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Steve Hinnefeld
University Communications

Last modified: Monday, January 24, 2011

'Hungry World' tells complex story of food and global politics

Jan. 24, 2011

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- It once was a refrain of every parent frustrated by a picky eater: "Finish your food. There are children starving in China." Growing up in the 1960s, Nick Cullather couldn't see any connection between the peas growing cold on his plate and the problems of China. But as his new book, The Hungry World, explains, his mother's warning captured one of the key ideas of the era: that the world was united by a single, global food supply, and that by controlling it the United States could defeat its communist enemies in Asia.

Nick Cullather

Nick Cullather

Print-Quality Photo

Subtitled America's Cold War Battle against Poverty in Asia, his book, published by Harvard University Press, also examines the myth of the Green Revolution -- the idea that hundreds of millions of Asians were saved from starvation because Western governments, foundations and scientists introduced high-yield crops in the decades after World War II.

Last week, The Hungry World was named one of five finalists for the Lionel Gelber Prize, a literary prize given by the Lionel Gelber Foundation for the world's best nonfiction book in English that seeks to deepen public debate on significant global issues.

Rather than a simple story of development success, the book tells multiple stories about people and institutions that played major roles in the 20th century struggle to "modernize" the production of food, an intrinsically non-modern activity.

The saga begins in the late 1800s with the work of Wilbur Atwater in raising awareness of the calorie as a unit of food energy, which made it theoretically possible to quantify the amount of food needed to feed the world. "Very quickly, people began to think about a world food supply," said Cullather, associate professor of history in the College of Arts and Sciences at Indiana University Bloomington.

During World War I, Herbert Hoover, placed in charge of the war-time U.S. food authority, popularized the idea that American ingenuity could promote food security and thus reduce global conflict. "If the Bolsheviks were fighting for bread, land and peace, the idea was to give them bread," Cullather said.

Following World War II, the Cold War and the Communist victory in China put the focus on Asia, where the U.S. and its allies pursued policies aimed at molding peasants into modern citizens suited to scientific practices of farming and governance. In a chapter titled "A Continent of Peasants," Cullather recounts how U.S. policy makers exported community-development experiments and debated the pros and cons of land reform for winning the hearts and minds of the vast majority of Asians who made their living from subsistence agriculture.

The Hungry World

At the center of the story over several decades is Norman Borlaug, the American agronomist and Nobel Peace Prize laureate. First in Mexico, later in Asia and finally in Africa, Borlaug developed and introduced high-yield varieties of grains and promoted agricultural methods that relied on extensive use of fertilizers, pesticides and irrigation.

He cultivated policies and leaders as much as crops. Asked once if he considered himself an extension agent to the world, Borlaug said, "No, we move governments."

When he died in September 2009, Borlaug was hailed as "father of the Green Revolution" -- a term he disavowed -- and credited with saving hundreds of millions of lives.

In the 1960s, in response to fear that population growth was outpacing food supply in South Asia, a wave of Western development aid introduced Borlaug's dwarf, high-yield varieties of cereal grains to the Indian subcontinent. Farmers produced unexpectedly large harvests in 1968, and a U.S. Agency for International Development official called it a "green revolution." The name stuck, and the idea took hold that it was an unequivocal development success.

Over time, Cullather says, "A heroic parable of population, food and science solidified into history."

But the real story is considerably more complex. The time line was wrong, with American efforts to link the food supply with global security actually going back to World War I. Also, the idea that "scientific" strains of wheat and rice supplanted low-yielding "traditional" crops was off base. They replaced strains that were developed a few years earlier in U.S. universities.

Finally, the claim that Asian famine was imminent in the 1960s was questionable and may have been manufactured to serve political ends. "There was real disagreement about whether there was a famine," Cullather said. "The Indian government insisted there wasn't."

Instead, he said, there was a "food deficit" in southern Asia resulting from policies that favored accepting Western food aid while putting domestic resources into manufacturing for export. For U.S. President Lyndon Johnson, a threat of famine in India created an opportunity to transform Indian agriculture while he finessed changes in American aid policy.

And as advocates promote a new scientific Green Revolution -- GR 2.0 -- as a way to bring prosperity and stability to Africa, Cullather said, the lesson to be learned from past experience is that the production of food can't easily be separated from questions about society, culture and democratic accountability.

"Food is about people," he said. "And people are political."