The New Agriculturist - Reporting Agriculture for the 21st Century

Book reviews

The trouble with aid - why less could mean more for AfricaThe trouble with aid - why less could mean more for Africa
By Jonathan Glennie
Published by Zed Books
2008, 175pp, ISBN 978 1 84813 040 1(Pb), £12.99

Policy analyst Jonathan Glennie is one of a growing chorus of development workers who are calling for a radical overhaul of the system of government development aid because, they believe, it's doing more harm than good. Glennie's succinct and direct rebuttal contends that aid to Africa has, in many cases, actually increased poverty and hunger and damaged democracy. Even emergency food aid can, according to Glennie, "make the causes of famine worse", by "depressing prices, reducing profitability for food producers and destroying markets."

For Glennie, the present system of overseas development aid is a form of institutionalised exploitation and an aid revolution is the only answer. But complications with his approach arise quickly, especially as he tackles aid effectiveness. "Aid's advocates," he writes, "rely too heavily on the direct impacts of aid, as if these occurred in a bubble, while the many other impacts are ignored." On the surface this seems like the basis for a reasonable call for a broader and longer term approach to measuring the impact of aid, but it also opens a very slippery 'can of worms'. For example, at which arbitrary future point should you stop the ever-continuing chain of cause-and-effect to reflect on the moral worth of a past project? Surely we need some kind of "bubble" in order to define the limits of the enquiry and make ethical judgements possible at all?

Similarly, when it comes to formulating policies, why aim to save lives when over time this increases the likelihood of a neo-Malthusian disaster of overpopulation, famine and death for an even greater number of people - a prospect that would ruffle even the boldest utilitarian. And if, to paraphrase John Maynard Keynes, we're all dead in the long run, surely it's easy to understand why what Glennie decries as the "we should at least do something" attitude prevails in public policy.

But even with these conundrums unanswered, Glennie offers some suggestions on how to get the aid revolution started: there should be fewer conditions attached to aid and more autonomy granted to recipient nations; for the poorest countries, trade protectionism should be encouraged in order to cushion infant industries from the cold-blooded rigours of the free market and to encourage some level of self-sufficiency. Among other recommendations, he calls for international property laws to be relaxed, arguing that they have "made it harder for today's poor countries to do what today's rich countries did when they were poor - copy foreign technologies." Good governance also comes high up his wish list, despite remaining little more than a pipe dream in many countries for the foreseeable future.

If Glennie is aiming to shake-up the system, The trouble with aid certainly hits the spot. A concise and forthright critique and summary of the aid dilemma, its lack of prohibitive jargon and lofty rhetoric afford it wide and deserved appeal.

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Water and cereals in the drylandsWater and cereals in the drylands
By Koohafkan and Stewart
Published by Earthscan
2008, 110pp, ISBN 978 1 84407 708 3(Pb), £27.95

Just eight cereals provide humans with half of their food energy and protein requirements - wheat, barley, oats, rye, rice, maize, millet and sorghum. But rising populations and the effects of climate change mean that it is an ongoing battle to increase cereal output. The drylands are more at risk than other regions, both due to the already high concentration of hungry people and the fact that agriculture in the drylands accounts for about 80 per cent of water use. The increase in fuel crop production is also making consumers in these regions feel the pinch of higher prices. In short, agriculture in the drylands must adapt to meet all of these challenges, and quickly.

This useful guide shows that there is great potential for increasing the productive capacity of smallholder farms in the drylands via a range of water management techniques, from the simple to the more complex. A variety of methods is detailed, from conservation bench terraces, contour furrows and tied ridges to simple but effective water harvesting systems, which can be used instead of expensive and potentially unnecessary irrigation schemes. Providing a theoretical grounding and a practical guide, Water and cereals in the drylands will appeal to workers on-location as well as students, researchers and policymakers.

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The carbon fieldsThe carbon fields
By Graham Harvey
Published by Grassroots
2008, 244pp, ISBN 978 0 9560707 0 8(Pb), £9.99

Harvey is not the first to ruminate on the impending doom facing the global food system, but he offers a novel solution for Britain that may also be applicable elsewhere. For a number of reasons - industrial agriculture, booming grain demand in rapidly developing countries and rising world food prices - Britain is once again, as in the years after World War Two, faced with the spectre of food shortages.

