Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Rockefeller scion refreshes historical ties with IRRI

David Rockefeller, Jr., American sailor, philanthropist, and an active advocate in environmental issues; and spouse Susan Cohn Rockefeller, writer and filmmaker, visited the IRRI headquarters on Friday (15 November) for an overview of the Institute’s research and to, in turn, discuss the Rockefeller Foundation(RF)’s development agenda. Mr. Rockefeller is a leading fourth-generation member of the prominent Rockefeller family. In 2006, he was appointed to the RF board of trustees, thus becoming the sixth member of the family to have served on the board since its founding by John D. Rockefeller in 1913.

Meeting with DG Robert Zeigler and other members of IRRI management, Mr. Rockefeller remarked, “This visit to IRRI is hugely important and personal to me since so much of the Rockefeller family and the history of the Foundation is linked to the success of IRRI and the Green Revolution that was started here.”

Mr. and Mrs. Rockefeller also toured the breeding line field trials (photo at right), the International Rice Genebank, and the Grain Quality and Nutrition Center where healthier rice became a topic of great interest for them. Being major patrons of the arts, the couple also viewed the paintings of Philippine National Artist Vicente Manansala displayed at the IRRI canteen and dining room.

Mr. and Mrs. Rockefeller were recipients of the 2009 We Are Family Visionary Award, which honors a corporation or a person in the corporate world whose philanthropic efforts have made a meaningful difference in the world.

IRRI is considered by many to be one of the RF’s great success stories. In an interview, “Rock” and rice: the Rockefeller-IRRI biotechnology saga, that appeared in Rice Today, Gary Toenniessen, a managing director at RF, said that the whole idea of IRRI came out of the Foundation. “It was based on what the then future Nobel Peace laureate Norman Borlaug had accomplished with wheat,” he pointed out. “The thinking was, if you could breed for wheat in Mexico and have those varieties adopted over the vast areas of South Asia, maybe you could breed for rice in a single location and have those varieties, or at least those breeding lines, be used across the vast areas of Asia where rice is grown.”

In a 1994 conversation with Dr. Borlaug, Robert Chandler, IRRI’s first director general, recalled how, on 18 August 1958, George Harrar of RF and Forrest Hill of the Ford Foundation came to a meeting of minds to co-found IRRI with a very clear mission and mandate to reduce poverty and hunger. Within 8 years after that initial commitment, IRRI released its first variety, IR8, which was to have a huge impact throughout South Asia and other regions of the world. In August 1967, John D. Rockefeller III came to IRRI to see for himself this ‘miracle rice' (photo at left).

However, that was just the beginning. Many more fruits were to come from the RF-IRRI association over the next four and a half decades, particularly through RF’s generous support and funding of biotechnology research through its Rice Biotechnology Program, started in 1984 and headed by Dr. Toenniessen. The work on Golden Rice, for example, would undoubtedly not be as far along as it is today—if indeed it existed at all—had it not been for the challenge that Dr. Toenniessen and RF gave scientists to find or create rice with yellow endosperm containing beta carotene, the precursor to vitamin A. By officially adding yellow endosperm to its top-20 list of desirable traits in rice that could be aided by biotechnology applications, RF set the course in the 1980s for improving the nutritional value of rice that will now, with the pending release of Golden Rice to farmers and consumers, have a massive impact on the health of millions of the world’s poorest people.

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