Q & A with Nick Cullather

Thanks Kim for the terrific questions.  And thanks to Nick for the smart and insightful.

Q-What do you think are the biggest roadblocks to ending world hunger today?

The low price of food.  The recession has been edging food prices up, and the consequence has been a decline in malnutrition around the world.  Many of the world’s poorest make a living from agriculture, and policy and technology have been used for the last fifty years to push down prices of agricultural goods, taking money out of their pockets.  The consequence is an exodus from the farms and increasing poverty.  I write about the problem here.

Q-Two weeks ago on March 13th Hiroyuki Konuma, regional assistant director-general of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), speaking to a conference of agriculture ministers in Hanoi, Vietnam said, “We have to move beyond the Green Revolution to an Evergreen Revolution, by adopting an approach called Save and Grow,” said senior officials.  The methods outlined in Save and Grow, formally known as Sustainable Crop Production Intensification, are presented as a paradigm shift in advocating that food production must work in harmony with the ecosystem rather than attempting to transform or master it, and that agriculture can be more productive by doing so. What do you think of this proposed ‘Evergreen Revolution’? Could these policies be a positive step towards eliminating world hunger?

It’s a new one on me, but that’s not surprising.  As a historian, I’ll be able to comment on the success or failure of the Evergreen Revolution in about fifty years.  One warning to come from my research, however, is that the one-slogan-fits-all solutions usually have unexpected and idiosyncratic effects when applied in the varied historical and environmental circumstances of different places.  This sounds like one of those, so I’m suspicious.

Q-The past four decades have seen two waves of agricultural technology development and
diffusion to developing countries. The first wave was initiated by the Green Revolution in
which an explicit strategy for technology development and diffusion targeting poor farmers in
poor countries. The second wave has been called the Gene Revolution in which a global and largely private agricultural has focused on improving agricultural technologies that flow to developing countries primarily through market transactions. Will the poor benefit from any of the technological advances that are taking place today
in and through the private sector? If public-private partnerships could be developed, do you think the resulting technologies would ever get to the poor and starving?
Technology has to be thought of as an effect, rather than a solution.  When the politics is right, when governments encourage farmers to grow more rather than to abandon their farms as is now the case, new technologies will become feasible.  Borlaug was explicit about this:  the technology is just a placebo; it gives the farmer and the government a feeling that things are getting better.  The real changes have to come in the form of policy and prices, and right now the terms of trade are structurally disadvantageous to farmers in the rural South.  A real policy change will begin with ending crop subsidies in Europe and the United States.

Q- Your book is incredibly well-researched, did you ever consider conducting any ethnographic research as part of this project?  I.e. interviews or focus groups with farmers in Afghanistan or India to tap into their lived experiences, thoughts and perspectives with ‘miracle rice’ and hybrid strains.

There was a huge ethnographic literature that I was able to draw on.  In the 1960s social scientists fanned out across Asia to witness the transformation of rural societies.  They wrote papers, reports and books that fill many miles of shelves.  The literature on “early adopters” of miracle rice alone runs to many volumes, and one of the works that first interested me in this topic was James Scott’s observations on change in Malaysian villages.  Louis Dupree’s classic ethnographic work on Afghanistan gave me the nomad’s eye view of the dam projects.  All these books were indispensable, because I was interested especially in the sense of wonder and movement that the new technologies instilled.  What was missing from the literature was the overarching story, which as I say in the intro, generally took the form of a superficial and mythic narrative.  So I concentrated on that.

Q- Since the book, have you seen any policies(domestic, U.N., etc.) that are heading in the right direction? 

No policies yet, but some good talk.  The G8 at least have the issue of agricultural subsidies on the table.

– How long did it take you to research and write The Hungry World? What advice would you give students interested in conducting similar research and or studying the globalization of agro-production?

About 7 years.  There were a lot of archives to visit and my concept of the project changed a lot in that time.  I would urge students not to start with the big global question, but instead to find a particular place, a particular thing, and a particular character.  A small story can lead to large conclusions, whereas a big story rarely leads anywhere.

Q- Why do you think food is good to think with?   Why, more specifically, is agriculture and production good to think with when it comes to globalization?

I was interested in modernization as a political tool, how the US came to see itself as responsible for bringing development to Asia and what that meant.  Food (and agriculture) brought that large, diffuse but consequential process down to the real life experiences of people.  American nation builders talked about hearts and minds, but their point of contact with Asians was stomachs and hands.  They knew how central food was to politics, and somehow history had lost sight of that.