The Green Revolution

A Practitioner’s History of the Green Revolution

Editors’ Note: Gary Toenniessen, who worked for more than four decades on agricultural policy for the Rockefeller Foundation, continues HistPhil’s forum on the Green Revolution.

When I joined the Rockefeller Foundation in 1971, I quickly learned from my experienced colleagues the value of history as a resource for program development. The Foundation’s cooperative work in Mexico was not the beginning of its investments in agriculture as I had initially assumed. Rather the team in Mexico had drawn on lessons learned from a half century of fighting rural poverty through agricultural research and farmer training in the US. Similarly the Green Revolution in Asia was built on experience gained and lessons learned in Latin America. During my time at the Foundation we have continued to use history as a valuable resource to better understand how experiences in one location and one moment in time can help shape new work in other places.

The Green Revolution’s Precursors: The GEB and the Rockefeller Sanitary Commission

The historical roots of the Green Revolution date back to the beginning of the twentieth century with the early philanthropic work of the General Education Board (GEB). Devised by Frederick T. Gates, philanthropic advisor to John D. Rockefeller, and largely funded by Mr. Rockefeller, the GEB was chartered by the US Congress in 1903 for the purpose of providing aid to education in the United States without distinction of race, sex or creed. Building on earlier investments and insights of the Peabody Education Fund, the GEB focused initially on extending and strengthening publicly funded school systems throughout the South, a region still recovering from the Civil War where 80% of the people were dependent on small family farms for their livelihoods and where many remained in poverty. Wallace Buttrick, the first president of the GEB, achieved early success by supporting a network of local champions for publicly funded education in each state. He and Gates soon realized, however, that many local governments did not have a sufficient tax base to continue financing the new schools. Since agriculture was the mainstay of the Southern economy, they saw greater income from farming as a key to helping local governments sustain funding for public services including education. To stimulate such farm-based economic growth the GEB turned to Seaman A. Knapp, a man who already had a proven record of providing practical training to farmers.

Knapp had been a successful farmer, a college professor and a farm leader. In 1905 he became a special agent of the US Department of Agriculture charged with curbing the spread of the Mexican boll weevil. He and his team of agents used on-farm demonstrations to teach farmers scientifically based yet practical methods for controlling the boll weevil and for improving overall farm productivity and profits. Where Knapp worked farm incomes rose significantly. Knapp’s farmer training program was just what the GEB was looking for to grow the local tax base. From 1906 – 1914 the GEB provided nearly $1 million (about $25 million today) to USDA to help expand Knapp’s farm demonstration movement across 13 southern states. At its peak roughly 800 agents, most working at the county level, promoted Knapp’s “Ten Commandments of Agriculture”. In 1914, in large part due to the success of Knapp’s program, the US Congress passed the Smith-Lever Act providing federal funds to help support county-based agricultural extension agents across the country.

In 1909, Buttrick, Gates and their Rockefeller colleagues learned of another opportunity to help rural families in the South. Hookworm remained a major cause of disability there, particularly among children, even though there were proven methods for its diagnosis, cure and prevention. To attack this problem Gates obtained $1 million from Mr. Rockefeller to establish the Rockefeller Sanitary Commission for the Eradication of Hookworm which strengthened state and local health agencies and helped them mobilize campaigns against hookworm. In North Carolina, John Ferrell, a young MD and former teacher, led one of the most successful state campaigns, assuring that all students attending public schools were tested for hookworm, and if infected, treated. Buttrick, Ferrell and their colleagues all recognized that both expansion of public school systems and improved public health benefited greatly by working in the same counties where Seaman Knapp’s farmer training programs were generating higher farm incomes. In 1913 the Sanitary Commission was merged into the newly formed Rockefeller Foundation as a subsidiary unit working globally. John Ferrell was hired by the Foundation as an Associate Director, initially responsible for continuing the hookworm campaigns in the South and later for managing the RF’s public health programs in Mexico and Canada as well as the US.

The Green Revolution’s Roots: Setting up a Program in Mexico

Over the next three decades the Rockefeller Foundation and the funds that were merged into it supported a number of lesser known but important programs on agricultural development. In China this included the rural reconstruction movement of James Yen and the strengthening of plant breeding at Nanking University. In Europe it included Knapp-type farmer training in several countries as well as crop and animal research. In Latin America, however, the focus remained on health with little funding for agriculture. This was of concern to John Ferrell. He had experienced the strong synergy across Rockefeller funded health, agriculture and education programs in North Carolina. Now he was in charge of the Foundation’s public health programming in Mexico and he saw a very similar situation. Most of the people the RF was trying to help lived on subsistence level farms and many suffered from poor nutrition as well as disease. They had little or no income for healthcare and local governments had no source of funds for public services. Ferrell argued that agricultural development was a public health issue and ought to be part of the RF’s Mexican program. The RF leadership, however, was not prepared to shift funding away from successful programs in Europe and Asia to Mexico. Ferrell did not give up. Rather he recruited the newly appointed US Ambassador to Mexico, Josephus Daniels, as a partner and advocate for his position. This was not difficult since Daniels was a fellow North Carolinian who had written about Knapp’s farm demonstrations and Ferrell’s anti-hookworm campaign as a young journalist in Raleigh. Furthermore, such a program would fit nicely into the “Good Neighbor Policy” recently announced by President Franklin Roosevelt. Daniels wrote a letter to the RF recommending that the Foundation support a Knapp-type farm demonstration program in Mexico. Ferrell followed up with a memo to the RF president, Raymond Fosdick, suggesting that the RF send a few representatives to Mexico to study the needs and opportunities in agriculture and to outline a constructive program. It still took until 1940 before Fosdick responded somewhat positively, requesting additional information and seeking the opinion of others. By then World War II was limiting the RF’s ability to work in Europe and Asia and Fosdick was prepared to redirect resources to Latin America.

