Nick Calluther’s The Hungry World details 70 years of food, agriculture, and ancillary development projects in Mexico, Africa, and, most prominently, Asia. Calluther isolates these development projects to a tripartite assemblage of suspect motives: to combat the neo-Malthusian spectre of food supply-population imbalance, often dramatized as the heroic staving off of starvation; to inculcate in “the peasant” (a high-modernist construction, itself) democractic and progressive (read: anticommunist) values; and as tools of nation-building in reconstructionist postcolonial states. While the geographic scope of Calluther’s analysis is global, its organizational scale is decidedly limited to governments and non- and intergovernmental organizations. His concluding remark, emphasizing self-determination, that these development efforts sought “to employ technology as an avoidance mechanism, as a way to escape historical responsibility and the obligation to allow people to choose . . . the future that was best for them,” rings hollow in light of his almost complete ignorance of the voices or perspectives of Asians, Africans, and Mexicans outside the elite and exclusive halls government. But there is elision in ellipsis. What Calluther actually insisted upon was “the obligation to allow people to choose, through their own governments, the future that was best for them. As a scholar of foreign relations and diplomatic history, Calluther’s one-dimensional attention to the governmental scale of action is understandable. Like his all of his historical subjects, who fell prey to the fallacy that “when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail” — who, as economists, saw in the development project an economics problem, or as agronomists, saw in the development project an agrotechnological problem — Calluther, as a scholar of foreign relations and diplomatic history, sees in the Green Revolution a story that is essentially about governments and governmental organizations.
In a few places in his book Calluther provides perhaps the most succinct summaries of Green Revolution failures I have ever read:
Since the 1970s, analysts have revisited the consequences of the MAP’s work, highlighting its role in narrowing the genetic base; supplanting indigenous, sustainable practices; and displacing small and communal farming with commercial agribusiness, pushing millions of peasants into urban slums or across the border. These correctives have strikingly little effect on how the Mexican parable is retold in congressional hearings or news accounts discussing the future of rural development. Local outcomes are scarcely visible from the global standpoint of the model.
Or, to take the case of the platonic “Target” rice of the IRRI that
would require expensive inputs: not just fertilizer but also herbicides to prevent shading by taller weeds. Shallow-rooted dwarf plants needed more precise hydraulic control than most peasant farmers could manage. Farmers would have to discard nearly all of their practices and adopt new techniques for planting, weeding, irrigation, harvesting, and threshing. New chemicals and equipment would require credit and distribution networks that the region did not have. If adopted, the target variety would radically disrupt the social environment in which rice was grown.
For Calluther, these consequences of the “the target” revealed an unstated objective of the Big Jump strategy — “to induce social change by displacing the culture and economy of rice cultivation” — thereby implicating the development effort in rice to what amounts to a kind of epistemic/cultural colonialism. Calluther constantly alludes to the epistemic and cultural coloniality of food/agriculture development and the historical-contextual continuum between formal colonialism and “postcolonial” developmentalism, describing “[t]he complex and often invisible bargains that went into the aid relationship” as causing Asians to cease “to be colonial subjects only to become developmental subjects, mobilized, sterilized, and enlightened by foreign experts.” Calluther further contextualizes the epistemic/cultural coloniality of developmentalism by pointing to Robert Redfield’s anthropological studies “in a Mexican village” wherein Redfield described modernization (which he coined) as “fundamentally a cognitive, even spiritual event.” But Calluther does not explicitly tie Cold War developmentalism to coloniality, or look to postcolonial theorists or historians of colonialism, to help understand the relationships between donor and recipient countries engaged in development aid relationships. For Calluther, the ultimate aims of these projects are always to control (the spread of) the Soviet Union and China, or to make the world safe for capitalism (usually by bolstering the value of the dollar, inflating American agricultural products, or, rather, preventing their overproduction-induced deflation, by dumping them abroad, or by dampening food inflation in developing countries so as to stimulate industrialization and urbanization). I am not here to argue that the above were not motives for development projects — they were — simply to point out that Calluther seems simultaneously fully aware of the coloniality of these programs and unwilling to analytically contend with the idea of the United States as colonizer — an analytic approach that I believe provides great explanatory power for the United States’s development agenda.
