“Wheat Man's Burden”: Wheat Rust, Trickle Down Agricultural Economics, and the Origins of the Green Revolution in Mexico (1842-1970)

John R. Garnett

Major Professor: Matthew B. Karush, PhD, Department of History and Art History

Committee Members: Joan C. Bristol, Peter N. Stearns

Online Location, Online
January 25, 2021, 09:30 AM to 11:30 AM

Abstract:

In 1943, the Rockefeller Foundation (RF) and Mexican government collaborated in the creation of the Mexican Agricultural Program (MAP) to boost the production of hybrid corn and wheat in Mexico. The Mexican government supported the creation of the MAP because it desired higher agricultural production to support urban industrialization, while the RF, with the blessing of the U.S. government, believed the creation of the MAP would help prevent Mexico from pivoting towards fascism during World War II. The MAP utilized a top down strategy in which it sought to provide middle- and upper-class farmers with new seed technology to boost staple crop production. Both hybrid corn and wheat were intended for urban consumers, principally in the middle- and upper- classes. The MAP’s wheat program would later be used as the model for the Green Revolution in the Global South beginning in the 1960s, and policymakers and philanthropists continue to evoke it today as a successful effort to combat rural poverty.

Much of the academic literature on the Green Revolution accepts the RF-constructed history of the foundation’s work in Mexico as an altruistic philanthropy aimed at alleviating rural poverty. Through a historical examination of the origins of the Green Revolution in Mexico, this dissertation argues that the MAP was never intended to help campesinos as producers or consumers. It is no surprise, therefore, that the MAP and subsequent Green Revolution increased rural inequality and did substantially less to alleviate rural poverty in the Global South than expected. Ultimately, this class-biased Green Revolution left a complicated legacy: the industrial agricultural model predicated on heavy fertilization developed by MAP scientists and farmers spread rapidly throughout the Global South and helped provision burgeoning urban populations in the second half of the twentieth century, but farmers and scientists paid little attention to the environmental consequences of their work. The Green Revolution successfully raised agricultural production in the short-term, but this resource-intensive agricultural model has now proven unsustainable and environmentally destructive in light of the current global climate crisis.

This dissertation seeks to better understand the seemingly glaring differences in outcomes of the MAP’s hybrid corn and wheat programs by focusing explicitly on wheat. Only around 10 percent of Mexican farmers adopted MAP hybrid corn seed technology, while over 90 percent adopted MAP wheat seed technology. In the first phase of the MAP’s wheat program, between 1943 and 1953, the MAP released wheat seed technology that mitigated damage caused by the most harmful environmental-economic problem faced by farmers: a plant fungus that emanated from the U.S., commonly known as wheat rust. This rust resistant wheat seed technology was resource-neutral, and it could have been the foundation for a subsequent green revolution that was both sustainable and potentially class-neutral. This was not to be the case. During the second phase of the MAP’s wheat program, between 1953 and 1970, the MAP released resource-intensive semidwarf wheat seed technology that produced explosive yields only when heavily fertilized. This resource-intensive second phase of the MAP’s wheat program became the model for the Green Revolution. Importantly, both Mexican and U.S. actors contributed to the development of semidwarf wheat seed technology which spawned the Green Revolution, and both parties were complicit in the spread of this resource-intensive agriculture globally.

This dissertation corrects popular and academic historical accounts that place the RF at the center of the Green Revolution and credit Norman E. Borlaug with its achievements. This coronation of Borlaug as the “father” of the Green Revolution peaked in 1970 when he received the Nobel Peace Prize for the creation of semidwarf wheat seed technology. The MAP’s wheat seed technology should not be viewed as proprietary technology of any one nation, individual, or institution because the MAP’s breeding work relied upon wheat seed technology from every inhabitable continent. The MAP’s wheat seed technology was born global, and it is best viewed as part of a longue durée process of agricultural globalization that began with the Columbian Exchange. The MAP’s breeding work was just one discrete step, albeit a critical one, in this global historical process.

At the heart of the MAP’s work laid Mexican farmers, scientists, agricultural workers, and government officials. Moreover, Mexico’s rich environmental diversity empowered the MAP’s scientific research: MAP scientists made novel scientific advances simply by treating Mexico as an “environmental laboratory” to conduct experiments. Mexican actors also assumed a leading role in the spread of the Green Revolution outside Mexico. Ignacio Narvaez led one of two flagship wheat improvement programs in Pakistan for which Borlaug received the credit when he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Rather than view the Green Revolution as a case of technology transfer from center to periphery, from Global North to Global South, this commodity-centered dissertation seeks to reorient future scholarship to explore the south-south transnational connections that facilitated the expansion of the Green Revolution globally.