Straight furrows in heavy ground

Agriculture and the Citizen
November 1, 1996

The justification for this book is contained in one of its tables. In Britain, we are told, only 2.1 per cent of the economically active population are employed in agriculture, against a global average of 48 per cent. Colin Spedding has attempted to explain the purposes of modern agriculture and its place in society in a way which is accessible to the nonspecialist, yet which does not avoid or over-simplify the major challenges facing agriculture and agricultural research in the UK and elsewhere. He has done this in a distinctive manner, which avoids excessive bias, while drawing attention to the problems associated with an over-dependence on intensive agricultural systems. My overriding impression of this book, however, is its coherence. It is obviously the product of a single writer and, as such, is a refreshing change from the proliferation of multi-author books edited to a common level of mediocrity. Few will be bored by this book, and most will profit from it even if they do not always agree with the conclusions.

The book is organised around a view of agriculture as a complex system with a range of inputs and outputs, and a large number of different subsystems within it. Like most human endeavours it impinges on a range of other human activities and concerns, and Spedding argues strongly that these inter-actions themselves are part of the agricultural system in its broadest sense. Thus, in the first ten chapters he describes the geographical and social scope of agriculture, its outputs, inputs, internal complexities and inter-actions with the broader environment. Subsequently he deals with the more complex societal issues of sustainability, animal welfare and human health before concluding with four chapters which address the mechanisms which are or which could be put in place to balance the scientific and societal priorities for agriculture in the future.

Spedding deals with all these issues clearly, by combining definition, explanation and question. For example, in chapter 11 on sustainability, he uses the range of definitions proposed by others to address the differences between sustainability of resource use and effectiveness of that use within relevant socioeconomic systems, and finally links these to the broader issue of sustainability on a global scale where demand is ever-increasing. He ends each chapter by posing questions on its content which challenge the reader to address the complexities of integrating the different topics. Spedding is acutely aware of the dilemma of democracy, where a myriad of complex questions are discussed at a very superficial level, and has, I feel, striven to provide guidance without seeking to condition people's conclusions.

My reservations are about the book's suitability for the informed nonspecialist. My concerns are twofold. Firstly, chapters one to ten contain a large amount of factual and discursive material. Much of this is very valuable to the academic reader and I can see the book becoming a much-used reference text for undergraduate postgraduate students together with their supervisors, but this detail does, in some cases, obscure the central arguments.

In chapter five, for example, I do not see the central relevance of a detailed indication of the inorganic nutrient requirements of two forage species occupying half a page when the discussion of mineral nutrition in toto in the text occupies less than half that space. This abundance of information in the early chapters contrasts with the much more focused approach found later.

Secondly, the problem of clarity is compounded by the traditional and occasionally haphazard layout. In particular, figures, tables and boxed items are not presented to advantage. There is no use of colour or shading and only minimal use of bold text even in very complex figures (eg Figure 7.12) and this is compounded by idiosyncratic sizing. Contrast, for example, the three-quarter page diagram of the structure of a grass tiller (Figure 5.5) which merits one line in the text with the density of information in Table 9.4 which compares protein and energy outputs of different cropping systems, contains 25 individual values or ranges, is central to many of the points made in the chapter and is cramped into a single column.

Science in general and agricultural science in particular is the subject of intense criticism throughout the developed world. A recent leader in The Daily Telegraph implied that the economic success of Hong Kong was directly attributable to its lack of investment in scientific research, and such myopic arguments are gaining adherents. Books like this one which place science and science-related activities in a societal framework are invaluable for teachers and for all those interested in promoting rational debate. It deserves to sell well and to be read by all those with an interest in agriculture. Most of all, however, it deserves to run to a second edition where Spedding's clarity of thought is matched by clarity of presentation. I would urge one of our learned societies to collaborate with the publishers to maximise the future impact of this book as a valuable element in the current debate.

Christopher Pollock is research director, Institute of Grassland and Environmental Research, Aberystwyth.

Agriculture and the Citizen

Author - Colin Spedding
ISBN - 0 412 71520 1
Publisher - Chapman & Hall
Price - £24.99
Pages - 282

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