An interesting aspect of The Hungry World for historians of technology is the way Calluther shows how the technological aspects of development packages, despite the allure of the “technological fix” and the supposed “neutrality” of technologies that so many developmentalists found rhetorically useful and politically expedient, were never intended, even by their technologist developers (like Borlaug), to actually be simple technological fixes. They were, seemingly, understood by many of those most intimately connected with their development to serve to stimulate changes in governmental and economic policy which would then initiate “lift off” or “take off” or whatever they were calling it. The intended use function, if you will, of dwarf rice and wheat was to induce governments to increase fertilizer production or acquisition and to expand programs for agricultural credit, price supports, and crop insurance. In this conception of the Green Revolution, the agroindustrial package of chemical, financial, and mechanical implements was not incidental to high-yielding seed, instead, the high-yielding seed was incidental to chemical and mechanical industrialization and financial bureaucratization and corporatization. This represents a perspectival shift in the technopolitics of Green Revolution biotechnology.
- Ix – This book started with a simple aim: to tell the story of the green revolution, the greatest success in the history of foreign aid since the Marshall Plan. In the late 1960s, stunning innovations in agricultural science, particularly dwarf strains of wheat and rice, allowed chronically poor and starvation-prone Asian countries to feed themselves for the first time, ushering in a new era of hope and economic dynamism. My project was soon complicated by recorded observations and experiences that refused to conform to this story. The first to go was the timeline, which by most accounts begins after World War II when scientists and aid officials realized the implications of a global population boom that foreshadowed an era of famine and conflict in the densely peopled countries of Asia. It became clear on my first visit to the U.S. National Archives that the plans already being implemented at that stage had been laid much earlier, when no population explosion was in sight. At the beginning of the twentieth century food emerged as a new instrument of diplomacy, and ambitions for a spiritual awakening of Asia took a scientific turn. The “traditional” agriculture over which American technology had triumphed turned out to be of recent design, using seeds developed at U.S. universities only a few years before “modern” varieties arrived to take their place.
- 4 – As conceived by economic theorists, development was a cure for the condition of rurality. “The first and very commonplace observation to be made about the underdeveloped and unprogressive countries is that they are all agricultural,” John Kenneth Galbraith explained.
- The irony of deagriculturalizing — of industrializing and urbanization — through agricultural intervention
- 5 – A number of expository conventions recur across the development decades, but three had a formative role in schemes implemented in Asia. Projects were designed for “display” to produce statistical victories or as carefully staged spectacles dramatizing the fruits of modernity. They were also composed, usually from inception, as “models,” formulas to be replicated at later times and other settings. Finally, narratives defined lines of conflict in developmental politics. Models were pitted against each other as tests of allegiance and modernizing prowess.
- American advisers were never able to settle on a single, consensus model of rural development. They disagreed on fundamental goals, such as whether improvement should empower the farmer, the consumer, or the government. Social science offered little practical guidance, largely because it conceptualized agriculture as a state of prior underdevelopment. Sociology and anthropology, for instance, defined “modernization” as a process of casting off the cultural forms of the village, of abandoning the farm either psychologically or physically. Economists used urbanization as an index of progress, and distinguished between the metropolitan “modern sector” and the rural “unorganized economy.” Because the countryside could never be truly modern, there was considerable disagreement about what modern agriculture might look like.
- Again the irony of “modernization” or “industrialization” through agriculture
- 6 – U.S. officials largely agreed, at least after 1940, that their system of agriculture ought to be the envy of the world, but they had different ideas about what made it enviable. They idealized the pattern of ownership, typified by the family farm, while recognizing that small farms were losing ground to corporate agribusiness. They admired the top-down regional planning of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), but also the bottom-up cooperative ethic of farm communities. Asia served as a political Rorschach, a formless need into which conflicting ambitions could be projected.
