A tribute to Professor Sir Gordon Conway, co-founder of the Centre for Environmental Policy, who passed in July 2023 at the age of 85 years.
Professor Sir Gordon Conway was a Professor of International Development at Imperial College. He joined Imperial in 1970 after working in North Borneo, where he helped the State of Sabah in Malaysia pioneer sustainable agriculture and integrated pest management programmes.
A forward-looking and visionary leader, he anticipated the UK’s need for increased research and training in environmental technology. In 1976, he founded the Imperial College Centre for Environmental Technology (ICCET) with the support of Lord Brian Flowers, the Chairman of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution and the Rector of Imperial at the time.
Professor Conway had a wide range of research interests and made huge contributions in research and policy for agriculture, food security and sustainable land management. He was particularly active in applying his expertise in food production in the Global South.
His legacy at Imperial College
Professor Conway was trained in agricultural ecology at Bangor
University, Cambridge University, University of the West Indies in Trinidad, as well as the University of California.
After co-founding the Interdepartmental Centre for Environmental Technology
(ICCET) which would eventually evolve to become the Centre for Environmental Policy (CEP), Professor Conway acted as its first Director.
ICCET was the first interdisciplinary centre to be set up in Imperial, and it served as a nexus for early environmental research from different departments, spanning issues in public health, engineering, pollution control, law, economics, pesticide use and more.
Professor Conway founded the MSc in Environmental Technology, which is celebrating its 45 anniversary this year. Starting from an initial cohort of 24 people, the MSc in Environmental Technology now has over 160 students and over 4,000 alumni. He was a frequent lecturer and academic supervisor.
Gordon’s visionary establishment of the MSc in Environmental Technology in 1977 provided a template for training future environmental leaders and managers, both in the UK and globally... Professor Jem Woods Centre for Environmental Policy
"Gordon’s visionary establishment of the MSc in Environmental Technology in 1977 provided a template for training future environmental leaders and managers, both in the UK and globally, that continues to be adopted by the world’s leading educational institutions," said the current Director of the CEP.
"It led the way in linking ground-breaking research into solutions-focused innovation in environmental technology with educating and training the people who would go on to implement these emerging technologies," Professor Woods said.
Before his passing, he led the Agriculture for Impact Programme at Imperial, which was supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The Programme looked for ways to enhance agricultural development for smallholder farmers in sub-Saharan Africa.
Agriculture for Impact acted as the Secretariat for the Malabo Montepellier Panel, of which he was a founding member of. The Malabo Montepellier Panel was a panel of international experts led by Professor Conway to provide innovative solutions to address food and nutrition issues in Africa.
Professor Conway passionately advocated ’sustainable intensification’, which would transform Africa’s agricultural sector for smallholder farmers so that the continent could produce higher yields without adverse environmental consequences and so feed the continent’s rapidly growing population.
During his time at Imperial, he authored several highly influential reports and books. He authored The Doubly Green Revolution: Food for all in the 21 Century and co-authored Food for All in Africa: Sustainable Intensification for African Farmers.
In the books, he imagines a future of sustainable agricultural development rooted in greater yields, healthier diets and improved livelihoods for farmers and the rural poor.
[Professor Conway] was a true believer in the one human family, that explains his great sense of humility and thus ability and urge to connect across cultures and generations... Dr Ousmane Badiane Africa Director for the International Food Policy Research Institute
"There are so many things one could say about Sir Gordon. For one, he was a true believer in the one human family, that explains his great sense of humility and thus ability and urge to connect across cultures and generations," said Dr Ousmane Badiane, Africa Director for the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) and co-author of Food for All in Africa.
"He saw the good in everything and everyone which made him an optimist at his core, with an immense energy in the search for better human conditions everywhere.
Many of us owe him a lot. His friendship and mentorship will be sorely missed," Dr Badiane said.
A generous academic Gordon committed his time, career and research to trying to solve some of the world’s most pressing ecological and agricultural challenges in order to improve the lives of many.
An illustrious career in international agricultural policy
After founding ICCET, Professor Conway became the Director of the Sustainable Agriculture Program of the International Institute for Environment and Development in London before becoming Representative of the Ford Foundation in New Delhi from 1988 to 1992.
In 1998, he became the 11 President of the Rockefeller Foundation and its first non-American president. During his leadership, he focused the Foundation on indigenous populations with programmes such as ’Living Cities’, which worked to increase low-income housing and commercial development in poorer cities.
As President, he opposed the use of ’terminator genes’ by the Monsanto Company, the largest seed company in the world. Terminator genes rendered plants incapable of producing seeds to be harvested for future use, potentially alienating poorer people from the benefits of biotechnology.
Monsanto dropped plans to sell seeds with terminator genes after Professor Conway lobbied heavily against their use.
After he stepped down as President of the Rockefeller Foundation, Professor Conway continued being heavily involved in policy. He was Chief Scientific Adviser to the DFID and President of the Royal Geographical Society from 2004 to 2009. He continued to write, conduct research and contribute to international food policy, even after he retired in 2022.
Professor Conway was made Knight Commander of the Order of Saint Michael and Saint George in 2005.
For all his enormous talent and energy, [Professor Conway] was unendingly gracious, generous, kind, and considerate of his colleagues and students Professor Mark Burgman Centre for Environmental Policy
"Gordon was one of the most important scientists of his generation and spent his energies tackling some of the most important challenges in food security and agriculture in the Global South. For all his enormous talent and energy, he was unendingly gracious, generous, kind, and considerate of his colleagues and students," said Professor Mark Burgman, former Director of the CEP.
His colleagues and friends at Imperial College will miss him dearly. He is survived by his wife, Lady Susan Conway, and their three children: Simon, Zoe and Kate.