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.


Norman Borlaug and “The West Wing”

Because we haven’t posted a relevant TV clip in a while, I thought I put one up.  Sadly, I can’t seem to find the clip I’m looking for.  The first time I heard about Norman Borlaug was on “The West Wing,” sometime in the second season I think, when the president of a fictional African republic comes to the White House to negotiate for AIDS medication for his country.  In the context of explaining how the seemingly impossible has happened in the past, he references Norman Borlaug and the numerous lives he saved.  The “myth” of the Green Revolution goes Hollywood …

Green Revolution

In the hopes of creating a straw man for Cullather, I did an internet search on definitions  and assessments of the Green Revolution.   (The last one from Food First is probably the best.)  Take a look at these.  How would Cullather respond?

From Wiki:

Green Revolution refers to a series of research, development, and technology transfer initiatives, occurring between the 1940s and the late 1970s, that increased agriculture production around the world, beginning most markedly in the late 1960s.[1]

The initiatives, led by Norman Borlaug, the “Father of the Green Revolution” credited with saving over a billion people from starvation, involved the development of high-yielding varieties of cereal grains, expansion of irrigation infrastructure, modernization of management techniques, distribution of hybridized seeds, synthetic fertilizers, and pesticides to farmers.

The term “Green Revolution” was first used in 1968 by former United States Agency for International Development (USAID) director William Gaud.


From About.com — Geography

The term Green Revolution refers to the renovation of agricultural practices beginning in Mexico in the 1940s. Because of its success in producing more agricultural products there, Green Revolution technologies spread worldwide in the 1950s and 1960s, significantly increasing the amount of calories produced per acre of agriculture.

History and Development of the Green Revolution

The beginnings of the Green Revolution are often attributed to Norman Borlaug, an American scientist interested in agriculture. In the 1940s, he began conducting research in Mexico and developed new disease resistance high-yield varieties of wheat. By combining Borlaug’s wheat varieties with new mechanized agricultural technologies, Mexico was able to produce more wheat than was needed by its own citizens, leading to its becoming an exporter of wheat by the 1960s. Prior to the use of these varieties, the country was importing almost half of its wheat supply.Due to the success of the Green Revolution in Mexico, its technologies spread worldwide in the 1950s and 1960s. The United States for instance, imported about half of its wheat in the 1940s but after using Green Revolution technologies, it became self-sufficient in the 1950s and became an exporter by the 1960s.

In order to continue using Green Revolution technologies to produce more food for a growing population worldwide, the Rockefeller Foundation and the Ford Foundation, as well as many government agencies around the world funded increased research. In 1963 with the help of this funding, Mexico formed an international research institution called The International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center.

Countries all over the world in turn benefited from the Green Revolution work conducted by Borlaug and this research institution. India for example was on the brink of mass famine in the early 1960s because of its rapidly growing population. Borlaug and the Ford Foundation then implemented research there and they developed a new variety of rice, IR8, that produced more grain per plant when grown with irrigation and fertilizers. Today, India is one of the world’s leading rice producers and IR8 rice usage spread throughout Asia in the decades following the rice’s development in India.

Plant Technologies of the Green Revolution

The crops developed during the Green Revolution were high yield varieties – meaning they were domesticated plants bred specifically to respond to fertilizers and produce an increased amount of grain per acre planted.The terms often used with these plants that make them successful are harvest index, photosynthate allocation, and insensitivity to day length. The harvest index refers to the above ground weight of the plant. During the Green Revolution, plants that had the largest seeds were selected to create the most production possible. After selectively breeding these plants, they evolved to all have the characteristic of larger seeds. These larger seeds then created more grain yield and a heavier above ground weight.

This larger above ground weight then led to an increased photosynthate allocation. By maximizing the seed or food portion of the plant, it was able to use photosynthesis more efficiently because the energy produced during this process went directly to the food portion of the plant.

Finally, by selectively breeding plants that were not sensitive to day length, researchers like Borlaug were able to double a crop’s production because the plants were not limited to certain areas of the globe based solely on the amount of light available to them.

Impacts of the Green Revolution

Since fertilizers are largely what made the Green Revolution possible, they forever changed agricultural practices because the high yield varieties developed during this time cannot grow successfully without the help of fertilizers.Irrigation also played a large role in the Green Revolution and this forever changed the areas where various crops can be grown. For instance before the Green Revolution, agriculture was severely limited to areas with a significant amount of rainfall, but by using irrigation, water can be stored and sent to drier areas, putting more land into agricultural production – thus increasing nationwide crop yields.

In addition, the development of high yield varieties meant that only a few species of say, rice started being grown. In India for example there were about 30,000 rice varieties prior to the Green Revolution, today there are around ten – all the most productive types. By having this increased crop homogeneity though the types were more prone to disease and pests because there were not enough varieties to fight them off. In order to protect these few varieties then, pesticide use grew as well.