- In this context, power worked less through governments than between them, in the panoply of private and multilateral funding networks, research institutes, and freelancers who were inventing not just new policies but a new type of policy.
- This is a good way to describe the power situation in GreenRev Mexico too
- 7 – Within this encounter, Americans pursued three conflicting goals. First, they aimed to restore a putatively lost “balance” between food supply and population. . . . Second, they sought to modify the psychology of the peasant. In the rural setting, science offered a unique medium for inculcating democratic and progressive values. . . . Finally, rural reconstruction was a technique of nation-building. Policies to assure balance between population and food supply authorized, even mandated, official intrusions into the most intimate of personal decisions. By asserting control over agriculture, nations defeated their internal enemies and gained a degree of authority over resources, territory, and people that colonial empires never had.
- 8 – The complex and often invisible bargains that went into the aid relationship dictated how millions would vote, eat, and earn a living. Crucial choices about food and famine became internationalized and removed from local political control, while Asians, at the moment of their emancipation, ceased to be colonial subjects only to become developmental subjects, mobilized, sterilized, and enlightened by foreign experts.
- 9-10 – A history of development must, finally, consider the politics of memory through which projects are retrospectively given meaning. The practice of modeling, of translating experience into remedies to be taken from one part of the world and implemented in another, was itself a signal innovation in global planning. . . . It is a limiting perspective, blind to local contexts and contingencies; it sees past obstacles but also overlooks opportunities, and it has proven irresistible to leaders seeking certainty in a dangerous world.
- 25 – The [Rockefeller] foundation has been fairly characterized as a guardian of corporate interests and as a scientific auxiliary of the federal government, but neither description fully captures its unique preoccupations with globalism and technology.
- 27 – In a pivotal 1930 study of a Mexican village, Robert Redfield noted that modernization was fundamentally a cognitive, even spiritual event. On seeing a new technique or artifact demonstrated for the first time, a peasant “develops a correspondingly new organ, a new mind.”
- 45 – What this history suggests is that the lessons of Mexico might have pointed to an entirely different course of development for Asia. The Malthusian agenda the model came to represent was a product of the foundation’s anxieties for the future, rather than its hard-won experience. The model’s script papered over the MAP’s original design for a Keynesian green revolution, based not on increasing food supply but on raising incomes and living standards for farmers. It also suggests that the methodical, scientific sequence Thompson admired—problem, hypothesis, experiment, solution—was actually reversed. Development advisers in Mexico began with solutions and worked through a process of experimentation toward a suitable problem.
- 46 – Rust was the nemesis of the plains wheat grower, a fungus that waited until the farmer brought the crop nearly to maturity before shriveling stalks into a blackened tangle of decay. Using aircraft, Stakman discovered its deadly, brick-red spores wafting 16,000 feet over Oklahoma, carried on winds from the central Mexican plateau. An ornamental shrub, the barberry, common throughout the United States and Canada, sheltered the parasite in winter and released it for a fresh season of devastation. Stakman’s discovery of the continental ecology of wheat diseases led to an international campaign, sponsored by Pillsbury Flour Mills, to eradicate the barberry, and then to schedule regular inspection tours of Mexico to identify emerging rust varieties.
- 55 – He found the atmosphere of rural areas “amazingly like that of Bible times,” but he struggled to link the sources of backwardness to deficiencies of agriculture. Many larger ejidos employed skilled agronomists, some trained at U.S. colleges. Farmers were able to plant on steeper slopes than in the United States; their uniquely designed corn cribs provided “perfect ventilation”; the ejidal schools were “better constructed than most of our rural schools in the United States,” and in places “the soil was black and rich just like in that of northern Iowa.” Using a wooden peg, Mexicans shucked corn “more completely than our huskers do.” While observing the use of this tool, he was surprised to be addressed in English by a husker who told him that he had just come back from working the harvest in Illinois. The peasant’s ingenuity and diligence could not be faulted for Mexico’s rural poverty, Wallace concluded. The difference must lay in the corn, a low-yielding cousin of the Pioneer Hi-Bred varieties produced by his family firm. Moving outward to the enlarged consequences, he estimated that compared with Iowa, the Mexican farm used twenty times the labor to produce one eighth of the corn.
