The New Agriculturist - Reporting Agriculture for the 21st Century

Book reviews

A Splendid exchangeA Splendid exchange
By William Bernstein
Published by Atlantic Books
2008, 467pp, ISBN 978 1 84354 668 9(Hb), £22

International trade has delivered strange, exotic and luxurious goods to all corners of the globe. It has founded cities, built nations, established cultures and toppled empires. It has spread seeds, breeds and, of course, disease. For Bernstein, the history of man is practically synonymous with the history of trade, such that it is impossible to unscramble the two. "Try to imagine," he writes, "Italian cuisine without the tomato, the highlands of Darjeeling without tea plants, an American table without wheat bread or beef, a café anywhere in the world beyond coffee's birthplace in Yemen."

Bernstein, clearly, is passionate about international trade. He is keen to contrast the simple beginnings of lowly merchants bearing a small selection of goods with the slick, globe-spanning phenomenon that it has become. He writes, "that the efficient intercontinental transport of even bulk goods today seems so unremarkable is in itself remarkable." Furthermore, he traces the supposedly "contemporary" era of globalisation back to its logical origins, as "the current form of an evolutionary process that has been going on for the past 5,000 years."

For Bernstein, studying the development of international trade helps throw new light on the modern age. He documents the daring trips of Old and New World merchants across land and sea, and the many afflictions of rudimentary travel - raids, insalubrious living and the prospect of painful, lonely death. From the quantum leap brought about by the domestication of the camel, to the spread of the bubonic plague by stowaway rodents on galleons in the Mediterranean; the advent of slavery; the spice routes; the Trade Winds; the Silk Road - they're all here.

But, as difficult as it is to uncouple human history from the history of trade, it is equally challenging to disentangle the observer from the observed. For example, it may seem fairly innocuous to quote an 18th century philosopher, who describes humankind as having "an intrinsic propensity to truck, barter and exchange one thing for another." But these are the words of Adam Smith, author of the now highly-politicised The Wealth of Nations. Smith founded classical economics, the school-of-thought that champions the virtues of unfettered international trade, in an oft-cited tome that has become the unblinking ideological beacon of the centre-right.

So here's the rub: by quoting Smith, is Bernstein giving a passing, fraternal nod to the free-marketeers? And what, if any, subtext is contained in the politically-loaded word splendid in the title of this book? Is the book nothing more than a neo-liberal Trojan Horse? And to what extent does all of this compromise impartial historical analysis?

Well, surely a little bit. Many would disagree strongly with Bernstein's implied suggestion that by impeding free trade mankind is somehow denied its rightful destiny. Bernstein will also be criticised for the scant attention he pays to the many losers in international trade, and it is a great shame he should risk devaluing his own work by turning an enjoyable account of human behaviour into a thinly-veiled call for more laissez-faire.

To some extent Bernstein anticipates these charges, conceding early on that free trade can "simultaneously improve the overall welfare of mankind and increase socially corrosive disparities of wealth". But this sort of shrewd manoeuvring leaves the ordinary reader wondering where to point the spinning moral compass and the critic is left wholly unplacated. The author does dedicate the closing chapter to the titanic debate over free trade and protectionism - but his conclusions fall a long way short of convincing.

For the casual reader, however, this might all be superfluous. What is certain is that Bernstein has crafted a lively and entertaining history of international trade based on the kind of painstaking research that is indubitably the product of a long-running labour of love. This hefty, yet well-written volume will please the curious, the many exponents of free trade and anyone whose ideological radar fails to register Bernstein's own latent dogma.

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The end of foodThe end of food
By Paul Roberts
Published by Bloomsbury
2008, 390pp, ISBN 978 0 7475 8881 8(Pb), £12.99

Paul Roberts' new title raises an important question: do we really need more end-time literature? Observers have long contemplated, with Malthusian dread, the cultural, ecological and economic tipping points that will change the world forever. Having had The end of oil (Roberts was responsible for this title too), and now The end of food, how long will it be before we ponder the end of water or the end of air? A growing public sense of teleological fatigue means Roberts now has to work very hard to warrant our attention. But he's good, and it quickly becomes clear that he's not talking about the end of food altogether, rather the troubling likelihood of the collapse of the global food system. For Roberts, the symptoms are everywhere: the rise in obesity and food-borne diseases, a failure to tackle widespread hunger, and the industrialisation of agriculture to unsustainable levels. Although not as engaging as other recent critical narratives on the state of the global food system, nonetheless, this is a clear, in-depth, all-embracing description of the current state of affairs. If and when Judgement Day does arrive, at least Roberts will be able to say what many of us won't: "at least I tried."

