Hard facts, solid research, multiple viewpoints, and well-told stories combine to give high impact to this compelling look at the challenge of feeding the world’s burgeoning population without destroying the planet.
Science writer Bourne, who was trained as an agronomist, starts by looking back at the warnings of Malthus, the great Bengal famine of 1943, and the so-called green revolution of the 1960s. The author stresses that while the factors that drove the green revolution have not gone away, crop yields have declined and the damage to soil, water, forests, and climate have increased. At the same time, high demand for grain caused by population growth, biofuels, and meat-heavy diets (the growing Chinese demand for pork rates an entire chapter) has kept food prices high. Bourne chronicles his travels to the Indian state of Punjab, where natural farming is becoming more widespread; to sites in Panama, Vancouver Island, Rhode Island, and Virginia, where aquaculture, a kind of blue revolution, shows promise; and to Ukraine, in his eyes “one of the biggest wastes of agricultural potential on the planet” thanks to civil war and corruption. While water problems get short shrift—there is only a brief section on water-saving technologies—the author goes much deeper into the pros and cons of genetically modified crops and the growth of the modern organic farming movement, a trend that he views as hopeful for increasing food production without adverse environmental consequences. The take-home message is that there are ways to increase the world’s food supply, and smart people are working on the issue, but if population growth is not curbed and if the world continues on its present track, disaster is inevitable.
The insertion of notes at the end of each chapter rather than at the back of the book gives it a textbook feel, which may put off some readers. It should not: this call to arms is lucid, informative, and even entertaining, fully deserving a wide readership.