03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Shah Appointment at USAID

Talkin' Bout a (Second Genetically-Engineered Privatized) Green Revolution

The Cold War is over! The Cold War is back! With the appointment of Rajiv Shah to head USAID, it's deja-vu all over again for the Obama administration. Welcome to Camelot redux, the 1960's re-engineered for the 2010s.

Michelle Obama's stylish sheathes may recall Jackie Kennedy's '60s elegance but it's in the realm of foreign policy where the Obama administration really gets on its 1960s, Cold-War mojo. The administration's plan to rehabilitate USAID and use it to restore agriculture and food security to the center of U.S. foreign policy is, well, so Kennedy.

USAID was created during the first year of the Kennedy administration in 1961. Then, communist armed insurgencies spreading among the developing world's poor masses threatened the American way of life. Now, terrorist armed insurgencies spreading among the developing world's poor masses threaten the American way of life. Then, USAID was created because smart Americans in the Kennedy administration thought that allowing developing countries' economies to collapse "would be disastrous to our national security, harmful to our comparative prosperity, and offensive to our conscience." Now, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton plans to re-empower USAID and intensify its focus on agriculture because "food security is not just about food. But it is about all security - economic security, environmental security, even national security."

There is nothing new here folks. Back in 1958, a senator from Minnesota named Hubert H. Humprey submitted a report to a committee convened under the Agricultural Trade Development and Assistance Act and its Relationship to Foreign Policy. The report's title: Food and Fiber as a Force for Freedom. Makes for interesting reading.

Fast forward to 2009. Shah, a 36-year-old medical doctor freshly plucked from the Gates Foundation via the Department of Agriculture, is being hailed as just the medicine for the now ailing USAID. What Shah is being brought in to do is basically what he did with the Gates Foundation, where he oversaw the emergence of agriculture as one of the primary, long-term focuses of the Foundation's work, or what he did as undersecretary for research, education and economics at the USDA. In both cases, Shah distinguished himself not only for his brilliance and his acumen at managing a large spectrum of projects, large amounts of money and large numbers of people, but by his messianic belief in the ability of technology-based, market-driven solutions.

This is a vision Shah shares with Secretary Clinton. It is a vision that could forever change not only the essential workings of our government in its relationship with private corporations but also the genetic content of most of the plants we eat along with the market mechanisms that get those plants into the ground, out of the ground and onto our plates. In this vision, what the world needs to survive and what the United States needs to preserve its dominance (its security) is a deeply integrated effort between the United States government and agribusiness to advance a "second Green Revolution," a phrase actually coined by the Bush administration, which had already focused USAID on supporting the expansion of genetically engineered crops in the developing world. But, for the sake of the Obama administration, let's just skip that inconvenient truth. In the 1960s Green Revolution, the Democratic one, the U.S. government worked with the Ford and the Rockefeller Foundations to boost grain yields in the developing world with new hybrid seeds, a new infrastructure of big irrigation schemes, and a dramatic expansion in the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides.

The "second" Green Revolution basically adds two new elements to the original: biotechnology and private capital investment. This is really what Secretary Clinton is talking about as being deeply innovative in the Obama administration's approach. As she told the gathering of world leaders assembled at her husband's Clinton Global Initiative in September 2009: "I have to acknowledge that much of what we are attempting to do is derived from what I have seen happen here at CGI, the kind of new approach, the marrying of philanthropy and capitalism...". In other words, a deeper, broader level of what are known as "public-private partnerships" to advance policy goals, the same kind promoted by the Gates Foundation.

In his article last year "A Green Revolution for Africa?", which featured a photograph of Rajiv Shah at work in Africa, David Rieff ably dissected the ambitions of the Gates Foundation in market-based, technology-derived solutions, particularly biotechnology and genetic engineering, to alleviate hunger. The Gates Foundation partners with governments as well as with the Rockefeller Foundation, heavily involved in the original Green Revolution. It has also hired a former vice-president from Monsanto, and collaborated with Monsanto and Syngenta, the world's biggest players in the genetic engineering of food plants, on the creation of a vault to preserve the world's plant diversity . When Rajiv Shah moved from the Gates Foundation to the Department of Agriculture, he took the lessons he learned there in "creative capitalism" with him. On the creation of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) last year, a move many scientists hope will boost primary research at America's leading research and agricultural universities that is not funded by private agribusiness, Shah demurred that this was not really the goal. He even went so far as to call for even deeper integration between public university research and private enterprise, something hard to imagine in U.S. agriculture. According to an article by Bob Grant in The Scientist, Shah said: "The USDA hadn't been using these tools of deep collaboration," between the private and the public sectors. He continued: "We're going to do all these things very differently. We are going to engage the private sector much more than we have in the past."

Ah Camelot. Those glory days of elegance and smarts at the height of the Cold War. That brief burst of light brought to Washington by a young, ambitious Kennedy administration that allowed America to hold its head high in the world between the dark days of the McCarthy era and the morass of the Vietnam War. For a brief shining moment, idealistic young Americans could feel good again about our foreign policy. We were going to make the world a better place, not just for us, but for everyone. We created the Peace Corps and USAID. We rolled out the Green Revolution. This is the era the Obama administration is clearly trying to recreate. But there is no going back. The original Green Revolution boosted yields but also resulted in widely acknowledged environmental, social and political devastation. We can only imagine the risks of unleashing scores of genetically engineered crops on the developing world.

Many development experts believe that the long-term solution to world hunger lies in sustainable agricultural practices that are decidedly low-tech, coupled with government policies that protect farmers and consumers from the rapacity of monopoly agribusiness. If the Obama administration really wants to signal it is about change, it might turn to another brilliant Indian American, Raj Patel. Currently a visiting scholar at U.C. Berkeley, Patel is the author of the book Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System Patel writes: "Global hunger and obesity are symptoms of the same problem and, what's more, the route to eradicating world hunger is also the way to prevent global epidemics of diabetes and heart disease, and to address a host of environmental and social ills. ... Guided by the profit motive, the corporations that sell our food shape and constrain how we eat, and how we think about food."

They're also apparently shaping how the Obama administration thinks about foreign policy.