Food Fights

The Hungry World: America's Cold War Battle against Poverty in Asia BY Nick Cullather. Harvard University Press. Hardcover, 368 pages. $35.

The cover of The Hungry World: America's Cold War Battle against Poverty in Asia

Since humanity emerged from nomadism, the cultivation of food has been a key component of our culture. It’s a reflection of wealth, an indication of mechanical prowess, and an instrument of war. And as historian Nick Cullather reminds us, food was also the basis for some of the most charged encounters of the cold war, as played out in the developing political and market systems of Asia. In The Hungry World, he argues that such efforts amounted to a technocratic seduction of the Asian peasantry—a wide-scale effort of social and technological engineering intended to showcase the fruits of the capitalist-democratic model of agricultural development.

The United States at midcentury was in many ways ideally suited to produce the ideology behind agricultural modernization. As Cullather recounts in capacious detail, the invention of the edible calorie in the final decade of the nineteenth century—a major breakthrough in American ideas about optimal food production—foretold the coming fundamental shift in the world’s relationship with food. Early in the twentieth century, the United States found a willing test case in Mexico. Seeking to deter Communist activity south of the border, the US government supported the Rockefeller Foundation’s efforts to design a prototype for comprehensive agricultural reform. Here, Cullather argues, America could effectively export its exceptionalist vision of democracy sustained through technological advance, inventing new “optimal” measures for population and resource scarcity.

The US push for stability through agriculture took on fresh urgency after the great upset on the eastern front of the cold war: Mao Tse-tung’s seizure of power in China. No longer would bureaucrats in Washington deride the “fatal passivity” of the Asian peasantry; China—along with the more than 80 percent agrarian population of the surrounding continent—now posed an existential threat nearly on par with the Soviet Union. Urgently seeking alternate models of influence, the Truman administration settled on the Mexican model of development as the basis of a new approach to containing the Communist threat in Asia.

Cullather delves deeply into the details of early American development strategies, focusing on both the dubious theories and the ideological cheerleading that propelled them. In the Philippines and Vietnam, for example, Cullather chronicles the introduction of IR-8, a visually distinctive, specially cultivated Green Revolution rice strain, in a sobering and revealing exposition of how scientific research can contort itself in pursuit of a favored policy. He provides a sharp account of the media firestorm over discoveries in 1969 that North Vietnam had initiated its own independent cultivation of IR-8; Congress expressed grave concern that seeds would fall into Cuban or Chinese hands, and the CIA was tasked with evaluating the threat of a grain gap opening up between the superpowers. The episode was a blackly comedic illustration of government attempts to quantify and engineer the movements of pollen itself.

But India was the main theater for US modernization efforts in political agriculture. In the aftermath of the 1965 Indo-Pakistani War, the word famine itself became a tool for setting policy priorities—a lexical weapon that the administrations of both Indira Gandhi and Lyndon B. Johnson wielded in a masterstroke of politics. The strategic withholding of US aid helped touch off a severe drought in some Indian states; citizens suffered mass unemployment, inflation, and displacement, while the cities saw strikes and riots. This panic produced the specter of wider political instability—and that threat, in turn, allowed the Gandhi government to consolidate power, ensuring Johnson a friendly, democratically aligned ally on the Subcontinent.

As such examples make clear, US demographers and agronomists spent much of the cold war drastically reordering community models and farming practices, seeking to maximize market relations. Put another way, in order for the theory of development to succeed, it required the imposition of abstracted measures—of calorie counts, labor costs, passive capital—on the tangible world. An exercise of this scale required not merely changes in practice but also a transformation of how nations recognized and measured wealth.

The Hungry World furnishes a striking vantage on development policy, as well as on the decidedly mixed outcomes of American engagement with Asian politics. To a dramatic degree, contemporary development has failed to solve persistent challenges. Many beneficiaries of the Green Revolution remain among those nations with the highest rates of chronic malnutrition, including India, Pakistan, and the Philippines. Modern accountings of the success of Asia conveniently omit the drug trade in Afghanistan, sharecropping in Pakistan, and the devastation of water tables in the more aggressively developed stretches of Indian agriculture.

Meanwhile, research today points to a great leveling of hunger and poverty; the British-based Institute of Development Studies recently published findings showing that only 30 percent of the children most likely to be malnourished are living in the world’s poorest nations. The remaining 70 percent are in middle-income countries, as nearly all of the Asian nations covered in The Hungry World are now categorized. This seems like a failure of measurement: How can nations be said to have “developed” if hunger remains so widespread? And how, then, do we quantify progress?

Katherine Maher is a global-development specialist who blogs on technology and democracy issues at