From green to evergreen: Updating the food revolution

January 26, 2011
Patrick Kavanagh

Hunger can be eradicated “in my lifetime,” says the man known as the father of the Green Revolution in India. M.S. Swaminathan speaks about his values, his achievements, and his ambitions.

According to Time magazine, Professor Monkombu Sambasivan Swaminathan ranks alongside Mahatma Gandhi, the Dalai Lama, and Corazon Aquino among the 20 most influential Asians of the twentieth century. Few will challenge this opinion.

Born in India’s Tamil Nadu in 1925, Swaminathan earned a PhD in plant genetics from Cambridge University. In the early 1950s he abandoned a promising academic career and returned to his home country to help confront a crisis of overpopulation and food scarcity. Working closely with other scientists in India and around the world, Swaminathan applied the principles of plant breeding — and his formidable powers of persuasion — to launch the astonishing increase in food production that is now known as the Green Revolution.

Instead of suffering the widespread famine that many had been predicting, Indians within a few years learned to grow enough wheat and rice to feed themselves. The techniques of biotechnology pioneered by Swaminathan and his colleagues were adopted by other developing countries, and produced the food security that helped set the stage for the rapid Asian economic growth of later decades.

In India and around the world, Swaminathan has been honoured with many dozens of prestigious awards and prizes. Today he heads, among other organizations, the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation, a non-profit institute for science and development that he established in Chennai, and the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs of which he is president. In 2007, he became a member of the upper house of India’s parliament, the Rajya Sabha.

In July 2007, Professor Swaminathan visited IDRC in Ottawa as a special guest of its speaker series, and talked about his life and work.

Roots and values

Swaminathan credits both his father and Mahatma Gandhi — whom he met in his childhood during India’s independence struggle — with inspiring him toward a life of public service.

His father was a politician and a doctor who believed that “medical knowledge should be taken to the people,” and who once applied this principle by relying on education and “social mobilization” to eradicate the parasitic disease filariasis from an entire town. In his own professional life, Swaminathan has always reinforced the authority of hard science with what he calls “the power of people power” — trusting the local community to find solutions to its problems.

Thus, his decision to enter the field of agriculture was motivated by the philosophy of self-reliance, or swadeshi, pursued by Gandhi’s campaign for Indians to wear homespun cotton rather than imported textiles. Both his development vision and his scientific work were further inspired by Gandhi’s notion of sarvodaya, or the “welfare of all.” Swaminathan explains:

There are no winners and no losers in the sarvodaya society: all are winners in some respect. The same principle applies in plant breeding and animal breeding. When you have a population performance rather than individual performance alone, then you have greater progress.

He follows Gandhi in believing that sarvodaya can be achieved only through antodaya, or the “welfare of the weakest:”

You start with the bottom, the poorest person. You ask yourself: Will what you’re going to do now have any benefit for the poorest person you have seen in your life?

He points out that his Chennai foundation is mandated to take a “pro-nature, pro-poor, and pro-women” approach in its development efforts. And he holds not only that laypersons ought to benefit from the fruits of science, but they should play a significant role in the scientific process itself:

You can develop some new thoughts, new material in the laboratory, but ultimately if you want to be successful in the field you must understand the problems of the people. They have a long experience that I would call wisdom. We may have knowledge — but they have wisdom.

The evergreen revolution and bio-villages

While Swaminathan enjoys the admiration of many, he also has critics. Advocates of organic farming are wary of biotechnology in general. Environmentalists complain about the ecological impact of the Green Revolution, such as its heavy reliance on inputs like pesticides and intrusive irrigation. Other people worry that only rich farmers can afford the high costs of these inputs, and the poor are excluded.

