Mankind has travelled 200,000 years since emerging as a recognisably human species, but the most varied and eventful of those years have been the last 10,000, when the free-moving life of the hunter-gatherer was abandoned for settlement and agriculture. "What was the motive for these early agricultural revolutionaries to invest the time and resources to grow wheat and other crops while driving themselves to an earlier grave?" asks Spencer Wells in Pandora's seed. His question may surprise readers of New Agriculturist, inferring, as it does the irony that agriculture, which most will view as having been largely advantageous to human society, instead has proved a somewhat poisoned chalice.
The author, a distinguished population geneticist, guides us through the choices that faced humanity at a number of crucial episodes in its history, most of them extreme climatic challenges that transformed the face of Earth for thousands of years. The most critical time was between 70-80,000 years ago when the human population was reduced to as few as 2,000. But the most life-changing event for mankind was 10,000 years ago when someone, probably a woman, experimented with sowing the seed of food grains to supplement the diminishing harvest available from gathering wild cereals. Once again, the catalyst was climate.
Wells describes how the decision to gain control and security over food supplies resulted in deleterious impacts on physical and mental health, on society and on natural resources. Hunter-gatherers lived in small groups where status was equitable and women ranked with men. They ate a nutritionally balanced diet, developed few dental caries and suffered very few infectious diseases: their main cause of death was trauma from infected wounds, drowning and childbirth. In contrast, agriculture provided a starch-rich diet that was far less healthy, and increased caries fivefold. Working in fields took more effort and time than hunting and gathering, and the settled life necessary to practise agriculture led to unhygienic crowding, plagues of infectious diseases, the need for hierarchy and central government, and conflict over resources. The expansion of population inevitably led to increasing demands on soils, water, forests and fisheries. "Food became a fuel - a sort of primitive bio-diesel, if you will - for powering social change," muses Wells.
Wells also observes, "We modified the plants and animals that allowed us to develop growing agricultural societies, but judging from the genetic data, it seems that they could also have modified us." The most obvious 'modification' in modern man are the global 'epidemics' of non-infectious conditions: obesity, diabetes, and stress leading to hypertension and mental disorders. "According to the WHO, non-communicable diseases will account for more than three-quarters of the global health burden by 2020, up from virtually none a few hundred years ago."
The over-exploitation of natural resources is also all too evident and, as greenhouse gases inexorably raise average global temperature, civilisation is confronted with the choice of business-as-usual or making fundamental changes in lifestyles, including what we eat, how we live and how we use the natural resources that are diminishing in per capita and absolute terms. "It's as though agriculture were a virus, expanding in influence despite its negative effects on human health," observes Wells. Humans evolved over 190,000 years to be at ease with the lifestyle of the hunter-gatherer and have had to adjust their metabolism and behaviour to the very different lifestyle required and permitted by agriculture over only 10,000 years.
Spencer Wells has written Pandora's seed to reflect the legend of the eponymous Greek goddess, who having opened the box that she had been forbidden to open let loose the plagues of mankind. Closing the box too late, she retained the one good thing the casket had held - hope. And Wells remains hopeful as he concludes, "As a species that has long been accustomed to growth, expansion and consumption, we will have to use our ingenuity in new ways to create a lifestyle with long-term sustainability. First, however, must come a sea-change in our worldview." Must it take another major crisis of climate to effect such a change? Rice biofortification: Lessons for global science and development
By Sally Brooks
Published by Earthscan
2010, 178pp, ISBN 978 1 84971 100 5(Pb), £19.99
Hailed variously as a 'scientific break-through', 'new paradigm' and 'silver bullet', the biofortification of food crops may be all or none of these. As this comprehensive review of biofortification of rice describes, the expectations generated by the publicity accompanying the launch of new varieties too often fails to deliver on the promises. The failings can be more human than botanical, reflecting the structures, politics and competition within the international research community. What we see in the title is what the author delivers: a history of biortification in rice, and the lessons to be learned from the initiation, funding and organisation of research programmes.
Starting with a history of successive attempts to bridge agriculture, nutrition and health in a variety of ways, the author follows with a detailed look at the case of iron-rich rice. Then the very different rice bioforificaton pathway for Vitamin A-rich Golden Rice is described, and the subsequent 'global' convergence around biofortification research, centred on CGIAR's HarvestPlus programme. This shows how "a focus on these upstream partnerships obscures increasingly, hierarchical relations further downstream, constraining the development of truly integrated practices."
