The Life and Passion of Henry A. Wallace

In November 1940 an American drove from Washington DC to Mexico City. His road trip would turn out to be of great historical importance for the development of agriculture worldwide. In the course of this grand tour, he established the foundations and fundamentals of the green revolution, an agricultural revolution that in the following decades would transform food and agriculture all over the world. The green revolution was one of the single largest non-military undertakings of the twentieth century. Whether this global agricultural transformation was for better or for worse remains a matter of controversy.

The driver of that car in the Mexico countryside was Henry Wallace, former US secretary of agriculture and at that moment, the country’s vice president elect. The life of Henry A. Wallace, one of the most important forefathers of modern industrial agriculture, is an outstanding example of the idealism, contradictions and conflicting agendas behind the green revolution. Born in 1888 to a family of Irish immigrants, Wallace was the scion of a powerful Iowa agribusiness dynasty. His father, Henry C. Wallace, was agriculture secretary under presidents Harding and Coolidge.

As a child, Henry A. became friends with the great African American scientist George Washington Carver, whose trailblazing research into soils and crop rotation, and development of value-added products from peanuts, soy and sweet potato, earned him great esteem and honor in the United States and abroad.

“George Washington Carver was a major influence in the life of Young Henry. He met Carver when he was six years old. Carver was a student and colleague of Henry’s father at Iowa State College. His father invited the young Carver to the family home. Carver provided a scientific direction to Wallace’s interest and love of plants. Carver would take the young boy on walks collecting specimens in fields around Ames. He helped the boy identify species of plants and plant parts. In the greenhouse, he taught young Henry about plant breeding. They would experiment with sick plants and crop breeding.” (1)

Hybrid seed and the transformation of agriculture

While studying at Iowa State in the first decade of the 20th century, Henry A. became fascinated with the new science of genetics, and in order to give it practical use in crop science, he taught himself statistics. During the 1920’s he became one of the first private sector entrepreneurs to see the potential in hybrid corn seed. Hybrid corn was a formidable scientific achievement of the public sector, an undertaking sometimes referred to as the Manhattan Project of agriculture because of its massive scope.

Wallace developed his own variety of hybrid corn, Copper Cross, and in 1926 founded the Hi-Bred Corn company, which specialized in the sale of hybrid seed. This corporation, which in 1936 changed its name to Pioneer Hi-Bred, would go on to become one of the world’s premiere seed companies and an undisputed world leader in corn breeding and genetics. In 1999, the gigantic Dupont corporation bought Pioneer through what was then the largest initial public offering of shares in history. With this purchase, Dupont became the world’s largest seed company until it was surpassed by Monsanto in 2005. Both Monsanto and Dupont belong to a small handful of companies that today control much of the world’s seed business.

Wallace promoted hybrid seed with evangelical zeal, and so helped transform the country’s corn production. In 1933, around 1% of Iowa’s corn came from hybrid seed, by 1943 the figure was almost 100%. By 1965, over 95% of the country’s corn was from hybrid seed, to Pioneer’s great profit.

Supporters of industrial agriculture point to hybrid seed as an indisputably good development. Yields certainly increased; between 1950 and 1980, US corn exports were multiplied times twenty. Today, the US produces 44% of the world’s corn, more than China, the European Union, Brazil and Mexico combined, according to the US Grains Council. Iowa produces 1/6 of US corn, more than all of the European Union. But, is scientific progress a linear process with inevitable outcomes? Or could the saga of corn have taken a different route that did not lead to hybridization? Jack R. Kloppenburg, rural sociology professor at the University of Wisconsin, and Harvard geneticist Richard Lewontin, wager that indeed there could have been a different outcome, and argue that if similar support had been given to the improvement of open-pollinated varieties, the results would not have been any less good.

