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Swaminathan, M. S.

M. S. Swaminathan

When the international edition of Time magazine named Indian agricultural scientist M. S. Swaminathan (born 1925) as one of the 100 most influential Asians of the twentieth century, many readers wondered who Swaminathan was. While less well known than the other Indians on Time 's list, such as poet Rabindranath Tagore and nonviolence advocate Mohandas K. Gandhi, Swaminathan may have touched the lives of impoverished Indians more directly than those other historical figures. As the originator of the so-called Green Revolution, Swaminathan set in motion fundamental changes in agricultural production in India that have put an end to India's age-old status as a nation on the brink of starvation.

Since first implemented by Swaminathan in the 1960s, the Green Revolution has rippled across Asia, setting the economies of country after country on a firm footing and laying the foundation for the spectacular economic growth in much of the region by the end of the twentieth century. The Indian geneticist did not settle into a comfortable career after making his groundbreaking discoveries, however. Instead, Swaminathan has remained vitally involved with food and agricultural issues, holding a series of high-profile posts both inside and outside India. Well past retirement age, he remained an important voice speaking out on issues such as pesticide use and experimentation with genetically modified organisms, or GMO's. Throughout his career, he not only carried out research, but also worked to find ways to share the results of that research with ordinary farmers.

Swaminathan was born 1925, in Kumabakonom, located in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. His parents were both prominent citizens: his mother was a member of an influential south Indian family, and his father, a surgeon, was a follower of Gandhi. The young Swaminathan grew up exposed to the possibility of society-wide change in India as he observed Gandhi's successful series of protests against British rule and his exhortations for Indians to seize control of their own economic destiny by, for example, boycotting foreign textiles. Grimmer events also shaped Swaminathan's developing world view during his youth: a deadly famine that struck India's Bengal region in 1942 and 1943 made him resolve to work to end hunger in his homeland.

Famine Inspired Switch to Agriculture

Swaminathan attended the Roman Catholic Little Flower High School in Kumbakonom, and he was admitted to Travancore (now Kerala) University after graduating at age 15. At first he studied zoology, earning a degree in two years. Then, affected by the Bengali famine and by his observations of the problems of small farmers he had met on family vacations around southern India, he switched to the study of agriculture and enrolled at the University of Madras. He finished a second bachelor's degree there in 1947 and went on to do graduate work at the Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI).

Because Swaminathan's family had planned a government career for him, he dutifully took and passed the Indian government's civil service examinations. He was offered a management job in India's national police force, but at the same time, in 1949, he got word that he had won a U.N. Education, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) fellowship to continue his education overseas. He spent a year studying plant genetics at the University of Wageningen in the Netherlands and then moved on to Cambridge University in England, where he earned a Ph.D. in 1952. His doctoral thesis dealt with the genetic structures of certain potato species.

Crossing the Atlantic on the Queen Elizabeth ocean liner, Swaminathan worked from 1952 to 1954 at a new Inter-Regional Potato Introduction Station in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin, sponsored by the University of Wisconsin and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. During this period Swaminathan gained practical knowledge of plant hybridization: combining different varieties of the same plant species in order to create a new plant better adapted to the soil and climate conditions of a particular region. He published nine papers about his experiments, beginning a publishing history that would grow to include an eventual 250 papers and several books. Offered a professorship at the University of Wisconsin after his stint in Sturgeon Bay, Swaminathan instead chose to return to India instead and work toward making that country a better place to live.


Became Rice Research Institute Director

In India Swaminathan married Mina Bhoothalingam, the daughter of a prominent economist and an educator and lecturer herself. The couple raised three daughters; one became a pediatrician, one an economist specializing in the problems of landless families, and one a sociologist of rural life. Taking a post as assistant botanist at the Central Rice Research Institute in the Indian state of Orissa, Swaminathan experimented with crossing rice varieties in order to create a new strain with increased yields. Within six months he had moved to the Indian capital of New Delhi and to the IARI, where he had done research as a graduate student. He ascended a professional ladder there, starting as assistant cytogeneticist, and becoming chief cytogeneticist in 1956, head of the botany division in 1961, and director of the division in July of 1966.

Swaminathan's research during this period would change the world. The core of his investigation focused on a collection of wheat plants at the IARI; he experimented with cross-breeding native Indian varieties with Japanese strains and with a dwarf wheat plant developed in Mexico by U.S. agricultural researcher Norman Borlaug. He also helped assemble a stock of 7,000 rice strains from northeast India that became something of a genetic gold mine and eventually grew to include 75,000 different varieties. Swaminathan saw no need for modesty about his accomplishments during this period. "Our history," he told Time International, "changed from that time."