As the author reaches her conclusion, we read that, "Biofortification, still a young science, provides an illuminating lens through which to question a remarkably resilient set of assumptions linking science and development, and in particular, the power of 'breakthrough science' to solve what are, ultimately, complex social problems." Also, that "securing consensus upstream does not necessarily lead to integrated science practice downstream."
A book for those formulating and appraising scientific research and its impact on social development. Famine and foreigners: Ethiopia since Live Aid
By Peter Gill
Published by Oxford University Press
2010, 294pp, ISBN 978 0 19 956984 7(Hb), £14.99
In 1984, Peter Gill was the first journalist to travel to Korem in northern Ethiopia, and witness the unfolding famine. Twenty five years later he returned, to investigate what has happened in Ethiopia since, and whether famine of this scale could ever happen in the country again. His journey of enquiry is a gripping piece of journalism, and for those working in development makes sobering but essential reading. From the cynical failure of the UN and national governments to respond to the famine of 1984, to the contemporary boom in trade with China, Gill offers a modern history of a country that has pursued its own vision of development and resisted the strategies of western donors.
In returning to Korem, Gill asks school students whether they think famine will happen again in their country; tentative hands are raised. His translator, however, is more certain. Eighty percent of Ethiopians live in rural areas and nearly all depend on rain-fed agriculture and have just one harvest per year. If the rains are bad, there will be a problem, he concludes.
As a critique of the tortuous path that development often treads, the book deserves to be widely read. The current restriction on NGOs with foreign funding from taking part in 'advancement of human and democratic rights', according to Ethiopia's Charities Act of 2009, is just one example. At a stroke, the government was able to severely restrict the rights-based development model that aims to empower the poor, not just help them. But it is Gill's numerous meetings and conversations recounted in Famine and foreigners that are key to its success - fascinating first hand accounts, presented with great skill and based on a passionate commitment to truth. AIDS and rural livelihoods: Dynamics and diversity in sub-Saharan Africa
Edited by Anke Niehof, Gabriel Rugalema and Stuart Gillespie
Published by Earthscan
2010, 234pp, ISBN 978 1 84971 126 5(Pb), £29.99
Across sub-Saharan Africa, HIV and AIDS threaten the livelihoods of millions of people. However, the poor, and especially poor women, are the most severely impacted by AIDS, which affect assets, entitlements and resources needed to maintain and develop livelihoods. "The role of AIDS in altering livelihood patterns and increasing household-level vulnerability to hunger was identified as significant," the editors write, "especially when combined with other shocks such as drought or market failure." Using ten studies from Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya, South Africa, Zimbabwe and Benin, this book addresses the links between AIDS, land, rural livelihoods and vulnerability.
Many of the studies highlight the importance of land in areas of high HIV prevalence. "In such a situation," the authors say, "access to land is vital for survival."One study from Kenya discovered that women living in districts characterised by female land tenure security were less vulnerable to HIV infection, and that landholding sizes were associated with decreased risk. The same study also found that women were less vulnerable in districts with easy access to women's organisations and where cash crop production was dominant. "Viability of small-scale cash crop production may imply a lower likelihood of household members engaging in migrant labour thus reducing the HIV risk associated with migration," the authors explain.
The editors conclude that an effective response to AIDS must stem the flow of new infections and increase the resilience of poor and vulnerable households. A number of policies are suggested, including developing small-scale irrigation, agro-processing, farm input supplies and strengthening market linkages to reduce migration and provide safe livelihood options. The importance of protecting land tenure and inheritance rights of single women, widows and orphaned children are also highlighted.
By providing studies demonstrating the interactions between AIDS and rural livelihoods, this insightful and accessible book will be of key interest to decision-makers and development practitioners working to combat HIV and hunger in sub-Saharan Africa. Conservation agriculture and sustainable crop intensification in Lesotho
The use of planting basins for maize and bean cultivation was introduced in Lesotho in 2000, as a means to increase yields and tackle land degradation. Combined with other conservation agriculture (CA) practices, such as mulching of crop residues, the practice has now been adopted by many thousand households, following promotion by FAO and other development organisations. In 2006, data were gathered to assess the impact of CA in Lesotho, in terms of productivity, livelihoods and the environment - with the results and analysis presented in this report.
In general, the report finds significant advantages for those who have adopted the new approach. Labour demands are higher in CA than the conventional system, which in Lesotho generally involves draft power, either animal or tractor. But in a country where increased labour involves little opportunity cost, returns in yield and food security were found to outweigh the investment, even in the first two seasons when demands are particularly high.
