In September 2009, America lost three great leaders in philanthropy: Norman Borlaug, who died September 12; Irving Kristol, who died six days later; and Don Fisher, who passed away on September 27. Together, these three individuals represent the highest aspirations of philanthropy, and we salute them in this special section on “Adventurers in Philanthropy.”
“Something has happened,” USAID administrator William Gaud marveled in 1968. “Pakistan is self-sufficient in wheat and rice, and India is moving towards it. It wasn’t a red, bloody revolution as predicted. It was a green revolution.”
The phenomenon Gaud described was well known to his listeners, including Norman Borlaug, the Rockefeller Foundation agronomist who later recalled the conversation. Borlaug, who died on September 12, 2009, at the age of 95, was a principal leader of the Green Revolution. He is one of only six people to have won the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Congressional Gold Medal, and the Nobel Peace Prize. He is frequently credited with having saved one billion lives.
The story of this “green revolution” is a story of foundation resources marshaled to tremendous effect. Indeed, it is one of the great success stories in philanthropic history. Because of visionary philanthropy, world food production has steadily outstripped global population growth, and the threat of mass starvation looms less heavily over the developing world.
That success began in 1940, when Vice President–elect Henry Wallace traveled to Mexico. At the time, Mexico was forced to import over half its wheat and a significant portion of its maize. Appalled by the conditions he saw, Wallace met with Rockefeller Foundation officials, including the foundation’s president, Raymond Fosdick. Describing the plight of the Mexican poor, Wallace emphasized to Fosdick “that the all-important thing was to expand the means of subsistence.” For Rockefeller, hunger and malnutrition were tied closely to its longstanding efforts to combat disease among the poor. So, in 1943, the Rockefeller Foundation embarked with Mexico’s Ministry of Agriculture on the Mexican Agricultural Project (MAP), starting with an outlay of $20,000 for a survey, followed in 1944 by a $192,800 initial grant. Led by George Harrar (later the foundation’s president), the group included Borlaug and four other agricultural specialists.
Of them, it was Borlaug who would be credited as the movement’s hero. Born in 1914 in his grandfather’s farmhouse in northeastern Iowa, Borlaug initially studied forestry. Later, he switched to plant pathology at the urging of a mentor who later convinced him to join MAP. Borlaug established winter and summer operations in far-flung parts of Mexico, and he lived close to the land—fighting illness, floods, mudslides, and bad roads.
For almost 20 years, the Rockefeller team employed a three-part strategy to increase the yields of Mexico’s staple crops (maize, wheat, and beans). First, it worked to produce ever-better varieties of corn, wheat, potatoes, and other crops, and to develop ever-better methods of growing these crops. As soon as a new variety or technique was developed, it was put to use. “Research from the outset was production-oriented and restricted to that which was relevant to increasing wheat production,” Borlaug later recounted in his Nobel lecture. “Researches in pursuit of irrelevant academic butterflies were discouraged.”
Second, the Rockefeller team undertook a persistent outreach effort to teach Mexican farmers about the latest advances in agricultural science and convince them to take advantage of breakthroughs in seed varieties, fertilization, and irrigation.
Third, the foundation team helped train an indigenous corps of agronomists, plant protectionists, and other professionals. The foundation sponsored fellowships and scholarships enabling hundreds of Mexican students to study at American universities, as well as an internship program at its facilities in Mexico.
The goals of the project were simple: increase the yields of Mexico’s food staples without making Mexican agriculture dependent on outside involvement. Rather, as Borlaug described it, “the philosophy of the Rockefeller Foundation was to ‘help Mexico help itself’ in solving its food production problems, and in the process work itself out of a job.”
Progress with wheat (Borlaug’s division) was the earliest success. Borlaug and his colleagues developed varieties resistant to stem rust, which were distributed widely throughout the country. By 1956, Mexico was self-sufficient in its production of wheat, and it has remained so ever since. Between 1954 and 1961, Borlaug worked to produce a disease-resistant, high-yield, photo-insensitive dwarf wheat. He succeeded by crossing indigenous Mexican varieties with a Japanese dwarf wheat. Such dwarf wheat was superior to taller varieties because it expended more energy on growing grain and less on a tall stalk and because, unlike taller wheat, it did not collapse under its own weight when heavily laden with grain. When the first seeds of the new dwarf hybrid were distributed in 1961, wheat yields skyrocketed.
