In 1798, Thomas Robert Malthus offered the piercing insight that geometric population growth would inevitably outstrip food production, leaving society destitute and hungry. Since that time, our optimism of beating the “Malthusian curse” has waxed and waned. Few people in modern history have done more to help humanity surmount the Malthusian challenge than Dr. M. S. Swaminathan, whose brilliant essays describe the complexity of the problems that humanity faces in ensuring a permanent and ecologically sustainable escape from hunger.

Perhaps the sustainability challenge truly is a conundrum that fits into the famous category: “If you are not thoroughly confused by now, you just don't understand the problem.” The more one thinks about the sustainability puzzle, the more one sees both sides of the debate, and indeed the more difficult it becomes to predict the future. But that is really Swaminathan's consistent point that rather than predicting the future, it's our job to shape it. And if we try, we can indeed overcome the Malthusian scourge. Swaminathan powerfully points the way forward.

The unswerving pessimists — those who believe that the world is condemned to hunger and environmental ruin — are surely wrong. Population growth can be slowed through voluntary means, as has already occurred through much of the world. Moreover, food production can be increased dramatically, as India proved in its world-changing Green Revolution of the mid-1960s, an agronomic success so dramatic that it quickly spread throughout much of the world in the 1970s and 1980s. The Green Revolution was most importantly the handiwork of two visionaries, Dr. Swaminathan, of course, and Dr. Norman Borlaug. Swaminathan and Borlaug were empowered by dynamic Indian politicians (notably the Union Agriculture Minister, Chidambaram Subramaniam), the U.S. Government, and the Ford Foundation and Rockefeller Foundations. This group effort epitomises the kind of global scientific-government-philanthropic partnership that is needed to tackle the complex challenges of sustainability. Today, we would add the private sector as another major partner and stakeholder.

The unswerving optimists — those who believe that technological advance will inevitably solve the problems of hunger and environment — are also surely wrong. Economists generally believe that ingenuity, mainly embodied in technology, will save the day: if food becomes scarce, its price will rise, and this will stimulate innovation and boost farm productivity. The optimists believe that the history of food productivity since Malthus's time proves their optimism. Yet excessive optimism is naïve, even dangerous. First, unless we are proactive, hundreds of millions of people can suffer from deep hunger, and often an early death, before the requisite productivity increases take hold. Second, the great agronomic successes since Malthus' time, including the Green Revolution itself, have come at huge and sometime irreversible environmental costs. Even with all our technological wizardry, we have not yet conquered the Malthusian challenge since we have not yet adopted a truly sustainable method of feeding the planet.

Much of our “conquest” of the Malthusian challenge is a temporary stopgap, not yet an ultimate solution. Consider, for example, the role of nitrogen-based chemical fertilizer, one of mankind's greatest inventions for raising food output. The world's farmers are now putting on so much nitrogen-based fertilizer that our lakes, rivers, and estuaries are becoming poisoned by excessive nitrogen (and phosphorus) runoff, leading to eutrophication, marine dead zones, and the massive destruction of vulnerable and vital marine ecosystems. Moreover, the nitrogen inputs, while essential for food production, are also a source of nitrous oxide emissions, one of the three main greenhouse gases leading to manmade climate change.

More generally, the intensification of agriculture has come with a massive set of global headaches. Around the world, there is pervasive deforestation to make room for new pastureland and arable land. There is a massive over-consumption of fresh-water from underground aquifers and by water diversions of tens of thousands of large dams. There are massive greenhouse gas emissions associated not only with nitrogen, but also with deforestation, methane from rice paddies and ruminant livestock, and the energy inputs into agricultural production. Remarkably, around one-third of all greenhouse gas emissions can be traced back to the agriculture sector. In addition, agricultural practices such as monoculture production are leading to reduced biodiversity, a loss of genetic diversity, and a vulnerability to new pests and invasive species. The crowded conditions of farm animals reared for “industrial” meat production is probably contributing to more frequent and dangerous recombinant pathogens such as the new H1N1 virus.