- 62 – The MAP gave priority to inculcating Mexican agronomists in hands-on research methods. Graduate students from Chapingo apprenticed in practical breeding and extension techniques, and the more promising graduates received fellowships to U.S. land grant colleges. A few of the early trainees joined the payroll, including Ignacio “Nacho” Narvaez, who collaborated with Borlaug in the experiments on dwarfs and later managed the Pakistan wheat program. Apprehensive that “overspecialized” experts would alienate farmers in Mexico as they had in the United States, MAP trainers were alert for elitist pretensions that might need breaking.
- 63 – Foundation officials in New York continued to pay lip service to rural livelihoods while discarding, bit by bit, their earlier concepts of what modernized agriculture would look like and whom it would benefit. The wartime experience of the United States, where farm productivity rose sharply even as rural areas were largely depopulated by the draft and industrial expansion, posed an alternative to the strategy of modernizing peasants in place.
- Weaver worried that uneconomically small ejido plots would “defeat efforts to raise the level of agriculture.” Borlaug’s decision to shift operations to Sonora, the center of large-scale wheat farming, as well as a growing emphasis on wheat over corn, signified a preference for commercial growers. Reviewing the program in 1945, consultant Carl Sauer of the University of California noted that the MAP’s research had shifted “away from subsistence or village agriculture to the needs of the city with an attendant emphasis on standardization of product and on yield.”
- Not but two years after they started — the didn’t give maize-ejidal-smallholder development a chance
- 68 – Since the 1970s, analysts have revisited the consequences of the MAP’s work, highlighting its role in narrowing the genetic base; supplanting indigenous, sustainable practices; and displacing small and communal farming with commercial agribusiness, pushing millions of peasants into urban slums or across the border. These correctives have strikingly little effect on how the Mexican parable is retold in congressional hearings or news accounts discussing the future of rural development. Local outcomes are scarcely visible from the global standpoint of the model.
- 75 – President Harry Truman launched his global aid program, Point Four, in 1949 with only a dim idea of its scale or ultimate goals, but it raised development to the top of the national agenda and simultaneously galvanized a worldwide movement. The pledge to use American technology and “know-how” for the welfare of backward areas “hit the jackpot of the world’s political emotions,” Fortune reported. National delegations lined up to receive assistance that a few years earlier would have been seen as a colonial intrusion.
- 102 – Like Mayer, he [Ladejinsky] measured results in attitudes. Although he expected reform to improve yields, productivity was not the standard by which it should be judged. The rationale for technology on American farms—increasing labor productivity—simply did not apply to Asia, where land was the scarce ingredient. In yields per acre, Japan already doubled American farmers’ production in rice and wheat using hand cultivation. Technology would only throw farmers out of work and set back the social and political objectives of reform.
- No shit, so why are we trying to impose this technological regime there?
- 103 – Drawing parallels in the present tense was nearly as difficult. The large-scale, mechanized American commodity operation of the 1940s bore little resemblance to the “familysized” farms the United States was encouraging in Taiwan, Korea, and Japan. The State Department urged caution in modeling Asian agriculture on the American experience; the “motives and methods” of U.S. agriculture could be duplicated, but not its “form and structure.”
- 106 – USDA officials asserted that the occupation had done peasants no favor by burdening them with taxes, marketing, and “all the paperwork that goes with running a farm.” The characterization of the peasant as employee and landowner as manager mirrored Benson’s modern farmer, “in truth a business man” responsible for “using capital wisely [and] maintaining a skilled labor force.” Benson and his allies substituted a talented gentry in place of Ladejinsky’s freeholder as the bulwark of the state. They doubted familysized operations were suited for mechanization and higher productivity.
