This is my book of the year. We are passing into a phase of agricultural history which threatens to become another agricultural depression. Joan Thirsk's Alternative Agriculture might save British farming from dereliction. I would make it compulsory reading for those concerned with rural and agricultural policy and with food, health and drug abuse as well.
Thirsk has chosen four periods in history that illustrate how land use has adapted to circumstances. These are the aftermath of the Black Death 1350-1500, the Cromwellian Republic and Restoration of the Monarchy 1650-1750, the latter part of the Industrial Revolution 1879-1939, and finally our own period which through high subsidy has achieved apparently efficient, but economically grossly inefficient overproduction of mainstream commodities under the Common Agricultural Policy.
Sources for the main text are at the end of the book and are so interesting that I suggest starting there to appreciate the scope of the information that has been distilled and beautifully melded into the previous 267 pages.
Recent sources for chapter nine, relating to the 1980s onwards, may raise eyebrows or even hackles. References here are mostly to newspaper and magazine articles.
Newspaper sources are too liable to be treated scornfully and discounted by those who sit on committees to advise on or decide agricultural or rural policy. I find it enlightening and refreshing to have a mass of journalists' perceptions to set alongside scientific literature on the subject. There may be some errors in fact or interpretation in journalism, but overall, good reporters may have brought more useful information to light about what is actually happening than most of the academic agricultural and food scientists rolled together.
One criticism of the book is that Latin names should have been more widely used to reduce possible confusions over different species given the same "country" names. It is good, as well as very timely, to be reminded that hemp (referred to on 26 different pages though never as Cannabis sativa) is a new favourite of our Ministry of Agriculture. It was a traditional crop of English wet-lands and the British navy depended on it. Cannabis hemp has also been grown continuously in France for many years and from the mid 1970s with EEC subsidy. Yet until very recently production has been banned here and selling it is still a cause for prosecution.
Poppies too, for oil and for poppy seeds, have a long history of cultivation. In the Champagne region of France and in parts of England it is Papaver somniferum (the opium and not the Iceland poppy), the cottage garden poppy. It is a cultivated species that also provides livelihood to Thai and Burmese smallholders in the Golden Triangle.
Yes of course there are qualitative and quantitative differences in chemical composition among cultivars within botanical species including these ones, just as also between high-erucic (toxic and not just "unpalatable" as suggested) and edible-oiled varieties of oilseed rape, but who is able to tell one from another?
The idea that we ought all to be enabled to live in a zero-risk world, by proscription of any crops or livestock enterprises that might be harmful, would deprive world agriculture of sorghum, alfalfa, clovers and cassava on account of cyanide, potatoes in case they were eaten after being allowed to become greened, and nutmegs, mace and very many more useful and well-known plants through their containing bio-active chemicals known to be harmful in excess.
While the word "alternative" may be the only convenient word for the title of the book it is, in the author's own words, "a drab term for a richly innovative slowly evolving process of agricultural change". We need change now. Small farms must produce higher value "alternative" crops and/or capture added value and increase employment by local processing.
Colin L. A. Leakey is an applied biologist working mainly on agricultural food and industrial feed-stock aspects of pulses and leguminous oilseeds, and an independent consultant.
Alternative Agriculture: A History From the Black Death to the Present Day
Author - Joan Thirsk
ISBN - 0 19 820662 3
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £25.00
Pages - 365