In the early 1940s, disease was destroying half of the wheat harvest in Mexico, and the country’s farmers (like many others in the developing world) were unable to produce enough food to meet demand in their own country. The trustees of the Rockefeller Foundation became interested in the problem, which they considered a logical extension of their existing large efforts in international public health and the biological sciences.
In 1943, the Rockefeller Foundation gave $20,000 for an initial survey of Mexican agriculture; the following year they spent $192,800 to construct and equip a research lab in the country. In 1944 they hired DuPont scientist Norman Borlaug and others to staff the initiative. The project created entirely new varieties of wheat, corn, and potatoes that were tolerant of stress. Farmers were taught to fertilize and irrigate. Crop yields improved dramatically, and Mexico became a net exporter of food. In 1954, when stem rust devastated American wheat production, Borlaug’s research was modified to rescue American agriculture as well.
By 1961, the Ford Foundation had joined forces with the Rockefeller Foundation to extend the so-called Green Revolution to Asia and Africa. Ford’s initial $7.2 million grant helped build a research station in the Philippines; stations in three other nations soon followed. Cross-trait varieties of many staple crops were developed, chemical fertilizers were introduced, and food shortages were alleviated all across the world. In India and Pakistan, wheat yields were doubled. Life in China and other parts of the east was transformed by high-yield, disease-resistant rice. Nations previously described as “basket cases” were now able to feed themselves without strain.
During its 50-year involvement, the Rockefeller Foundation invested $600 million in the Green Revolution. Its employee Norman Borlaug was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. And it is estimated that, overall, the philanthropically led transfer of hybrid crops and modern farming techniques to the developing world may have saved up to a billion humans from painful death by starvation.
- Rockefeller Foundation timeline, rockefellerfoundation.org/uploads/files/ff61301b-15d4-4783-8109-78e0e1b930ab-norman.pdf
- Nobel citation for Borlaug, nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/peace/laureates/1970/borlaug-bio.html
- Borlaug interview in Philanthropy magazine, philanthropyroundtable.org/topic/excellence_in_philanthropy/mouths_wide_open