In Seeding Empire, Aaron Eddens rewrites an enduring story about the past—and future—of global agriculture. Eddens connects today’s efforts to cultivate a “Green Revolution in Africa” to a history of American projects that introduced capitalist agriculture across the Global South. Expansive in scope, this book draws on archival records of the earliest Green Revolution projects in Mexico in the 1940s and 1950s, as well as interviews at development institutions and agribusinesses working to deliver genetically modified crops to millions of small-scale farmers across Africa. From the offices of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to the halls of the world’s largest agricultural biotechnology companies to field trials of hybrid maize in Kenya, Eddens shows how the Green Revolution fails to address global inequalities. Seeding Empire insists that eradicating hunger in a world of climate crisis demands thinking beyond the Green Revolution.

Aaron Eddens is an American studies scholar and Assistant Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies at Grand Valley State University.

What motivated you to write Seeding Empire?

In the early years of developing this project, around 2011 and 2012, the United States government had renewed its commitment to “global food security.” The international development community had also recently turned its attention toward Africa’s farms and farmers. “Smallholder farmers”— those who farm small plots of land and are mostly disconnected from commercial agribusiness markets—were central targets of both developments.

From the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to the World Bank to the U.S. Agency for International Development, powerful figures in international development argued that the best way to catalyze economic growth and foster climate change resilience across Africa was to teach millions of smallholder farmers to approach agriculture “as a business.” As I read more about these efforts, I was struck by how the most influential voices—President Barack Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry, Bill Gates, and others—used history in their calls for a “Green Revolution in Africa.” Collectively, they drew on accounts about an earlier “Green Revolution,” in which American scientific ingenuity had “fed the world” and staved off predicted famine in Asia in the 1960s.

Yet, the stories they told left out crucial details. The scholarship that I build on in the book convincingly shows that the prevailing Green Revolution success narrative obscures a much more complicated history of how American-led development efforts in Asia and Latin America were fundamentally tied to U.S. foreign policy. The prevailing story also overlooks how the Green Revolution drove unequal development in the rural countryside and led to lasting ecological effects from massive fertilizer and pesticide use. This disconnect prompted me to ask how the Green Revolution’s success narrative has remained compelling for so many even in the face of sustained critique from historians and social scientists.

What is the “Green Revolution?” How does today’s Green Revolution in Africa connect to America’s past capitalist agricultural projects in the Global South?

The “Green Revolution” is a narrative often used to describe an indisputable success story. It’s a story about how agricultural development has happened in the past and can happen in the future. The term Green Revolution was coined in the late 1960s by a U.S. Agency for International Development official who insisted that the crucial battlefield between American-led capitalism and Soviet communism would be peasant farmers in the “Third World.” So, even in the early years, powerful individuals and institutions were writing an enduring narrative about capitalist modernization and scientific advancement. This story overwrites much historical complexity.

As far as the connections between today’s Green Revolution and a longer history, the book traces both material connections—in some cases the very maize seeds that were collected and utilized to drive development efforts in the 1950s are being replanted for today’s development projects in Africa—but also a history of ideas about how development should happen, and, importantly, who should lead development. Tying together Green Revolutions past and present, each of the book’s chapters complicates mainstream policy approaches for addressing the entwined global challenges of poverty, hunger, and adaptation to the climate crisis.

Where do we need to change current efforts to eradicate hunger? Where do they fall short?

They fall short in their inability to recognize how drastic global inequities are part of longer histories of capitalism’s uneven development. Key Green Revolution figures—from Norman Borlaug, the most recognizable agricultural scientist from the Revolution’s heyday in the 1960s, to today’s most notable philanthropist backer, Bill Gates—have described the causes of and solutions to hunger in ways that evade questions about the relationship between global haves and have nots. They keep us from thinking about how rich world and poor world are mutually formed.

In Seeding Empire, I critique this approach. I also highlight social movements that are developing alternative approaches that center historical analysis and structural accounts of global inequities. These include farmer and indigenous peoples’ movements on both sides of the Atlantic organizing under the banners of food sovereignty and agroecology. These alternatives to the prevailing development framework can push us to think more critically and historically about why hunger exists in a world of plenty.

What was a surprising or unexpected insight from your research?

I interviewed a range of officials working on large-scale agricultural development initiatives in Africa, especially those developing new varieties of maize for farmers across eastern and southern Africa. These included both “conventional” varieties and genetically modified traits engineered to produce crops resistant to increasingly devastating droughts. What most surprised me was how I kept hearing the same kinds of stories from the different people I spoke to, including public sector scientists, agribusiness officials, government officials, and Gates Foundation representatives. My informants expressed an eagerness to deliver technological innovations to Africa’s millions of smallholder farmers. Yet most of the people I talked to adhered to what I call “the logic of philanthrocapital”—they expressed that the best way to improve the plight of farmers was to develop more private seed companies and convince more farmers to purchase their maize seeds from seed companies (including both national-level enterprises as well as multinational corporations like Corteva Agrisciences and Bayer.)

This logic of philanthrocapital increasingly permeates the development practices across different institutions in contemporary Green Revolution projects. I’m hesitant to ascribe too much power to any one actor or institution. This isn’t a story of Bill Gates controlling an entire continent’s agriculture. At the same time, we should pay attention to the outsized power that institutions like the Gates Foundation or multinational agricultural biotechnology companies like Bayer (formerly Monsanto) hold—and how they frame the problems of poverty and hunger.

What is the main message you hope readers will take away from your book?

We need to recognize and challenge the power of historical narratives that underpin the mainstream development approach at the intersection of American empire, multinational agribusiness, and global philanthropic foundations. In the book, I develop conceptual tools for reading “across the map” geographically and historically throughout the history of Green Revolution projects—tracing links between, for example, the settler colonial Land Grant University project in the U.S. and efforts to mine the genetic diversity of maize across Latin America. I challenge readers to consider the historical narratives—about poverty, security, or scientific progress—that link these moments across the ongoing Green Revolution. I hope the book will be useful for scholars, teachers, students, activists, and other practitioners thinking critically about how to create a more just world.