- 123 – Daoud’s receptiveness to Soviet and Chinese aid was particularly troubling. As Dupree put it, “A nation does not accept technology without ideology. A machine or a dam is a product of a culture.”
- 130 – But if illusions doomed the project, they also created and sustained it. HAVA’s evolutionary advantage was an ability to take on the protective coloration of a succession of modernizing myths. The disastrous effects of dam-building were visible in 1949 and only became more obvious as the project grew. But camouflaged by dreams of Pashtun ascendancy and American influence, HAVA was as resilient as development theory itself, able to survive repeated debunkings while shedding the blame and the memory of failure.
- This could be a narrative model for all development projects — illusions both dooming and buttressing them — “as resilient as development theory itself, able to survive repeated debunkings while shedding the blame and the memory of failure.”
- 159-60 – Technology, as the second of its Greek roots implies, is a type of rhetoric, an argument in the form of an object. The technologies that affected foreign policy the most, nuclear weapons and petroleum, were not simply— or even principally—tools, but markers of status and restraints on behavior. The political influence of a technology comes less from the motivations behind its invention than from the way the artifact affects thought, revealing or limiting the range of priorities and possibilities, an effect that has been called “technicity.”
- 163 – Chandler was especially concerned with training scientists to negotiate the passage across the edge of the modern, and IRRI’s landscape and work routines guaranteed that trainees would practice that journey daily. Facing the laboratory buildings was an eighty-hectare experimental farm laced with underground pipes to allow individual plots to replicate the rainfall and drainage patterns of any part of the tropical zone. Soil imported from Java, the Mekong Delta, and the Plain of Jars was laid out in separate national paddies, making the farm a miniature Asia, an agricultural war room where scenarios could be gamed out in virtual space.
- 167-68 – Philippine agronomists tried unsuccessfully to discourage the Big Jump strategy. Dioscoro Umali, dean of the University of the Philippines College of Agriculture, attended IRRI’s Thursday seminars in 1963 and 1964. The target variety, he pointed out, would require expensive inputs: not just fertilizer but also herbicides to prevent shading by taller weeds. Shallow-rooted dwarf plants needed more precise hydraulic control than most peasant farmers could manage. Farmers would have to discard nearly all of their practices and adopt new techniques for planting, weeding, irrigation, harvesting, and threshing. New chemicals and equipment would require credit and distribution networks that the region did not have. If adopted, the target variety would radically disrupt the social environment in which rice was grown. His criticisms hit upon an unstated objective of the Big Jump strategy: to induce social change by displacing the culture and economy of rice cultivation.
- Epistemic colonialism
- 230 – As USAID director William Gaud explained to Congress, the “new seeds and fertilizer” were just an inducement to “make sure that these countries have their eye on the producer and rather than the consumer . . . to allocate more of their resources to agricultural development than to industrial development.”
- In the 1970s, social scientists and official commissions produced enough studies of Asia’s agricultural transformation to fill a mediumsized public library. Taken together, they added up to a mixed verdict on what they called HYVs, or high-yielding varieties of wheat and rice. HYVs put more calories in Asian diets but contained fewer vitamins. Yields doubled in the first years, but diminished thereafter. Incomes increased, but so did unemployment. In good years harvests could be colossal, but in years of drought or blight the HYVs wilted faster. While this picture of complex trade-offs developed in the specialized literature, a more consequential narrative took root in the press and public memory. The green revolution legend, embellished after 1970, owes much to Johnson’s imagineering. In this version the late 1960s witnessed a historic turnaround in Asia’s food supply.
- Summary of the Green Revolution
- 249 – To developmental regimes, ecology looked like a ploy by industrial nations to kick away the ladder of growth.
- 271 – The persistent note throughout was the propensity to employ technology as an avoidance mechanism, as a way to escape historical responsibility and the obligation to allow people to choose, through their own governments, the future that was best for them. A new campaign against hunger should not occasion nostalgia for a golden age of development but a reflection on how, freed of these preconceptions, we might find a new way forward.