There are several ways of honouring men of eminence. Short of a Nobel, M.S. Swaminathan, renowned agricultural scientist, has received innumerable awards and honours. And now, the Indian Institute of Science publishing his selected papers as a part of their ‘Centenary Lecture Series' is an honour that would go a long way in inspiring science to serve society more and more.
In this collection of 28 papers, all but a few — published in Nature and Annals of Genetics — are on different dimensions of science in relation to sustainable food security. Although published over a long time span, 1965-2009, the papers reveal his pioneering interest right through in issues affecting not just crop productivity and biotechnology but also bio-safety, biodiversity, climate change, and food and nutrition security, which have become major concerns today.
Role of science
Setting the tone for a proper understanding of his contribution to the green revolution, Swaminathan, in the introduction, provides a graphic view of the role of science in India's progress on the farm front, from the “ship to mouth” state in food supplies to self-sufficiency and to a position of having substantial buffer stocks. It is noteworthy that, even as early as in 1968, he warned the Punjab farmers against excessive use of fertilizers and extraction of too much groundwater lest the “green revolution” should become a “greed revolution.”
The ill-effects of excesses in the name of green revolution are discussed in the address he delivered at the Indian Science Congress. Some of the major points he made are: Intensive cultivation sans efforts to conserve soil fertility and structure will lead to desertification; irrigation without proper drainage will make the soil alkaline or saline; indiscriminate use of pesticides, fungicides, and herbicides can adversely alter the biological balance — and, worse, may well cause a higher incidence of cancer and other diseases, thanks to the presence of toxic residues in the grains; and unscientific groundwater tapping will lead to a rapid depletion of this capital resource. But then, chemical fertilizer and pesticide manufacturers had their own ways of persuading farmers to go for quick gains.
The ecological problems associated with intensive farming, characterised by excessive use of chemicals and unsustainable groundwater extraction, are gone into extensively in his Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Lecture (1999). He highlights the need for mainstreaming concerns in the development and dissemination of technology to sustain agricultural advance and food security. His search for ways of mobilising science to raise biological productivity levels without harming ecology leads him to what he calls “evergreen revolution.” This concept envisages pathways that preclude the use of mineral fertilizers, chemical pesticides, and genetically modified crops and call for the adoption of integrated pest and nutrition management practices and the cultivation of appropriate crop varieties.
A firm believer in biotechnology, Swaminathan strongly feels — as it emerges from this collection — that priorities in biotechnology research should be driven not by the market forces but by the long term well-being of the humankind. Biodiversity and bio-future warrant shared goals and actions in conserving and using biological diversity. One of the major concerns is equity in sharing the benefits of genetic resources. The poor, mostly the tribal and rural women, are the primary conservers of genetic diversity, but they get hardly anything in return. On the other hand, those who use their knowledge not only make huge profits but also get plant varietal protection and royalties. The FAO's initiative to end this unethical anomaly and protect the ‘farmers rights' has not yielded any significant result so far. On the food security concerns in Africa, particularly sub-Saharan Africa, there is a suggestion that the Indian experience, marked by a strong national research capability and a multifaceted strategy suitable to the ecology and culture, holds promise for Africa.
Swaminathan's writings since 1973 show a remarkable prescience in suggesting ways of meeting the challenge of climate change, and they include evolving codes for drought and flood management; ‘seed security' with contingency plans to suit different rainfall patterns; and development of climate risk management cadres at the grassroots level. Studies establish that promotion of ecologically sustainable agricultural and food production systems and the task of adapting to changes in temperature, precipitation, and sea levels call for enormous financial and technical resources, and this necessarily requires international cooperation. A better future for all, he feels, will not be possible without a better present.
Swaminathan's abiding interest is, however, in using science for strengthening the small-farmer economy and in community approach to food and nutrition security. The success stories are drawn from Sri Lanka and Thailand, and the MSS Foundation's own initiatives, and the strategy for India is a life-cycle approach and community “food banks”, including locally grown millets, at the village level. The breadth of history, the depth of science in Einsteinian social perspective, the nuanced reflections on the contribution and conditions of humble peasantry, and an informed concern over the ecological imbalance and climate change — all these distinguishing features of the volume make it a rewarding reading. Non-scientists need not be put off by the title.
These papers project M.S. Swaminathan as a “simultaneously vertical and horizontal man” (to borrow an expression from him), representing a blend of clarity and precision on complex matters of science and an unflinching commitment to the cause of agriculture, with ‘food for the poor' and ‘food productivity of the poor farmer' at the core.