Scientist and consultant Lowell S. Hardin attended a 1969 conference at Bellagio with the goal of solving the world food crisis. He shares his experience in this inspiring account.
In April 1969, the late agricultural economist Lowell S. Hardin attended a conference at the Bellagio Center. Fellow attendees were leaders from the world’s foreign assistance agencies. The goal of the conference was to solve the world food crisis.
They concluded that traditional farmers would adopt new technologies into their practices if the process was more profitable. The group devised a strategy with the understanding that better education would equip aid groups to inspire government funding. This plan was a driver in what became known as the Green Revolution – a late 20th-century movement that saw a huge boost to the world’s food production.
The cohort aimed to demonstrate what science and technology could offer those suffering from hunger. Yet the project came with a number of risks – some known, some unknown – that have resulted in a complicated legacy in the 50 years since that meeting. Today, the Rockefeller Foundation is implementing a grant-making and Food Systems strategy that sits at the intersection of environment, agriculture, and equity.
Progress in data utilization and scientific research has resulted in a deeper understanding of soil health, smallholder farmer profitability, biodiversity loss, and sociocultural traditions for land stewards. The Rockefeller Foundation aims to improve the dietary quality of 40 million vulnerable people worldwide by advancing policies for a more just and equitable global food system.
Lowell’s work is a historical snapshot of a moment from which we are continuing to evolve: towards a food system that provides equitable opportunity for all, along with being regenerative, and sustainable.
Read on to learn of Lowell S. Hardin’s experience in his own words.
In late April 1969, I took a taxi up a narrow, winding road outside Bellagio on Italy’s Lake Como, to a meeting called by the president of the Rockefeller Foundation, George Harrar. . . . The conference had just one aim: to help solve the world food crisis. . . . Harrar [wanted] to help agricultural aid organizations understand why and how science—and not food shipments—was a more sustainable way to deal with world hunger. Our thinking was that if the aid groups could grasp more fully the progress being made, they could mobilize the resources needed from governments and other donor organizations. Together, a sustained assault on world hunger could be made.
No time to waste
Thus, 24 of us met to thrash out a strategy for feeding the world’s hungry. There were 16 leaders from the world’s major foreign assistance agencies concerned with agricultural development— such as Adekke Boerma, director-general of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, John Hannah, director of the U.S. Agency for International Development, and Robert McNamara, president of the World Bank and former defense secretary to President John Kennedy— plus eight of us consultants from the science of food production. There were no women, even though women produce much of the developing world’s food.
My colleague and mentor from the Ford Foundation, Forrest “Frosty” Hill, set the scene. In an ideal world, he said, developing countries would invest in education, research and infrastructure, building stronger public institutions and private businesses. These, in partnership with the better-educated farmers, would tackle the food crisis using science and technology, as had happened in industrialized countries during the agricultural revolution of the mid- 20th century. “But,” he said, “we are in a crisis. We cannot wait.”. . .
At one point, someone asked Hill if traditional farmers would adopt new technologies. It was the moment that the conference really began to gel. “Sure, if they are profitable enough,” replied Frosty, in his homespun and persuasive tones. “In India, the new wheat varieties are in such demand that they have to guard their seed multiplication plots around the clock to prevent theft.” Later the same day, when we described how investment in rice research had resulted in financial rates of return of more than 50%, McNamara stood up and said: “If you with your centers can generate returns like that I will help you raise the money you need.” Hannah nodded, even suggesting that the U.S. government might contribute a dollar for every three provided by other donors.
As this played out, I began to think: “Yes, we are getting to a meeting of minds.” By the second day, it was clear the conference was going well. People from the aid side who had just met were on first-name terms. Equally important, aid people were talking to scientists. Serious conversations continued at tea breaks on the patio, during evening cocktails and at meals. By the closing session on the third day, our thinking was converging.
What did we agree on? First, that the key to increasing agricultural productivity in developing countries was to apply modern scientific techniques and technologies. Second, that setting up international centers of expertise in research and education was a proven shortcut to achieving this. Third, that the existing four centers should be fully funded and that another six to twelve centers should be created.
But there were concerns, too. We worried that a widespread green revolution could have unintended consequences, such as aggravating the inequalities between small farmers and large landowners. Furthermore, without careful management, intensified cropping could deplete soil and water resources and become unsustainable— which in some instances has happened. However, we concluded that world food needs outweighed such potential difficulties. Making advances in productivity sustainable remains a high-priority research goal today.
Bellagio was the catalyst. It mobilized the world’s agricultural development organizations to set in motion plans for rapidly increasing food production. It took the right mix of open-minded aid officials and dedicated scientists to achieve this, and it succeeded beyond any of our imaginings. After two follow-up conferences at Bellagio in the spring of 1970, it was agreed to set up a Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, and in 1971 the organization that carries its acronym (CGIAR) was formed, under the leadership of the World Bank.
McGeorge Bundy, president of the Ford Foundation, called the CGIAR’s creation “a remarkable chapter in the diplomacy of international assistance.” Robert McNamara kept his pledge to help mobilize the necessary funding. By 1975, the year the Paddock brothers had forecast famine would strike India, the green revolution in Asia was under way. India, instead of starving, had achieved food independence. More than half the wheat and rice crops planted across Asia were high-yielding varieties.
Funding for the international centers rose substantially in the years after the Bellagio meeting. In 1969 the Rockefeller and Ford foundations provided $2.3 million for four centers. Today, the CGIAR has 64 donors providing more than $450 million a year in support of 15 centers and their 850 research scientists. Regretfully, some of the centers are critically underfunded, along with most of the agricultural research programs with which they work.
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