Finally, the use of Green Revolution technologies exponentially increased the amount of food production worldwide. Places like India and China that once feared famine have not experienced it since implementing the use of IR8 rice and other food varieties.

Criticism of the Green Revolution

Along with the benefits gained from the Green Revolution, there have been several criticisms. The first is that the increased amount of food production has led to overpopulation worldwide.The second major criticism is that places like Africa have not significantly benefited from the Green Revolution. The major problems surrounding the use of these technologies here though are a lack of infrastructure, governmental corruption, and insecurity in nations.

Despite these criticisms though, the Green Revolution has forever changed the way agriculture is conducted worldwide, benefiting the people of many nations in need of increased food production.

From Food First:  The Institute for Food and Development Policy

Lessons from the Green Revolution

Posted April 8th, 2000 by admin

Do We Need New Technology to End Hunger?

Faced with an estimated 786 million hungry people in the world,
cheerleaders for our social order have an easy solution: we will grow
more food through the magic of chemicals and genetic engineering.
For those who remember the original “Green Revolution” promise to end
hunger through miracle seeds, this call for “Green Revolution II” should
ring hollow. Yet Monsanto, Novartis, AgrEvo, DuPont, and other chemical
companies who are reinventing themselves as biotechnology companies,
together with the World Bank and other international agencies, would have
the world’s anti-hunger energies aimed down the path of more
agrochemicals and genetically modified crops. This second Green
Revolution, they tell us, will save the world from hunger and starvation
if we just allow these various companies, spurred by the free market, to
do their magic.

The Green Revolution myth goes like this: the miracle seeds of the Green
Revolution increase grain yields and therefore are a key to ending world
hunger. Higher yields mean more income for poor farmers, helping them to
climb out of poverty, and more food means less hunger. Dealing with the
root causes of poverty that contribute to hunger takes a very long time
and people are starving now. So we must do what we can-increase
production. The Green Revolution buys the time Third World countries
desperately need to deal with the underlying social causes of poverty and
to cut birth rates. In any case, outsiders-like the scientists and policy
advisers behind the Green Revolution-can’t tell a poor country to reform
its economic and political system, but they can contribute invaluable
expertise in food production. While the first Green Revolution may have
missed poorer areas with more marginal lands, we can learn valuable
lessons from that experience to help launch a second Green Revolution to
defeat hunger once and for all.

Improving seeds through experimentation is what people have been up to
since the beginning of agriculture, but the term “Green Revolution” was
coined in the 1960s to highlight a particularly striking breakthrough. In
test plots in northwest Mexico, improved varieties of wheat dramatically
increased yields. Much of the reason why these “modern varieties”
produced more than traditional varieties was that they were more
responsive to controlled irrigation and to petrochemical fertilizers,
allowing for much more efficient conversion of industrial inputs into
food. With a big boost from the International Agricultural Research
Centers created by the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations, the “miracle”
seeds quickly spread to Asia, and soon new strains of rice and corn were
developed as well.

By the 1970s, the term “revolution” was well deserved, for the new
seeds-accompanied by chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and, for the most
part, irrigation-had replaced the traditional farming practices of
millions of Third World farmers. By the 1990s, almost 75 percent of Asian
rice areas were sown with these new varieties. The same was true for
almost half of the wheat planted in Africa and more than half of that in
Latin America and Asia, and about 70 percent of the world’s corn as well.
Overall, it was estimated that 40 percent of all farmers in the Third
World were using Green Revolution seeds, with the greatest use found in
Asia, followed by Latin America.

Clearly, the production advances of the Green Revolution are no myth.
Thanks to the new seeds, tens of millions of extra tons of grain a year
are being harvested. But has the Green Revolution actually proven itself
a successful strategy for ending hunger? Not really.

Narrowly focusing on increasing production-as the Green Revolution
does-cannot alleviate hunger because it fails to alter the tightly
concentrated distribution of economic power, especially access to land
and purchasing power. Even the World Bank concluded in a major 1986 study
of world hunger that a rapid increase in food production does not
necessarily result in food security-that is, less hunger. Current hunger
can only be alleviated by “redistributing purchasing power and resources
toward those who are undernourished,” the study said. In a nutshell-if
the poor don’t have the money to buy food, increased production is not
going to help them.

Introducing any new agricultural technology into a social system stacked
in favor of the rich and against the poor-without addressing the social
questions of access to the technology’s benefits-will over time lead to
an even greater concentration of the rewards from agriculture, as is
happening in the United States.

Because the Green Revolution approach does nothing to address the
insecurity that lies at the root of high birth rates-and can even
heighten that insecurity-it cannot buy time until population growth
slows. Finally, a narrow focus on production ultimately defeats itself as
it destroys the very resource base on which agriculture depends. We’ve
come to see that without a strategy for change that addresses the
powerlessness of the poor, the tragic result will be more food and yet
more hunger.

