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Food's Frontier

Todd Ziebarth reviews Richard Manning's Food's Frontier: The Next Green Revolution

Food's Frontier: The Next Green RevolutionIn the early pages of Food's Frontier: The Next Green Revolution, Richard Manning skillfully outlines the scope of the world's hunger problem. First, he tells of the impressive gains over the past three decades in the world's battle against hunger. In the late 1960s, for instance, 56 percent of the world's population lived in nations that provided less than 2,200 calories of food per day per person, what is regarded as a subsistence diet. By the early 1990s, that number had dropped to 10 percent. As Manning states, hungry people still exist in the world, but proportionately less than a generation ago.

Still, as remarkable as these gains are, a perhaps more striking challenge lays before us. By some estimates, increases in the world's population will double the demand for food as soon as 2020. Add to this estimate the following consensus: The agricultural techniques that led to the significant reductions in the proportion of hungry persons in the world over the past three decades, an era known as the Green Revolution, are unable to sustain us into the future. What we have, then, is an increasing demand coupled with an increasingly stagnant supply. What is necessary, according to Manning, is another leap in our attempts to adequately feed the world population.

Our approaches must be different this time around, though. The Green Revolution of the late 1960s through the early 1990s is perhaps best characterized by the industrial model and by the use of a single tool, such as a pesticide, to achieve significant gains in agricultural outputs. Critics of the Green Revolution, however, assert that its heavy reliance on high inputs of water, capital and chemical fertilizers and pesticides are unsustainable. We may be feeding ourselves, according to the critics, but we are starving our descendants.

Although less damaging replacements for certain inputs have been substituted, such as green manure in place of nitrogen fertilizer and drip irrigation in place of inefficient flood irrigation, more needs to be done. The necessary next step, which serves as the thesis of the book, is to incorporate agriculture within the ecological system in which it operates, which requires developing solutions within the opportunities and constraints of the natural and human culture at a particular place.

Into this context, enter the McKnight Foundation, a small Midwestern foundation that was established in 1953 by William M. McKnight, then chairman of the 3M Company. By the 1990s, the McKnight Foundation was giving away $76 million on an annual basis to a variety of causes, one of which is securing an international food supply. More specifically, in 1995, based upon the ideas that emerged from a conference of the leading agricultural researchers from around the world, the McKnight Foundation committed $12 million over six years to nine projects in the developing world which showed promise for making considerable contributions to global food security.

In the course of the book, Manning visits each of the nine projects, which are housed in Ethiopia, Uganda, Zimbabwe, India, China, Brazil, Chile, Mexico and Peru. These projects are diverse in nature and, as Manning states, balance some risky, high-tech ventures with some that seem likely to produce more immediate gains. In fact, at the halfway point of the project, the McKnight Foundation deemed seven of the nine as worthy of continued funding, but chose to discontinue two of the projects, those in Zimbabwe and Peru.

As Manning travels within each of these countries, he details the efforts of many scientists, researchers and farmers to increase the productivity of the world's agricultural resources, from the production of a short cereal crop called tef in Debre Zeit, Ethiopia to the use of genetic engineering to prevent a rice virus disease in Nanjing, China. Perhaps the greatest strengths of each of these case studies are Manning's descriptions of the context in which the projects operate. He nicely fuses the political, economic, social and cultural elements at play in places as distant as Kampala, Uganda, Pune, India and San Cristobal Poxtla, Mexico. In doing so, he makes clear the importance of the research efforts underway in each of these countries.

Building upon the lessons learned from the case studies, Manning finishes the book by immersing himself in the debates about the directions of genetic engineering and agricultural development. In these concluding chapters, Manning makes many interesting points, several of which are particularly noteworthy.

First, he broadens the discussion of genetic engineering beyond "the likes of the Monsanto Corporation, hard-core industrial agriculture, monopolies, and making square tomatoes that fit in boxes—the hyperindustrialization of the food supply of the developed world." In fact, Manning tells us, genetic modification and genetically assisted breeding are already ubiquitous in the agriculture of the developing world. The public debate on this issue needs to recognize that the "genie is already out of the bottle, way out."

Still, Manning wisely reminds us to maintain a healthy skepticism of the declarations of scientists in the course of this debate. After all, these are the same group of folks who assured us that pesticides were completely safe, especially the early, broad-spectrum pesticides now widely banned in the world. Taken together, Manning appears to be urging us to resist our knee-jerk reactions to genetic engineering and view the issue in a larger context of potentially increasing food security and reducing the world's reliance on insecticides, yet question at every turn the potential benefits and costs of each approach.

Manning also decries the notion that the sole task of agriculture is growing food. If we have learned anything from the Green Revolution, according to the author, it is that the job of agriculture is not simply feeding six billion people today, and however many billion will inhabit the earth a decade into the future. Not only is agriculture about growing good food, it is about making good lives.

This notion about the purposes of agriculture serves as the foundation for the solution that is implicit in each of the case studies and explicit in Manning's concluding remarks. Future agricultural research and development needs to be cast in a social matrix. In other words, the country conducting the research and development needs to consciously determine the goals of its program based upon the advantages and disadvantages unique to its people and place, and then allow information to flow among scientists, researchers and farmers on a common field of knowledge. After all, Manning states, agriculture is culture, and, at bottom, is about the integrity of individual lives.


Todd Ziebarth is a policy analyst at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. He is also a founding editor of Terrain.org. In addition to his regular Terrain.org column, Ziebarth sometimes reviews books and CDs for the journal. He has a master's degree in public administration and a master's degree in urban and regional planning.
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Food's Frontier: The Next Green Revolution

by Richard Manning

   North Point Press
   October 2000
   ISBN 0865475938



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