Food's Frontier : The Next Green Revolution , by Richard Manning

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Topic classification : General science - biology - genetics - ecology - agriculture - economics - sociology - anthropology - geography - political science - current events

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Food's Frontier : The Next Green Revolution , by Richard Manning

Hardcover - 240 pages
Published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux
First edition
October, 2000

            The human race appears to have been saved from the fate of mass starvation predicted in 1969 by biologist Paul Ehrlich. Author Richard Manning warns that the so-called green revolution which has occurred in the past thirty years has granted us only a temporary reprieve. The advances have occurred largely in the technolgies of fertilizers, pesticides, and hybridization, boosting the world's food supply. Unfortunately, extrapolation of trends now places the date for critical world population relative to the food supply in the not-too-distant future. Manning asserts that a "second green revolution" will soon be required.

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            Richard Manning further presents the case that our saviors will not be the corporate agribusiness nor the governments of the most industrialized nations. The needed solutions will primarily arise out of agricultural research now underway in India, Africa, and South America.

            Farmers in Zimbabwe have found that they don't need to kill the bird who come to eat their crops of sorghum. Instead, they can grow a type of sorghum that has a high tannin content, which produces a taste too bitter to attract the birds. Then they can feed that sorghum to the one type of bird that isn't sensitive to the taste, the farm chickens. [Page 49]

            A positive political environment is helpful in this work but it isn't a strict requirement. Scientists in Uganda made progress in agricultural research despite the nation going through an era of genocide, during which the government in 1994 murdered 800,000 people [65]. Dr. Robert Mwanga grafted virus-infected material to many strains of sweet potatoes and then screened the plants for signs of virus resistance. After several years of research, a virus resistant crop made an appearance [67].

            Note from the table of contents (bottom of this page) that, after the initial chapter presents "the case for a second green revolution", most of the remaining chapters focus on the important developments in what are sometimes called the emerging nations of the world. Manning keenly understands the unique political and economic institutions and traditions in the several countries he has studied.

"We are only beginning to learn the hard, negative lessons of the 1950s and '60s: nature is an unimaginably complex system. We are not free to re-engineer the landscape in crude bounding steps, to introduce elements purely of our own design. A continuum of artifice must be available to us, but what seems to work best are those steps that go along with natural processes and cycles, nudging them in the direction they are going anyway. The further we veer from this course, the greater the peril. "

Richard Manning, in Food's Frontier - The Next Green Revolution , Page 193

            The eleventh chapter takes on the issue of changes in agriculture and ranching that will most likely be produced by genetic engineering. Like it or not, "the genie is already out of the bottle." [Page 192]

            When considering the potentials for good and bad effects, we should not confuse inherent conditions with the facts generated by our present mode of production. Let's not mistake what might be for whatever is now forced upon us by "... the likes of Monsanto Corporation, hardcore industrial agriculture, monopolies, and making square tomatoes that fit in boxes." [192]

            Even if we choose humanism over profiteering, we still face dangers of making incorrect choices. For example, while there is some protest about genetically modified farm animals, we should probably be more concerned about the new technique of genetically engineering the invisible microorganisms that live inside those animals. After all, if we learn that reengineered cattle are hazardous in some way, we can simply discontinue their breeding, but once we have let loose a newly invented microorganism, we cannot recall it from the environment.

            This threat may have already appeared, in an agricultural experiment in China. Manning cites: "In Shanghai, the crop is rice; the problem is a stripe virus. Once again, the tool is genetic modification, but not of the rice, not even of the bug that carries the virus, but of the microorganism that lives inside the bug." [199] Since the rice itself has not been modified, it doesn't have to carry a label, and the rice would probably "... slip neatly under the radar of any bans on trade in genetically modified organisms." [199]

"The solutions some propose is reducing genetic engineering to a personal choice by clearly labeling genetically modified organisms. What, after all, is more personal than one's choice of food? Ought we not begin, though, by labeling those potatoes that have seen a dozen or more applications of pesticides the Chilean farmers call la bomba? Labeling soybeans that are grown by plowing up valuable wildlife habitat? Labeling tomatoes grown through exploitation of cheap immigrant labor? The focus on one set of distinctions loses others."

