Agricultural innovation is closely linked to global power dynamics. However, there is limited research on Asian agrarian development in this context, despite its shaping by colonization, post-war reconstruction, and geopolitical changes.

This intricate history has left an indelible mark on the region’s food systems, influencing the evolution of what we now recognize as food regimes.

From the expansion of the Japanese empire in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to the post-World War II reconstruction efforts led by the United States, imperial powers have played a pivotal role in shaping farming practices in Asia.

The Japanese empire’s modernization initiatives in territories like Taiwan and Korea and the subsequent influence of the U.S.-led Cold War regime reshaped agricultural landscapes, laying the groundwork for the emergence of distinct food regimes across the region.

The conceptual regional food regime has advanced the food regime approach with its lens of multiple levels of perspective to focus not just on a universal perspective, but focusing on the multi-polar aspect of food regimes to include different regional developmental paths.

What is missing, however, is the discussion of how agricultural experts played a crucial role in disseminating farming techniques and knowledge across regions. Their efforts helped shape modern farming practices and institutions, influencing how food is produced and distributed.

In a recently published article, I and my coauthor, Daniel Buck, embark on a journey through time to unravel the historical roots of Asian farming and explore how these legacies continue to intersect with contemporary food regimes.

This paper argues that the legacy of imperialism gave rise to diverse agricultural trajectories in Asia, with countries embracing varying models of development. Some embraced capitalist-driven “green revolutions,” while others pursued socialist-inspired approaches to agricultural modernization.

These divergent paths reflected each nation’s unique historical context and ideological leanings, contributing to the complexity of contemporary food regimes in the region.

By tracing the transition from the first to the second food regime in Asia, our study reveals qualitative changes in the nature of food regimes and their implications for contemporary food systems.

The findings suggest that amidst these transitions, agricultural experts and institutions emerged as key actors in disseminating knowledge and shaping farming practices. Their efforts not only influenced technological advancements but also shaped the institutional frameworks that govern food production and distribution in Asia today.

From the lens of the “green revolution,” the Sino-American Joint Commission on Rural Reconstruction (JCRR) and the Asian Vegetable Research and Development Center (AVRDC) were particularly influential and successful.

However, these efforts of international cooperation and knowledge exchange viewed agricultural development as a means to combat communism and promote modernization in post-war Asia. The Kuomintang government in Taiwan, with support from the United States, began reconstructing rural areas in Taiwan after losing the war against Chinese communists.

In this context, Shen Zonghan, a U.S.-trained agricultural scientist and the pioneer of developing the JCRR and the AVRDC is a pivotal figure in Asian agrarian development. He serves as a microcosm of the broader agricultural transformations in the region.

Shen Zonghan’s experiences underscore the role of individual agency in driving systemic change and highlight the intricate interplay between personal narratives and larger historical forces.

Shen’s story, alongside the foundation of the JCRR and AVRDC, in a way “provincialize” the historical material evolution of the Asian regional food regime.

Shen, a southern Chinese farmer, converted to Christianity as a teenager. Shen started his academic journey by earning a master’s degree from Georgia State College of Agriculture, and later continued his studies at Cornell University under the guidance of Harry Love. During his time at Cornell, Shen focused on breeding, genetics, and plant pathology.

Love, with connections to China through missionary agricultural education, initiated the Cornell-Nanking Program in 1925, which combined missionary work with modern agricultural practices.

Shen’s Cornell background and connections facilitated knowledge exchange and technological advancements, contributing to Taiwan’s emergence as a center for agricultural development.

During the Cold War, the United States and the Kuomintang government in Taiwan preserved Japanese colonial agrarian institutions, integrating tropical agricultural researchers and maintaining significant postcolonial agricultural trade between Taiwan and Japan.

In this context, Taiwan emerged as a model for “green revolutions,” but its agrarian development was shaped by unique local conditions and trans-local networks influenced by various actors.

Taiwan and the United States redefined food security, expanding the missions of institutions like the JCRR and the AVRDC, driven by figures like Shen Zonghan, towards high-value crop research.

It is essential to recognize that while present-day China has had a significant impact on the development of the Asian regional food regime, other sub-regions or nations in Asia are still influenced by past food regimes and remain influential to the contemporary food regimes.

Hence, it is necessary to contextualize the emergence of Asia within the power dynamics of the historical transition. Understanding these transitions—from the colonial era to the present day—provides valuable insights into the mechanisms driving the contemporary food system.

Finally, studying the life stories or local narratives of individuals, like Shen Zonghan among others, can help us understand the complex dynamics that have influenced food systems in Asia and other regions.

 

Kuan-Chi Wang is an associate research fellow at Academia Sinica, Taiwan, where he actively engages in critical research in various fields. With a focus on Asian foodways, his current theoretical interests encompass critical geopolitics, environmental governance and politics, new economic geography, and geospatial modeling. Kuan-Chi Wang’s scholarly contributions have been featured in academic journals such as The Journal of Peasant Studies, Area, Geography Compass, Environment and Planning E, and Geographical Review, among others.

To read more, see Kuan-Chi Wang and Daniel Buck, “Relocating agrarian development in Asia: food regimes, R&D programs, and the long twentieth century in The Journal of Peasant Studies 2024.

Image: Asian Vegetable Research and Development Center (AVRDC) in Tainan, Taiwan. Kuan-Chi Wang.