‘US demographers and agronomists spent much of the cold war drastically reordering community models and farming practices, seeking to maximize market relations’
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.