Hunger and illness in a fertile field

So Shall We Reap
April 16, 2004

Colin Tudge concludes his latest in a long line of distinguished books with a call for an enlightened agriculture for the 21st century. It is a wonderful idea. It would have agricultural and food systems rooted in the physical realities of landscape, climate, living resources and humanity itself, as well as being guided by morality and aesthetics. Such systems would produce nutritious, safe and appetising foods and distinctive cuisines in every locality of the world. People would celebrate their own food cultures and somehow no longer be too fat or too thin. There cannot be many who would disagree with this vision.

Tudge sets out to explore the nature of the current problems with agricultural systems, indicates how some of our food has become unsafe, and seeks to expose how science, money and power has corrupted food systems worldwide. Many stories are told as the tale skips back and forth between the optimistic hope for a glorious future and the deeply pessimistic expectations of a dire end for us all.

What, then, is humanity's collective problem? We now number more than 6 billion, a hugely successful species that dominates most ecosystems - yet we cannot find ways to eliminate hunger. Despite unprecedented progress in increasing food production in recent decades, some 800 million people are still hungry today - and they will be hungry tomorrow.

Almost as bad, another 500 million to 600 million suffer ill health from eating either too much or the wrong sort of food. Obesity is now more common than hunger in several developing countries, and in industrialised countries it will shortly overtake smoking as the major cause of ill health and mortality. At the same time, many of our agricultural systems harm the natural resources we need for healthy lives and successful economies.

If there were no alternatives to our productive, yet environmentally costly, farm systems, then we would have to swallow the pill, and stop complaining. But fortunately there are effective agricultural and food systems that are both productive and sensitive to nature and cultures.

These make use of many different technologies, inputs and resources. Some are developed by farmers' groups, others by scientists in laboratories and field stations. Some are sold by private companies, others are passed on by government agencies or charities. The challenge is so huge and the world so diverse that it would be wrong to prescribe exactly what is right or wrong for each location or community. Principles for sustainability, yes, but specific technologies, no.

And this is where many readers will become weary and become diverted from Tudge's tale and, in the end, may come to reject the big idea of his new enlightenment project.

First, this book misses much of the evidence from developing countries under various agricultural sustainability, eco-agricultural and ecological integrated pest-management projects. Hundreds of initiatives have already brought benefits to several millions of small farmers in the past decade or so, and are pointing out how good ideas become good practices, as well as how they can be spread.

Second, this book all too readily demonises science as the enemy of the people. This is unhelpful. It is far too simplistic, for example, to reject all genetic modification technology. Scientists do not make such sweeping generalisations. They treat technologies on a case-by-case basis. Some genetically modified crops will help food security in developing countries; others will not. Some will help small farmers; others will help only large companies. To generalise by suggesting that all science is now corrupt seems to fall into the very trap of the original enlightenment project - one idea applied to all conditions, regardless of the diversity of specific circumstances.

I was further surprised to read that "it's only the economists and politicians who are screwing things up - they, and the scientists who have so complaisantly flocked to their cause", and could not help but wonder whether the author has a refrigerator for his food or takes antibiotics when he is ill. Has science never done anything for agriculture?

There are other problems. Policies in the real world do matter, and they are made by politicians. Some undoubtedly help to create a more sustainable and just world. Others, though, work in opposing directions. Where, then, are the many notable recent successes of policy progress from around the world?

I cannot see how an enlightened agriculture could emerge without some positive changes to policies. Much could happen through the actions of farmers and local people themselves; indeed, they are some of today's most powerful drivers for change towards agricultural sustainability. Yet farmers do not know everything. They will not be able to identify the right parasitic wasp to control a runaway cassava pest, nor will they ever discover the mechanisms by which soil microbes contribute to nutrient balances in healthy soils. Here, once again, scientists can help.

Critically, this book is full of "shoulds" but sadly lacking in "hows".

There is so much to agree with in the tale, yet too little that draws on the emerging evidence of progress. Moreover, the final call for a people's movement to change world agriculture, fronted by a website that "will surely gather momentum" and that would simply need "governments to step out of the way", seems to me to be wildly naive and populist. Do people always know best? What of the difference between what we know and what we do? We know we should eat five pieces of fruit and vegetables a day - and we do not do it.

Yes, we need connectivity and joint action, radical thinking and tough action against those who would do harm for personal or corporate gain. But I know no one who would suggest that solving agriculture's problems alone could lead to "a world that could endure effectively forever in peace and conviviality".

The great diversity of human cultures and agricultures needs diversity in processes, technologies, institutions and policies. Such a project would indeed be enlightened, even if it did not fit with the preconceptions of any single-interest group.

Jules Pretty is professor of environment and society, Essex University.

So Shall We Reap: Food, Money and the Future of Humanity

Author - Colin Tudge
Publisher - Allen Lane The Penguin Press
Pages - 415
Price - £20.00
ISBN - 0 7139 9640 4

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