The involvement of the Rockefeller Foundation in the Green Revolution: Structural Underdevelopment through Agricultural Reforms



by Madalena Kresimon


1. Introduction

“It took almost 10,000 years for food grain production to reach 1 billion tons, in 1960, and only 40 years to reach 2 billion tons, in 2000. This unprecedented increase, which has been named the ‘green revolution’, resulted from the creation of genetically improved crop varieties, combined with the application of improved agronomic practices.” (Kush 2001: 8).

The fight against world hunger has been on the agenda of many international institutions, NGOs and foundations for a long time and the struggle is still going on: According to the Global Report on Food crisis (Food Security Information Network 2017: 15) “108 million people in 2016 (…) were reported to be facing crisis food insecurity or worse (…).” Numbers are expected to grow due climate change and major conflicts such as the ongoing war in Ukraine. Therefore, it is worth looking at program that caused a leap in agricultural productivity in the 20th Century. When looking more closely at the program, its consequence and its main supporter, the Rockefeller Foundation, one realizes how politically charged it was during the time it was taking place. One also must view it in front of the background of the unequal power relationship between the Global North and the Global South. As Reinton (1973: 58) describes it “The green revolution is the most ambitious technology produced by Western interests, and demonstrates more clearly than most aid projects how good intentions cause misery.”

The aim of this paper is to illuminate the Rockefeller Foundation started Green Revolution, with its strength and weaknesses in the context of its political meaning. The questions I will be trying to answer are which political goals it served and in which patterns of neocolonialism, global injustice and structural underdevelopment can be observed in these agrarian reforms. Central will be Mexico, were the program started, and India, as it has often been focused on in the perception of the green revolution, also because of the political role it played (Pielke/ Linnér 2019: 273). Next to these countries Africa will also be covered, as the continent has long been suffering from a lack of agrarian self-sufficiency. In a first step general information and a description of the short fallings of the Green Revolution will be provided. Secondly, background Information on the Rockefeller Foundation and their political motivations to get involved in the agrarian reforms will be given. Thirdly an Overview between the historic connection of underdevelopment and agriculture will be given before connecting these findings with the patterns of the green revolution. In this way a conclusion that aims to answer the questions raised can hopefully be offered.


2. The Green Revolution

2.1 Goals and history

The term ‚Green Revolution‘, was coined in 1968 and refers to a radical change in agriculture in so called developing countries in the middle of the 20th century (Pielke/Linnér 2019: 270). The proclaimed goal of the Green Revolution was preventing a great famine, expected to occur due to a rise in population in the periphery. In Asia, for example, available land was already being used and the population was growing bigger and older due to medical inventions (Kush 2001: 815). Research on increasing agricultural productivity was started in the developed world as food security was one of its main concerns after World War II. Political consequences of expected famines, such as revolts, were also going to be impacting the developed world. (Butz/Wu 2004: 12).

With the help of the Rockefeller Foundation, research was started on how to prevent the predicted famines in underdeveloped countries (Butz/Wu 2004: 11). The cornerstone of their program was the use of new agricultural technologies. More specifically new crops were introduced such as high-yielding varieties (HYVs), particularly of rice, maize, and wheat. These varieties were also chosen based on their stability meaning genetic traits such as “wide adaptation (adaptability to diverse environments); short growth duration; resistance to biotic stresses (diseases and insects); tolerance to abiotic stresses (such as drought and flooding); and superior grain quality” (Kush 2001: 815- 816). Moreover, the development of fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, and irrigation systems played a part in the Green Revolution (Butz/Wu 2004: 11). These different approaches to increase food production could only work interdependently. For example, plants were developed with a better response to fertilizers and new fertilizers were developed. This combination of methods could not only increase the yield but also ensure that it was generally more stable (Cleaver 1972: 177). Further, local scientist were trained to spread the techniques in the underdeveloped countries and do additionaly research on the domestic conditions. This training was funded by public governmental and non-governmental groups, while the costs of adaption of the technologies were not financed by international interest groups. Farmers that wanted to partake in this revolution needed to take loans to buy the steeds, that sometimes costed 60% more than the traditional seeds (Butz/Wu 2004: 15-17).

