“The idea that agriculture’s just nothing but a way of life and not an industry is a misnomer which has had too long a history. Agriculture is a business; it is an industry–and treated as such it responds beautifully.”

J. George Harrar

Today it is nearly impossible to imagine the global transformation of agriculture without the Rockefeller Foundation (RF). Alongside and perhaps even surpassing its accomplishments in public health, the RF made its most visible mark in agriculture. From the 1940s through the 1960s, it founded permanent research facilities in Mexico, the Philippines, Colombia, and Nigeria. These centers bred higher-yield grains, reduced crops’ susceptibility to disease, improved fertilizers, and instructed farmers in efficient sowing and irrigation techniques. They employed highly trained specialists from U.S. universities who, in turn, trained generations of indigenous agricultural scientists. Hybrid seeds created through RF research enabled developing nations to achieve self-sufficiency in food production and to gain entrance to world markets. The RF model of research, technical assistance, and educational extension has since been widely adopted by both governments and non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

John D. Rockefeller 3rd and Dr. J. George Harrar's visit to the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), Chapingo Hacienda (Mexico), 1967

John D. Rockefeller 3rd and Dr. J. George Harrar's visit to the
International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT),
Chapingo Hacienda (Mexico), 1967

Agriculture was one of the earliest concerns of the Rockefeller philanthropies, administered predominantly through the General Education Board (GEB) and the International Education Board (IEB). Although the RF considered adding an agriculture division in its 1928 reorganization, at that time it still viewed agriculture in a limited way, less significant for the foundation than institution-building in science, medicine, and public health. In a sense, agriculture was deemed too practical to fit into the 1928 agenda of “advancing knowledge.”

World War II changed the Foundation’s thinking. The RF witnessed the European institutions it had built throughout the 1920s and 1930s fall into disarray. It watched the science it had funded put to uses it could neither imagine nor control. Effectively locked out of Europe because of the war, the RF launched the Mexican Agriculture Program (MAP) in 1943, in part because it needed a region in which it could work freely. But more significantly, it sought a new field of work that would guarantee humane benefits. It now seemed evident that, far from being too practical, agriculture reinvigorated the RF’s prior investments. The study of agriculture applied the natural sciences to improving crops, and the social sciences to managing attendant cultural changes.

As the war drew to a close, the RF recognized that food production would be crucial to international peace. The Foundation identified hunger as a root cause of larger problems, just as it had once pinpointed illness and ignorance. The RF had helped drive back malaria, yellow fever, and tuberculosis, yet the majority of the world’s population remained poor and malnourished. The resource gap between developed and developing nations constantly threatened further political upheaval. As RF Trustee John D. Rockefeller 3rd observed, “Hunger as a basic problem has now succeeded disease.”[1]

MAP ushered in a new era in which agriculture became a principal means for the Foundation to fulfill its mission. It was the RF’s first and only direct operating program outside the International Health Division (IHD). The oversight that the Foundation’s leadership exercised in staffing, research design, and day-to-day activities produced quick and remarkable results. Soon it was evident that Mexico might serve as a test case for strategies that could transfer to other developing nations.

During the Cold War, assisting Mexico symbolized an investment in the shared interests of the Western hemisphere, which Natural Sciences Director Warren Weaver described as “the world’s principal refuge from Communism.”[2]  As MAP’s innovations were exported into Latin America and eventually to Asia, Weaver identified the stakes: “In this struggle for the minds of men, the side that best helps satisfy man’s primary needs for food, clothing, and shelter is likely to win.”[3] Alarmed by the rise of totalitarian regimes in former colonies struggling to achieve self-governance, the RF saw food production as a tool for sustaining democratic political change.

The uniqueness of the agriculture program placed it outside the RF’s formal divisional structure for almost ten years until it was appended to the Division of Natural Sciences in 1951. In 1963 the RF dismantled its academic divisions in favor of interdisciplinary programs with broader objectives. Agriculture became the cornerstone of a new initiative entitled “Conquest of Hunger.” By 1968 the success of RF-developed hybrid rice at staving off famine in India inspired United States Agency for International Development (USAID) Director William Gaud to declare the “Green Revolution.” As programs grew too large to be supported by any single entity, the RF worked with other foundations and agencies to establish international, collaborative NGOs, including the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) and, later, the Alliance for a Green Revolution for Africa (AGRA).

International Rice Research Institute Visit

International Rice Research Institute Visit

Since the 1970s, the techniques pioneered by the RF have been criticized for their environmental impact, for their relationship with big agribusiness, and for failing to eliminate hunger completely. Yet the notion that food is a powerful instrument of peace has persisted. The infrastructure the RF helped install now aims for a second “Green Revolution.” Current initiatives take into account lessons learned: they mobilize technology in the service of sustainability, emphasize small-hold farming, and make the cultivation of indigenous crops a priority. The enduring legacy of the RF is a changed world agriculture regime, characterized by scientific methods, global information exchange, and the treatment of food production as a business enterprise.