Birthing a new era of sustainable agriculture

Geneticist M.S. Swaminathan, heralded as the father of India’s Green Revolution, says it’s time for the next step: greater agricultural productivity without ecological damage.

Mankombu Sambasivan Swaminathan

In 1954, 28-year-old Mankombu Sambasivan Swaminathan turned down a genetics professorship at the University of Wisconsin to return to his native India. Having grown up with the ideals of Mahatma Gandhi, who was a regular visitor to his house in Kumbakonam, Swaminathan had a sense of the swadesh (a pride in one’s own country) and self-reliance that permeated the veins of a newly independent India.

“I told the president [of the university] that the very purpose of my coming abroad was to equip myself to serve my country, not to live abroad,” he remembers.

The young geneticist arrived back in India with no job, no source of income and few prospects. But three months later Swaminathan landed a temporary post working on a hybridization program to create higher-yielding varieties of rice. That experience set the stage for his life’s work: leading India’s Green Revolution of agricultural productivity that has helped feed millions. By the time the 20th century ended, Time magazine had named him one of the 20 most influential Asian people of the past 100 years, and the United Nations Environment Programme has described him as “the Father of Economic Ecology.”

Today, 88-year-old Swaminathan is looking ahead to what he calls “the Evergreen Revolution,” a term that gained widespread acceptance after U.S. President Barack Obama used it in an address to the Indian Parliament in 2010. “It’s not a question of one green revolution, or the second or third,” says Swaminathan, now emeritus chairman and chief mentor of the M S Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF). “We need an evergreen revolution, which I define as increase in productivity in perpetuity without ecological harm. That is what we’re now working for: technologies for sustainable agriculture.”

Evergreen ideals

The seeds for India’s original Green Revolution were planted during Swaminathan’s years in Wisconsin when he met Norman Borlaug, considered the father of the global Green Revolution from the 1940s through the 1960s. When Swaminathan later began his laboratory research in India, Borlaug sent him seeds that had been developed in Mexico. After crossbreeding these seeds with local species, Swaminathan was able to create a wheat plant that yielded much more grain than the traditional crop.

The Green Revolution had arrived in India

Swaminathan went on to play a leading role in India’s agricultural transformation for decades, serving as the country’s minister of agriculture and then as director general of the International Rice Research Institute during the 1980s. But India’s Green Revolution, despite having fed millions, wasn’t without its share of drawbacks. It relied heavily on the use of pesticides (necessary when single crops are grown over wide areas), it led to a reduction in agricultural biodiversity, and environmental activists claim that it resulted in water scarcity and social marginalization.

Swaminathan says he believes there is now a growing awareness in his country that sustainable agriculture practices are important and that all new technologies should be environment friendly. “I think we need a new phase in our agriculture, which has to be pro-environment, pro-woman and pro-small farming,” he says.

Biofortification for the future

Food production technology alone has ushered in a number of advances, including biotechnology. But what excites Swaminathan the most is biofortification, a process through which crops are bred to increase their nutritional value, such as rice fortified with iron or wheat fortified with zinc. These crops can be enhanced through either conventional plant breeding or technology such as genetic engineering.

There are three kinds of hunger in India, Swaminathan explains. “One is purely inadequate food consumption or undernutrition,” he says. The second is protein hunger, with half of the population vegetarian, unable to afford pulses (crops harvested for their dry seed) and lacking the will or the money to buy milk and eggs. The third type is hunger caused by micronutrient deficiencies in vitamin A, vitamin B12, iron, zinc and other nutrients. In fact, despite being self-sufficient in terms of food production, India claims the dubious honor of having the largest number of undernourished children, women and men in the world.

“It’s what I call the Indian enigma,” says Swaminathan. “Grain mountains and hungry millions.”

To address all of these types of hunger, Swaminathan says his foundation, which he created in 1988 with money he received as the first World Food Prize recipient, is pushing the concept of a farming system for nutrition (FSN). Rather than simply concentrating on commercial crops, farmers would grow seeds that address the specific nutrition deficiencies of a population in an attempt to combat malnutrition and hunger.

Swaminathan is also urging the United Nations to consider naming an international year for orphan or underutilized crops—crops that were popular in the past but now have largely been forgotten in global markets, such as sorghum and millet in Africa and South Asia, quinoa in Latin America, and teff, which is a favorite in Ethiopia. Global demand for these crops dropped partly because market forces such as marketing and pricing control were lacking, and partly because they are dry crops not meant to be irrigated.

“I started my career developing [crop] varieties that could respond to fertilizer and water,” says Swaminathan. “These crops were not selected for that. There was no investment or research on these crops, nobody pushed money on them.” Today, only three or four of more than 400 varieties are still being produced, such as wheat, rice and corn, even though orphan crops could be the key to food security in the future, he says.

It’s what I call the Indian enigma—grain mountains and hungry millions.”
—M.S. Swaminathan

“[Orphan crops] are nutritionally rich, have much higher protein, better amino acid profile, and they’re also climate smart,” says Swaminathan. “They can withstand drought better than wheat or rice and don’t need much water. Above all, they are cultivated by tribal families, more marginalized rural families without irrigation, and so they have a number of ecological, social and nutritional benefits.

“The best way of withstanding the impact of climate change is to diversify our cropping pattern, and include more of these climate smart crops,” he adds.

Mridu Khullar Relph

Mridu Khullar Relph, a journalist and editor in New Delhi, India, reports regularly on the environment and eco-friendly businesses for national magazines and newspapers. Her work can be found in media such as TIME, The New York Times, CNN, and others. 

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  • Martin Atayo

    Excellent work of a life time from Sr Saminanthan that stands global test
    of changing generations of all times. His work layed emphasis on yield and
    nutrition driven value through emerging technology without endangering
    natural ecology.
    This technologist, has launched global efforts toward global green vegetation
    regeneration that takes advantage of bioengineering conceptual applications,
    directed at human immune system boost, curative medicine and deviant gene
    mutation suppression, using resultant ingestable foods as non invasive channels
    of delivery into human body system.This is emerging smartest science of next generation. And the necessity to revive and ecourage essential crop boosting
    agricultural practices of quinoa, millet, sorghum, etc, can not be overemphasized.
    Finally, I whole heartedly support Saminanthan’s conviction that sustainable future
    hinges more on grains (food) than on guns !!
    Martin Atayo
    Washington DC

  • Justin

    I am happy to read about Sr Saminanthan ideas about orphan crops. Marketing and investment into this crops on small farms is the future!!!

  • Norman would be proud…

    U of Minnesota College of Ag Polly Olson

  • simply great