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Thoughts on the Legacy of Norman Borlaug

In the early 1940s, Mexico was a fraught region for U.S. geopolitical strategists. Not so long before—1939—a revolutionary government had nationalized the Mexican oil supply, dealing a sharp blow to U.S. oil interests, especially the Rockefeller family’s dominant Standard Oil. Meanwhile, as war raged in Europe, there was doubt about which side the Mexican government would take—the Allies or the Axis. What if Mexico chose to supply the Germans with oil?

Into that tense milieu, the Rockefeller family’s foundation dispatched a team of agricultural scientists into the Mexican countryside on a mission of goodwill: to bring Mexican farmers the seed varieties, knowledge, and inputs necessary to “modernize” crop production.

As the University of Texas economist Harry Cleaver put it in a 1972 paper in American Economic Review, “The friendly gesture of a development project would not only help soften rising nationalism but might also help hang onto wartime friends.”

One of the junior scientists on that mission would become the best known, eventually netting a Nobel Peace Prize for his work: Norman Borlaug, who died Sunday at the age of 95.

Borlaug is widely hailed as the father of the Green Revolution—the grand effort, which started in Mexican wheat and corn fields in the 1940s, to bring industrial agriculture to the global South.

There’s no evidence that Borlaug thought much about geopolitics during his career as a plant pathologist and evangelist for industrial agriculture. In their book Enough—largely a Borlaug hagiography—the Wall Street Journal reporters Roger Thurow and Scott Kilman portray him as a man almost innocent of politics: He started out with a narrow scientific interest in wheat rust and a desire to “secure a steady job where he could work outdoors”; by the ‘60s and for the rest of his long life, he wanted merely to “do what was best for the hungry,” the authors write.

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