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From working collections to the World Germplasm Project: agricultural modernization and genetic conservation at the Rockefeller Foundation

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Curry, HA 


This paper charts the history of the Rockefeller Foundation’s participation in the collection and long-term preservation of genetic diversity in crop plants from the 1940s through the 1970s. In the decades following the launch of its agricultural program in Mexico in 1943, the Rockefeller Foundation figured prominently in the creation of world collections of key economic crops. Through the efforts of its administrators and staff, the foundation subsequently parlayed this experience into a leadership role in international efforts to conserve so-called plant genetic resources. Previous accounts of the Rockefeller Foundation’s interventions in international agricultural development have focused on the outcomes prioritized by foundation staff and administrators as they launched assistance programs and especially their characterization of the peoples and ‘‘problems’’ they encountered abroad. This paper highlights instead how foundation administrators and staff responded to a newly emergent international agricultural concern—the loss of crop genetic diversity. Charting the foundation’s responses to this concern, which developed only after agricultural modernization had begun and was understood to be produced by the successes of the foundation’s own agricultural assistance programs, allows for greater interrogation of how the foundation understood and projected its central position in international agricultural research activities by the 1970s.



Rockefeller Foundation, seed banks, crop diversity, plant genetic resources, Green Revolution, agricultural modernization

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History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences

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Research for this article was supported in part by a grant-in-aid from the Rockefeller Archive Center.