More Food and Yet More Hunger?

Despite three decades of rapidly expanding global food supplies, there
are still an estimated 786 million hungry people in the world in the
1990s. Where are these 786 million hungry people? Since the early 1980s,
media representations of famines in Africa have awakened Westerners to
hunger there, but Africa represents less than one-quarter of the hunger
in the world today. We are made blind to the day-in-day-out hunger
suffered by hundreds of millions more. For example, by the mid-1980s,
newspaper headlines were applauding the Asian success stories-India and
Indonesia, we were told, had become “self-sufficient in food” or even
“food exporters.” But it is in Asia, precisely where Green Revolution
seeds have contributed to the greatest production success, that roughly
two-thirds of the undernourished in the entire world live.

According to Business Week magazine, “even though Indian granaries are
overflowing now,” thanks to the success of the Green Revolution in
raising wheat and rice yields, “5,000 children die each day of
malnutrition. One-third of India’s 900 million people are
poverty-stricken.” Since the poor can’t afford to buy what is produced,
“the government is left trying to store millions of tons of foods. Some
is rotting, and there is concern that rotten grain will find its way to
public markets.” The article concludes that the Green Revolution may have
reduced India’s grain imports substantially, but did not have a similar
impact on hunger.

Such analysis raises serious questions about the number of hungry people
in the world in 1970 versus 1990, spanning the two decades of major Green
Revolution advances. At first glance, it looks as though great progress
was made, with food production up and hunger down. The total food
available per person in the world rose by 11 percent over those two
decades, while the estimated number of hungry people fell from 942
million to 786 million, a 16 percent drop. This was apparent progress,
for which those behind the Green Revolution were understandably happy to
take the credit.

But these figures merit a closer look. If you eliminate China from the
analysis, the number of hungry people in the rest of the world actually
increased by more than 11 percent, from 536 to 597 million. In South
America, for example, while per capita food supplies rose almost 8
percent, the number of hungry people also went up, by 19 percent. In
south Asia, there was 9 percent more food per person by 1990, but there
were also 9 percent more hungry people. Nor was it increased population
that made for more hungry people. The total food available per person
actually increased. What made possible greater hunger was the failure to
address unequal access to food and food-producing resources.

The remarkable difference in China, where the number of hungry dropped
from 406 million to 189 million, almost begs the question: which has been
more effective at reducing hunger-the Green Revolution or the Chinese
Revolution, where broad-based changes in access to land paved the way for
rising living standards?

Whether the Green Revolution or any other strategy to boost food
production will alleviate hunger depends on the economic, political, and
cultural rules that people make. These rules determine who benefits as a
supplier of the increased production-whose land and crops prosper and for
whose profit-and who benefits as a consumer of the increased
production-who gets the food and at what price.

The poor pay more and get less. Poor farmers can’t afford to buy
fertilizer and other inputs in volume; big growers can get discounts for
large purchases. Poor farmers can’t hold out for the best price for their
crops, as can larger farmers whose circumstances are far less desperate.
In much of the world, water is the limiting factor in farming success,
and irrigation is often out of the reach of the poor. Canal irrigation
favors those near the top of the flow. Tubewells, often promoted by
development agencies, favor the bigger operators, who can better afford
the initial investment and have lower costs per unit. Credit is also
critical. It is common for small farmers to depend on local moneylenders
and pay interest rates several times as high as wealthier farmers.
Government-subsidized credit overwhelmingly benefits the big farmers.
Most of all, the poor lack clout. They can’t command the subsidies and
other government favors accruing to the rich.

With the Green Revolution, farming becomes petro-dependent. Some of the
more recently developed seeds may produce higher yields even without
manufactured inputs, but the best results require the right amounts of
chemical fertilizer, pesticides, and water. So as the new seeds spread,
petrochemicals become part of farming. In India, adoption of the new
seeds has been accompanied by a sixfold rise in fertilizer use per acre.
Yet the quantity of agricultural production per ton of fertilizer used in
India dropped by two-thirds during the Green Revolution years. In fact,
over the past thirty years the annual growth of fertilizer use on Asian
rice has been from three to forty times faster than the growth of rice

Because farming methods that depend heavily on chemical fertilizers do
not maintain the soil’s natural fertility and because pesticides generate
resistant pests, farmers need ever more fertilizers and pesticides just
to achieve the same results. At the same time, those who profit from the
increased use of fertilizers and pesticides fear labor organizing and use
their new wealth to buy tractors and other machines, even though they are
not required by the new seeds. This incremental shift leads to the
industrialization of farming.

