Nick Calluther – The Hungry World

21 August, 2021 - examPrep

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.


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