New Works in the Field / The Green Revolution

Raising Yields and Losing Genes

Editors’ Note: Helen Anne Curry continues HistPhil‘s forum on the Green Revolution. Here, she argues that the history of the Rockefeller Foundation’s involvement in the conservation of crop biodiversity offers insight into how the foundation navigated the science and politics of a problem that it had itself contributed significantly to generating. 

In 1943, the Rockefeller Foundation launched a program that aimed to increase agricultural production in Mexico through greater research and training in agricultural sciences. This program is often described as the starting point of the Green Revolution (albeit not by Tore Olsson in his excellent post to this forum). It is less often noted that the Mexican program was also the starting point of more than five decades of Rockefeller Foundation involvement in the collection and conservation of genetic diversity in agricultural crops.

As my fellow forum contributors note, the recent historiography of the Green Revolution calls attention to its unsettling geopolitical dimensions. Much of this research has focused on the outcomes that were vigorously pursued from the outset, especially the creation and dissemination of high-yielding varieties of key economic crops and the larger agendas encoded in these narrow breeding efforts. What aims informed the choice of crops to be improved? Why was emphasis placed on high-yielding varieties? Who was the adoption of these meant to benefit?

Examining the issue of crop genetic diversity within the history of the Green Revolution invites different questions. Stockpiles of diverse crop varieties were first created almost as byproducts of the all-important breeding programs. They did not become ends in themselves until the Rockefeller Foundation and others began to recognize that the unfolding Green Revolution was contributing to the global diminishment of agricultural biodiversity—and, crucially, that that diminishment posed a threat to future crop improvement and therefore global agricultural development. As such, the history of the Rockefeller Foundation’s involvement in the conservation of crop biodiversity offers insight into how the foundation navigated the science and politics of a problem that it had itself contributed significantly to generating.

A brief history helps to illustrate this novel perspective. Conserving the genetic diversity (or “germplasm”) of agricultural crops was not part of the stated mission of the Mexican Agricultural Program. However, one of its principal goals was to create high-yielding varieties of wheat, maize, and beans. And the first task of any good crop-breeding program, as foundation staff knew well, was to assemble varieties that might serve as foundational breeding material.

Take maize. One of the first activities of the maize-breeding project was to establish a collection of Mexican varieties that could be evaluated as breeding stocks. This was a pretty big task given the great diversity of maize in Mexico. In 1943, just as the program was getting off the ground, there were already some 200 types in the collection and by 1947, there were more than 1500.

Although the Rockefeller maize breeders relied on this diversity in their work, they also realized that if they succeeded in creating high-yielding types, their new varieties would replace the genetically diverse “traditional” varieties then in cultivation. Without farmers to grow them each year, selecting and maintaining seeds from season to season, these landraces could well die out. And they would be lost not only to future Mexican farmers but also to breeders like themselves. They soon began to articulate a need to conserve collections of diverse varieties, not just assemble them for immediate use.

The Rockefeller Foundation went on to support the creation of expansive collections of crop diversity through the Mexican Agricultural Program (and its later incarnations, the Inter-American Maize Program and CIMMYT, the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center) and other agricultural initiatives that it launched in the 1950s and 60s. These included an Indian-wide collection of sorghum and millet varieties that would become the basis of a “world collection” at the Indian Agricultural Research Institute in New Delhi and an assemblage of global rice varieties at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI, a joint Rockefeller-Ford project). By the 1960s, it had played a role in bringing together some of the most comprehensive collections of plant genetic resources in the world.

For the most part, the foundation viewed these collections of crop diversity as crucial resources for the present and future work of its breeding programs. But by 1960 many biologists were starting to think that such collections were important for the entire future of agriculture. They began to lobby for the creation of an international institution that would gather and protect in perpetuity the vast genetic diversity in agricultural plants. By 1970, this issue was further recast, with the collection and conservation of “plant genetic resources” no longer seen as a wise precautionary measure but instead an urgent conservation imperative.

What was behind this new sensibility? The short answer is the Green Revolution. By encouraging farmers to transition to high-yielding varieties as part of a larger package of agricultural change, the Rockefeller Foundation and others had accelerated a transition from the use of genetically diverse varieties to far more homogeneous ones that agriculturists had noted and worried about since the 1910s. In fact, the most common illustration of why the conservation of diverse landraces was urgently needed was the rapid spread of the Rockefeller Foundation’s high-yielding dwarf wheat varieties—derived from the same stock used in the Mexican program—across Indian and Pakistan in the late 1960s.

International organizations including especially the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the International Biological Programme (IBP) formulated ambitious plans for a response to the escalating loss of plant genetic diversity in the mid-1960s—including global collecting activities across a wide range of crops and their wild relatives, new regional and international seed banks, a coordinating agency, and more—only to see these founder for lack of financial and institutional support.

Meanwhile, the Rockefeller Foundation did not sit idly by. Officers of the Agricultural Sciences program, some of whom had participated in creating the varietal collections at CIMMYT and IRRI, felt strongly that the foundation had an important role to play in collecting and maintaining crop genetic diversity. At times, they even articulated that it was important for the foundation to act on this issue because of its culpability in the underlying problem! But unlike those working through FAO and IBP, who thought in idealists’ terms of what should be done on an international level to reverse a dangerous global trend, the Rockefeller Foundation officers thought practically, like the grant administrators they were. Their initial proposal for a “World Germplasm Project”—intended to address the same basic problem that concerned FAO and IBP—focused on four major crops, involved the creation of no new institutions, and would be overseen at close range by their agricultural institutes and at greater distance by the foundation itself.

This limited vision, borne no doubt of concern with financial and technical feasibility, would prove to be of enormous consequence in the early 1970s when the newly formed Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) decided that it would direct international aid to the conservation of plant genetic resources. Several Rockefeller Foundation administrators played a key role in redirecting the attention of CGIAR members from a broad and ambitious conservation agenda to something far more focused.

It is at this nexus that novel questions about the Green Revolution and the role of foundations within it arise: How did the Rockefeller Foundation successfully cast itself as expert in solving a potential agricultural crisis that it had fostered through its own agricultural development work? How did “thinking like a foundation” limit the possibilities for global conservation of agricultural biodiversity or for new international collaborations in this area? By exploring the unfolding of this neglected aspect of the Green Revolution—as I am currently doing through a project on the history of efforts to conserve agricultural biodiversity—we may well see its means and ends in a new light.

-Helen Anne Curry

Helen Anne Curry is Peter Lipton Lecturer in History of Modern Science and Technology at the University of Cambridge. She is the author of Evolution Made to Order: Plant Breeding and Technological Innovation in Twentieth-Century America (forthcoming 2016, University of Chicago Press). Her current research considers the global history of efforts made to preserve the genetic diversity of agricultural crops.

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