This compact but readable book will be an invaluable source for specialists, agricultural students, political researchers and the curious laity. It was conceived in pride in the pride of the large body of dedicated scientists who have contributed to the staggering increases in production and in anger that these contributions should be so little appreciated. The treatment credits each successive advance to the individuals involved. This is stylistically satisfying and historically rewarding.
Part one covers British agriculture from the Domesday Book until 1938 and also gives a more detailed account of the changes in agricultural production and productivity (never confused!) that have occurred during the "modern revolution (1936-86)". Part two embraces science and technology across the agricultural spectrum. Perhaps particularly valuable for non-specialists is the exposition in chapter two of statistical methods and inference and hence the meaning behind what is colloquially and politically called "the scientific evidence". Part three looks ahead.
Organic farming, curiously treated only in terms of organic manuring, receives brief treatment. However, it is pointed out, in relation to some insecticides, that: "Cases of poisoning from exposure to these substances are relatively common on a world basis. More difficult to evaluate are long-term effects such as carcinogens."
Scrapie in sheep and the clearly related BSE are among several topics updated to 1994 with the comment that "There is as yet absolutely no evidence of transmission to humans". Chapter nine draws attention, based on observation in the 1940s, to the possible relationship of "some environmental factor . . . possibly related to the husbandry of sheep" being associated with human multiple sclerosis.
Scientists, who are "motivated by competition for approbation by their peers" are judged to have delivered what was required. Entrepreneurial farmers, "driven by . . . excitement and the profit motive" have used the results. To make any good production system work, both sets of motives have to be satisfied. But these satisfactions have depended in the past on subsidised agriculture. "What has been . . . the major determinant of the modern revolution is the unprecedented scale on which successive governments have financed the industry"; indeed financial aid "exceeded the net income of the farming industry altogether" according to Sir Richard Body. The financial support systems seem likely to fall away during the coming years.
Part three can practically stand on its own as a briefing paper to anyone contemplating the future of British agriculture. I commend it. The raw alternatives suggested are either to ignore the problems of world food supply and see a decline in British agriculture as support is withdrawn, or to preserve the "technical optimism" that has been built up and bend our efforts to helping conquer world starvation and providing the basis for new products from British agriculture. The vital thing is to harness "the ideas, the prescience, the energy and the persistence" of our scientists, including those "awkward" types who do not fit into the organisational structure.
Colin Leakey is an applied biologist and independent consultant.
From Dearth to Plenty: The Modern Revolution in Food Production
Author - Kenneth Blaxter and Noel Robertson
ISBN - 0 521 40322 7
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £40.00
Pages - 296