Indeed, agricultural statistics bear out Swaminathan's contention. When he began his agricultural work, Indian farmers, and those across much of Asia, practiced their craft much as they had centuries before, and the returns the soil yielded were either remaining stable or diminishing, as soils became exhausted after being tilled year after year. Meanwhile, Asian countries were exploding in population as medical care improved. Western press accounts of the region's problems during the 1960s were filled with dire predictions of massive food shortages, and "starving children in India" became a reference point for American parents trying to cajole their own children into cleaning their plates. The worst-case scenarios seemed to be coming true as 30 million people died in China during a period of crop failures lasting from 1958 to 1962.

The prediction of mass starvation in India never came to pass, however. Within two years of the introduction of Swaminathan's Japanese-Mexican wheat hybrid, Indian wheat production rose from 10 million tons a year to 18 million tons. By 2004 it stood at 80 million tons. Scientists under Swaminathan's direction at the IARI made similar breakthroughs with rice. U.S. scientist William Gaud coined the term "Green Revolution" to describe Swaminathan's breakthroughs, and Swaminathan concurred. "It became a wheat revolution, not evolution," he told the Irish Times.


Established Model Farms

Part of Swaminathan's genius was that he was not just a brilliant scientist but a gifted and innovative communicator as well. He could invent new seed varieties, but spreading news of his discoveries across a densely populated country with a spotty communications infrastructure was another matter. In the 1960s, Swaminathan took steps to solve this problem by setting up a network of 2,000 model farms that showed local farmers the possibilities of the new plant varieties. More recently, he became a leader in trying to spread Internet and computer technology into India's rural villages. A believer in technology, Swaminathan also hoped to use technology as a social leveling agent. "If you want an inclusive society you must go to the poorest person and ask if they will gain anything from technological development," he explained to a contributor in the London Guardian. "Farming cannot be left to the control of a few multinational companies."

In the 1970s Swaminathan was aided in his efforts to improve Indian farming by the country's prime minister, Indira Gandhi, who gave him free rein to reform India's agricultural bureaucracy and in 1979 named him principal secretary of India's Ministry of Agriculture and Irrigation. "Gandhi was a strong nationalist," Swaminathan recalled, as quoted in Time International. "She wanted an independent foreign policy, and food was a political weapon." During the cold war years, Indian foreign policy tilted away from the United States and toward the Soviet Union, but Swaminathan avoided political controversies. He traveled the globe energetically, visiting the United States many times, and his top priorities were agricultural development and humane agricultural policies. In 1974 he chaired the U.N. World Food Congress, held in Rome, Italy.

With India essentially self-sufficient in food production by the end of the 1970s, Swaminathan began to work on a global scale. In 1982 he moved to the Philippines to take a post as director general of the International Rice Research Institute. He returned to India in 1989 and founded the Center for Research on Sustainable Agricultural and Rural Development in Madras, having served as honorary vice president of the World Wildlife Fund from 1985 to 1987. As of 2004 he remained the institute's director. Among the numerous honors and prizes Swaminathan accumulated are 32 honorary degrees and, in 1987, the $200,000 World Food Prize sponsored by the U.S. General Foods conglomerate. Receiving an honorary doctorate from the University of Massachusetts, Swaminathan quoted U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt in his remarks, telling graduates that "The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have too much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have little."

Well into senior citizen-hood, Swaminathan remained tirelessly active in fields relating to food production. He lectured widely on such topics as farmland preservation and water conservation, and he became an advocate for organic agriculture. The Green Revolution, he told the Hindu, had become a "greed revolution" evidenced by rampant pesticide use with little regard for the eventual consequences. Characteristically, he suggested female literacy campaigns as a solution: his innovations were generally focused not only on scientific discoveries and public policy, but also on changing the points of view of individuals at the bottom of the social ladder.

By 2004, with world population still sharply on the rise, Swaminathan was sounding the alarm over future grain shortages. Despite his promotion of organic agriculture, he favored the genetic modification of crops as a way to increase yields, something many proponents of organic agriculture rejected. "Organic foods and [genetically modified] foods are being placed at two ends of a table," Swaminathan said in a speech quoted by Australia's Courier Mail. "The way ahead lies in harmonizing organic agriculture and the breeding methods based on the new genetics." Many believed, indeed, that the genetic modification of crops was merely a new step in the ongoing process of creating new plants that Swaminathan had pioneered, and with which he had fed half the globe.

Books

Notable Scientists from 1900 to the Present, Gale, 2001.


Periodicals

Boston Globe, June 3, 2001.

Courier Mail (Queensland, Australia), September 28, 2004.

Financial Times, June 24, 1987.

Guardian (London, England), April 19, 2001.

Hindu, February 20, 1996; July 31, 2002; June 6, 2004; January 11, 2005.

India Abroad, July 5, 1996.

Irish Times, June 24, 2004.

Time International, August 23, 1999.


Online

"Biography of Moncompu Sambasivan Swaminathan," Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation Web site,http://www.rmaf.org.ph/Awardees/Biography/BiographySwaminathanMS.htm (January 13, 2005).

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