The Green Revolution was most successful in Asia, where reformed wheat production technically was more than sufficient to feed the population (Kush 2001: 816). Further it helped increase agriculture productivity in Latin America and the UK, where the government was worried the Britain couldn’t be self-sufficient after depending on their colonies for so long (Butz/Wu 2004: 18, 22). Although research institutions were established in Africa the local food production has not sufficiently increased. A possible explanation for this could be different climate and general agricultural condition that did not allow for a simple transmission of the methods (ibid.: 23-26).

2.2 Short fallings of the Green Revolution

Despite honorable goals, the programs impact can be judged as less groundbreaking than one could expect from a Green “Revolution”. Moreover, it did not bring the social reforms necessary to sufficiently help underdeveloped countries (Reinton 1973: 58). Before critically addressing the underlying political goals and social consequences of the Green Revolution a closer look at the material goals of the Green Revolution- Increasing yields and preventing famines- needs to be taken.

The Green Revolution could only be stylized as a revolution because of the famine that was predicted to occur in the Global South. It has been claimed that this prediction only served as a pretext to give American scientists more influence. This allegation as well as all criticism towards the Green Revolutions practices need to be put into their historical context of the Cold war and the USA´s “red scare” politics during this time (Pielke/Linnér 2019: 271- 273). While it remains unsure whether the predicted severe famines would have occurred without the deep reaching measures from the Green Revolution there are consequences of the agricultural reforms that can be criticized with more certainty. The agronomist Norman Borlaug, who won a Nobel Peace prize in 1970 for his leading role in the Green Revolution (ibid.) deconstructed the idea of a revolution by stating “Perhaps the term ‚Green Revolution‘, as commonly used, is premature, too optimistic, or too broad in scope. Too often it seems to convey the impression of a general revolution in yields per hectare and in total production of all crops throughout vast areas comprising many countries. Sometimes it also implies that all farmers are uniformly benefited by the breakthrough in production.” (Borlaug 1970). The effects of the revolution have differed between regions and had, as already mentioned, no significant effect in Africa. Additionally, the evaluation of the effects varies.  Some see the effects of the revolution as “meagre” when assesing the per-capita increase of agricultural production (Reinton 1973: 58). This begs the question, whether the goal of reducing the experience of hunger was reached, which is more a question of nutrition than simply of hectares of acres or tons of wheat produced by a nation. Studies have shown that diversification in crops and education are more efficient in ensuring household nutrition than the introduction of modern agricultural technology (Bamji 2000: 171-173). Consequently, evaluations of the Green Revolution have a blind spot when only looking at food security in terms of total yield because this doesn’t allow inferences about the well-being of the people.

The claim that the Green Revolution universally led to more yield with the same amount of land does not apply to India. In fact, the increase in yield of 32% between 1965-1970[1] is accompanied by an increase in planted area of 24%. On the other hand, the increase in wheat production in Mexico during the same period cannot be attributed to an increase in the area used for planting wheat. Wheat production increased 63% (Pielke/Linnér 2019: 276). We cannot deny that the Green Revolution increased crop production. However, it remains unsure whether the increase could only have occur with the measures the Green Revolutionaries used (Reinton 197: 59). Another point of uncertainty is how reliable governments statistics measured the increase in crop production because of different statistical methods, levels the data was collected at (village headmen, random samples) and because of the expectations the governments had of the Green Revolution (Farmer 1986: 178).

The measures of the Green Revolution had goals such as “changing economies and offering hope for food self-sufficiency in developing nations” (Shubinski 2022). These are far-reaching development policy targets for philanthropic aid organizations.  A closer look at the political background of the Green Revolutions and its initiators is necessary to assess the procedures critically.