As other countries requested similar assistance, the benefits of Rockefeller-sponsored research spread throughout Latin America. But many nations were still ravaged by hunger. By the mid-1960s, India, already the world’s second-most-populous nation, consumed fully a quarter of all U.S. food aid each year. Explosive population growth cast doubt on whether nations like India, Pakistan, and the Philippines would ever be able to feed themselves. Indeed, many analysts were offering dire predictions that famine would inevitably (and imminently) devastate the developing world.
The Rockefeller Foundation looked for innovative solutions. In India, for example, Rockefeller partnered with USAID and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Together, they helped to found five new agriculture universities, which collaborated with their American counterparts on research and training.
But these efforts took time. In India, as in many of its neighboring countries, time was short. Perceiving that a “shortcut and organizational change had to be invented to meet the needs,” Borlaug and his colleagues developed what he called “the first truly international research and training institute, the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) . . . to work exclusively on the regionally all-important but too-long-neglected rice crop.” In 1959, the Ford Foundation joined the effort, contributing $7.15 million to build IRRI and an additional $750,000 for research and training. The Filipino government provided the land, and Rockefeller assumed primary responsibility for staffing and operation. IRRI became the first of four major international centers for agricultural research and training on which Rockefeller and Ford (and, subsequently, the W. K. Kellogg Foundation) collaborated. The centers served as clearinghouses from which the most up-to-date agricultural advances and crop varieties could be exported to food-deprived nations.
By 1965, food shortages on the Indian subcontinent had gotten so bad that the Indian and Pakistani governments began importing huge quantities of seed from the centers, especially after strong monsoons in 1966 and 1967 ravaged crop yields, increasing the global price of wheat and forcing greater acceptance of new techniques as a last resort. In India, Rockefeller staff members coordinated the government rice, wheat, and sorghum programs. Likewise, the foundation led the national maize program for its first eight years before handing control over to an Indian scientist.
Progress was extraordinary. The first time Borlaug and his associates planted on the subcontinent, they often worked in sight of artillery fire. Even though it was sowed late, the first crop increased yields by 70 percent. The next harvest, they increased by 98 percent. At IRRI, researchers developed IR8, widely hailed as “miracle rice” for its high yields. By 1967, just seven years after IRRI’s opening, the Philippines achieved self-sufficiency in rice. Also that year, the Turkish government imported dwarf wheat for the first time. Yields on the farms using the wheat doubled—and even tripled—their previous averages. In 1968, Pakistan, which by then had imported tens of thousands of tons of high-yield seed from the international centers, became self-sufficient in wheat. And by 1974, India, which Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich had once labeled “so far behind in the population-food game that there is no hope that our food aid will see them through to self-sufficiency,” was self-sufficient in the production of all cereals. It has remained so ever since.
Critics argue that the Green Revolution encouraged an over-reliance on chemicals in agriculture and opened the door to large corporate control in place of small-scale traditional farming. But, as Borlaug pointed out, “had we tried to use the technology of 1950 to produce the harvest of 2000 it would have taken an additional 2.75 billion acres of land.” Deforestation on such a massive scale would have been disastrous. Even more disastrous would have been the mass starvations once predicted for much of the developing world.
This is not to say that famine is not still a very real threat in many places. But, thanks to the Green Revolution, food production has essentially kept up with population growth. Global cereal production more than tripled between 1950 and 2000. And, despite its downsides, high-yield agriculture is credited with saving one billion lives since the mid-1960s. As the Nobel Committee said of Borlaug when it awarded him its prize for peace: “More than any other single person of this age, he has helped provide bread for a hungry world.”
Immense challenges remain. But the example of private philanthropy engaging with visionary scientists like Borlaug, relief organizations, and local governments—the collaboration that produced the Green Revolution—gives hope that it may yet be possible to reach population equilibrium without anyone’s worst fears coming to pass. Moreover, Borlaug’s experience demonstrates the tremendous impact that strategic philanthropy can achieve against such seemingly immense challenges.
Joel L. Fleishman is professor of law and public policy at Duke University. J. Scott Kohler is with the Partnership for Public Service in Washington, D.C. They are co-authors of the casebook for The Foundation: A Great American Secret.