Manning (Grassland, 1996, etc.), a shrewd and passionate environmentalist, strikes a reserved, cerebral chord here as he discusses how some third-world countries are facing the looming food shortage.
Now that the Green Revolution, in its doddering 40s, has spent its last nickel to feed an ever-growing global population, Manning wants to know where it will find the food to satisfy the eight billion hungry mouths that will be with us in 2025. To see where agriculture is headed, he visits nine projects in countries as diverse as Peru, China, and Uganda, projects underwritten by the McKnight Foundation (which also underwrote Manning’s research and travel). In each place he visits, Manning paints some background material, mostly environmental and political, that very much helps put what follows in context. In Ethiopia, the ancient grain tef is being tried out to increase crop yields, but a chance to speed the breeding process by use of molecular markers is running into some newfangled problems: each project must be associated with an American university (supposedly to provide “scientific firepower”), but Ethiopia’s school (Texas Tech) is typically “interested in pulling in the funding but lacking the institutional commitment to work long-term on the problem.” In Zimbabwe, Manning finds that the native sorghum varieties have more names than Inuits have for snow, but that AIDS may well be dealing with the burgeoning population all by itself. And India demonstrates the “paradox that the successes of the Green Revolution have, in turn, created great need.” As for biotechnology, the author presents a sensible chapter winnowing the wheat from the chaff, but his “enough may well be at stake to merit a bold experiment,” is glancing and short on his trademark suspiciousness.
More meditative than fiery, Manning provides a revealing, heedful “window into what the world is doing about agriculture, and what urgently needs to be done.”