Centre for History of Science, Technology & Medicine
University of Manchester, UK
The programmes of US-sponsored agricultural development since the 1940s known as the ‘Green Revolution’ (GR) were remarkably successful in increasing cereals production in various third world countries. By the 1970s, however, these programmes were coming in for criticism for failing to achieve their declared aim: to alleviate world hunger. A major reason for their failure, it was argued, was that although the GR’s high-yielding plant varieties and intensive cultivation techniques were being adopted by large commercial farmers, peasant farmers lacked both the capital and the appropriate growing conditions necessary to take advantage of the new technology. That the GR’s planners and scientists should have devised such an inappropriate technology is puzzling in view of previous developments in Central European plant-breeding. For in the years after 1900 several states there established plant-breeding stations which were explicitly designed to help peasant-farmers to obtain the benefits of the new intensive cultivation methods. Moreover there are preliminary indications that these stations had a substantial impact upon the agricultural economies in their regions. Why, then, was something like the Central European model not adopted by the GR’s designers?
In this paper I look briefly at the approaches taken toward agricultural development by certain Rockefeller-sponsored programmes in Europe and the United States during the 1920s and 1930s. I then focus upon the design and early history of the Mexican Agricultural Program MAP). What emerges is that the scientists who played a central role in designing the MAP almost certainly were aware of the Central European stations. Indeed, quite a few of the features of the original Mexican programme were similar to the European ‘peasant-friendly’ approach. But the Program’s lack of control over key processes and institutions central to the extension service, along with the political constraints under which they were working, induced a retreat from the MAP’s original ambitious goals. The resulting modus vivendi by about 1950 was to concentrate upon developing new varieties and techniques of interest to enthusiastic large farmers while leaving responsibility for extension – the process crucial for reaching peasant-farmers – to the Mexican authorities.