According to Lewontin, “Since the 1930’s, immense effort has been put into getting better and better hybrids. Virtually no one has tried to improve the open-pollinated varieties, although scientific evidence shows that if the same effort had been put into such varieties, they would be as good or better than hybrids by now”.(2)

“Does it matter which breeding method one chooses if ultimately one obtains the same yields?”, asks Kloppenburg in his book First the Seed: The Political Economy of Plant Biotechnology (2004 revised edition). “Certainly any economist would be interested in the relative efficiency of the procedures and in the opportunity costs of selecting one breeding strategy over another… hybridization galvanized radical changes in the political economy of plant breeding and seed production. There is a crucial difference between open-pollinated and hybrid corn varieties: seed from a crop of the latter, when saved and replanted, exhibits a considerable reduction in yield.” (3)

Hybrid corn provides great yields, but if grains from its harvest are saved and used as seed for the next planting season, the resulting plants will have poor yields. Therefore, the farmer eventually has to go to the market to buy seed every year. This does not happen with open-pollinated varieties, and therefore can be planted season after season. In the words of Lewontin and French agronomist and economist Jean-Pierre Berlan, “Hybrids opened up enormous profit opportunities for private enterprises and for this reason all efforts were shifted to the new technique.” (Quoted in Kloppenburg, p. 94).

“Henry A. Wallace played a prominent role in the selection of the hybrid road as the principal avenue of corn improvement”, says Kloppenburg. “Hybrid corn would have been developed without Wallace, though certainly somewhat later. But he was in the right place at the right time, a personification of liberal business interests that had initiated the historical trend to commodification and the rationalization of agriculture.” (4)

Among the most celebrated attributes of hybrid corn is the ease with which it can be harvested by machine. So homogeneous are hybrid plants that a combine can harvest them with no major difficulty, which is not the case with open pollinated varieties. From 1935 to 1945 the percentage of Iowa corn harvested by machine rose from 15% to 70%, and between 1930 and 1950 the number of combines increased ninefold. Mechanization turned farming into an activity that uses motor vehicles and consumes large amounts of petroleum, to the great benefit of machinery manufacturers such as John Deere and oil companies like Exxon.

Mechanization also cleared the way to an agriculture without farmers because of all the jobs that it eliminated. Agriculture stopped being a job creator and went on to become a sector that continually shed employees. Today it is estimated that no more than 1% or 2% of Americans are farmers. It is often said that the United States nowadays has fewer farmers than convicts.

The combination of hybridization and mechanization exacerbated the trend toward monoculture, with resulting problems, including the erosion of soils, reduction of biodiversity, and an increase in pests. With the increasing use of hybrids, countless traditional and heirloom corn varieties fell into disuse and eventual extinction. By 1969, 71% of all corn grown in the US came from seven hybrid varieties. This genetic uniformity created a dream situation for pests- disaster was around the corner. The following year the Southern corn leaf blight claimed 15% of the American harvest, causing losses estimated at $2 billion and raising prices by 20%.

In its 1972 report, “Genetic Vulnerability of Major Crops”, the US National Academy of Sciences (NAS) stated that “The corn crop fell victim to the epidemic because of a quirk in the technology that had redesigned the corn plants of America until, in one sense, they had become as alike as identical twins. Whatever made one plant susceptible made them all susceptible.” Apart from corn, the NAS report also warned that most other American crops were “impressively uniform genetically and impressively vulnerable.” (5)

In 1976, the US Department of Agriculture released its own report, titled “An Evaluation of Special Grant Research on Southern Corn Leaf Blight”, which asserted that genetic uniformity was indeed one of the main factors that led to the disastrous 1970 blight. “In the [1960s], it became clear that relatively few corn breeding parents were being used to produce the bulk of American hybrid corn varieties,” stated the report. “This narrowness of germplasm set the stage for potential vulnerability to diseases, insects and other stresses.”

Wallace did not live to see the blight of 1970 or the numerous problems and failings of the agriculture that he promoted. But current advocates of this mode of agricultural production do not have such an excuse, they cannot claim ignorance. In fact, they would do well to follow Wallace’s example. As we’ll see, late in his life he advocated for the preservation of crop varieties and warned against the hazards of relying too much on genetics as a factor in farm productivity.