Other points of interest include the relative higher adoption rates among communities where social networks or trust are high. Traditionally in Lesotho, livestock and people have access to crop residues for feed and fuel, but such a tradition is incompatible with good practice in conservation agriculture. But where introduction of CA takes place through a participatory approach that involves the whole community, not just the adopters, alternative systems for accessing fuel and feed may be developed. Findings such as these, as well as policy recommendations for successful promotion of CA, make this report of interest and importance for decision-makers in the wider region. Biofuels, land access and rural livelihoods in Mozambique
By Isilda Nhantumbo and Alda Salomão
Published by IIED
2010, 48pp, ISBN 978 1 84369 744 2(Pb), £16.50 or free to download
With abundant land resources and favourable environmental conditions, Mozambique is considered to have one of the largest biofuel production potentials in Africa. However, this report documents how the spread of biofuel production is affecting the poor's access to land and natural resources.
Based on case studies of three biofuel projects and interviews with stakeholders, the study highlights how poorer groups are losing access to their land because appropriate conditions are not in place. Despite legislation to protect the land rights of local communities, the authors conclude that the design and implementation of these policy tools are 'riddled with difficulties'. The inability of the government to enforce legislation, poor planning, a lack of compliance with existing land use plans, and inadequate coordination between government agencies, are exacerbating conflict over land.
The report highlights the need for appropriate policies to regulate the biofuel sector and more thorough scrutiny of investment proposals and the potential costs involved. Clearer definitions of 'marginal land' and improved agro-ecological zoning are also called for. Informing national and international debates on biofuel production, this report is of key interest to all those who need and should know about how biofuel projects impacts on poverty reduction, food security, and biodiversity. Out of water: From abundance to scarcity and how to solve the world's water problems
By Colin Chartres and Samyuktha Varma
Published by Financial Times Press
2010, 256pp, ISBN 978 0 13136 726 5(Pb), US$23.89
Rising populations, expanding cities, pollution, and climate change are placing immense pressure on the world's water supplies. Today, a third of people face water scarcity which is already causing crop failures and starvation in some drier regions. "Scientifically, this is easier than dealing with the energy crisis, but in terms of applicability, solutions are severely handicapped by people just not understanding the potential severity and magnitude of the impending crisis and as yet, generally not altering the ways in which they view and use water," the authors write.
Out of water highlights the severity of the water crisis and analyses why water has become so scarce and what can be done about it. Particular attention is given to agriculture, which is by far the biggest consumer of water and also one of the largest employers of poor people in developing countries. In Africa, the authors suggest that sustainable irrigation is capable of improving livelihoods and production at a smallholder level with the use of rainwater harvesting, groundwater, or small ponds and reservoirs. The authors state that making the use of water for agriculture more efficient isn't rocket science, but add that it will only be achieved if the best science and engineering are combined with first class economic and social policies that ensure water resources are shared equitably.
Aimed at those in government, NGOs and the private sector, the book concludes by outlining six recommendations including revitalising agricultural water use. Gathering high quality data about water resources, reducing water pollution, reforming governance of water resources, improving the management of urban water demands and involving marginalised people in water management are also detailed. "If we don't succeed in changing the way we manage water," the book states, "the future looks bleak and will consist of increasingly frequent food crises, social and political unrest, and potential mass migration out of areas most severely affected."
Well written and accessible, Out of water will appeal to anyone interested in how water scarcity will impact food production and the environment. The wealth of waste: The economics of wastewater use in agriculture
By James Winpenny, Ingo Jeinz and Sasha Koo-Oshima
Published by FAO
2010, 129pp, ISBN 978 9 25106 578 5(Pb), US$35 or free to download
Within the next 50 years, it is estimated that more than 40 per cent of the world's population will live in countries facing water stress. In this context, recycling urban wastewater and using it to irrigate crops could have several advantages, helping to mitigate water scarcity, reduce water pollution and increase food production. "It is not the only option for bringing supply and demand into a better balance," the authors write, "but in many cases it is a cost effective solution, as the growing number of reuse schemes in different parts of the world testify."
The wealth of waste states that recycling urban wastewater offers a 'triple dividend' to urban water users, farmers and the environment. Benefits include a more reliable and nutrient rich source of water for farmers, greater access to fresh water for city-dwellers and a reduction in untreated wastewater being released downstream. But in developing countries, where untreated wastewater is used for agricultural purposes, the book highlights the importance of measures to safeguard public health.
Aimed at policymakers and professionals working on wastewater, the book presents an economic framework by which to measure the efficiency and sustainability of wastewater usage. "It is unlikely that such schemes could be economically justified with reference only to agriculture," the report concludes. "The benefits to urban and industrial users would be relatively sizeable, and in most cases would be the principal justification."