3.The Rockefeller Foundation

3.1 History and background of the Rockefeller foundation

The Rockefeller Foundation has, committed to “improving access to electricity, food, healthcare and economic opportunity. (…) (T)hrough creative partnerships and innovative investments to extract more value from data and private capital.” ( While numbers of famine mortality have been falling, countries with a lower GDP in the Global South are still suffering from famines (Hasel/Roser 2013). Consequently, the Rockefeller Foundation, its claims, political incentives, and practices need to be looked at carefully.

J.D. Rockefeller, endowed the Rockefeller Foundation in 1914. Rockefeller is the founder of the Standard Oil Company and the richest man of his time (Roy 2014: 29). The foundation belongs to the “big three” philanthropic foundations alongside the Ford Foundation and the Carnegie Foundation that have been argued to have played an essential part in building American hegemony in the 20th century (Parmar 2012: 2). philanthropic organizations, mainly acting as donors for NGOs first occurred in the US. The foundations´ relationship to the public and elected politicians has varied over time as there have been concerns such as that foundations money-based influence would be too big and surpassing the people´s wants to follow company goals (Rodin 2013: 14-16). The Rockefeller Foundation puts itself in the tradition of de Tocqueville claiming that “tensions are fundamentally creative” and therefore conflict and plurality that is created through the foundation will be beneficial for democracy worldwide (Rodin 2013: 14-16). Regarding international goals and methods to reach them “the Foundation is focused on four core commitments: to end energy poverty, achieve health for all, nourish the world, and expand economic opportunity. (They) are pursuing these goals through innovative partnerships and through impact investments that find new ways to leverage private capital for social good.” (

It was observed that the appearance of Foundations correlated with economic growth (Akira 2002: 12) and it can be argued that the Foundations are stepping in to take over responsibilities, that traditionally the state would take (Parmar 2012: 6). The United Nations (UN), the CIA and the Council on Foreign relations (CFR) are exemplary institutions the Rockefeller Foundation financed (Tournès 2014: 323-324, Parmar 2012: 12). The Rockefeller Foundation can be described as more conservative than the Ford Foundation (Roy 2014.: 3). Nonetheless their common concern has been the support of American academy worldwide and they are both closely linked to industrial corporations (Parmar 2012: 2). During the time of the Green Revolution the Rockefeller Foundation was mainly trying to “socialize and integrate American and foreign elites and developed formal and informal international organizations.” (Parmar 2012: 3).

3.2 The Rockefeller Foundations political involvement in the Green Revolution

Out of its proclaimed objectives the foundation started the Mexican Agricultural Program (MAP), which ran from 1943 to 1965. The goal of the MAP was to “help Mexico create an agricultural science establishment to improve the productivity of staple foods.” (Perkins 1990: 7). Researchers were sent to Mexico to develop a method to resolve the hunger problem. The researchers decided on an approach that focused on a centralized, top-down organization within the Mexican government.  Consequently “The Office of Special Studies”, that would coordinate teaching about the new agricultural technologies was established (Shubinski 2022). Additionally, Borlaug started the International Center for the Improvement of Corn and Wheat (CIMMYT) (Pielke/Linnér 2019: 272) that did research on the development of seed-fertilizer packets for yield increasement (Reinton 1973: 59).

This approach of building infrastructure within a foreign government by a philanthropic foundation was completely new. Further, the Foundation stepped from only funding projects to actively engaging and operating the project. Its involvement in Mexico was initiated as due to the World War II programs in Europe and China couldn’t be operated and the philanthropic employees needed an occupation (Perkins 1990: 7-9).  Generally speaking, the Cold War was an event that shaped the philanthropic work: According to Raymond Fosdick, the foundations president at the time, the competition between the east and the west called for new level of philanthropic activity (Mueller 2013: 111-112). Hence the involvement in foreign agricultural politics that came with this aid program clearly served domestic political interests. In Mexico, where the building blocks for the Green Revolution were laid, it was desired to take massive influence on the structure of the Mexican economy: Socialist trends were to be pushed back and industrialization pushed forward: The industrialized agriculture, created through the technological measures of the Green Revolution, would need less labor. Hence, there would be more available labor for the industrial sector. Further, the urban industrial work force would need to be fed sufficiently with less manpower available in the agricultural Sector (Butz/Wu 2004: 26-29).

