Research Institutes

By the late 1950s the technologies and hybrid plants developed in the Rockefeller Foundation’s (RF) Mexican Agriculture Program (MAP) had spread globally. Within a decade, the astonishing increases in crop yields made possible by RF-sponsored research had been dubbed the “Green Revolution.” Sturdier, more productive rice plants brought food security to developing nations and staved off projected famines, especially in Southeast Asia. The RF sought to ensure that its agriculture programs would continue on their own footing. In seeking to set such programs free, the RF followed a tradition dating back to its founding in 1913. As Robert D. Calkins, former head of the General Education Board (GEB) put it: “[T]he aim of those who help should be to make their help unnecessary.”[1] 

International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) rice yield trials

International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) rice yield trials

Building a Network 

Agricultural research on a global scale was becoming increasingly expensive. Continuing programs in such a difficult environment depended upon leveraging partnerships and creating permanent, independent institutions. The International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) became the first and flagship example of a far-reaching, RF-inspired network of research centers. 

According to an oral traditional at the RF, J. George Harrar, RF Deputy Director for Agriculture,and “Frosty” Hill, Vice President of the Ford Foundation, rode the same commuter train into New York City every day. Informal conversations during their shared commute soon led to formal collaboration between the two foundations. Ford’s endowment was four times larger than Rockefeller’s, but the RF had deeper experience in the field, so Ford agreed to cover capital expenses, entrusting staffing and program development responsibilities to the RF. 

With additional support from the Philippine government, IRRI opened in 1962 in Los Baños, Philippines. Its main objective was to re-engineer the rice plant as effectively as Norman Borlaug had re-engineered wheat in Mexico. Shortly it did. Hybrid cross “IR-8” was released in 1966, touted as "the miracle rice" for its high yields and sturdy resistance to weather and disease. It was quickly mobilized to curb projected famines in India during the late 1960s, and in the Philippines it was even sold in the lobbies of banks and department stores. It did, however, require copious amounts of chemical fertilizers, new irrigation techniques, and other industrial supports to survive. So, while effective at increasing yields, IR-8 was also criticized for drawing corporate agribusiness into the Philippine economy, as well as its harmful environmental side-effects. 

The early successes of IRRI enabled the establishment of other research institutes in short order, including Mexico's International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) in 1963; the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) in Cali, Colombia, in 1967; and the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) in Ibadan, Nigeria, also in 1967. While all four institutes were independent entities, they were staffed from the close-knit network of agricultural professionals fostered by the RF. The RF's rice program in Asia was headed by Richard Bradfield, one of the three original authors of the report on agriculture in Mexico that led to MAP. Sterling Wortman, IRRI's first assistant director, had been the RF's corn breeder in Mexico. CIAT's first director general was Ulysses J. Grant, a plant breeder in the RF Colombia program and former RF Director of Agriculture. IITA was closely connected to the University of Ibadan, a major focus of the RF's University Development Program.

International Institute of Tropical Agriculture billboard, Ibadan (Nigeria), 1970

International Institute of Tropical Agriculture billboard, Ibadan (Nigeria), 1970

These first four institutes established the framework for a permanent agricultural technology complex. The RF had started small in Mexico, building networks and developing expertise, training local farmers, and always working in concert with the Mexican government. The new agricultural institutes now adopted this model. Their mission was to promote the practical application of agricultural knowledge from experimentation to implementation. They conducted basic research in agricultural sciences, educated university students in agricultural subjects, and extended advisory services to rural farmers. The institutes also made long-term investments in their home regions while aiming to create knowledge that would be globally transferrable. 

University of Wisconsin potato research, Wisconsin, 1965

University of Wisconsin potato research, Wisconsin, 1965

Soon, however, even the combined resources of the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations proved insufficient to support international agricultural research in perpetuity. The RF, along with Ford, the United Nations, and the World Bank, now looked to prioritize agriculture on the international development agenda. From 1968 to 1971, at its Bellagio conference center in Italy, the RF convened a series of meetings to consider future options. Specialists from national and international agencies presented policy papers on issues ranging from capital flows to new technologies to metrics for measuring world needs. Eventually the World Bank Executive Board was persuaded to provide an annual grant to the newly formed Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), which was founded after a series of Bellagio convenings. The original members were the four research institutes the RF had helped create. CGIAR grew to include 16 member groups by the 1980s.

International Agricultural Meeting, 1968

International Agricultural Meeting, 1968

The “Green Revolution” sparked by the RF’s program in Mexico has not been monolithic. Rather, it is an ongoing series of experiments, feedback, and new insights. The longevity of CGIAR, and the wide reach of its member groups, has enabled new research in response to the lessons of the 1950s and 1960s. Research on cereal grains has extended to cassava and legumes, which are key crops in the diet of many African countries. Molecular biology has contributed to genomic mapping, which enables scientists to breed crops with higher yields and more resistance to disease. And, perhaps most importantly, the international research community has begun to address the issues raised in resource management and ecological sustainability that had not been fully understood more than half a century ago.