The New Agriculturist - Reporting Agriculture for the 21st Century

Book reviews

An edible history of humanityAn edible history of humanity
By Tom Standage
Published by Atlantic Books
2009, 269pp, ISBN 978 1 84354 634 4(Hb), £19.99

"From the dawn of agriculture to the green revolution, food has been an essential ingredient in human history," writes Standage. He begins by discussing how food was the foundation of civilisation as farming overtook hunter-gathering and created settled communities; how agricultural fertility rituals developed into state religions; and how the production of food surpluses and the development of communal food storage and irrigation systems fostered political centralisation and urbanisation. "Throughout the ancient world, long before the invention of money, food was wealth - and control of food was power," he writes.

Other chapters explore how a growing taste for spices in Europe encouraged the growth of trade and the discovery of Asia and the Americas; how food has been used as a weapon of war, even in modern times; and how food enabled the industrial revolution to occur in Britain. He also makes the point that after thousands of years of selection and domestication, starting with the earliest cultivators, even before genetic engineering, most foods are human creations and almost none of the food we eat now can be called 'natural'. Just one example is the development of modern maize from its ancestors, proto-maize and teosinte: the earlier forms look puny and nutritionally inadequate compared with the familiar maize cob of today. However, modern maize, in common with several other seemingly 'natural' crops, would not survive without man's intervention.

Standage documents how, during the 20th century, the application of scientific and industrial methods to agriculture - fertilisers and pesticides together with irrigation - drove a dramatic expansion in food production. In 2008 nitrogen fertilisers were responsible for feeding almost half of the world's population. The green revolution has also given rise to a population boom, helped lift millions out of poverty and enabled China and India to industrialise. To help the millions who are still struggling to survive, Standage calls for a second green revolution. But in light of the environmental damage caused by the first, he suggests that conservation agriculture could be a more promising approach, and spells out what he means by the term.

So, what of the future? How will food shape human affairs and how will agriculture be shaped by political decisions and the personal expectations of the still increasing numbers of consumers? Will conservation agriculture be adopted soon enough? Will science provide the tools to implement it? "To ensure an adequate supply of food as the world population heads towards its peak and climate change shifts long-established patterns of agriculture, it will be necessary to assemble the largest possible toolbox of agricultural techniques," Standage asserts. Given food's potential to be used as a weapon, it is to be hoped that the toolbox does not become an armoury.

An edible history of humanity is a fascinating history of the role of food and how it has shaped human societies and continues to do so. Engaging and clear, this book will have a broad appeal to all who are interested in how food production, availability and trade have influenced the world, socially, economically and politically, and how food remains at the root of our future.

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A blueprint for a safer planetA blueprint for a safer planet
By Nicholas Stern
Published by The Bodley Head
2009, 246pp, ISBN 978 1 847 92037 9(Hb), £16.99

How to manage climate change and create a new era of progress and posterity is the sub-title of this book and it sounds like a present-day search for the 'holy grail', a worthy aim but an uncertain outcome. Yet Lord Stern, former Chief Economist at the World Bank and author of the Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change, believes that the objective is achievable. Indeed, he believes that we must manage climate change if we are to survive, and this new book is published to anticipate the UN climate change conference in Copenhagen in December.

Readers of New Agriculturist may wish to focus on how agriculture - already crippled by drought in Australia and parts of Africa - is likely to be affected by climate change, and how policymakers and agronomists must prepare for the changes already overtaking many countries. "For agriculture, a particularly important challenge is to develop climate-resilient crop varieties and techniques," he writes, and instances the need to use water more sparingly, not least in the cultivation of rice.

With Himalayan glaciers in retreat and water flow in the major rivers of Bangladesh, China and India predicted to halve, responding to this challenge alone is a matter of urgency. Using biochar, derived from the pyrolosis of biomass, as a soil additive and conditioner, is a promising technique for "increasing soil fertility by improving nutrient and water retention, lowering soil acidity and density, and increasing microbial activity." A bonus is that agriculture would be contributing to reducing atmospheric carbon since biochar's high carbon content would be locked in the soil.

Lord Stern spends time addressing sceptics; he believes that we can and will rise to the challenge of saving what he refers to as "a planet in peril" when individuals, firms, communities and politicians work together. It will be in all our interests if his optimism is justified and the outcome of Copenhagen in December will be a portent of future commitments to his blueprint or one very like it.

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Seasons of hunger: Fighting cycles of quiet starvation among the world's rural poorSeasons of hunger: Fighting cycles of quiet starvation among the world's rural poor
By Stephen Devereux, Bapu Vaitla and Samuel Hauenstein Swan
Published by Pluto Press in association with Action Against Hunger
Website: and
2008, 148pp, ISBN 978 0 7453 2826 3(Pb), £8.99

The world food crisis of 2008 received much media coverage, but for millions of poor people extreme hunger and poor nutrition were, and still are, a 'normal' part of life. Living with low agricultural productivity without adequate access to storage facilities or finance, and facing escalating food prices and few job opportunities, families often run out of food and money before the next harvest. The authors also maintain that seasonal hunger is the "father of famine", and until seasonal hunger is prevented famines will continue.