Concerning India, leading scientists of the Foundation Weaver, Harrar and Mangesldorf assumed, that India could impossibly resolve problems that would occur due to the quick growth in population, such as lack of food on its own. Therefore, they argued, India would turn communist without the knowledge from western scientists that could reform the country (Perkins 1973: 11). The foundation would ensure its independence from the US government to India, but it cannot be denied that the common goal was to “to foster the development of liberal democratic capitalism rather than see either socialism or fascism make further inroads.” (Butz/ Wu 2004: 29). The process of industrialization in India was desired by some leaders to be able to compete on the world market (ibid.:27). Hence, the aim to industrialize as well as the political motives and desired were similar in both Mexico and India.

The Rockefeller Foundation also had a specific interest in working with the Mexican government as a foundation that was endowed by the owner of the Standard Oil company: The socialist president Cárdenas had expropriated the oil companies in Mexico, including Standard Oil and implemented agrarian reforms that were based on distributing land more equally. This included the expropriation of US held land. The negotiations had already started during Cárdenas presidency but could, for these reasons, only be continued after the new president Camacho came to power who was willing to negotiate giving back the oil properties (Perkins 1973:8, 16).

To illustrate how else the Rockefeller Foundation involvement in Mexico helped them gain control to promote their own interests one can look at the public health programs in Mexico as an example. The idea of implementing public health can be dated back to colonial times, where its motives can also be located (Birn 1993: 4). Later the Rockefeller Foundation focused on diseases that were not the deadliest for the people in less developed countries, but for the productivity on the countries. Additionally building public health structures can help gain control over infrastructure to lay it out in their interest (ibid. 8). These examples show that while the claimed ideals might not be condemnable the implementation tends to serve other goals and the means might not be suitable.  The Indian writer and political activist Arundhati Roy sheds light on the role of corporate philanthropy and foundations in India in her books “Capitalism: A Ghost Story” and “Walking with comrades”, where she describes how foreign foundations like the Rockefeller Foundation, but also the Ford foundation, fund education and arts projects to train people in their interest and buy out political movements that are opposed of their projects (Roy 2014: 29-31, 45-46).


4. The Green Revolution as an underdevelopment mechanism

4.1 Underdevelopment and agriculture

As Walter Rodney (1982: 3-4) describes it, economic development means “dealing with” nature or “winning a living” from it to improve quality of life. Further he explains, referring to the difference in development in Africa and Europe, that developed countries have highly industrialized and technological and therefore productive agricultural sectors in common. Meanwhile underdeveloped countries main activity is often in agriculture, but it is less productive than European agriculture (ibid. 16). Underdevelopment on the other hand can be, described as “income polarization, social dislocation, push migration, and economic involution” (Lakshman 1973: 350).  The issue of the role agriculture plays in the process of systematic underdevelopment is a broad one, that I will only look at briefly here, before illuminating the role that the Green Revolution more specifically might have played in manifesting underdevelopment.

The role of agriculture in development has several facets: In Marxist theory the beginning of the industrial revolution was conditioned by the expropriation of the farming community on the countryside because it created a demand work and a new market for industrial products. In modern agrarian-economic theory the so called “Agrarian Question” is raised which deals with similar interrelations. The crux of the question is whether modernizing agriculture in underdeveloped countries could led to more prospering, industrialized economies in the Global South or not because of fundamentally different premises for industrialization in the 19th and 21st century (Carlson 2018: 704- 705). It can also be argued that the industrial revolution in the center could only occur because of the cheap imports of primary products, such as agricultural products, from the periphery, that was forced onto the periphery (Patnaik 2021: 83). This new pattern essentially gave the countries their roles as agricultural or industrial countries. Because of competitive capitalism between the countries of the Center the industrial countries did not only need to import agricultural products, they needed to import them in a profit maximizing way and minimize their spending on production. Hence the agricultural sectors in the periphery also needed to be structured to be more profit oriented. Moreover, industrialization called for a bigger supply in cheap food to reproduce the increase in labor required in the western industries (Amin 1976: 184).


