entirely lost: he sets out the agenda for rescuing our beloved banana, before it's too late.

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The new peasantries - struggles for autonomy and sustainability in an era of empire and globalizationThe new peasantries - struggles for autonomy and sustainability in an era of empire and globalization
By Jan Douwe van der Ploeg
Published by Earthscan
2008, 356pp, ISBN 978 1 84407 558 4(Hb), £19.99

Negative connotations aside, there are around 1.2 billion "peasants" in the world - those who struggle for economic autonomy and to develop sustainable non-commercial food production systems. And far from being an antiquated phenomenon, peasant societies have not been eclipsed by the ongoing era of neo-liberal globalisation. In fact, they are on the rise - the growth in commercial farming is being matched by a boom in another phenomenon, albeit one to which van der Ploeg has assigned a rather unpleasant name, "repeasantization".

While on the face of it, this may hold interest for a wide audience, some will certainly find The New Peasantries a challenging read. Studies of peasant societies in Peru, The Netherlands and Italy are more engaging than the theoretical chapters, which contain some unhelpful phrases, like "mechanisms of distantiation", and a Venn diagram representing "The contours of theoretical impasse". This kind of vocabulary means the text is pitched squarely at an academic level that will furrow the brows of even some experts, most casual readers, and almost certainly all peasants.

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Fuelling exclusion? The biofuels boom and poor people's access to landFuelling exclusion? The biofuels boom and poor people's access to land
By Cotula, Dyer & Vermeulen
Published by IIED
Website: and
2008, 72pp, ISBN 978 1 84369 702 2(Pb), free to download

For a brief, wonderful moment biofuels were the answer. If energy could be grown all over the world, nearly everyone could do it - rich and poor alike - putting an end to global fossil fuel dependence and fuel poverty in one fell swoop. Then, almost as quickly, biofuels suffered a spectacular fall-from-grace as study after study implicated biofuel production in food price inflation worldwide. At the same time, wealthy landowners were reported to be ejecting small tenant farmers from their plots in order to consolidate their fields and reap the promised rewards of industrial-scale fuel crop production. Suddenly the poor were getting poorer and the hungry hungrier still.

Despite this, there is still a significant grey area concerning the impact of biofuel production on the poor. Biofuels aren't a malevolent force per se - indeed, biofuel in the form of wood, for example, has been heating homes and firing stoves around the world for thousands of years. But can fuel crops be a vehicle for positive change, providing a highly tradable product and improving incomes and energy autonomy for the poor? Or will the poor be excluded from the benefits of the biofuel boom and be plunged deeper into fuel poverty and food insecurity?

Whichever side you take, it is highly likely that production of biodiesel and bioethanol will continue to expand around the world - partly driven by the policies of many western governments to move away from dependency on oil and focus on alternative (preferably locally produced) power sources. This slim, succinct and readable study takes a look at both the positive and negative impacts of biofuels on the poor and what their rise will mean in terms of access to land in Africa, Latin America and Asia. It makes firm recommendations to policymakers to ensure that the poor are not sidelined, while taking care to acknowledge that if produced in the right way, biofuels could be a blessing, not a burden.

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African agriculture and the World Bank - development or impoverishment?African agriculture and the World Bank - development or impoverishment?
Edited by Havnevik, Bryceson, Birgegard, Matondi & Beyene
Published by The Nordic Africa Institute
2008, 75pp, ISBN 91 7106 608 4(Pb), £11.95

You can guess what is coming and you would be right: a critical indictment of the role of the World Bank in shaping African agriculture over the last 30 years. The focus of this title is the World Bank's World Development Report (WDR) 2008 - which, as we all know by now, placed agriculture at the centre of African development efforts. But a broader target is the Bank itself as an ineffective institution: biased, fumbling, contradictory and saturated with free-market ideology.

Far from reaffirming the importance of agriculture in improving livelihoods in rural Africa, the authors accuse the WDR of further marginalising smallholder farmers. They argue that the Bank's position is that "agriculture in the 21st century is inevitably large-scale and will prevail over uncompetitive smallscale producers." Furthermore, they believe the Bank's policies mean that African smallscale farmers will continue to struggle to meet "the rigours of global commodity market chains with their highly regulated standards and time schedules."

