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Poynter Center Roundtable

Nick Cullather, an associate professor in the Department of History, spoke at the Poynter Center Roundtable on April 26, 2011, about his award-winning book, The Hungry World: America's Cold War Battle against Poverty in Asia (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010).

Nick Cullather

Nick Cullather

The book provides an overview of efforts by the U.S. government and non-governmental entities to define and solve the hunger problem in Asia after the Second World War. Exploring the Cold War history of large-scale American relief efforts in Afghanistan, India, China, and Southeast Asia, the book is a detailed story about the politics of food and famine, as well as about how the postwar generation believed that American technology could modernize farming practices and, in the process, stop the spread of communism.

Cullather narrates the work of American organizations like the Ford and the Rockefeller Foundations, the State Department and the military, and large agricultural research universities, all of whom collaborated to bring Western science, agribusiness, and technology to the "peasant" cultures of the East. He details the invention of "the calorie" as a universal, scientific metric for measuring the efficiency of human food consumption, the cultural construction of the idea of famine in India, and the belief that food production can pacify revolutionary aspirations in underdeveloped parts of the world.

The roundtable discussion included the idea of fables/parables/stories about how one person or one program can make a huge difference in world problems. We need these examples to encourage us to keep trying to make changes in the world, but we can be disappointed when we learn the fables may not be as they appear, such as recent questions about author Greg Mortenson's work in Pakistan and Afghanistan. In the case of food, the U.S. technology and seeds discourage independent farming, encourage greater reliance on cash crops, usually includes government involvement with crops, and require farmers to buy more of their own food from other sources.

Cullather has received two prizes for the book from the Organization of American Historians. He won the 2011 Ellis W. Hawley Prize for the best book-length historical study of the political economy, politics or institutions of the U.S. in domestic or international affairs, and the Robert H. Ferrell Prize for the best book in international relations history. Ferrell taught at IU and was one of Cullather's instructors.