The evolvement of capitalism from pre-capitalist modes of production therefore did not occur because of internal changes, as it did in Europe. Instead “methods that are purely and simply methods of violence” were applied (ibid. 204-205). The colonial agricultural production with the introduction of compulsory crops is exemplary for these forced changes. The production of crops for export in tropical Africa was damaging the peoples food supply, as it needed to be performed additionally to subsistence farming to provide for the people’s needs (ibid.). In colonial west India labor was mainly recruited for timber, tea, and cinchona (Besky 2021: 434). Cinchona plants are an example of plants that were introduced to a colony for commercial purposes: The plants place of origin was South America but the commercial potential to harvest it there was limited, therefor Cinchona was introduced to India by the East India Company (Royal Botanic Gardens 1931: 114), where it was harvested on plantations. Next to the forceful introduction of a different economic pattern, agriculture is connected to underdevelopment in other ways. Underdevelopment can create food insecurities within the countries: When more labor is needed for cash cropping plantations there is less labor for subsistence farming which creates a lack of nutrition for the population in the periphery and regional disparities between areas where circumstances are favorable for high-yield agriculture for export to the colonial centers and areas where these circumstances aren’t given. An example of this pattern is colonial Nigeria (Logan 2020).  In colonial India the pre-capitalist industries, such as the textile industry, were destroyed by British imports. Followingly the craftsman had to look for opportunities to make a living in agriculture. The revenues from rice and paddy agriculture, which tended to be relatively small due to lack of modern techniques, often were mainly exported to areas were tea or cotton was commercially planted. Consequently, there were frequent food shortages in the formerly industrialized areas (Gough 1977: 545- 546).  The British colonial rule also aggravated inequalities between farmers as high land revenues were requested that often only the owners of more land could pay for. Smaller landowners followingly became indebted while bigger landowners could accumulate more wealth (Gough 1977: 545- 546). It can be observed that these food insecurities can lead to a less diverse subsistence farming because of the lack of labor, and less work intensive but also less favored crops, such as maize can become staples (Logan 2020: 110).

The political role of agriculture is closely connected to the level of development a country has reached, the way its economy is structured and what its place in the international hierarchy is. It can be used to benefit the country itself or create inequalities within a nation and between different nations.

4.2 Underdevelopment created through the Green Revolution

To get back to the more specific context of the Rockefeller Foundation carried agricultural program of the Green Revolution we finally need to look at the role the Green Revolution has played in underdeveloping the Global South. One could argue that the technological improvements of the Green Revolution helped gain control over nature and therefore they were an important step in developing Asia and Latin America. However, the Green Revolution did not lead to equally shared improvements in the quality of life. We also need to ask ourselves who gained control over the developing countries agricultural resources in the course of the Green Revolution.  To answer these questions of control and dependence I will be looking at contemporary impacts of the Green Revolution in the underdeveloped countries. Moreover, I will be looking for colonial continuities that can be found in the technologization of agriculture through the Green Revolution.

