BOOK REVIEW: Sustainable Development at Risk Ignoring the Past Joseph H. Hulse
ISBN No 9788175965218

by Robert D. Reichert, Industrial Research Assistance Program, National Research Council of Canada, Ottawa, Canada

This book is about sustainable development in the context of improving the plight of third world nations, i.e. the main challenge being to alleviate extreme poverty while protecting the environment and conserving critical resources. Considering that most developed nations are currently on a path of unsustainable development, and considering that these are the same nations that are the major aid donors, third world nations are clearly at risk of also creating patterns of unsustainable development. The author even suggests that nations such as India can likely provide more productive and appropriate assistance to poor nations than affluent donor governments. This book is very timely in the context of a deteriorating planet and the world’s pursuit of sustainable development.

The author is highly qualified to present a balanced perspective on this subject. Prof. Hulse has worked in the private sector as a Director of Research, in government as the Vice President of a major aid organization, and now in academia. Currently, he is a Visiting Professor at the University of Manchester, the Central Food Technological Research Institute in Mysore, India, and the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation in Tamil Nadu, India. His primary challenge to development agencies seeking to bring about beneficial change reflects his own management style, i.e. to first thoroughly analyze and understand what already exists and then to define quantifiable objectives and criteria of assessment.

Today, there are many difficulties in trying to bring about sustainable development including: the inexorable growth of an already large population; the ethical dilemma where the rich do not want to share with the poor, and do not consider they have any responsibility to the latter; the driving forces of globablization, the market economy, consumerism, and the visibly increasing pressure on environmental life support systems.

The purpose of the book is to examine, in an historical context, sustainable development and the variant concepts that relate to:
international development: alleviation of poverty, deprivation, economic and social inequities, and what may influence future food and hygienic security for all humanity, industrial biotechnologies as they have evolved and are applied to agriculture, food production, preservation and distribution, and pharmaceutical diagnostics and therapeutics,concerns among civil society for their health and security in the light of exceptional innovations in agricultural and industrial biotechnologies, and the capacity of the planet’s environments and resources to withstand increasing stresses imposed by human and industrial activities.
One of the major themes expressed in this book, is well-characterized by a quotation from “An Allegory of Prudence” by Titian and workshop: “From experience of the past the present acts prudently lest it despoil future action”. The text’s extensive review of international development activities since 1945 indicates that few development agencies maintain a comprehensive and reliable corporate memory, and that many administrators appear relatively unaware of what has gone before.
In the context of providing corporate memory, the text provides a critical review of the reports and recommendations of premier development agencies, charters, commissions and conferences since World War II (e.g. the Atlantic Charter, World Bank development reports, United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) reports, Pearson Commission report, Brandt Commission report, Brundtland Commission, etc.) and provides an excellent comparative prospective on their value. For example, the author questions whether the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), also known as “the Earth Summit”, provided a forum for “talkers” rather than an opportunity for “doers”. In general the author is particularly critical of mammoth international conferences, whose cost could have been more productively devoted to specific aid projects.

The book traces agricultural and urban development from ancient civilizations to modern mechanization and genetic modifications, a highly-useful historical perspective. Sustainable agriculture is well discussed in a major chapter covering 29 pages out of the 371 page treatise. Of note is the discussion of the Sustainable Agriculture Initiative (SAI) jointly launched by Unilever and Nestlé; now, through this initiative some 20 corporations collaboratively share general information about sustainable agriculture while each corporation also pursues sustainable agriculture R & D independently. The SAI encourages farming practices conservative of critical resources, protective of land, water, the environment, safety and wholesomeness of all raw materials.
Twenty-eight pages of case studies of successful, sustainable development projects are particularly useful but limited mostly to those involving the International Development Research Centre, one of the publishers of the book. One of these projects was the development of mechanical dehulling equipment which replaced the traditional mortar and pestle method of removing the outer layers of sorghum and millet. The equipment was designed by scientists and engineers at the National Research Council in Saskatoon, Canada on the basis of specific African needs provided by IDRC project officers. The latter acquired an understanding of these needs through personal experience in African villages and also through systematic surveys. For the past 20 years, the dehulling equipment has been manufactured in Africa. This development was particularly important for African women because it freed up several hours per day. This enabled rural women to devote the liberated time to child care, the tending of kitchen gardens and the raising of poultry.

Sustainable development presents many ethical dilemmas and this is covered particularly well in this book. Mahatma Gandhi stated that “There is enough for everyone’s need, but not enough for everyone’s greed”. Greed is often auctioned by developed nations in the form of aid that is tied to the procurement of goods and services from the donor country. The author strongly recommends that donors’ tied-aid policies give way to assistance that enables recipients to develop and adopt technologies and systems that are appropriate to their needs. Clearly, there is a continuing challenge to balance continued economic growth, necessary for gainful employment, with reasonable restraint on consumption.

The scope of this book is ambitious and wide-ranging. It should especially appeal to policy makers who are charged with using taxpayer’s money to create programs that result in sustainable development in third world nations. In particular, newcomers to international, governmental and non-governmental aid programs will benefit by learning about what their predecessors have attempted to do in the past.

Editor’s note: The book includes some 200 literature references, a Glossary of Biotechnology and a comprehensive Index covering 23 pages. Foundation Books/IDRC 2007, e-ISBN 978-1-55250-368-3, 390 pp. (

Professor Hulse is a Past President of IUFoST and inaugural Fellow of the International Academy of Food Science and Technology.