The Green Revolution
Rockefeller Foundation, 1943
For the last five years, we’ve had more people starving and hungry. But something has happened. Pakistan is self-sufficient in wheat and rice, and India is moving towards it. It wasn’t a red, bloody revolution as predicted. It was a green revolution.
Norman Borlaug recalls William Gaud speaking these words at a small meeting in 1968. Gaud, who, at the time, administered the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), was describing an almost unbelievable surge in food output then being achieved by a number of Asian nations that had seemed, until very recently, to be on the brink of disaster. The two nations cited by Gaud were especially worrisome. Neither Pakistan, a country of 115 million people, nor India, whose population already exceeded half a billion, had been producing enough food to meet the growing need of its rapidly expanding population. Famine, and its attendant turmoil, seemed inevitable. But Gaud was right. Something had happened. Within a few years, food production in India, Pakistan, and many of their neighbors, would outstrip population growth. The threat of mass starvation would loom less ominously over the land, and Borlaug, an agronomist working for the Rockefeller Foundation, would be a Nobel laureate credited with saving more lives than any person in human history.
Despite all appearances, this “green revolution” did not occur overnight. Its roots go back several decades earlier. In 1940, the Vice President-elect, Henry Wallace, traveled to Mexico. He was “appalled” by the conditions there. Masses of people were eking out an existence on meager quantities of food. At the time, Mexico was forced to import over half its wheat, and a significant portion of its maize. Wallace met with an official of the Rockefeller Foundation, and, soon after, with the Foundation’s president, Raymond Fosdick. He described the plight of the Mexican poor, emphasizing to Fosdick “that the all important thing was to expand the means of subsistence.” Fosdick and his colleagues at the Rockefeller Foundation were agreeable to the idea. The Foundation had a long history of combating disease in poverty-stricken regions, and there was a feeling among its officers that hunger and malnutrition were closely related to many of the world’s health care problems. So, in 1943, when the Mexican government requested the Foundation’s assistance in an effort to improve that nation’s agricultural productivity, its trustees agreed, seeing the new project “as a natural outgrowth of [the Foundation’s] interest in public health and the biological sciences...” With an initial outlay of $20,000 for a survey in 1943, followed, in 1944, by $192,800 for construction costs and equipment, the Rockefeller Foundation embarked, with the Mexican Ministry of Agriculture, upon the Mexican Agricultural Project (MAP).
Strategy. From the start, the Foundation was deeply involved in the programmatic aspects of the operation. A team of Rockefeller scientists was sent to Chapingo, outside Mexico City, where they established an Office of Special Studies (OSS). Led by George Harrar (who, in 1961, would become the Foundation’s president), the group included Borlaug and four other agricultural specialists. For almost two decades, this team employed a three-part strategy to “improve the yields of the basic food crops” in Mexico.
The first element of the strategy was to engage in ongoing research in an effort to produce everbetter varieties of corn, wheat, potatoes, and other crops, and to develop ever better methods of 280
growing these crops. As soon as a new variety or technique was developed, it was put to use. “Research from the outset was production-oriented and restricted to that which was relevant to increasing wheat production. Researches in pursuit of irrelevant academic butterflies were discouraged....” The second element...
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