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The Man Who Tried To Feed The World | Article

Caught Up in the War on Communism: Norman Borlaug and the “Green Revolution”

Raj Patel on how one plant breeder’s breakthrough became a tool of American foreign policy.

Norman Borlaug with Mexican field technicians who contributed to early seed production of improved wheat varieties, in the field near Ciudad Obregón, Sonora, northern Mexico, c. 1952. International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center.

In 1944, Norman Borlaug was recruited for a Rockefeller Foundation program designed to help rural farmers in Mexico. His goal: defeating stem rust, a disease that was decimating Mexico’s wheat crop. Then in 1949, Borlaug suddenly gained a much higher profile. Following the Communist Revolution in China, American policymakers were concerned that discontented peasants around the world might look to the Soviet Union for stability. Suddenly Borlaug’s work was viewed as a geopolitical tool: the Cold War could be won by fighting famine, since “no one becomes a Communist on a full belly.” To learn more about the social context and impact of Borlaug’s work, American Experience spoke with Raj Patel, author of A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things and an expert voice in the new American Experience film The Man Who Tried to Feed the World.

This is Part 2 of a three-part interview series. Catch up with the first interview, a conversation with former Oxfam America president Ray Offenheiser about the historical context of Norman Borlaug’s work and read the third interview with Food Tank co-founder Danielle Nierenberg about the Green Revolution’s environmental consequences.

Raj Patel

American Experience: In the film you're very critical of Borlaug’s work. Why do you find it so problematic?

Raj Patel: Norman Borlaug’s approach to combating hunger was to provide more food, and not to provide more food of the kind that was being demanded by the hungriest people, but by growing more food that was being demanded by and funneled into cities. Now you might say, ‘we’re going to solve hunger with food, what’s wrong with that?’ Well you have to understand that hunger isn't just about an absence of food, it's an absence of money. And look who goes hungry: in the United States, seven out of the 10 worst-paying jobs are in the food system, and globally the people most likely to be hungry are farm workers.

Borlaug embarked on a program of growing and improving the kinds of crops that the majority of peasant farm workers don't grow. In Mexico he didn't improve corn, he improved wheat. And when you improve these commercial crops for industrial production, you not only undermine the livelihoods that allow poor peasants in rural areas where hunger is concentrated to be able to feed themselves, but you essentially make their way of life uneconomical and you confine them to the city. If you're interested in fighting hunger, then why not ask the hungry why it is that they find themselves in their situation? At the very moment that Borlaug was embarking on his program, there were lots of Mexican peasant movements that had very good ideas about the kinds of support that they needed. 

AE: What was happening during the post-World War II era in the global south that agronomists like Borlaug and others needed to come up with these new solutions?

RP: Well there was a broader geopolitical thrust of which Borlaug was part, and that was the war on communism. What was happening elsewhere in the world, of course, were things like the Chinese revolution. Borlaug and other plant biologists were caught up in the war against communism, and their techniques and skills were deployed in service not of small farmers and the peasants, but of the large industrial farmers in Mexico and elsewhere.

AE: You mentioned the Rockefeller Foundation earlier, what was its role in all of this?

RP: The Rockefellers were not kindly disposed towards the Mexican government because in the 1930s, the Mexican government had nationalized the assets of Standard Oil. Now when Standard Oil had what it saw as “its stuff” taken away by an unruly Mexican government, what they saw next on the horizon was communism. The Standard Oil Company was founded by John Rockefeller, and the Rockefeller Foundation saw very clearly its mission as one of bringing about a certain kind of model of prosperity in which communism played no part. And so the Rockefeller Foundation supported Norman Borlaug and his employment in Mexico as part of a broader program in which they were hand in glove with the US government, and in which agriculture would be part of a comprehensive pushback against insurgent leftist tendencies in strategic countries around the world.

It’s important to remember that Borlaug played a part in a much bigger set of policy ideas, because when you decide that the way you're going to feed the planet is through these improved seeds, then you have to make sure that the scale of the farming is matched to the kind of technology that's embodied in the seeds. You have to make sure that you have access to the right quantities of water that are available at the right time of year. You have to make sure that you have fertilizer and you have to make sure you have pesticide. You have to make sure that you don't have unruly peasants wanting to squat on different bits of land. You don't want to have Indigenous people with their hundreds of varieties of different crops when really what you want is standardization. 

AE: You mentioned increased urbanization of the population as an outcome of the Green Revolution. Could you talk some more about its social and cultural implications?

RP: Sure. But first it's important to remember that it's called the Green Revolution because it wasn’t the red revolution or the white revolution—it wasn't the red revolution of the Soviets or the white revolution of the Shah of Iran. It's called the Green Revolution because it's set up in opposition to those social transformations. So if you don't want to go red or white, you go green. Well what does green look like? It looks like fields filled with lots of capital, and not so much people. You let the technology do the growing for you, and then you have machines to make sure that the standardized technology you have in the field is operating as intended on the instruction manual.

But the social consequences of the Green Revolution are to eradicate, or to make much less viable, smaller scale farming. Commodity programs are geared towards supporting monocultures rather than the kinds of infrastructure that supported a wide diversity of crops coming on stream at different times of year. And that means that the Green Revolution facilitates an urbanization in which we become more and more divorced from the sources of our food.

Right now we're rediscovering respect for the hands that make our food, but in general urbanization encourages an amnesia about where our food comes from. And the Green Revolution is sort of predicated on the idea that through the technologies and the chemistry that our country's brightest minds have applied themselves to we don't have to worry about food ever again. The consequences of that are not just a sort of amnesia about where our food comes from. Eating together and cooking together and being much more connected with the ecology through which our food moves, and through which we move, is generally devalued. Eating is something that we ought to be doing together and derive deep satisfaction out of when we do do it together.

Raj Patel is the award-winning author of A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things and Stuffed and Starved. He is a Research Professor in the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas, Austin and a Senior Research Associate at the Unit for the Humanities at the university currently known as Rhodes University (UHURU), South Africa. 

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