In addition to documenting seasonal hunger in India, Malawi and Niger, Seasons of hunger suggests solutions: emergency assistance such as food and cash transfers and community-based management of acute malnutrition for those who need immediate help; measures including seasonal employment programmes, social pensions and crop insurance to prevent families falling into hunger; and initiatives to improve productivity. But, until access to food becomes a human rights and justice issue, the authors state that seasonal hunger will not end.

This highly readable and accessible book is a valuable resource for anyone interested in rural poverty and how it can be tackled.

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The fruit hunters - A story of nature, adventure, commerce and obsessionThe fruit hunters - A story of nature, adventure, commerce and obsession
By Adam Leith Gollner
Published by Souvenir Press (UK) and Scribner (US)
2009, 279pp, ISBN 978 0 28563 848 8(Hb), £18.99

Seductive, addictive and impossibly diverse, fruit have been a symbol of paradise, sexuality and enlightenment throughout human history. From the Garden of Eden to Newtonian physics, fruit are infused with significance that belies their ubiquity. The fruit hunters is Gollner's first book, spawned from six years travelling the 'fruit hunting underworld' in search of novelty and adventure. It's an amazing, and highly recommended debut: irreverent, informed and surprisingly hard to put down.

Gollner has little time or affection for the fruit we may find on supermarket shelves, or the nature-distorting systems that allow us to enjoy strawberries in winter and apples all year round. "Having commodified nature, we're eating the shrapnel of a worldwide homogeneity bomb," he writes, with typical linguistic originality. The 'Stepford Fruits' that fill developed world fruit bowls are "gorgeous replicants that look perfect, feel like silicon implants, and taste like tennis balls." But Gollner's book is not a rant against modern farming systems; it's an act of homage to the myriad of little known fruits, and the people whose lives they touch, across far-flung parts of the planet.

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Land grab or development opportunity? Agricultural investment and international land deals in AfricaLand grab or development opportunity? Agricultural investment and international land deals in Africa
By Lorenzo Cotula et al.
Published by FAO, IIED and IFAD
2009, 120pp, ISBN 978 1 84369 741 1(Pb), free to download

As suggested in New Agriculturist's recent Points of View on 'Land grabbing', foreign acquisition of land in developing countries creates both risks and opportunities for investors and local people. This timely report, which draws on detailed analysis in five African countries, concludes that optimising the opportunities and minimising the risks for local people is a complex process: the devil is most certainly in the detail. Risks may be mitigated, for example, through careful choice of project location, through the right choice of business model - from plantation to contract farming - and through carefully devised revenue-sharing arrangements.

However, in examining contracts from deals conducted in Ethiopia, Mali, Ghana, Sudan and Madagascar, the researchers found that many key issues are only vaguely dealt with at best. Issues, such as how investors' commitments can be monitored and enforced, or how government revenues can be maximised and distributed, are typically given scant attention when deals are drawn up. Hence a series of recommendations is offered to potential investors, recipient governments, community-based organisations and international agencies, on how to maximise the development benefits of this growing trend. Clear and succinct, this is essential reading for those involved in international land deals in Africa and elsewhere.

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The environmental responsibility readerThe environmental responsibility reader
Edited by Martin Reynolds, Chris Blackmore and Mark J Smith
Published by Zed Books in association with The Open University
2009, 360pp, ISBN 978 1 84813 317 4(Pb), £16.99

This book has two purposes, to support an Open University course and to offer the general reader a compendium of thought-provoking extracts from a wide range of books and other published material on the environment. For the student with time and inclination to study and debate, The environmental responsibility reader is a rich source of ideas and comment, but the general reader will likely suffer information overload.

There are references in plenty to agriculture, including some telling extracts from Rachel Carson's Silent spring and Aldo Leopold's A sand county almanac but, with the exception of one Indian and one Thai, the authors are almost all European or North American. Consequently, the appeal of this selection of extracts and their supporting notes will be limited. This is surprising when the very first person to be quoted by the lead editor is Wangari Maathai, of Kenya, Nobel Peace Prize winner in 2004.

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An elusive harvest - Working with smallholders in South AfricaAn elusive harvest - Working with smallholders in South Africa
By David Catling
Published by Fanele - imprint of Jacana Media (Pty) Ltd
2008, 323pp, ISBN 978 1 92019 610 3(Pb), £17.95

The promise of economic liberation following political freedom has not been realised by most black and coloured South Africans. Still impoverished and living in conditions no better than in the days of apartheid, many continue to be denied employment, income and opportunity for self-improvement. An elusive harvest examines how a small NGO worked for 12 years to help the mainly coloured food-insecure farmers and home gardeners in the rural areas and townships of the Western and Northern Cape Provinces to better themselves.