Clearly these accusations are nothing new. But the real gist of what the authors are calling for is renewed institutional support for a World Bank-funded and state-led green revolution in Africa. Sadly, their enthusiasm for such an enterprise gets smothered by the tirade of predictable denunciations.

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A world without beesA world without bees
By Alison Benjamin and Brian McCallum
Published by Guardian Books
2008, 298pp, ISBN 978 0 85265 092 9(Hb), £9.99

"With a body designed to trap pollen and a work ethic that leaves no petal unturned," honeybees, thus described by Benjamin and McCallum, are the planet's master pollinators. In the last two years, however, bee colonies around the world have been vanishing. Bee numbers are known to decline during winter, but recent losses have been unprecedented. America's leading honey producer, Adee, has lost 40 per cent of its bees, and across the US, close to a third of bee hives have succumbed to "colony collapse disorder". Thousands of beekeepers coming to check their hives in the spring have found them empty: no corpses, no bees and, as yet, no satisfactory explanation.

Fearing that bees could be the 'canary in the coalmine' in terms of our planet's environmental health, Benjamin and McCallum, part-time beekeepers from London, decided to investigate the phenomenon. Imidachloprid, a nicotine-based pesticide; Nosema ceranae, a parasite from Asia; and a suspected virus - a kind of bee AIDS, as well as the hectic schedule of North American bees transported vast distances to pollinate crops, have all been scrutinized.

The authors do not claim to have found the true culprit, but with about one-third of the average human diet dependent on bee-pollinated plants, their investigations will be of wide interest. Along the way, they examine what we would lose, apart from honey, if the world's bees did disappear, and the book concludes with recommendations for how that catastrophe might be avoided.

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Determinants and implications of the growing scale of livestock farms in four fast-growing developing countriesDeterminants and implications of the growing scale of livestock farms in four fast-growing developing countries
By Delgado, Narrod and Tiongco
Published by IFPRI
2008, 131pp, ISBN 0 89629 166 9(Pb), free to download

Rapidly rising demand for livestock products has the potential to reduce poverty among smallscale livestock farmers in the developing world. This report assesses the impact, both positive and negative, that scaling-up livestock products is having on smallscale farmers and their ability to compete with increasing numbers of larger, industrial producers. Case studies include Brazil, India, the Philippines and Thailand.

The authors argue that in most cases smallholders would be able to stay in business, but only because they have a good supply of family labour. If they had to pay market rates for labour they would quickly become less competitive. Access to market information and assets, such as credit, is also highlighted as a significant factor determining the relative competitiveness of smallholders. For that reason, enabling smallholders to obtain inputs and achieve recognition for the quality of their products is seen as the key to successful pro-poor livestock development. The report also contains information on the impact that increasing production is having upon the environment, recognising that environmental protection is crucial to sustainable poverty alleviation.

Aimed at researchers and policymakers, this is a useful assessment of the challenges facing small livestock keepers in the developing world.

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The expected benefits of trade liberalization for world income and development: opening the 'black box' of global trade modellingThe expected benefits of trade liberalization for world income and development: opening the 'black box' of global trade modelling
By Antoine Bouët
Published by IFPRI
2008, 157pp, ISBN 978 0 89629 510 0, free to download

Trade liberalisation has been endorsed by some economists as a means of alleviating poverty and promoting economic development. This report examines the viability of models and methodologies used to assess the impact of freer trade on developing countries, and to determine the costs and benefits more accurately.

A review of the literature, concerning the extent to which trade liberalisation alleviates poverty, demonstrates major divergences in trade modelling. Bouët puts this down to the fact that experiments, data, behavioural parameters and theoretical assumptions differ between models. Interestingly, she concludes that the overall benefits of freer trade are still substantial enough to improve welfare and contribute to poverty alleviation, if correctly implemented and accompanied by social policies.

This in-depth report contains plenty of analysis, yet the extensive use of statistics and trade modelling means it is likely to be of most use to those with a strong background in economics.

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September 2008