The tragic Bengal famine of 1943, which resulted in the starvation and death of up to 3 million people, deeply affected M.S. Swaminathan. At that time, he was a young medical student with aspirations, but this heart-wrenching event compelled him to redirect his career towards the field of agriculture. He turned his attention to genetics and breeding, driven by the potential to enhance crop varieties and ultimately improve the quality of life for people.
Swaminathan, who played a pivotal role in India’s Green Revolution, passed away in Chennai at the age of 98. He was a rare scientific luminary who chose to dedicate his life and work to India.
His significant contribution to doubling India’s wheat production within a short period is noteworthy. This achievement freed India from its reliance on food aid from the United States and transformed the nation from a state of food scarcity to one of abundance. In 1966, during a severe drought, India had to import 10 million tonnes of wheat.
The Green Revolution, initiated in 1965, primarily centered on introducing high-yielding dwarf wheat varieties to farmers in North India. These crops were cultivated with the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides to maximize yields, with farmers being guaranteed a fixed price.
Swaminathan’s visionary approach swiftly turned India from a “begging bowl” into a “breadbasket,” a transformation acknowledged by the World Food Foundation when they honored him as the inaugural World Food Prize laureate in 1987. In 1971, he also received the Ramon Magsaysay Award for his outstanding contributions as both a distinguished scientist and a compassionate humanist.
“In four years, from 1964 to 1968, we doubled the yields achieved in 4,000 years of the known history of wheat cultivation in the Indian subcontinent, from the time of Mohenjo-Daro,” Swaminathan noted in an interview with the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization in 2014. This agricultural revolution later extended to crops such as rice, maize, sorghum, and potatoes.
During the 1950s, Swaminathan collaborated closely with agronomist and plant breeder Norman Borlaug to introduce these new crop varieties to Indian farmers. Borlaug went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for his work on new wheat varieties in Mexico, India, and Pakistan.
Swaminathan’s influence extended far beyond plant breeding; he was a passionate administrator who led the Indian Council of Agricultural Research, actively engaged with farmers across India, and served as the principal secretary in the agriculture ministry from 1979 to 1980. Additionally, he held positions as a member of the Planning Commission from 1980 to 1982 and as the director-general of the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines.
Swaminathan’s name is frequently invoked by farmers, a remarkable acknowledgment for a scientist. He authored a series of reports submitted to the government between 2004 and 2006 in his role as the chair of the National Commission of Farmers. The “Swaminathan Report” delved into the underlying causes of agricultural distress. One of its key recommendations, that minimum support prices (MSP) should be set at a minimum of 50% higher than average production costs, remains a central demand of farm unions across India. MSP represents the price at which the government directly purchases crops from farmers.
Despite his numerous achievements, Swaminathan was not immune to controversy. He faced criticism for deeming genetically modified (GM) cotton, introduced to Indian farmers in 2004, as a failure. In a 2018 paper, he also raised safety concerns regarding GM brinjal and mustard, which generated backlash from the scientific community. Swaminathan later emphasized that people should exercise caution when embracing technology, as stated in an interview with the journal Science.
Furthermore, advocates of ecological and organic farming have consistently voiced concerns about the environmental consequences of the Green Revolution. They highlight the pollution of natural resources such as soil and water due to the excessive use of chemical nutrients and pesticides by farmers during that era.