Swaminathan acknowledges these criticisms, and agrees that “we must have both environmentally and socially sustainable advances in productivity — an evergreen revolution.” But how to operationalize an evergreen revolution? His answer is to implement the “bio-village” concept, which links ecological security with small business enterprise at the village level:

Bio-village has two components. One is natural resources conservation and enhancement — of soil fertility, water, flora and fauna, and so on. The other is livelihood security. But too much emphasis on farm employment alone cannot help. How then do you create more non-farm employment and small-scale enterprises?

The two major self-employment sectors in India are small-scale farming and micro retail. Both are brought together in the bio-village, in [business] operations of a small nature, the marketing of products, bio-mass utilization, and so on. The bio-village idea is a simple one: to have sustainable societies where you use the natural resources wisely while creating more opportunities for non-farm employment such as retail.

Swaminathan believes not only that small is beautiful, but that ”marketable is beautiful,” that is, that enterprises should start out at a manageable size and should pay their own way. He says:

It is very easy to have more happiness in the villages by creating small-scale enterprises, because for poor people small things can make a large difference. Many times you can bring happiness to people by meeting some simple requirement. But it must be based on their felt needs. What we think they need is not important. What they think they need is most important.

He is particularly scathing about researchers and extension workers who ask vulnerable communities to take risks with large-scale or inappropriate technologies. If these enterprises should fail, the people are left with no coping capacity. “Don’t experiment with the poor,” he warns. “Don’t bring your ideas and make them suffer more.”

Village knowledge centres

Swaminathan insists that, in order to grow, people need not only nutrition but education too. In the early 1990s he began to receive support from IDRC for a long-term, interdisciplinary effort to bring modern information technology to rural people, to “reach the unreached.” What began as a pilot project has now become a national movement, called Mission 2007, to create “village knowledge centres” throughout India:

Knowledge should be dynamic and demand-driven — not just information. Information is one-sided. That’s why we don’t call it “information kiosk.” Knowledge is interactive, and it must be locally owned, locally managed, and it must be sustainable.

Some people compare these telecentres with the traditional communal wells where local news and gossip are exchanged. But these village knowledge centres have much wider range. They make the most of India’s modern telecommunications links, from satellites to computers to cellphones, and provide rapid and affordable access to the everyday knowledge that communities need, about health, nutrition, agriculture, markets, weather, skills development, literacy training, government services — and on and on. Villagers have taken to this technology “like fish to water.” Swaminathan argues that the knowledge centres have awakened the underused capacity of India’s rural people.

He points out that these centres bridge the digital divide by leapfrogging to new levels of technology, but they also bridge the gender divide by empowering women. He tells a story about a participant in the telecentre movement, an Indian woman never before out of her village, who traveled to Europe but did not feel homesick because “she was in continuous correspondence with her husband by e-mail.”

“Because many women are now running the village knowledge centres,” he chuckles, “men have to go to them to get information.” For example, it is women who, each morning, download forecasts of local weather and wave conditions from the database of the US Naval Meteorology and Oceanography Command, then broadcast this news by loudspeaker for the benefit of fishers on the beach who are deciding whether to sail. On the Pondicherry coastline during the December 2004 tsunami, this same alarm system warned people away from the seashore and saved many lives.

It can be done

Despite the remarkable achievements of the Green Revolution and of India’s high-tech sector, many people remain poor. According to Unicef, the country is home to the largest number of malnourished children in the world. So it is at that, at age 82, Swaminathan continues the same kind of work that inspired him 60 years ago, at the start of his career. Among his many current roles is chairman of India’s National Commission on Agriculture, Food and Nutrition Security.

He notes that today food is physically abundant in India; the problem is that the poorest cannot afford to buy it. Part of his solution is for public/private partnerships to provide a large number of low-paying jobs so that more people will have access to at least a basic level of food security. He believes strongly in the power of small, catalytic investments — such as those provided by IDRC. He refers to his own age to emphasize his absolute confidence in the value of such measures:

If you have a coalition of all concerned with the eradication of hunger, I can say it can be done. It can be done. And in my lifetime.

To learn more

Patrick Kavanagh is a senior writer in IDRC’s Communications Division.