The NGO was the Land Development Unit (LDU) founded in 1992 by David Catling, who recognised that little was known about these subsistence communities, whose output was so utterly eclipsed by commercial agriculture but which had so much unexploited human potential to achieve so much more. Catling brought to the LDU experience of working with poor subsistence farmers in Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, South Korea and Thailand; his book tells of the LDU's approaches and methods, achievements and effectiveness, and what it learned that may be useful to others working in similar circumstances.

This is a dense book, with detail on many aspects of planning, execution and analysis, and few may read every chapter with equal interest; while academics and administrators will focus on chapters titled The People, The Agriculture, Advocacy and Dissemination, practical agronomists will be inspired by examples of low-tech methods of cultivation, cropping, irrigation and livestock production that were used successfully with vegetables and fruit in community and school gardens, Honeybush tea production, ostriches, and woodlots. Under largely arid conditions, which are inevitably going to become more widespread with the erratic and reduced rainfall predicted with climate change, it is remarkable to read of a one hectare smallholding where rows of mixed apple, peach and plum were interplanted with vegetables, potatoes and lucerne. To use scarce water sparingly, the simple 'wagon wheel' irrigation system was developed for growing a small but intensive area of vegetables plus fruit trees or vines.

The LDU ceased operations in 2004 due to lack of continued funding from donors but its lessons and inspiration survive in this book.

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Mitigating climate change through food and land useMitigating climate change through food and land use
By Sara J. Scheer and Sajal Sthapit
Published by Worldwatch Institute
2009, 50pp, ISBN 978 1 878071 91 0(Pb), £12.95

More than 30 per cent of all greenhouse gases are related to land use, including deforestation and clearing of land for agriculture. Soil and plants also hold three times as much carbon as the atmosphere. Therefore, the authors reason that no strategy for mitigating global climate change can be successful without reducing emissions from agriculture, forestry and other land uses.

Their five major strategies for reducing and sequestering carbon are: enriching soil carbon by minimising tillage and preventing erosion; farming with perennials; climate-friendly livestock production through rotational grazing, manure management and methane capture for biogas production; protecting natural habitats by preventing deforestation, land clearing and forest and grassland fires; and restoring degraded watersheds and rangelands. In addition to offsetting a quarter of the global emissions released from fossil fuels each year, the authors argue that these reforms could also have wider benefits for food security, rural livelihoods and protection of biodiversity.

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Understanding climate change adaptation: Lessons from community-based approachesUnderstanding climate change adaptation: Lessons from community-based approaches
By Jonathan Ensor and Rachel Berger
Published by Practical Action Publishing
2009, 192pp, ISBN 978 1 85339 683 0(Pb), £14.95

The poor are particularly vulnerable to climate change because they have limited resources with which to adapt. In particular, climate change is affecting natural resources on which their livelihoods are invariably dependent. But only after the needs of individual communities are assessed should actions to support them be selected, the authors argue. Targeted at policymakers and NGO practitioners, Understanding climate change adaptation demonstrates how social networks can reduce vulnerability, strengthen resilience, and develop the capacity of poor people to adapt.

For example, in Bangladesh farmers are losing land due to erosion, floods are washing away entire fields and impacting fish cultivation, and droughts are affecting crop yields. In response, social networks have been strengthened to raise awareness, implement training and develop income generation and flood-proofing technologies. These included duck rearing, short duration rice varieties, floating gardens and elevated tube-wells. Other case studies are from Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Kenya, Niger, Sudan and Peru.

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Africa's turn?Africa's turn?
By Edward Miguel
Published by The MIT Press
2009, 158pp, ISBN 978 0 262 01289 8(Hb), £9.95

According to Miguel, "there is genuine hope today that Africa is on the path to real economic and political progress." In Africa's turn, he attributes this economic progress to democracy taking root, Chinese investment in Africa, and rising commodity prices. But he warns that growth is fragile and conflict, climate change, recession or plummeting commodity prices could derail it quickly. In order to help consolidate this transformation, Miguel calls for concrete steps, including international efforts to reduce Western farm subsidies, the use of foreign aid as an insurance against drought and conflict, and the promotion of agricultural adaptation to climate change.

Responding to this optimism, nine experts emphasise the importance of remittances, mobile phones and the reintegration of South Africa and its economy. Some also question the real progress of democracy, are more sceptical about China's impact, and think that Miguel has underestimated the threat of climate change, population growth, the food price crisis, and lack of agricultural investment.

In the foreword, William Easterly concludes that "even when progress is fragile, the case for hope in Africa is on the most solid of possible foundations: the resourcefulness and creativity of the African people themselves." Africa's turn is an accessible, short book that clearly presents the positive trends but also recognises the fragility of African development.

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September 2009