Philanthropy and Historical Research / The Green Revolution

U.S. Regionalism and the Many Histories of the Green Revolution

Editors’ Note: Tore Olsson continues HistPhil’s forum on the Green Revolution.

The reach of U.S. philanthropy has rarely been contained by national boundaries, and in the twentieth century, this was especially true. Readers of this blog are likely familiar with the vast global footprint left by institutions such as the Ford, Rockefeller, and Carnegie endowments, whose work in public health, education, conservation, and economic growth spanned multiple continents. Indeed, it is difficult to understand the modern world without considering these influential campaigns.

Perhaps the most consequential twentieth century initiative of global philanthropy was the so-called “Green Revolution,” the ambitious attempt to extend First World agricultural techniques to Third World farmers, pioneered primarily by the Rockefeller Foundation. Probably the most celebrated – and vilified – of the United States’ many campaigns in “development,” the Green Revolution dramatically boosted our planet’s production of basic food grains. Whether it accomplished its stated goal of minimizing hunger is uncertain. What is certain, however, is that it forever remade the fabric of rural societies across the globe. The Green Revolution narrowed ecological diversity in its persistent promotion of monoculture; it triggered massive rural outmigration in societies across the Global South, as peasant farmers unable to adopt new technologies were dispossessed by commercial landowners; and, it set in motion a pattern of breakneck urbanization whose future is still unresolved.

Despite the sweeping transformations wrought by the Green Revolution, historians had relatively little to say about it until recently, granting social scientists a monopoly on studies of global agricultural change. In the last decade, however, development as a whole and the Green Revolution in particular have been the objects of an avalanche of new historical scholarship. We now have a much better understanding of the context, causality, and complexity of this influential campaign. Recent books by Nick Cullather, David Ekbladh, Amy Staples, John Perkins, David Kinkela and several others have revealed how Cold War geopolitics dramatically shaped philanthropic efforts promoted as purely humanitarian. It turns out that the Green Revolution was not simply a scientific watershed produced in a laboratory, but a cultural, political, and fundamentally human event. Most of these accounts have been highly critical, testifying to the dangers of blindly transplanting U.S. science and developmental models upon incompatible agrarian societies. They reveal that rather than an altruistic extension of aid, Third World rural development was often a misguided attempt to refashion the world’s countryside after an idealized rural America.

Though these recent studies have answered many nagging questions, they also pose new dilemmas. Particularly, what I want to focus on here is the common assertion that the Green Revolution was at its heart a project of “Americanization.” In reading recent histories, we learn how a confident and hubristic United States attempted to remake the world in its image. We learn how U.S. planners drew lessons from an American agriculture they believed to be the world’s most productive and stable. Yet in these accounts, “America” comes off as a homogenous and static entity with an uncheckered past of success and growth, ready to be transplanted elsewhere. These narratives seem to suggest that there was one “American experience” to be exported abroad after World War II.

This strikes me as deeply problematic, and I believe that one important way to push beyond such monolithic portrayals is to grapple more seriously with the role that regionalism played in these so-called “Americanization” campaigns. At the middle of the twentieth century, at the dawn of the development project, the U.S. was a patchwork nation of rich and poor, rural and urban, whose complex history of growth and stagnation shaped how the architects of development looked out onto the world beyond. Acknowledging this can make our understanding of U.S. philanthropy’s Third World interventions much more nuanced.

How might this change our understanding of the Green Revolution in particular? For decades, scholars of food and agriculture have looked to Mexico as the birthplace of that campaign. As the frequently-told story goes, in 1943 the New York-based Rockefeller Foundation partnered with the Mexican government to raise the productivity of that country’s primary food crops, notably corn, beans, and wheat. By the early 1950s, the Rockefeller team declared success in Mexico and transplanted their program to India, Pakistan, the Philippines, and elsewhere.

Because many of the top Rockefeller scientists sent to Mexico were originally from states like Iowa and Minnesota, scholars have assumed that the Green Revolution was born from an attempt to transplant the U.S. Midwest onto Mexico. Indeed, the Midwest often stands in as an archetype for all of rural America, with its reassuring and nostalgic images of middle-class family farmers. But if we explore the longer history of the Rockefeller philanthropies, we learn otherwise. We learn that the origins of the Green Revolution lay not in a Cold War-era attempt to project Minnesota upon Mexico and elsewhere, but instead grew from the philanthropies’ long-term engagement with another U.S. region, one with a far less idealized past – the American South.