Wallace, the agrarian progressive

As agriculture secretary, Wallace was much more than just a member of president Roosevelt’s cabinet. None other than John Kenneth Galbraith, one of the two or three most influential economists of the 20th century, said Wallace was the number two man in Roosevelt’s New Deal (6).

In the words of historian Arthur Schlesinger:”Wallace was a great secretary of agriculture. In 1933, a quarter of the American people still lived on farms, and agricultural policy was a matter of high political and economic significance  For the urban poor, he provided food stamps and school lunches. He instituted programs for land-use planning, soil conservation and erosion control. And always he promoted research to combat plant and animal diseases, to locate drought-resistant crops and to develop hybrid seeds in order to increase productivity.” (7)

Quoting historian David Woolner:

“Wallace championed a whole host of New Deal programs, such as the Agricultural Adjustment Administration, the Rural Electrification Administration, the Soil Conservation Service, the Farm Credit Administration, the food stamp and school lunch programs, and many others. In the process, he also transformed the Department of Agriculture into one of the largest and most powerful entities in Washington.  Wallace also greatly expanded the Department of Agriculture’s scientific programs, rendering the department’s research center at Beltsville, Maryland the largest and most varied scientific agricultural station in the world.” (8)

(Today the agricultural research center at Beltsville is named after Henry A. Wallace.)

Wallace quit politics after an unsuccessful presidential campaign as candidate of the left-of-center Progressive Party in 1948, and returned to his old pursuits.

“These years of Cold War paranoia saw Wallace return to his original passions: farming and science. He recognized that wild strains of plants were the raw material for engineered hybrids, and was an early voice urging the preservation of native species. Moreover, Wallace was ahead of most American geneticists in his recognition of the importance of environmental conditions. Having developed a line of Leghorn chicken that produced more eggs and had a lower body weight, Wallace concluded ‘that care and feeding, especially feeding, of the inbreds…has a great deal to do with the outcome…. My belief is that we have been inclined a little too much to slide along in the belief that the various inbreds are fixed entities’ (qtd Schapsmeier Prophet 230). But Wallace took this idea beyond chickens and corn and applied it to human beings, developing the concept of ‘genetic democracy,’ which, anticipating the work of Stephen Jay Gould and R. C. Lewontin, argued that genetic differences between groups of human beings were relatively minor, and environment was still the overriding determinant in human success.” (9)

Wallace in Mexico

Now, what was the importance of Wallace’s 1940 road trip to Mexico? He was on his way to attend the inauguration of Mexican president Manuel Avila-Camacho, in hopes of starting a new era in US-Mexico relations. His immediate predecessor, Lazaro Cardenas, was a left-leaning populist who carried out a sweeping land reform that favored small farmers and the poor, and he also nationalized industries and expropriated foreign investors, including the Rockefellers’ Standard Oil company. The ruling classes and business elites in both countries anxiously hoped the new president would swing the ideological pendulum in the opposite direction.

But apart from politics, the vice president elect had other business in mind. Being a farmer and a plant scientist, Wallace made numerous stops along his route to meet Mexican farmers, campesinos as well as agribusinessmen, in order to learn all he could about Mexico’s agriculture and its problems.

“Wallace drove his own Plymouth around Mexico  The Mexican people loved it. Wallace was the first official U.S. representative to attend a Mexican inauguration, yet he insisted on traveling among the ordinary people. Soon, thousands of people were waiting in villages to see him. He visited both subsistence and industrial farms, agricultural experiment stations and government officials. He was relentless in his questions.” (10)

“Wallace’s ability to speak Spanish and his respect for the Mexican people helped to cement the friendship between the two nations, which was particularly important in the face of the coming war. After Camacho’s inauguration, Wallace spent a month traveling around Mexico with Secretary of Agriculture-elect Marte Gomes.” (11)

Wallace was appalled by what he saw as the backwardness of Mexican peasants:

“He found that it took a typical Mexican farmer at least 200 hours of backbreaking labor to produce each bushel of corn; in his home state of Iowa, it took the typical farmer 10 hours for every bushel of corn. Wallace came back convinced that modern agricultural technology could help Mexico out of poverty and hunger.”

