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Book review

Food, climate, and man


Food, climate, and man

Edited by M.R. and A.K. Biswas. John Wiley & Sons, New York, 1979. 285 pp.

Food, Climate, and Man is a compendium of articles by nine authors who offer a refreshing contribution to the continuing discussion on human food and environmental problems. The emphasis in this triangular relationship of physical environment, nutrient flow, and host is placed appropriately on man, the host. Aurelio Peccei, President of the Club of Rome, states, "... the future of man depends on man himself.... the immensity of what must be done to retake control of our destiny need not be stressed.... The major change must take place not outside the human being, but within."

This book points out the predicament of man. David Pimentel shows how man is in the process of over populating the earth, and yet, in his ingenuity, has devised a counteractive food production scheme to meet the food needs for a growing population. He has invented mechanization based on intensive use of energy to reduce the need for human labour, and to increase yields, but in so doing has risked the possibility of upsetting a delicate balance within the ecosystem in order to achieve greater food production. At the same time, the lack of commitment to institutional support and social equity for the rural sector has forced people off the land.

As Gunnar Lindh points out, another extremely crucial component for increasing agricultural production is water. Careful assessments need to be made of existing water resources in order to avoid over-exploiting groundwater supplies. Mismanagement or over-exploitation of surface and groundwater would have serious consequences for food production, but this can be avoided by reducing pollution, use of scientific irrigation practices, transfer of water from surplus areas, containment of excess water in reservoirs, and recycling and reusing water. The current competition between urban and rural areas for water must also be addressed.

The keystone in this triangular balance is climate, perhaps the most important variable because of its unpredictability. A.K. Biswas aptly demonstrates that climate should be considered in any theory of economic development, especially in the tropics and sub-tropics. Man must somehow incorporate knowledge of climate into his decision-making and must learn how his activities, such as lack of soil management, overcropping, and neglect of reforestation affect climate.

Man, as of today, is unable to control climate, but climate does indeed exert control over man through its influence on food production, and, in seasons of floods or droughts, on nutritional status and health. However, unwise use of forests and grazing lands has contributed its share to droughts and floods and hence to famine. It should be possible to take counter-measures to prevent loss of productive soil, and simple, inexpensive technologies already exist to do this. Unless they are applied, the balance between population and food supplies will remain precarious.

This book is timely in its support of environmentalists and ecologists, and should be read by policy-makers and planners.

Richard Lockwood, Ph.D.
International Nutrition Program
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA

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