An Evergreen Revolution

Interview with M. S. Swaminathan
[© Seikyo Shimbun]

Professor Monkombu Sambasivan Swaminathan is known as the father of the Green Revolution that dramatically increased agricultural yields in India from the 1960s on. He is a strong proponent of the responsible use of technology to improve the livelihoods of the rural poor. His M. S. Swaminathan Research Foundation in Chennai ( engages in a variety of programs to bridge the rich-poor and gender divides in the areas of information, knowledge and skill empowerment. He is past president of the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs.

SGI Quarterly: Why did you first become involved in food and agricultural issues?

M. S. Swaminathan: My personal motivation started with the great Bengal famine of 1943, when I was a student at the University of Kerala. There was an acute rice shortage, and in Bengal about 3 million people died from starvation. All of our young people, myself included, were involved in the freedom struggle, which Gandhi had intensified, and I decided I should take to agricultural research in order to help farmers produce more.

I approached it from a pure science degree. My family had wanted me to get a medical degree because my father had been a doctor. But I decided I must do agriculture because that is the area in which I thought I could be of the greatest help to independent India.

In colonial India, famines were frequent, and our average yields were very low. For example, even in 1947 Japanese farmers were producing 5-6 tons of rice per hectare, while in India it was less than 1 ton, and our population was growing. So my major aim was to break the yield stagnation and help our farmers double or triple their yields.

The semidwarf, short wheat varieties with high yield came from Japan where they were first developed by Dr. Gonjiro Inazuka. Seeds were then taken to the U.S. by Dr. S. C. Salmon, who was with General MacArthur. We got our material from U.S. scientists, particularly from Drs. Norman Borlaug and Orville Vogel, and then developed our own varieties, which triggered the wheat revolution and then the Green Revolution.

SGIQ: The Green Revolution and biotechnology in agriculture later came under criticism.

MSS: The Green Revolution was a term coined in 1968 by Dr. William Gaud of the U.S. It pointed to the fact that we are all living on this planet as guests of green plants, which photosynthesize the energy of the sun.

From the 1970s onward there were two kinds of criticism of the Green Revolution. One was from environmentalists. Already Rachel Carson in her book Silent Spring had pointed out that excessive use of pesticides and fertilizers will do harm. The other criticisms came from economists, because technologies are not resource-neutral. If I am a small farmer, I need more productivity, so the new technologies are very relevant. But they require inputs for output. From 1972 onward the price of gasoline started going up. Before that it was very cheap. Many of the inputs for the Green Revolution, like mineral fertilizers, come from petroleum derivatives. If the cost of production goes up, the small farmers cannot afford them. So both ecologists and economists were concerned. If farm ecology and economics go wrong, nothing will go right in agriculture.

[© Wim van Capellen/Uniphoto Press]

But even as early as January 1968, before the term Green Revolution was coined, I gave a lecture in the Indian Science Congress, warning that the excessive use of pesticides and fertilizers, the excessive exploitation of groundwater, growing monocultures instead of varietal diversity--all of this would be very harmful. I said that instead of progress we may see agricultural disaster if we don't incorporate environmental parameters in agronomic technology. I coined the term Evergreen Revolution, which means increasing production in perpetuity without ecological harm.

The issue of genetic modification is not really related to the Green Revolution. The Green Revolution was not a product of genetic modification but what we call Mendelian breeding after Gregor Mendel [cross-breeding different varieties], while the genetic revolution is at the level of molecular manipulation--DNA technology. There are many differences of opinion here, but what is important is the safe and responsible use of biotechnology. We must weigh the benefits and risks objectively and transparently, then decide.

A lot of work is going on in genetic modification in the medical sciences without much objection--to produce treatments for Alzheimer's or Parkinson's disease, for example. But in food biotechnology there are real concerns--environmental concerns, impact on biodiversity, impact on human health, and so on. But every country has a biotechnology regulatory authority which examines the product and says whether it is safe or not. In India cotton is the only genetically modified crop approved for cultivation.

Ecotechnology means marrying the best of modern science with the best in traditional wisdom and traditional ecological prudence. You can use biotechnology for bioterrorism, or you can use it for biohappiness. I feel we must try to use all the technologies in this world for biohappiness, which means people have a good life, better health, better food, as a result of the technology.

Ensuring the safe and responsible use of biotechnology has to be done by regulatory mechanisms and also by public opinion--by the nongovernmental movement, organizations which go into the ethical aspects of technology.

Benefiting the Poorest

SGIQ: How has your thinking been influenced by Gandhi?

MSS: My father was in the Gandhian movement of nonviolence, and Gan-dhi stayed in our home a few times. Gandhi's principles are those I received from my childhood: such as swadeshi, that is, self-reliance; the principle of nonviolence; of sarvodaya--having no winners and losers, nobody exploiting another person; and antyodaya--whatever you do, let the benefits go to the poorest person you have seen. These are the basic principles of my life--harmony with nature, harmony with each other, making a difference in the lives of others.

My foundation is based on the principle of a pro-nature-, pro-poor- and pro-women orientation to technology development and dissemination. We ensure that all our work conforms to these principles.

SGIQ: Part of the suspicion toward biotechnology in agriculture is that the technology is controlled by corporations that profit from it without regard to the adverse effects it can have.

MSS: This is a genuine concern. Unlike the Green Revolution that was a product of public-sector enterprise--there was no patenting, and the smaller farmers benefited more from the new seeds--the gene revolution is controlled by multinational companies which are based on intellectual property rights and social exclusion in access to technology.

The answer is for governments to provide more funding to public-sector institutions like universities, government institutions or institutions such as our ecotechnology center in Chennai, to enable them to develop technologies that are available to the poorest farmer.

In my own center, most of our research is participatory research with the local farming families. We have many examples of technology which helps through resistance to salinity, resistance to serious drought. We have a rice variety that is rich in iron, since iron deficiency among pregnant women is very widespread and a serious problem.

SGIQ: What are the biovillages that your center is promoting?

MSS: The biovillage involves human-centered development. It has two major components. One aspect is the conservation and improvement of natural resources, particularly soil health, water and biodiversity. The other aspect is improving the income of the farmers--higher productivity on farms and value added to primary products. For example in rice-growing areas, there is a whole series of rice by-products such as rice bran, rice husks, rice straw. Rice straw can be used for example for growing rice-straw mushrooms and you can make it into paper and board. The purpose of biovillages is to convert natural resources into wealth and jobs.

Most of the villages in the state of Pondicherry are now biovillages. Bangladesh has also started biovillages.

SGIQ: Why is hunger increasing?

MSS: Endemic hunger does not get as much media attention as famine. It is shameful that we are not achieving the number one UN Millennium Development Goal of reducing hunger and poverty by half. You cannot have unsustainable lifestyles and unacceptable poverty coexisting in the world. If we don't achieve the MDGs, we'll find a world full of violence, terrorism and unrest. So it is in the interests of everyone that we work hard to ensure that hunger, the most important enemy of humankind, is eradicated.