But we already have the answer, he writes: grass - good quality, grazeable pasture. And he maintains that the effective "art and science of an efficient grazing system" would not only support all Britain's livestock requirements but through the beneficial effects of nitrogen fixing clovers, added soil fertility would permit occasional ploughing and planting to vegetables or grains. By shunning corporate agribusiness and industrial farming, Britain could soon find itself self-sufficient in food, with the grasslands acting like a giant, rolling, green buffer zone to international food price shocks. And, by sequestering atmospheric carbon, they could even help mitigate the effects of climate change.

An entertaining and plain-speaking writer, though he is, and not afraid to be provocative as he outlines the benefits of his pasture-based system, Harvey does not provide details of yields from livestock and crops in this system. So, while the reader is stimulated by many of his ideas, and may even sympathise with them, disappointingly he fails to convince that such organic mixed farming would yield enough milk, meat, cereals, potatoes and vegetables to meet the nutritional and gastronomic needs of over 60 million Britons.

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The atlas of food: who eats what, where and whyThe atlas of food: who eats what, where and why
By Erik Millstone and Tim Lang
Published by Earthscan
2008, 128pp, ISBN 978 1 84407 499 0(Pb), £12.99

Despite there being enough food to feed everyone in the world, over 850 million people suffered from malnutrition in 2006. The atlas of food investigates this unequal distribution in addition to describing other features and challenges of the global food system. The analysis is complemented by colourful, attention-grabbing maps, graphs and diagrams from which interesting facts leap off the page: for example, 78 per cent of all food trade originates from just 20 countries, while 80 per cent of bananas are traded by just five companies.

The authors argue that the world lacks 'food justice' as political, economic and social forces merge, resulting in patterns of production, distribution and consumption that not only are unsustainable, but that disproportionately affect the poor. Other topics include industrial farming, trade flows, malnutrition and obesity, GM and organic farming, animal diseases, environmental challenges and trade justice. Fascinating and comprehensive, The atlas of food demonstrates clearly and colourfully how the world food system works. It deserves to have broad appeal both within the development community and the wider public.

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The impact of Fair TradeThe impact of Fair Trade
Edited by Ruerd Ruben
Published by Wageningen Academic
2008, 255pp, ISBN 978 90 8686 083 8 (Hb), €40

Global sales of Fair Trade-branded products have grown to US$2 billion since 1989. This collection of articles offers quantitative analysis of Fair Trade and its impact on incomes, consumption, empowerment and the environment of producers around the world. Research comes from Peru, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Ghana, Kenya and Mexico.

One of the main conclusions of the book is that Fair Trade not only benefited its participants, but also other producers in the region. However, it was the direct participants who gained the most, benefiting from improved service provision, technical assistance, and better access to credit, which triggered local investment and increased incomes. However, the contributors acknowledge some problems: for example, wealthier peasants with more land usually benefit from Fair Trade more than poorer peasants, and they suggest possible solutions.

It is also clear from the contributors' detailed analysis that the Fair Trade movement has had a global impact, not only by helping to improve the livelihoods of participating farmers, but also through raising awareness of ethical trade with millions of people in 22 consumer countries.

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Innovation Africa: enriching farmers' livelihoodsInnovation Africa: enriching farmers' livelihoods
Edited by Sanginga, Waters-Bayer, Kaaria, Njuki and Wettasinha
Published by Earthscan
2008, 405pp, ISBN 978 1 84407 672 7 (Pb), £29.95

Innovation Africa is a collection of 25 papers presented during the Innovation Africa Symposium (IAS) in Uganda in 2006. The authors recommend an "innovation systems" approach to reducing poverty, which they define, in rather longwinded fashion, as "systematically incorporating functional linkages between stakeholders and organisations within the broader institutional policy environment".

While some might argue that this is simply longhand for some form of pragmatism, over the course of 25 chapters various authors define what it means with real-life examples. A paper on Malawi and Uganda looks at ways to encourage rural innovation by helping farmers to identify market opportunities so that they can produce what they can market instead of marketing what they produce. Further chapters look at other ways to promote innovation, such as village information and communication centres in Rwanda and farmer field schools in Kenya.

This book is aimed at researchers and policymakers, who the authors hope will take up the challenge of implementing the innovation systems approach and in turn, help to alleviate poverty.

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January 2009