Complexity and unsolved problems are therefore at the very heart of the sustainability challenge, and the very heart of Swaminathan's thinking and essays. We have no better guide in the world than Swaminathan through this thicket of issues. He is an exemplary scientist, statesman, humanist, and ethicist, and brings a lifetime of experience to these issues that is unique in its scope, achievements, and breadth of engagement.

The first thing that we learn from Swaminathan is that he recognised already in the early days of India's Green Revolution that the new breakthroughs could create major new ecological problems if not properly managed. Here is how he describes the advice he gave to farmers as early as 1968:

In order to ensure that a productivity-based agriculture does not result in ecological harm due to the unsustainable exploitation of land and water, adoption of mono-culture and excessive use of mineral fertilizers and chemical pesticides, he appealed to farmers in January 1968 not to harm the long-term production potential for short-term gains. He pleaded for converting the green revolution into an ever-green revolution by mainstreaming principles of ecology in technology development and dissemination. Further, he pleaded for avoiding the temptation to convert the green revolution into a greed revolution. Unfortunately, ecologically unsound public policies, like the supply of free electricity, have led to the over-exploitation of the aquifer in Punjab, Haryana and Western Uttar Pradesh region. The heartland of the green revolution is in deep ecological distress. The need for adopting the methods of an ever-green revolution has therefore become very urgent.

Swaminathan has in multifaceted ways explained the key components of an ecologically sound, ever-green revolution. The lesson throughout is to apply systems thinking, that is, to consider the problem of food production holistically. The food sector is a livelihood, a source of survival, the key to nutrition, and an ever-present challenge to ecosystem health. It is also a repository of cultural knowledge, cutting-edge technology, and sometimes of bitter political conflict.

Swaminathan's wisdom is not readily summarised, but still it may be useful to highlight some of the many important messages he has tried to spread.

•Ecologically sound management requires holistic (systems) thinking and community-based approaches, emphasising site specific strategies aligned with ecology and culture.

•New institutions are needed. Our institutions must evolve with changing circumstances.

•Progress will be achieved by marrying cutting-edge technology — including in genetics, information and communications technology (ICT), and ecotechnology — with indigenous and traditional knowledge.

•Demonstration or pilot projects at the village level can provide invaluable lessons, inspiration, and guidance for complex management challenges.

•Ecological management is multi-faceted, including soil nutrients (macro and micro, just as with human needs), water harvesting, biodiversity conservation, and the integration of climate science and forecasting.

•Special efforts are needed to promote the yields of rain-fed agriculture.

•There are untapped reserves of food potential in Eastern India, where water is plentiful but scientific management of local resources has lagged.

•Public education and awareness are critical. Each community should be a Knowledge Centre, empowered by ICT and by trained local staff.

•Communities should plan systematically for climate and weather shocks, using scientifically based codes for droughts, floods, and other conditions.

•Communities vulnerable to droughts and floods should train and maintain water security managers to support the communities in anticipation of and response to hydro-meteorological shocks.

•The sciences of agronomy and nutrition should partner to make sure that locally produced foods also meet vital nutrition needs.

•Hunger itself is complex, multi-faceted, and best approached through a “life-cycle” perspective of human development and human needs.

•Sanitation should be brought into the hunger-nutrition mix, given the heavy costs of unsafe drinking water and water-borne diseases as co-factors in undernutrition.

•Free trade in agriculture can inflame poverty and environmental degradation unless proper care is taken to combine trade with government policies for the poor (such as microcredits), protection of indigenous knowledge, and infrastructure needed for cost competitiveness.

•Sustainability requires partnerships, among scientists, communities, governments, and other stakeholders.

•The job of sustainability is never completed. “Eternal vigilance is the price of stable agriculture.”

Swaminathan brims with ideas, prescriptions, policy plans, and experiments. He knows that we can meet the great sustainability challenges ahead, but only through tremendous will, scientific knowledge, ethical commitment, and openness to partnerships and cooperation. It's a tall order, but Swaminathan has proved time and again that it can be done.

(Jeffrey Sachs is the director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University. The article is based on his foreword to the book, From Green to Ever-green Revolution, Academic Foundation, New Delhi, August 2010.)

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