The Green Revolution spread capitalist agriculture through the industrialization of agriculture and stabilized western ideologies. As explained before this was part of the goals of the Rockefeller Foundation due to the historical situation of the cold war. Similarly in colonial times the profit-oriented agriculture that was implemented through cash crops and plantations was a way the colonies economies were transformed from pre-capitalist agricultures to capitalist agricultures. The introduction of Green Revolution technologies led to an economic transformation as its goal was to help industrialized less developed countries. By minimizing the labor needed in agriculture more labor was available for the industrial sector, as explained before. This restructuring of labor certainly had impacts on the social structure and culture of underdeveloped countries, that also need to be mentioned.  One social change that was observed is the inequality that was created through colonial agriculture. Similarly, the Green Revolution has manifested social inequalities and injustices in the countries it was implemented in. Several scientists have, regardless of applying a dedicated leftist approach to evaluate the social consequences or not, observed growing inequalities between bigger and smaller farmers (Farmer 1986: 187-189, Feder 1976: 532). When looking at case studies from certain regions in India one can tell that the income of farms has become more unequal because of the Green Revolution (e.g Junankar 1975: 15).  A core mechanism in creating or manifesting inequality is the division of the means of productions, which in the case of agriculture are the means to produce crops. The new technologies were on one hand a way to produce more crops in general. On the other hand, they could specifically make those farmers more productive, that were already producing enough to have the resources to invest in the HYV-seeds, fertilizers and the irrigation systems that would make their farming more productive. Smaller farmers could often not participate in the Green Revolution as they could not invest in the new technologies (Pielke/ Linnér 2019 :11).  One can conclude that “(i)nitial income inequalities usually are exacerbated by technological innovation” (Lakshman 1973: 351).  One Additional parallel is that new crops were introduced and cultivated as monocultures, that diminished the diversity in agriculture and therefore also in nutrition as well as in genetic diversity. Diversity in Crops and their genes is necessary to adapt to environmental changes in the long run. The Green Revolution “was thought to be accelerating the replacement of crop landraces and the destruction of the habitats of their wild relatives” which concerned the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) (Khoury et al. 2022: 85). Especially the introduction of maize monocultures and maize as a neophyte plant is a parallel between the underdevelopment strategies in colonial times and the Green Revolution.

The introduction of the measure and the following economic and social changes were never internally motivated but brought by colonizers and foreign foundations who acted in their own interest. Such processes are part of what Amin (1976: 204) describes when he speaks of “methods of violence” that destroyed traditional agriculture and crafts. The building of infrastructure within a foreign government is a use of financial power  that takes away a big part of the self-determination of the governments of less developed countries. Big foundations such as the Rockefeller Foundation have been systematically influencing foreign countries politics by funding educational programs as well as think tanks and consulting firms that are tasked by governments in the Global South (Roy 2014: 29, 33). Coming back to self- determination it simply does not seem logical to assume that self-sufficient agricultural supply can be created through new technologies, that rely on foreign teaching, technologies and firms that produce the seeds and fertilizers as well as herbicides that need to be bought regularly (Ofreno 1981: 25).

Concluding from these observations we can see many linking points between colonial underdevelopment through agriculture and the means and potential political objectives of the Green Revolution. It is not to say however that they were the same or are to be judged with similar standards.



The struggle to end hunger and provide countries with the opportunity feed their people remains important and valid. It cannot be the aim to condemn these goals or dismiss the positive impacts a more fruitful agriculture could have. Additionally, famines have occurred around the world before colonialism. Nonetheless, the phenomena of aid and hunger are part of unequal power relations and need to be looked in this context. Through the juxtaposition of colonial agricultural methods and the green revolution it can be concluded that agriculture has for a long time been part of exploitative economic structures. Mainly due to its important role in industrialization it could be influenced to focus on profitability, which led to inequalities and dependence on the West, which are causing agricultural sectors in the Global South to be unable to provide for their people. It is not comprehensible what the Rockefeller Foundations intentions in starting the Green Revolutions were. Even so it seems hypocritical to be promoting democratic values while abusing financial power for political aims and building infrastructure in foreign governments. This circumvention of self-determination in the course of the Green Revolution can be interpreted as an indicator for the lack of interest the Rockefeller Foundation had in supporting the development of self-sufficient agricultural sectors in the developing world.

This paper has looked at the Global South in a broader sense but is undeniable that all areas are set out to specific conditions that need to be noted. There has been much research on the impacts of the Green Revolution on the environment and biodiversity, that could not be covered here, but are also part of global justice struggles.  Next to the focus on power structures in context of the Green Revolution that was taken it could be of further interest to look deeper into how it influenced cultures surrounding food in the Periphery. Food is a significant part of culture and how everyday life is structured. Followingly destroying traditional food conspumption for economic interests inflicts great harm. Therefore, it should not be overseen how impactful it can be to change the ways a nation produces their food.





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