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Mainstream, VOL 61 No 23, June 3, 2023

Leo Chu Review of ’The Globalization of Wheat by Baranski’

Friday 2 June 2023


Reviewed by Leo Chu (Cambridge University)

The Globalization of Wheat:
A Critical History of the Green Revolution

by Marci Baranski
INTERSECTIONS: Histories of Environment.
University of Pittsburgh Press

2022. 256 pp.
(cloth) ISBN 978-0-8229-4734-9.

When discussing my research with someone from a different field, the term “Green Revolution” does not always ring a bell—people often think it means transition to renewable energy. Among historians, in contrast, the term seems to carry too much baggage—chemicals, monoculture, the Cold War, plus their combination, critiques, and socio-ecological consequences. Marci Baranski’s The Globalization of Wheat: A Critical History of the Green Revolution picks one powerful but highly contested idea embedded in the Green Revolution: wide adaptation. In particular, the book focuses on how Norman Borlaug, the Nobel laureate often credited with popularizing the Green Revolution, and scientists he influenced came to embrace “a narrow ideological path” in which wide adaptation combined with high fertilizer and water input “were the only solution to hunger” (p. 5).

Chapter 1 begins with Borlaug’s wheat-breeding efforts in the Mexican Agricultural Program (MAP) funded by the Rockefeller Foundation (RF), which gave rise to the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) in 1966. Using the maverick “shuttle breeding” that tested his materials in the well-irrigated Sonora region and the rainfed Toluca region where plant pathogens were prevalent, Borlaug claimed to find semidwarf, photoperiod-insensitive varieties that were high-yielding and disease-resistant across a wide geographical range (p. 31). In the mid-1960s, he gained the support of Charles Krull, an RF-affiliated breeder working in Colombia and Mexico, and Keith Finlay, an Australian crop scientist who doubted the theoretical foundation of Borlaug’s claim but was generally receptive to his idea. Despite evidence from rainfed and less-fertilized areas that contested the wide adaptability of Sonora wheat, Borlaug staunchly defend his idea with “averaged, decontextualized results of his international trials” and the rhetoric of “the dire consequences of traditional agriculture and overpopulation” (p. 46).

Chapter 2 and 3 delineate how wide adaptation arrived in India in the 1960s and became deeply rooted in the wheat research of the country ever since. As US president Lyndon Johnson used food aid under Public Law 480 to influence Indian economic policies, grain self-sufficiency became a key issue, and the Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI) and the Indian Council for Agricultural Research (ICAR) were recruited into the program to disseminate seeds and fertilizers. Several Indian scientists, most notably M. S. Swaminathan, who directed the IARI and later the ICAR, embraced Borlaug’s Mexican varieties and crafted a centralized research system in which varieties tested in IARI and a few state agricultural stations were believed to be high-yielding in all agronomic conditions. During the 1970s and ’80s, Indian scientists kept promoting wide-adapted wheat in spite of limited success in rainfed and dryland regions, while mounting evidence suggested that varieties considered to possess wide adaptability were in fact only fertilizer-responsive. New agricultural initiatives launched in the 1980s and ’90s attempted to address the limitation of earlier projects with a broader focus on different crops and farming practices, but the overall research system “resisted attempts at reform and continued to pursue wheat research focused on genetic improvement, especially for yield” (p. 96).

Chapter 4 documents Baranski’s engagement with contemporary Indian scientists struggling to move beyond the long shadow of wide adaptation. The public research system still largely failed to tailor programs for local conditions due to a narrow focus on plant breeding, detachment from farmers’ actual needs, and tendency for scientists, extension workers, and policymakers to shift responsibility to one another. Chapter 5 then counterbalances the persistence of high-yielding, widely adapted varieties in Indian wheat research through several cases in the 1960s and ’70s where wide adaptation did not become the guiding principle: the Plan Puebla, where the CIMMYT maize was outcompeted by local varieties in rainfed regions of Mexico; the focus on agronomic methods such as conservation tillage in the CIMMYT wheat program in Turkey; and the Arid Land Agricultural Development (ALAD) project, which specialized in the breeding of durum and barley in low-rainfall regions. The development of widely adapted grain nonetheless remained central to the CIMMYT and other institutions under the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research (CGIAR). The vision that intensive investment in one place can create crop-revolutionizing productivity everywhere appears to be a dream that dies hard. Baranski thus advocates a shift from the “politics of control to the politics of care” in agricultural research that will “acknowledge diversity and change as well as the need for specialized attention” (p. 119).

Baranski’s interdisciplinary background leads to a methodological plurality that nicely combines archival research, interviews, and statistical analysis. Through its compelling argument, The Globalization of Wheat surely serves as a wake-up call for policymakers to see the dependence of technoscience on political economic and socio-ecological contexts. For historians, the book also raises questions concerning the conventional picture of the Green Revolution as a scheme where philanthropic organizations like the RF and development agencies pulled all the strings. As the book suggests, while Borlaug’s faith in wide adaptation led to the spread of Mexican semidwarf wheat like Sonora-64 and Lerma Rojo-64, it was mostly in India that a specific combination of political and scientific institutions enabled the nationwide adoption of these varieties. The globalization of wheat might thus also be written as the nationalization of agricultural research system in India, where the idea of wide adaptation was mobilized for scientists to attain prestige and centralize research resources.

The Globalization of Wheat thus adds much food for thought for historians trying to capture the heterogeneous goals and agencies of scientists in the Global South. The Green Revolution clearly left an uneven legacy on food production, and global agrobiodiversity had been undermined by systems of monoculture in the process. Yet, similar to Borlaug’s wide adaptation, the seduction of approaching the Green Revolution as a policy that easily swept across the world must be resisted. The meaning of Green Revolution—be it wide adaptation, the commercialization of agriculture, or anticommunism—along with the actors involved, conflicts fought, and environment impacted differ widely in each story. Sometimes, the Green Revolution might not even be an issue for the historical actors—the term was coined only in 1968, after all. Understanding the complex and contested fields of agricultural development in the twentieth century is therefore imperative for forging the way forward.

[This work from H-Net is reproduced here under a Creative Commons License]

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