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Water - the final resource: how the politics of water will impact on the worldWater - the final resource: how the politics of water will impact on the world
By William Houston and Robin Griffiths
Published by Harriman House
2008, 163pp, ISBN 978 1905 641 666(Hb), £16.99

Even if we fix the problems with the global food system, the next crisis is already taking hold: water availability. According to Houston and Griffiths, natural oscillations in ocean temperatures, changes in volcanic activity and shifts in lunar cycles are all conspiring to drastically change the distribution of global rainfall. Refreshingly, there is no-one specifically to blame at present; the authors explain that these are natural phenomena, driven by the sun, together with the rotation and tilted axis of the Earth. But it means that over the next 60-or-so years around one-fifth of the world's population will receive much less rain than in the recent past. Crops will fail; there will be mass migration of refugees; wars will be fought over scarce water resources.

Pie-in-the-sky? Well, according to the authors, the symptoms are already obvious: "Global arable land is being seriously depleted through salinity, thinning topsoil and increasing desertification," they write. Yet case studies from Israel, for example, demonstrate policies can encourage effective adaptation strategies that can transform an unforgiving arid environment into one suitable for productive arable farming. Investment in recycling, desalination, "intelligent" irrigation and non-fossil fuels can also pay dividends. So, as well as making bleak predictions for the future yields of major cereals and other food commodities, they place responsibility for damage limitation on policymakers, who must respond without delay.

While the book has many long, but highly absorbing historical digressions, nonetheless, it is fascinating and troubling - and its unashamed eclecticism adds to its appeal.

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Making poverty: a historyMaking poverty: a history
By Thomas Lines
Published by Zed Books
2008, 166pp, ISBN 978 1 84277 942 2 (Pb), £15.99

Why are poor people poor? According to Thomas Lines, the answer to this question is critical because "without understanding the history of poverty, we can't hope to make poverty itself history." While Lines concedes that poverty is "a complex and elusive concept," it is unsurprising that he points an unwavering finger at globalisation, which, according to him, has marginalised millions of predominantly rural people around the world: "Leaving people in poor countries to fend for themselves was profoundly damaging and irresponsible - with grave insult added to injury when it was done in the name of accelerated development," he writes.

Despite a fierce renunciation of free markets and a call for a shift in the balance-of-power in international food supply chains he is, overall, optimistic that things can be changed for the better. "It is hardly an original thought that a wide gap between the rich and the poor is characteristic of capitalism, but with all our present knowledge, it must surely be possible to again narrow that gap."

Aimed at a broad sweep of the development community as well as the casual reader, Lines has crafted what many will regard as a powerful antidote to the neo-liberal hedonism of the last three decades.

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Pomegranate roads: a Soviet botanitst's exile from EdenPomegranate roads: a Soviet botanitst's exile from Eden
By Gregory M Levin
Published by Floreant Press
2008, 183pp, ISBN 0 9649497 6 8 (Pb), US$18

Pomegranate roads contains reverie and rapture in equal measure. An autobiographical account by Russian-born botanist Gregory Levin, it documents his passion for the pomegranate, which took him to a secluded research station in southeast Turkmenistan, a semi-celestial "subtropical oasis between desert and mountains" near the Iranian border. There he nurtured a fabled 1,117 varieties of the aril-filled fruit, collected from 27 countries on four continents. He also became the guardian of some of the last remaining wild varieties of pomegranate in the world. But as the Soviet Union collapsed Levin was forced to flee Central Asia, leaving his life's work behind.

Commissioning editor Barbara Beer's own pomegranate reverie spurred her quest to trace Levin. Also bewitched by fleeting memories of pomegranates from her childhood, the fruit cast an enduring spell on her, similar to the one that trapped Levin. According to Beer, his candid memoir "is a survivor's tale, a botanical adventure that chronicles treks into regions far off most maps." Enchanting, mystifying, sumptuous and heart-warming, Pomegranate roads charts scientific servitude and one man's unquestioning devotion to a humble fruit and his life spent studying it.

