The Feasta Review, number 2



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Tom Campbell teaches courses in Environment and Development, and Sustainable Livelihoods, at the Development Studies Centre, Kimmage Manor, Dublin. He also serves on the Executive Committee of Feasta.

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Time for the next agricultural revolution


Reconnecting people, land and nature

Jules Pretty
Earthscan, 2002.
ISBN 1 85383 925 6 £14.95.

review by Tom Campbell

Ecologically-sound farming techniques - like planting beans in maize fields or raising shrimps in rice paddy - can produce more, and better, food than industrialised methods.

Something is wrong with our agricultural and food systems, Jules Pretty writes at the start of his latest book. Despite great progress in producing more food, millions of people remain hungry and malnourished, while others are eating too much or the wrong sorts of food. The wrong policies have also had enormously negative consequences for the natural environment. Can anything be done to rectify this situation? Yes, Pretty says, and throughout the book he spells out how an agriculture based on ecological principles and in harmony with people, their societies and cultures, can provide the world with both sustainable and productive farming systems.

Pretty makes the point that ecological farming systems are not necessarily new but that they are now beginning to spread and develop an impact in both the industrialized countries of the North and the 'developing countries' of the South.

His early chapters present the evidence to support the contention that industrialized agricultural systems as currently configured are deeply flawed. They certainly produce more food per hectare and per worker than ever before but only appear 'efficient' if we take no account of harmful side effects or 'externalities' - such as the loss of soils, the damage to biodiversity, the pollution of water, the harm to human health, and the disappearance of the family farm. Food appears cheap because these costs are difficult to identify and measure. Likewise the subsidies and export credits given to agricultural commodity producers in Northern producer countries, has meant that farmers in West Africa and elsewhere have had their markets destroyed. In order to enhance efficiency, modern agriculture has created 'monoscapes' and the poorest, particularly in developing countries, have lost out.

Drawing on the findings of the largest-ever survey of sustainable agriculture in developing countries conducted by the University of Essex where he is based1 , Pretty shows how these initiatives, if spread on a larger scale, could feed a growing world population that is already substantially food insecure without harming the environment. Evidence from South America, Asia, China, and Africa shows that sustainable farming systems are having an impact not only on local communities but further afield too. The study surveyed 208 projects and initiatives. It found that nine million farmers have adopted sustainable agricultural practices and technologies on 29 million hectares.

Some projects which added a new productive element (such as fish, or shrimps in paddy rice) to a farm system were able to substantially improve the farm family's food consumption or increase its local food sales without reducing the cereal yields per hectare. Better water management such as water harvesting and irrigation scheduling had a similar effect. The inter-cropping of legumes such as the velvet bean, or mancuna, with maize, plus controlling pests such as weeds or insects with minimum, or zero, pesticide use, plus introducing locally-appropriate crop varieties and animal breeds led to, on average, a 93% increase in food production. In many cases, it was the synergy created by these improvements rather than any single intervention on its own that led to the overall increase in productivity. These findings are enormously significant, he says, as they counter the prevailing view that agro-ecological approaches offer only marginal opportunities to increase food production, and that industrialized approaches represent the best, and perhaps the only, way forward.

Pretty gives many examples throughout the book to illustrate how these productive and diverse sustainable farming initiatives are having a positive impact on people's lives and the environment. His research for the book brought him into contact with such practices as zero tillage and soil conservation farming in Brazil and Argentina, organic horticulture and land husbandry in Kenya, community-led water harvesting in the drylands of India, and the adoption of IPM (Integrated Project Management) by farmers' field schools in Bangladesh, to mention just a few.

Pretty's definition of sustainable agriculture is a farming system that seeks to make the best use of nature's goods and services without damaging the environment. It does this by integrating natural processes, such as nutrient recycling, nitrogen fixation, soil regeneration and natural pest control, within food production processes. It minimizes the use of non-renewable inputs that damage the environment or harm the health of farmers and consumers. It makes better use of farmers' knowledge and skills, thereby improving their self-reliance, and it makes productive use of people's collective capacity to work together to solve common management problems.

One reason that the present agricultural systems are failing, he argues, is because they have separated themselves from consumers. Industrialized countries have celebrated their agricultural systems' production of commodities, yet family farms have disappeared as rapidly as rural biodiversity. At the same time farmers themselves have received a progressively smaller proportion of what consumers spend on food. Reconnecting sustainable systems of production with consumers is essential, he argues, and he illustrates how this is already being successfully done through farmers' markets, community supported agriculture, the 'slow food' movement, box schemes, urban organic agriculture projects (such as those found in Cuba) and farmers' groups.

None of these alone will provoke systemic change, though regional policies and movements are helping to create the right conditions. Pretty advocates two interrelated concepts which are important for rethinking the future of agriculture and can help this process of reconnecting people, land and nature. The first, 'bioregionalism', the integration of human activities within ecological limits, is a concept likely to be already familiar to readers of the Feasta Review. The second - 'Foodsheds' - is new to this reviewer. It describes ³self reliant, locally or regionally-based food systems comprised of diversified farms using sustainable practices to which consumers are linked in the bonds of community as well as economy² - the idea of giving an area-based grounding to the production, consumption and movement of food. Farming must reorient itself as a multifunctional activity with diverse environmental and cultural connections.

Pretty devotes an entire chapter to the GM controversy as he says it is impossible to talk about agricultural transformation without assessing biotechnology. He believes that certain biotechnological applications (if treated on a case-by-case basis) may have the potential to offer some contributions to sustainable agriculture in the future but that serious questions need to be asked first:

  • Who produces such technologies and for what purpose?
  • Are they likely to benefit poor and small farmers in the developing world, and, if so, how will such farmers have access to the technology?
  • What are the adverse effects on the environment, on human health and food security? What of the fundamental ethical issues?
  • How reliable are the regulatory systems and standards to control such technologies?

The final chapters focus on the need to develop social learning systems and to increase ecological literacy if we are to develop not only sustainable agricultural and food systems but also a more sustainable economy and society. A person's knowledge of nature and the land usually accrues slowly over time, and cannot be easily transferred. Yet, according to Pretty: "the immediacy of the challenge means that we must move quickly in order to develop novel and robust systems of social learning that build up relations of trust, reciprocal mechanisms, shared values and rules and new forms of connectedness". Great progress in developing new forms of 'social capital' is already being made through the actions of hundreds of thousands of groups (particularly in developing countries) engaged in collective watershed, agroforestry, microfinance, and pest management. These collective and participatory systems can also promote significant personal changes.

Despite this, the necessary transformation of global agriculture will largely depend on the radical reform of the institutions and policies that control global food supply and also on fundamental changes in the way we think. The time has come, believes Pretty, for the next agricultural revolution.

This is an elegantly-written, compelling and highly-relevant book, especially in the light of the challenges facing European farmers as a result of the current CAP reform, but also in view of the consequences of the rapid 'modernisation' of agriculture in the developing countries of the South. As such it deserves to be read widely by anyone involved or interested in farming, food and rural landscapes.

Continue to Ivan Ward's review of Bringing the Food Economy Home - Local Alternatives to Global Agribusiness by Helena Norberg-Hodge, Todd Merrifield and Steve Gorelick


1. For a summary report of the University of Essex SAFE-World research project see:

This book review is from
Growth:The Celtic Cancer,
the second Feasta Review. Copies of the Review can be ordered online from Green Books, priced at £9.95 plus postage and packaging.
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