Once on the path of industrial agriculture, farming costs more. It can be
more profitable, of course, but only
if the prices farmers get for their crops stay ahead of the costs of
petrochemicals and machinery. Green Revolution proponents claim increases
in net incomes from farms of all sizes once farmers adopt the more
responsive seeds. But recent studies also show another trend: outlays for
fertilizers and pesticides may be going up faster than yields, suggesting
that Green Revolution farmers are now facing what U.S. farmers have
experienced for decades-a cost-price squeeze.

In Central Luzon, Philippines, rice yield increased 13 percent during the
1980s, but came at the cost of a 21 percent increase in fertilizer use.
In the Central Plains, yields went up only 6.5 percent, while fertilizer
use rose 24 percent and pesticides jumped by 53 percent. In West Java, a
23 percent yield increase was virtually canceled by 65 and 69 percent
increases in fertilizers and pesticides respectively.

To anyone following farm news here at home, these reports have a
painfully familiar ring-and why wouldn’t they? After all, the United
States-not Mexico-is the true birthplace of the Green Revolution.
Improved seeds combined with chemical fertilizers and pesticides have
pushed corn yields up nearly three-fold since 1950, with smaller but
still significant gains for wheat, rice, and soybeans. Since World War
II, as larger harvests have pushed down the prices farmers get for their
crops while the costs of farming have shot up, farmers’ profit margins
have been drastically narrowed. By the early 1990s, production costs had
risen from about half to over 80 percent of gross farm income. So who
survives today? Two very different groups: those few farmers who chose
not to buy into industrialized agriculture and those able to keep
expanding their acreage to make up for their lower per acre profit. Among
this second select group are the top 1.2 percent of farms by income,
those with $500,000 or more in yearly sales, dubbed “superfarms” by the
U.S. Department of Agriculture. In 1969, the superfarms earned 16 percent
of net farm income; by the late 1980s, they garnered nearly 40 percent.

Superfarms triumph not because they are more efficient food producers or
because the Green Revolution technology itself favored them, but because
of advantages that accrue to wealth and size. They have the capital to
invest and the volume necessary to stay afloat even if profits per unit
shrink. They have the political clout to shape tax policies in their
favor. Over time, why should we expect the result of the cost-price
squeeze to be any different in the Third World? In the United States,
we’ve seen the number of farms drop by two-thirds and average farm size
more than double since World War II. The gutting of rural communities,
the creation of inner-city slums, and the exacerbation of unemployment
all followed in the wake of this vast migration from the land. Think what
the equivalent rural exodus means in the Third World, where the number of
jobless people is already double or triple our own.

Not Ecologically Sustainable

There is also growing evidence that Green Revolution-style farming is not
ecologically sustainable, even for large farmers. In the 1990s, Green
Revolution researchers themselves sounded the alarm about a disturbing
trend that had only just come to light. After achieving dramatic
increases in the early stages of the technological transformation, yields
began falling in a number of Green Revolution areas. In Central Luzon,
Philippines, rice yields grew steadily during the 1970s, peaked in the
early 1980s, and have been dropping gradually ever since. Long-term
experiments conducted by the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI)
in both Central Luzon and Laguna Province confirm these results. Similar
patterns have now been observed for rice-wheat systems in India and
Nepal. The causes of this phenomenon have to do with forms of long-term
soil degradation that are still poorly understood by scientists. An
Indian farmer told Business Week his story:

Dyal Singh knows that the soil on his 3.3-hectare [8 acre] farm in Punjab is becoming less fertile. So far, it hasn’t hurt his harvest of wheat and corn. “There will be a great problem after 5 or 10 years,” says the 63-year-old Sikh farmer. Years of using high-yield seeds that require heavy irrigation and chemical fertilizers have taken their toll on much of India’s farmland.Š So far, 6 percent of agricultural land has been rendered useless.

Where yields are not actually declining, the rate of growth is slowing
rapidly or leveling off, as has now been documented in China, North
Korea, Indonesia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Thailand, Pakistan, and Sri

The Green Revolution: Some Lessons

Having seen food production advance while hunger widens, we are now
prepared to ask: under what conditions are greater harvests doomed to
failure in eliminating hunger?

First, where farmland is bought and sold like any other commodity and
society allows the unlimited accumulation of farmland by a few,
superfarms replace family farms and all of society suffers.

Second, where the main producers of food-small farmers and farm
workers-lack bargaining power relative to suppliers of farm inputs and
food marketers, producers get a shrinking share of the rewards from

Third, where dominant technology destroys the very basis for future
production, by degrading the soil and generating pest and weed problems,
it becomes increasingly difficult and costly to sustain yields.

Under these three conditions, mountains of additional food could not
eliminate hunger, as hunger in America should never let us forget. The
alternative is to create a viable and productive small farm agriculture
using the principles of agroecology. That is the only model with the
potential to end rural poverty, feed everyone, and protect the
environment and the productivity of the land for future generations.

An ‘Evergreen Revolution’??