In my current book project, I reveal how Rockefeller programs of agricultural “modernization” within the United States long preceded the Foundation’s 1943 leap into Mexico. Between 1906 and 1914, the philanthropies waged a sweeping campaign to teach black and white farmers in the U.S. Cotton Belt scientific methods of cultivation. During the 1930s, veterans of that southern agricultural work pushed to replicate it in Mexico, a country that they believed shared the problems of the U.S. South: problems like erosion, widespread tenancy, and monoculture. Rockefeller planners believed that strategies to uplift sharecroppers would inherently work for campesinos. Therefore, when in 1943 the Foundation initiated their famed Mexican Agricultural Program (MAP), one of its architects boldly declared that it was intended to “work for the development of…health and welfare movements in Mexico as we did for the development of the South.”

As Rockefeller Foundation leaders planned their agricultural program in 1943, their long-term experience in the U.S. South was evident in many ways. Program officers and scientific staff were transferred to Mexico after overseeing regional studies in the Cotton Belt, or actively recruited from states like West Virginia, North Carolina, and Mississippi. But more than any other scientist on the MAP team, it was the U.S. southern experience of a plant breeder named Paul Mangelsdorf that would most dramatically impact the Foundation’s early program in Mexico. From 1943 to 1949, Mangelsdorf would serve as the primary architect of the MAP’s corn breeding campaign, and because corn was the Foundation’s first priority in Mexico, he played an enormous role shaping that program.

Mangelsdorf was born in 1899 in Kansas, and earned his PhD in botany with an emphasis on corn. But rather than working in the Midwest, as many other corn breeders did, Mangelsdorf took a job during the late 1920s in eastern Texas, on the periphery of the Cotton Belt. Moving there from Kansas was a shocking transition. East Texas in the 1920s was a world of sharecroppers and cotton farms, where corn was a subsistence rather than commercial crop. Compared to the relatively homogenous Kansas, East Texas posed many new challenges.

Mangelsdorf remained in East Texas for 13 years, from 1927 until 1940. During that period, he witnessed a veritable revolution in the American cultivation of corn, which requires some explanation. In 1927, when he began in Texas, nearly all U.S. corn farmers planted their crop from last year’s seed, choosing varieties based on yield and aesthetics. It was a task that farmers took pride in, as could be witnessed at any rural county fair. But when Mangelsdorf left Texas in 1940, nearly all of that had changed. Especially in the midwestern Corn Belt, by 1940 nearly all farmers purchased seed from commercial vendors every year. Fueling this switch was a new agricultural technology – double-cross hybrid corn, which yielded a significantly larger ear than did non-hybrid varieties. But higher yields came at a high price. The downside was that if you tried to replant the seeds of a double-cross hybrid, that offspring would not give the same high yield – the second generation would not display the hybrid vigor of the first. So farmers had to go back each season to their seed merchant and buy new seed – which was, of course, rather convenient for the seed companies, who now sat on top of a multi-million dollar industry.

From his vantage point in East Texas, Paul Mangelsdorf watched the double-cross hybrid revolution transform midwestern corn farming during the 1920s and ‘30s. But among his poorer constituents in the Cotton Belt, hybrid corn did not have the same appeal. To make the transition to planting hybrids, farmers needed cash and capital, which most croppers and tenants did not have. So after visiting and speaking with farmers in his region, Mangelsdorf grew convinced that the gospel of double-cross hybrid corn did not have universal applicability.

But in Mangelsdorf’s eyes, that didn’t mean farmers had no use for improved corn. He still wanted modern plant breeding to benefit his constituents, so he began experimenting with seed varieties that increased yield, but did not require repurchasing of seed. Double-cross hybrids are created from two maize lines that were commonly inbred up to seven or eight generations to isolate genetic traits before the lines were crossed. Mangelsdorf rejected this approach, and began experimenting by inbreeding maize strains only one or two generations before crossing them. That strategy produced higher-yielding plants that, unlike the conventional double-cross hybrids, would not greatly decline in yield in subsequent generations. These varieties were commonly known as “synthetics,” and Mangelsdorf was not alone in appreciating their appeal. Several other American plant breeders experimented with synthetics during the 1930s—often more on paper than in the field, though. Nevertheless, Mangelsdorf stood by his synthetic maize, and distributed them to his East Texas farmers during the 1930s.

