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.
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