India's green revolutionary is back in spotlight

NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Forty years after he helped rescue the world from growing famine and a deepening gloom over the future of food supplies, Monkombu Sambasivan Swaminathan is once again agitating for revolution -- this time a perpetual one.

Monkombu Sambasivan Swaminathan, 82-year-old scientist, poses at his government apartment in the heart of New Delhi May 12, 2008. REUTERS/Vijay Mathur

The 82-year-old scientist, dubbed here the father of the Green Revolution for helping development a hybrid wheat seed that allowed Indian farmers to dramatically increase yields, says the current food crisis offers the world a chance to put farmers on the right road to unending growth.

In the twenty-first century’s “Evergreen Revolution,” as he calls it, conservation farming and green technology will bring about sustainable change that could allow India to become an even bigger supplier of food to the world.

“I’m very happy now, because in every crisis is an opportunity,” he told Reuters at his government apartment in the heart of New Delhi, a perk of his membership in India’s upper house. “This time it will lead to an evergreen revolution.”

That would be welcome news for the millions of impoverished people and food-importing nations who are struggling to cope with the surge in basic crop prices over the last year, caused in part by protectionist trade bans by some exporters, including India.

This year’s near trebling in the price of rice -- the main staple for most of the world’s poor -- has driven the issue home. It has triggered riots in Haiti and raised the risk of starvation for the hundreds of millions who depend on subsidized foods.

With anxiety over food supply running higher than anytime since the 1960s, the former Cambridge scholar is busier than ever, just as passionate and in high demand.

“My wife says I have a one-track mind,” he said during an interview squeezed between a meeting with an analyst from Asian brokerage CLSA and a consultation with a pack of regional politicians.

His wife Mina, a women’s rights campaigner who met Swaminathan in Cambridge over 50 years ago, enforces quiet time during his daily siesta, part of a regime that helps give him the energy and focus of a man several decades his junior. A slight stoop and white hair are rare signs of his advanced age.


Today’s crisis is still far from that of the 1960s, when China was engulfed in deadly famine and India barely got by on hand-to-mouth imports, reviving the grim Malthusian view that the world’s population was expanding too quickly to feed itself.

Back then, Swaminathan, a young scientist who turned down plumb positions in academia and the government to work in agriculture research, helped cross-breed wheat seeds that allowed India to more than treble its annual crop in just 15 years.

U.S. production has risen only about a third since then.

Scientists in the Philippines had also developed a super strain of rice at the same time, and better irrigation and use of fertilizer helped pull India back from the brink of famine.

But Swaminathan says that some seeds of the current crisis were sown in his own revolutionary heyday.

“The Green Revolution created a sense of euphoria that we have solved our production problem. Now we have a plateau in production and productivity. We have a problem of under investment in rural infrastructure,” he says.

With genetically advanced seeds, farmers overlooked the potential ecological damage of heavy fertilizer use, the drop in water tables due to heavier irrigation and the impact of repeated crop cycles on soil quality.

He believes we’ve learned from those lessons, and the next wave of improvements will have environmental considerations at their core, without the need to return to the genetics lab.

“A short-term gain will have to be a long-term disaster in agriculture,” says Swaminathan, who held a series of leadership roles in world agriculture organizations before establishing his non-profit Chennai-based M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation 20 years ago to promote farm growth that will aid the poor, particularly women, and bio-diversity.


But not all his ideas are popular.

Some abroad are unimpressed by his focus on India’s self-sufficiency as the primary goal, and those at home question the cultivation of more easily grown foods such as courser grains rather than finer, more costly wheat or rice.

“Would you eat them?” India’s food secretary T. Nand Kumar asked earlier this week.

Not that Swaminathan has given up on the staples.

In a world threatened by rising temperatures, he says India should grow more rice rather than wheat, the latter of which India was forced to import over the past two years.

“Wheat is a gamble in temperatures... Rice is going to be the savior crop in the era of climate change,” he said.

With a host of measures suggested to kickstart the struggling sector, Swaminathan believes farmers should be allowed to play a pivotal role in leading the change, though he regrets it took a crisis to finally shift the world’s attention back to the land.

“Only when disasters come, farmers become important.”