When Mangelsdorf arrived in central Mexico to work on the Rockefeller Foundation’s corn program in 1943, he immediately began drawing parallels between the socio-economic limitations of central Mexican farmers and those he had known in the East Texas Cotton Belt. The small-scale farmers who were working land reform plots in rural Mexico, he concluded, were not so different from the tenants of East Texas. Therefore, distributing synthetic corn varieties rather than double-cross hybrids was also the most logical thing to do in Mexico. Mangelsdorf even wrote to the Mexican agriculture chief in 1943 to convince him of the wisdom of departing from the American scientific mainstream, because “hybrid maize has not been especially successful in the Southern part of the United States where conditions are more nearly comparable to Mexico than those of the Corn-Belt.”

That Mangelsdorf understood Mexico’s divided social landscape and devised technological solutions appropriate to it may seem self-evident to us, but in the scholarship on the Green Revolution, this observation is rather absent. Scholars of U.S.-led development have been deeply influenced by political scientist James Scott’s concept of “high modernism,” and how First World projects to end Third World poverty hopelessly simplified those societies and diagnosed solutions that were ignorant of social realities. However, seeing how the Rockefeller Foundation first approached Mexican agriculture, and how they relied on the lessons on the American South in doing so, forces us to go beyond this “high modernist” assumption. In fact, a concept like sociologist Jess Gilbert’s “low modernism” may work better here, epitomized by Paul Mangelsdorf’s synthetic corn. In large part, that low modernist reflex grew from scientists’ and administrators’ prior experience grappling with rural poverty in the United States, particularly in the Cotton South.

For most of the 1940s, Mangelsdorf’s synthetic corn program remained the centerpiece of the Foundation’s Mexican project. Thousands of small-scale farmers received synthetic maize bred by the MAP during the 1940s. But by 1950, this strategy came under increasing attack, both from within the Foundation, as the Cold War heated up, and from the Mexican government, which turned hard to the right during the late ‘40s and early ‘50s. This is not the time or place to explore the intricacies of that transition, but by the time the Foundation began exporting its Mexican program to Asia, most of the breeding strategies aimed at smaller and poorer farmers were gone. Hybrid corn and particularly dwarf wheat – bred by the soon-to-be-famous Norman Borlaug – eclipsed the early experiment with synthetic corn. In many ways, the Foundation had forgotten the lessons it had learned in the American South. The Green Revolution had instead become an explicitly Cold War program, aimed at neutralizing hunger for the purpose of defusing communist sympathies. The high modernist Green Revolution had arrived.

Tracing the Rockefeller philanthropies’ long career in agricultural research and extension from the American South to Mexico upsets many assumptions about the origins and meaning of U.S.-led development programs abroad. What does it mean if the development project grew from the domestic laboratory of the American South? The Green Revolution, like so many other U.S. internationalist projects in the post-1945 era, has commonly been understood as a campaign of “Americanization” – that the Rockefeller Foundation sought to “Americanize” agriculture in Mexico or India. But there wasn’t just one, but many Americas in their geographical imaginary. The examples of Alabama and Iowa, after all, suggested starkly different conclusions for engineering rural transformations elsewhere. Ultimately, I believe that Alabama’s history of plantation agriculture, grossly uneven land tenure, and inequities of race and class offered far wiser lessons for Mexico – and the subsequent geographical areas that Rockefeller agricultural philanthropy would tend – than Iowa ever could; after all, the Midwest bore few similarities to any nation in the postcolonial Third World. But as the Cold War heated up, American planners abroad stopped seeing the virtues of modeling development on a region symbolic of American failure. In turning instead to an idealized Midwest as a universal model, they began to see target societies as “people without history,” in anthropologist Eric Wolf’s memorable phrase. After that, it was no wonder that U.S. development projects abroad would create more problems than they solved.

– Tore Olsson

Tore Olsson is an assistant professor of history at the University of Tennessee and a National Endowment for the Humanities fellow during 2016. His forthcoming book, Remaking the U.S. and Mexican Countryside from the Great Depression to the Cold War (Princeton University Press), examines the shared agrarian history of the United States and its neighbor to the south.

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