In his view, it was not land reform and small scale family farming what Mexico’s peasantry needed in order to fight hunger and poverty, but the industrialization of agricultural production. “Wallace unabashedly saw gringo know-how as the salvation of Mexico’s rural poor”, according to journalist Bill Weinberg in his book Homage to Chiapas (Verso Books, 2000). “It was Henry A. Wallace, more than any other man, who opened Mexico to the agribusiness model.”

In other words, Wallace’s views on Mexico’s agriculture and rural poverty were completely opposite to those of Cardenas’ and completely in sync with Avila-Camacho’s conservative politics.

Once installed as vice president in early 1941, Wallace met with Rockefeller Foundation president Raymond Fosdick. “If the Rockefeller Foundation would undertake to help the Mexican people increase the yield per acre of corn and beans”, he told Fosdick. “it would mean more to the future of Mexico than anything else that government or philanthropy could devise.” Thus the Mexican Agricultural Program (MAP) was born.

This program, a joint venture of the Rockefeller Foundation, the US government and the Mexican ministry of agriculture, introduced the Iowa model to the Mexican countryside: hybrid seeds, monocultures, agrochemical inputs, and mechanization. The changes – both technological and socia l- that this mode of farming effected on Mexico’s agriculture were truly revolutionary.

The MAP was the spearhead of Avila-Camacho’s move against Cardenas’ land reform. The Cardenista zeal for justice was replaced by the belief that rural hunger and poverty could be tackled and eradicated in an apolitical manner by applying American expertise and scientific technique, without any need for social critique or political activism, and especially without distributing lands to the poor.

“The Cardenista agrarian policy was not followed up on. The ejidos (communally owned lands) lost priority and benefits flowed to landowners who received lands with irrigation systems, canals, dams, etc ; the extension of lands considered inalienable property was increased, therefore the agrarian redistribution was suspended… campesinos were stripped of their lands.” (12)

In the 1960’s the MAP was transformed into the International Center for Improvement of Maize and Wheat (known as CIMMYT, after its Spanish language acronym), which went on to set up field operations and facilities in South America, Africa and Asia. The CIMMYT was the first of over a dozen international agricultural research centers set up all over the globe with the express purpose of transforming agriculture in poor countries, a process referred to by many as the green revolution. All these centers based their research and development on the CIMMYT model.

The green revolution started with CIMMYT, which was an outgrowth of the Mexican Agricultural Program, and the MAP owed its existence, more than anything else, to that road trip taken by a remarkable American over seventy years ago.

Carmelo Ruiz-Marrero is a Puerto Rican author, journalist, environmental educator and essayist. He is a senior fellow of the Environmental Leadership Program, a fellow of the Oakland Institute, a research associate of the Institute for Social Ecology, and director of the Puerto Rico Project on Biosafety.


1) “Henry A. Wallace – Agricultural Pioneer, Visionary and Leader”

2-4) Jack R. Kloppenburg. First The Seed. University of Wisconsin Press, 2004.

5) “Blight in the corn belt”

6) David Woolner. “Second only to Roosevelt: Henry A. Wallace and the New Deal”

7) Arthur Schlesinger J. “Who Was Henry A. Wallace? The Story of a Perplexing and Indomitably Naive Public Servant” (Originally published in the Los Angeles Times on March 12 2000)

8) Woolner.

9 “The Life of Henry A. Wallace”


10) “The Mexican Agricultural Program”

11) “The Life of Henry A. Wallace”

12)  Análisis económico de México: 1940-1952

Carmelo Ruiz-Marrero is a Puerto Rican journalist.