Friday, March 18, 2011

A New Look at the Green Revolution: The Work of Bruce H. Jennings

Perhaps not surprisingly, gaining a full understanding of the Green Revolution involves understanding the institutions and figures that began it: Henry A. Wallace, the United States government, the Mexican government under President Manuel Ávila Camacho, and the Rockefeller Foundation. And if you want to understand the Rockefeller Foundation and its activities in Mexico, you ought to read Foundations of International Agricultural Research: Science and Politics in Mexican Agriculture by Bruce H. Jennings.

This book, published in 1988, is cited by many papers and books about the Green Revolution, and yet it's nearly impossible to find.

I've written a summary of the book's chapter 2 below. Future posts on the book will follow.

Jennings begins his chapter on the Rockefeller Foundation by examining the role of science in society during the early 1900s:

It is also at this time that observer Jeffrey Lustig cites the rise of science-based professions as serving political ends... The objectivity supposedly inherent in these [scientific] judgements, according to Lustig, was frequently revealed as an efficient disguise for corporate control. - p. 9

With that, he begins a discussion of the Rockefeller Foundation's role in research on health. At the time of the Foundation's first forays into the field of health and medicine, there were many theories about health. For example, Jennings brings up studies by John H. Griscom from the mid-1800s which pointed out that certain classes - those who lived in New York's slums - were most affected by certain disease. Thus, living conditions were important in addition to germs in dealing with health.

The Rockefeller Foundation was founded in 1901. Work that involved social factors such as Griscom's work were mostly looked down upon, ignored, or delegitimized by those in power at Rockfeller. Jennings says:

Under the aegis of the [Rockefeller] Institute's leadership there also occurred a consolidation with respect to the diversity of medical sects and perception. While differences remained among various persons claiming to represent the science of medicine, those associated with the Institute organized to promote but a single conception as the basis for medical and public health practice. As their authority expanded that of others disappeared. Differences, moreover, were resolved not by informed discussion, experimentation, or the like. Conceptions such as those advanced by John Griscom were quite simply excluded from public and professional institutions over which the Institute exerted increasing control. - p. 14

To promote germ theory and alienate anyone who looked at social factors associated with health, Rockfeller pumped millions into universities, promoted the American Medical Association, and helped set standards within state and federal bureaucracies. One of Rockefeller's researchers, for example, was Jacques Loeb, who compared the body to a machine, in which each part could be individually understood in order to understand the whole.

Also significant was Rockfeller's focus on economic implications of health, as well as its acceptance of quite a bit of corporate money. Jennings gives an example of a 1913 outbreak of hog cholera in the American west. The Great Northern Railway was losing money, as fewer farmers were shipping hogs, so they gave Rockfeller $25,000 to research hog cholera. Jennings says:

The Institute offered a means for interpreting social phenomena (e.g., occupational diseases) and organizing social action (e.g., public responsibilities for health) while suppressing more radical actions. - p. 18

As Rockefeller began looking at nutrition, it received a proposal from a scientist called E.V. McCollum, who had received support from Rockefeller in the past. In 1922, he proposed researching the role industrial agriculture and processed foods played in the deterioration of health in the U.S. As Jennings put it, "In place of impersonal entities conventionally used to discuss diet (e.g., amino acids, enzymes, etc.) McCollum substituted a language ascribing social responsibility." (p. 22) This proposal was NOT accepted by Rockfeller. When Rockefeller did take up diet and health in the 1930's, "the study was predicated... on divorcing diet and disease from the social context in which they occurred." (p. 23)

From here, Jennings turns to Rockefeller's role in agriculture. In 1903, the Rockefeller Institute created the General Education Board (GEB). The GEB worked to promote scientific agriculture among adults. One of its first projects involved helping Southern cotton farmers deal with the boll weevil. Beginning in 1906, GEB began working with Dr. Seaman A. Knapp. Jennings notes:

Whatever specialized knowledge Dr. Knapp possessed of agricultural methods was accompanied by a disregard for the social consequences of his work." - p. 24

The practice of his demonstrations supported an organization of agriculture as legitimately controlled by the monied classes and not those who tilled the soil. - p. 25

The GEB was on board with Knapp, fully aware that it was promoting a big business approach to agriculture. Jennings says that both Knapp and Loeb "conceived of man's health in terms of its value as a commercial commodity in the performance of work." (p. 28)

In 1914, Rockefeller created the International Health Commission. They began by working with United Fruit Company, noting that if they could improve the health of United Fruit's workers, it would also benefit United Fruit. Jennings says:

The major benefits of the International Health Commission's work accrued to the owners of plantations in Central and Latin America. A 1918 Commission study on hookworm treatments in Costa Rica, for example, reported its achievements in terms of dramatic increases in productivity. - p. 26

I find it quite important that, on page 31, Jennings notes that the IHC's "major client" in Mexico were petroleum manufacturers, given that during the 1930's, Mexican President Cardenas nationalizes the oil industry and thoroughly pisses off U.S. oil companies when he does so.

In order to assure the oil companies "a healthy and productive workforce," the IHC took on yellow fever. Noting that "when a population remained stationary the infection of yellow fever soon eliminated itself," Jennings suggests that if the IHC truly aimed to eliminate human suffering, it would discourage labor migration.

But while the Rockefeller Foundation did not like some forms of social change, it clearly did not mind working toward others:

Another facet of the Foundation's international programs involve science as an instrument for defeating those antagonistic to capitalism. This represented an especially important facet of the Foundation's work in China. Harry Cleaver's research describes in great detail the active participation of the Foundation in both its attempts to extend U.S. influence and to create conditions propitious for the expansion of capitalism - p 34

Jenning's adds that "the Rockefeller Foundation's managers of science grew more convinced that the application of research constituted the key to bringing order and prosperity to a chaotic world." (p. 35)

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