At the same time, Henry Wallace, the new US vice president-elect, former Secretary of Agriculture and seed specialist, was sent to represent the US at the inauguration of Mexico’s new president. Wallace stayed on in Mexico for a month, meeting with Ambassador Daniels and conducting a personal tour of Mexican agriculture. When he returned to the US, Ferrell convinced Fosdick to meet with Wallace in Washington. Not surprisingly, Wallace encouraged the RF to begin agricultural work in Mexico focused on increasing farm productivity and improving nutrition. Fosdick finally agreed – there was a real opportunity for RF agricultural programming in Latin America and Mexico would be a good place to start. To confirm this conclusion and to identify exactly what should be done, in 1941 the RF recruited three experts to conduct a thorough survey of Mexican agriculture and to recommend a course of action.  What they found was not what Ferrell and others had expected. Unlike Knapp’s farm demonstration movement where the advice and training provided to farmers were built on a half-century of field based agricultural research in the US, Mexico had no comparable body of knowledge and essentially no effective extension. The course of action recommended and pursued was first to support field based research on crops and livestock important in Mexico and then to use the results to teach farmers more productive methods well adapted to local conditions.

To assure that the focus remained on field research producing practical results, the RF sent a small team of its own agricultural scientists to work collaboratively with Mexican scientists. This collaboration, designated the Office of Special Studies (OSS) within the Ministry of Agriculture, included a formal training program for young Mexican scientists with the expectation that they would eventually replace the RF scientists. Field research began in 1943. By 1945 the OSS team had 7 RF scientists and 22 Mexican scientists working to improve production of maize, wheat, sorghum and beans. Good progress was made and by 1948 Mexico did not have to import maize for the first time in 35 years. By 1950 over 60% of Mexico’s significantly expanded wheat crop was planted to rust resistant varieties developed by the OSS. Based on this early success the research program was expanded to include additional crops and young scientists from other countries joined the training programs in Mexico. Within 14 years the OSS team grew to 17 RF scientists and 70 Mexican scientists working on maize, wheat, sorghum, beans, potatoes, rice, soybeans, tomatoes, peppers, squash, peas, melons, garlic, forage crops, green manure crops, cattle and poultry. New varieties of all these crops were disseminated to Mexican farmers along with training in soil fertility management and pest control. Potatoes moved from being a minor crop to become an important staple food in Mexico. Greatly increased sorghum production provided the feed for expanding the cattle, poultry and dairy industries. More and higher quality vegetables helped to improve nutrition. In 1956, for the first time, Mexican farmers produced enough food to feed the country.

The Green Revolution Expands: Agricultural Work in Mexico, South America and Asia

As trainees returned home and as word of the Mexican success spread, the RF received and accepted invitations from other countries to start OSS-type collaborations. Colombia was first with Chile and India next. In India the initial focus was on maize, sorghum and millets, plus the overall strengthening of research and graduate training at the India Agricultural Research Institute. Most RF scientists assigned to India had previously worked in Latin America and brought with them tropical maize and sorghum lines for field testing and breeding. In 1957 they helped establish and provided co-leadership for the All India Coordinated Maize Improvement Project which facilitated the sharing and multi-location testing of breeding lines across the country. Four new maize hybrids were released in 1961 with one or more adapted to all the major regions of India. With RF support, a National Seed Corporation was established in 1963 to help disseminate the new seeds to Indian farmers.