Richard Manning, in Food's Frontier - The Next Green Revolution , Page 198

            Another likely strategic error is the treadmill effect produced by the single gene method. In India, a gene in the chickpea has been genetically modified six times to keep out a pest called the pod borer, and all six times the pod borer has evolved to bypass the single gene that was changed. On the other hand, scientists in Brazil and Chile have found much better success with multiple gene approaches, producing potatoes which present a variety of resistances to each pest.

            We also need to take a critical look at the legal concept of intellectual property as it is applied to biotechnology. At the present time, many scientists working in the public sector, and intending only to develop ways to feed the hungry people of the world, are forced to patent everything they develop, simply to release each discovery into the public domain. Manning explains, "If not patented, corporations like Monsanto can take (and have taken) an engineered organism, modify it slightly, and patent it." [200]

Reviewed by Mike Lepore for
crimsonbird.com

            The book is easily readable and free of technical jargon that could require glossary references. I recommend it to the reader who takes an interest in the impact that scientific advancement will have on social and economic problems in the coming years.

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Table of Contents
Richard Manning ,
Food's Frontier - The Next Green Revolution

1    The Seed
       The Case for a Second Green Revolution  3

2    An Island in Africa
       Global Methods, Local Choices	       22
       [ Ethiopia ]

3    How Things Fall Apart
       When Politics Pushed People Against
       Nature's Limits
       [ Zimbabwe ]			       40

4    To Work in Peace
       Visionaries in Violent Times
       [ Uganda]			       60

5    From Basket Case to Bread Basket
       When Biotechnology Has a Brain Trust
       [ India ]			       79

6    The Critical Mass
       The Fate of Farming in an
       Industrialized World
       [ Nanjing, China ]		       95

7    Genetic Revolution
       Bioengineering on the Loose
       [ Shanghai, China ]		       111

8    Forging a Magic Bullet
       Technology Based in Biodiversity
       [ Chile and Brazil ]		       128

9    In Wilderness is the Preservation
     of the World
       Sustaining Traditional Farming and
       Genetic Resources
       [ Mexico ]			       149

10   Roots
       Restoring Rural Wisdom
       [ Peru ] 			       173

11   The Genie in the Genome
       Bioengineering in Context	       191

12   A Common Ground
       Food, Cities, and the Integrity	       208
       of Rural Life

Selected Bibliography			       219
Acknowledgments 			       223
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Food's Frontier : The Next Green Revolution
by Richard Manning

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            Food's Frontier : The Next Green Revolution , by Richard Manning

            A generation and more ago, when futurists warned that an ever-expanding population would unleash famine and suffering upon the world, scientists set in motion the so-called Green Revolution. Mixing high-yield seed stock and intensive cultivation with an increased use of chemical pesticides, the Green Revolution proved remarkably successful in feeding the developing nations of the world -- but only for a time.

            Now, writes journalist Richard Manning, when Earth's population is again exploding -- adding a new Mexico City every 12 weeks, as one of the profiled scientists notes -- the need to revolutionize agriculture anew is ever more pressing. Traveling to research laboratories and farmers' fields in places such as Uganda, Zimbabwe, India, and China, Manning looks at ways in which researchers are working to improve crop yields, reduce natural pests and diseases, and increase biodiversity, with greater or lesser success. Among their approaches, Manning observes, is the use of genetically modified plants, a matter of intense debate throughout the First World. Urging that readers not dismiss this solution out of hand, Manning points out that genetic engineering is not merely a subject for theoretical discussion, but a fact of life in the agriculture of the developing world.

            At the close of his well-paced travelogue, he takes a considered look at the arguments pro and con, acknowledging that there are reasons to be both fearful and optimistic when tinkering with genomes. But, Manning slyly adds, "No one ever said feeding a planet of 6 billion people would be without consequences."

-- Gregory McNamee

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