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Agriculture, human security, and peace - a crossroad in African developmentAgriculture, human security, and peace - a crossroad in African development
Edited by M. Taeb and A.H. Zakri
Published by Purdue University Press
2008, 203pp, ISBN 978 1 55753 482 8 (Pb), US$29.95

Agricultural development has a wider role than just the production of food. Subsistence farmers are dependent on agriculture to provide employment and income as well as food, all important elements that contribute to their personal security. In the aftermath of a conflict therefore, agriculture is often a vital part of the rehabilitation process. This book examines both the role of agriculture in alleviating extreme poverty and how it might contribute to greater human security and peace in Africa. The premise is that agricultural development could contribute to peace by raising incomes and employment, therefore reducing social frustrations and cultivating hope from despair.

This book brings together a diverse group of contributors, including scientists and politicians. One of these, Tony Addison, argues that "social peace is closely connected to successful agricultural development". He examines agricultural failure, rural inequality and competition over resources, as well as the role of agriculture in post-conflict recovery. Other issues covered include how agriculture can be both the fuel and a tool of war, the impact of conflict on agriculture, and whether technology and biotechnology can improve productivity of subsistence farmers and help bring about an African green revolution.

Aimed at policymakers, donors, aid agencies and NGO workers, this book succeeds in affirming the importance of agriculture in promoting social, economic and political development in Africa and beyond.

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Understanding sustainable developmentUnderstanding sustainable development
By John Blewitt
Published by Earthscan
2008, 288pp, ISBN 978 1 84407 454 9, £18.99

From the outset, Blewitt makes it clear that far from being a single concept, sustainable development is a collection of many well-meaning theories. He does well to bring together and evaluate the multiple strands and their connections, arguing that, at its core, it is simply "the idea that the future should be a better, healthier place than the present". Furthermore, sustainable development is best understood as a "dialogue of values"; a "way of encouraging people to learn, to discover and to evaluate".

The book aims to encourage understanding of sustainable development by combining practical case studies with theoretical discussions and contemporary debates. Using the debates surrounding climate change and genetic modification, Blewitt argues that sustainability is not just a scientific concept, but in practice, a political act. He also argues that sustainable development is not just environmentalism rebranded either, exploring the connections between environmental sustainability, human agency and good governance. Other chapters cover social capital and environmental justice, the role of business in promoting sustainable development, the process of communication and learning, and some of the tools and measurements used to assess the progress of sustainable development.

Designed for students, researchers and practitioners, Blewitt aims to demonstrate why sustainable development is such a necessity in the modern age.

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Trading up: building cooperation between farmers and traders in AfricaTrading up: building cooperation between farmers and traders in Africa
By Royal Tropical Institute (KIT) and the International Institute of Rural Reconstruction (IIRR)
Published by: KIT / IIRR
2008, 280pp, ISBN 978 90 6832 699 4(Pb), €25 or free to download

Finding a market and transporting produce are among the biggest headaches facing smallscale farmers in Africa. Often these farmers are portrayed as being at the mercy of middlemen or traders who exploit their ignorance, vulnerability or desperation. Trading Up seeks to redress the balance, arguing that with more support, Africa's traders could significantly boost the efficiency of food supply chains, increasing the demand for farm produce and improving the livelihoods of rural people. With contributions from 30 traders, farmers and professionals working through the IIRR's 'writeshop' process, this is a highly recommended sequel to Chain Empowerment.

Case studies from seven countries examine how relationships between different players in commodity value chains - including farmers, traders, wholesalers and retailers - can be strengthened. Supportive institutions, such market information networks, and the development of rules, such as standard weights, are also covered. Commodities and countries include livestock and milk (Zimbabwe and Kenya), green bean (Ethiopia), mango (Burkina Faso), tomato (Ghana and Kenya) and coffee (Tanzania). Engaging and accessible, based on first hand information, Trading Up will be of interest to anyone working to improve market chains in the developing world.

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November 2008