The Rockefeller Foundation. How “Just in Time” Scientific Discoveries in the 20th Century Achieved Seemingly Impossible Levels of Food Production

The Wizard and the Prophet is the story of two scientists, William Vogt and Norm Borlaug, and their differing views on whether the future is bleak and “Malthusian” (Vogt: We are doomed: millions will die of starvation and it is too late to change this outcome) or desperate but actually bright (Borlaug: We can increase food production to feed billions more). Norm Borlaug has so far proved right. His research in an obscure wheat field in Mexico created what became the Green Revolution. Behind this tremendous achievement was the Rockefeller Foundation.

For many years the director of Science Projects at the Rockefeller Foundation was a mathematician named Warren Weaver. Weaver (1894-1978) is well-known in the circles of higher math for his research into machine translation. He accepted a position at the Rockefeller Foundation and pressed the Rockefeller Foundation to prioritize the problem of feeding the world by discovering how to greatly increase crop yields per acre. Weaver hired the best scientists in the field of “molecular biology”—a term that Weaver himself coined—to achieve better crop yields in order to improve the lives of millions of people in the 20th century. “At Rockefeller, Weaver was the man who chose the scientists and funded the research that led to the main discoveries of DNA and RNA. Between 1954 and 1965, eighteen scientists received Nobel Prizes for molecular biology; fifteen were funded by Weaver at Rockefeller.”[1]

One of these fifteen was Norm Borlaug, who grew up on a farm in Iowa. With a Rockefeller grant, Borlaug lived on a farm in Mexico With the help of the native farmers on the adjacent farms, Borlaug realized that if he actually grew a smaller variety with a shorter and sturdier stem it could hold more grains on its head. He saved the wheat stalks that reproduced the most kernels and replanted these seeds. He did this until he produced a disease-resistant superstock that could outproduce the wheat in the rest of the country by a hundredfold per acre. Then he shared it with the world. Read more about Borlaug here. Other Rockefeller scientists achieved miraculous crop yields with rice in Asia and corn/maize in South America and Africa and vegetables and fruits around the world.

Scary headlines such as “A Billion People Go Hungry Every Night” have been examined, as here, and found to be not so.  There are many problems facing the world, but the poor of the earth are able to eat 2000 to 3000 calories per day, a modern miracle made possible by great humanitarians such as Warren Weaver, Norman Borlaug, and the Rockefeller Foundation.

[1] Charles C. Mann, The Wizard and the Prophet : Two Remarkable Scientists and Their Dueling Visions to Shape Tomorrow’s World, First edition. ed. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2018). 159

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