Back in Mexico the OSS team that had developed the rust resistant wheats continued making improvements in their new varieties. To speed the breeding process, this team, led by Norman Borlaug, used an unconventional breeding method called shuttle breeding. They grew one generation in northern Mexico during the short days of winter, harvested seed and shipped it south to the highlands to grow the next generation during the long days of summer, and then sent seed back north again for the next winter planting. This process not only halved the time required to breed new varieties, it also selected for plants that were no longer sensitive to day length. The plants had become photoperiod insensitive, were broadly adaptable and would grow at any time of the year. Borlaug and his team also worked on another trait he knew could be important. In 1953 he had received seed from a wheat breeder in Washington State that was the progeny of a cross made with winter wheat and a dwarf wheat obtained from Japan during the occupation after World War II. A few plants grown in the greenhouse from this seed produced enough pollen to cross onto the team’s tall rust resistant Mexican wheats. This was the first step in a long breeding program designed to combine useful traits from both parents into higher yielding new varieties. In 1960 the first of the resulting semi-dwarf wheat varieties were grown in Mexico and in 1962 they were officially released and sent to other countries for testing. They produced multiple tillers with larger panicles and had short, sturdy stems to support the weight of heavy heads of grain. They were also early maturing, day length insensitive and rust resistant. Like nearly all wheat varieties they were true breeding, so farmers could save, share or sell a portion of their harvest as seed for the next planting. Under irrigated and well fertilized conditions the semi-dwarf varieties yielded 2 – 3 times more than traditional varieties and they spread rapidly across Mexico.

In 1961 a rice breeding program with similar objectives was initiated in the Philippines. Rice was by far the most important food crop in Asia and the Rockefeller Foundation, the Ford Foundation and the Government of the Philippines had joined forces to establish the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) at Los Banos. The RF sent experienced scientists from Mexico and Colombia to help staff the new institute, including rice breeder, Peter Jennings. Jennings and his colleagues knew exactly what they wanted to produce – a semi-dwarf rice variety that was early maturing, day length insensitive, responsive to fertilizer, pest resistant and true breeding. They had collected breeding materials worldwide and they made many crosses, including one between a dwarf rice from Taiwan and a tall tropical rice from Indonesia. Several promising, semi-dwarf progeny from that cross were further developed with one, to be named IR8, being especially high yielding. In 1966 IR8 was approved for release, disseminated to farmers in the Philippines and sent to other countries for testing.

In the mid-1960s the food situation in India and Pakistan, which then included Bangladesh, was growing dire, with increased dependency on food aid. Yields of staple food crops remained low, droughts were limiting harvests and famine was predicted. Fortunately, in both countries the semi-dwarf wheats that had been sent for testing were performing well with exceptionally high yields when irrigated and fertilized. Despite some initial skepticism, the Asian scientists and government officials began to recognize the potential of the Mexican wheats and welcomed visits and advice from Norman Borlaug. He immediately perceived that the Mexican wheats and the semi-dwarf rices he knew were being developed in the Philippines could help to address South Asia’s food crisis. He and the two foundations helped both countries obtain enough seed for countrywide testing and on-farm demonstrations. In irrigated areas yields were the highest ever recorded and farmers demanded more seed. Drawing on lessons learned from the earlier collaboration on maize, the All India Coordinated Wheat Improvement Project was established in 1965 and the All India Coordinated Rice Improvement Project in 1966. Both India and Pakistan imported shiploads of semi-dwarf wheat seed from Mexico and semi-dwarf rice seed from the Philippines, greatly accelerating the seed bulking and dissemination process through the National Seed Corporation. Since the farmers could save, share or sell a portion of their harvest as seed for the next planting, the semi-dwarf varieties spread rapidly, particularly across the vast irrigated areas of South Asia.

To facilitate adoption of the new technology governments provided credit for the purchase of inputs and established a floor price for grain. Farmers were given a complete package; high yielding seeds with instructions on how to plant them, how to fertilize and how to manage weeds and pests. The resulting yields per crop were 2 – 3 fold higher, and due to their early maturity and day length insensitivity these crops could be grown successively during the entire year, giving annual production totals that were 4 – 6 fold higher. The 365-day growing season increased both labor use efficiency and the demand for labor, generating greater income for farm laborers as well as farmers. As farm incomes rose there was a general increase in the demand for goods and services, stimulating the overall rural economy. As total production increased the market price of grain declined, benefiting all consumers. Agriculture became a significant source of national economic growth and governments invested in expansion of irrigation and fertilizer production. The new technology and increased production spread so rapidly that William Gaud, the USAID Administrator, declared it a “Green Revolution”. By 1968 Pakistan was self-sufficient in wheat production and by 1974 India was self-sufficient in cereal production. And as had previously occurred in the southern US, local governments had increased funds to invest in healthcare and education.

In the late 1960s, based on the success of IRRI, the Rockefeller Foundation began shifting its strategy from country programs to the building of international centers that could facilitate and promote agricultural development on a global basis. New centers were created to focus on many additional crops, on dry and semiarid areas, on livestock and fisheries, and on food policy, genetic resources, irrigation and forestry. When I joined the Foundation in 1971, funding was also being provided to address environmental and social problems associated with the Green Revolution. Good progress, albeit more incremental progress, continued to be made.

-Gary Toenniessen

Gary Toenniessen worked on Rockefeller Foundation agricultural programs from 1971 to 2013, the last 13 years as Director.  He helped the Foundation address environmental problems associated with the Green Revolution, develop rice biotechnology and improve farm productivity and profitability in Africa.  His most recent book is Securing the Harvest: Biotechnology, Breeding and Seed Systems for African Crops (Cavi, 2001).

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