Malthusianism and Agricultural Development:
False premises, false promises

Eric B. Ross
Keywords:  Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR); Green Revolution; Small-scale farming.
Correct citation: Ross, E.B. (1996), "Malthusianism and Agricultural Development: False premises, false promises." Biotechnology and Development Monitor, No. 26, p. 24.

The central strategy of the international agricultural research system to fight food shortages is the increase of world food production through technological innovations. This narrow view on the solutions to the problems of the rural poor is highly influenced by Malthusian thinking, states Eric Ross. Consequently, Green Revolution and modern biotechnology are likely to exclude structural solutions.

Recently, the spectre of Malthusian crisis in the developing world has been raised anew by Pers Pinstrup-Anderson. As director of the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) in Washington, he has argued for a renewal of the Green Revolution. Echoing the biotechnology industry, he has called for substantial new investments in agricultural (biotechnological) research as the only practical way to "feed the world," when over-population and global warming are said to be about to overwhelm the productive capacity of world agriculture.
The domination of the field of agricultural biotechnology by multinational seed and agro-chemical companies, poses the central question of whether they can be expected to redirect their investments towards the needs of the rural poor even if this might affect their corporate profits. It seems more likely that the new Green Revolution of which Pinstrup-Anderson speaks will only accelerate the emergence of a globalized food system. Combined with the competitive and open markets towards which the developed countries are striving furiously, this will only enhance a world economy in which the rural poor already have too little voice or power.
Underlying Pinstrup-Andersonís call are the same views which Thomas Malthus formulated two centuries ago. At that time, he presented a theory of the origins of poverty which defined it as the product of "natural" processes, rather than of social and economic relations. His so-called "law of population" made poverty seem the outcome of the excessive fertility of the poor pressing on the means of subsistence, obscuring how the poor were deprived of those means in the first place. Ever since, Malthusian thinking has justified existing relations of production, de-emphasizing structural solutions to poverty and food scarcity while favouring technological ones.
As Michael Lipton has shown, Malthusian ideas were deeply embedded in the logic of the Green Revolution. As such, it not only favoured capital-intensive, export-oriented production over subsistence cultivation, but relied on technical inputs which did so much to secure developing countries within the global capitalist economy. At the same time, it severely limited the future of small-scale cultivators, who were widely regarded as a problematical factor in the struggle against socialism.
The threat of Malthusian crisis justified the central premise of the Green Revolution, that, if there was not enough land to go around, peasant agriculture could not yield sufficient increases in food. In the process, it side-stepped the important question of whether land was truly scarce or just unequally distributed. It also concealed another agenda. J. George Harrar, the first director of the Rockefeller Foundationís research in Mexico (and later the Foundationís president), observed in 1975 that "agriculture is ... a business and, to be successful, must be managed in a businesslike fashion." Thus he was acknowledging that the Green Revolution was not just about producing more food, but helping to create a new global food system committed to the costly industrialization of agricultural production. Throughout much of the world, Malthusian logic, hand in hand with the new technologies of the Green Revolution, helped to put land reform on hold.

Meanwhile, by the 1970s, there were mounting pressures for systematic rationalization of the global food system. Led by the World Bank and the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations, the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) was formed, one of whose policy-making units is IFPRI. It was soon hailed by a leading neo-Malthusian writer, Lester Brown, as "an historic step in the evolution of a truly global agricultural research strategy." But, whose strategy was it? CGIARís initial funding came from the foundations, which remain a major influence. Its headquarters have always been at the World Bank, which provides its secretariat and from among whose senior officers its chair is continuously drawn.
CGIARís director has recently described the group as if it were simply a class-neutral institution, constituted simply to ensure "a steady flow of improved technologies for food production." This anodyne view again reflects how a Malthusian view of food production continues to justify a singular emphasis on output alone. But, even more, it demonstrates that the lessons of the first Green Revolution are being dismissed, or perhaps, that they are actually well understood and appreciated.
For forty years, the Malthusian spectre and the Cold War together have justified a process of agricultural development that has enhanced Western corporate interests at the expense of the rural poor. CGIAR emerged as an important vehicle, helping to shape the global economy. Looking back, one can see how the Green Revolution, despite humane pretentions, bore the unmistakable imprint of these interest, and how the argument for a technical, now biotechnological, rather than a structural solution to the problems of rural subsistence has perpetuated them.
Eric B. Ross

Senior Lecturer Environmental Studies, Institute of Social Studies, The Hague, the Netherlands

Contributions to the Biotechnology and Development Monitor are not covered by any copyright. Exerpts may be translated or reproduced without prior permission (with exception of parts reproduced from third sources), with acknowledgement of source.


back to top
monitor homepage
index of this issue
contact us