This book addresses the evolution of global agriculture, and consequent supply and consumption of food. It assembles the thoughts of a range of renowned thinkers and activists in this sphere, pointing out the ultimate unsustainability of the predominant pathways followed and proposing remedial action. Early on the book makes the point that development of agricultural practices from hunter-gatherer times has progressively alienated humanity from the planet’s ecology, the continued basic functioning of which is essential to life as we know it. Further, the incentive to acquire more land area for agricultural pursuits has unleashed some of humanity’s most undesirable behaviours, such as wars of conquest, colonialism, slavery and institutionalised cruelty towards sentient non-human animals.

In the 1950s there were ever increasing concerns expressed by the West about food insecurity arising from the global collapse of colonialism and struggle for independence as well as the West’s concern about the spread of Russian ‘red’ communist revolution. This led to the adoption of the term Green Revolution by the West, aimed initially at raising yield of couple of major cereal crops such as wheat and rice by increasing harvest index, and allowing yield responses to inputs of agricultural chemicals. The book challenges the Green Revolution narrative around increases in yield and production and highlights the many adverse consequences that began to unfold from Green Revolution practices, further alienating agriculture from nature. The book documents how corporate agriculture began to replace smallholder agriculture in both industrialized and low-income countries. This caused resource poor farmers to become dependent on purchase of seed and chemicals and at the mercy of global markets, monocropping to the detriment of soil health and pest and disease management, depletion of water resources through irrigation, unhealthy human diets, factory farming and a host of other problems for both rich and poor.

In many parts of the world, current agricultural practices are threatening the very natural resource base on which they ultimately depend. Soils are being depleted of organic carbon and essential elements, biodiversity is being lost, new forms of pests and diseases are evolving, and surface and underground water resources are being depleted. And superimposed on this is accelerating climate change, disrupting traditional weather patterns and the cropping and grazing systems evolved under them. Although climate change is predominantly driven by the burning of fossil fuels, agriculture contributes about 30% of greenhouse gas emissions, through deforestation, depletion of soil carbon, release of nitrous oxide and enteric fermentation.

We currently have some 7.8 billion human mouths to feed, but the point is made in several chapters that the ability to produce enough food is not the problem, and indeed it never was the main problem except perhaps for the immediate post World War 2 years. The problem is the type of food produced in relation to human nutritional needs and access among humanity. For a start, in industrialised countries huge quantities of food go to waste, due to distant transport and storage requirements, imperfect market chains and rigorous selection for visual quality, food processing and eating habits. There are still large numbers of the poor who simply cannot get enough calories, and both rich and poor increasingly suffer from various nutrient deficiencies and obesity along with many other noncommunicable diseases directly related to unhealthful Western dietary patterns.

Research and development efforts in agriculture have been increasingly oriented towards improving corporate agriculture – new chemicals, hybrid and genetically modified seeds, mechanization, factory farming, etc. Like in other aspects of the economy a trickle-down of benefits to poor farmers is assumed, but rarely eventuates. Several chapters emphasize that if the rural poor are to be benefitted by technical knowhow then a bottom-up approach is the only option. This involves understanding the culture and local economy of the target population, detailed diagnosis of the environmental, economic and societal constraints, and directly involving farming families in any experimentation and development activity entered into. For example, participatory plant breeding is a superior option to traditional research station based varietal improvement or purchase of hybrid or GM seed from corporations. The book also highlights how apolitical technical approaches are not enough to reverse the impacts of industrial agriculture on the planet and its human and non-human inhabitants, and the corporate food regime which is driving it. It argues for the urgent need for grassroots led structural change towards food sovereignty, localisation, land and seed justice.

As for climate change, viable solutions are available to realistically increase the sustainability of agriculture, globally. The book outlines various alternative pathways for agriculture more conducive to nutrient recycling and longer-term sustainability. These include various permutations of Organic Agriculture, Agroecology, Regenerative Agriculture and Conservation Agriculture, showing how they are all works in progress. The authors give emphasis to Conservation Agriculture – involving no or minimum soil disturbance, soil mulch cover, diversified cropping – which is finding widespread acceptance in highly mechanized large-scale as well as smallholder farming, and ultimately put forward a vision of a paradigm based on organic or biological Conservation Agriculture that challenges the corporate model.

The book promotes a move to increasingly whole food plant-based diets, due to the inefficiencies of food conversion in animals (ten times more land needed for livestock production to produce equivalent protein than from cereal/pulses cropping), inevitable animal cruelty, adverse health consequences of consumption of animal products and ecosystem degradation and greenhouse gas emissions due to animal agriculture (clearing land for grazing or feed crops and methane emissions). It suggests there is much more public education required to increase awareness of healthy diets and how they can be adequately obtained through a diversified whole food plant-based diet. Such education is required to create public demand from agricultural production that better fulfils those needs.

However, to really set food and agriculture on a more sustainable pathway a gross rethink of ethics and values is required, towards ‘inclusive responsibility’ in meeting human food needs without further damaging the life support systems of this planet and all other life with whom we share this planet. The capitalist economic system, which assumes that exploitation of natural resources can continue indefinitely without adverse consequence, now dominates the food and agriculture regime. This is a similar problem to the climate emergency we are now facing and any solution to both will rely on greater realization of the need to stay within the ecological boundaries of this planet, several of which have already been exceeded.

A particular need elaborated in the book is a move to a more holistic paradigm, linking food and agriculture and human nutrition with culture, socio-economics, health, planetary boundaries and indeed most other human experiences. Currently our paradigms are too compartmentalized. And we must move from concepts of ‘food security’, as promoted by the research and development establishment and corporate agriculture, to ‘food sovereignty’, people’s rights ‘to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through biologically and ecologically sustainable methods’ while also respecting and protecting the rights of all sentient beings, both human and nonhuman, and of nature.

Although there have been many wondrous scientific advances in the understanding of processes relevant to agriculture, such as in molecular biology, they have really not made much headway in balancing food production with human developmental and nutritional needs in an environmentally sustainable manner. This book lays out what has gone wrong and provides suggestions of how to retrieve the situation. It thus offers a comprehensive framework of ‘inclusive responsibility’ to underpin the design of food and agricultural research and development paradigms and of economic and governance systems required to lead us into a sustainable future in an inclusive manner, which will necessarily be at odds with the predominant capitalist and corporate paradigms followed over the last 70 years.         

The framework of ‘inclusive responsibility’ highlights the responsibility of everyone to get involved in changing the current crisis ridden situation and work towards a goal of a sustainable and just food and agriculture system. The editors propose an ‘inclusively responsible’ system based on a paradigm which combines Conservation Agriculture with Veganic Agroecology. This combination of sustainable land use and diet, along with a movement away from the dominant corporate neoliberal economic model, is offered as a vision of a possible way forward and a rallying cry to all who want to build a more sustainable and just world.