In August, a special double issue of Time magazine selected professor M.S. Swaminathan of India as one of the most influential Asians of the 20th century. The magazine called him a “green revolutionary . . . who helped half a world get enough to eat.”
Swaminathan’s skills lie in genetic engineering, which under his direction resulted originally in vastly improved grain harvests in India. He claims that his methods, now widely spread and followed, defeat the threat of famine, and can yet lead to even greater harvests. At the same time, as genetic engineering comes under scrutiny, Swaminathan advocates that ecologically friendly measures must be observed.
Swaminathan, who also turned 74 in August, was born in south India into a family headed by a physician. Educated at Travancore and Madras universities, he was named a UNESCO fellow in genetics at the Agricultural University in Holland. From there he went on to take his Ph.D. at Cambridge University, and to become a research associate at the University of Wisconsin. “I believed I had to serve my nation,” he said. “My whole life’s mission and vision have been shaped by the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi. I studied genetics in order to produce enough food in India. So instead of becoming a professor in Wisconsin, I went back to India.”
Swaminathan likened the import of grain into India in the postwar years to the import of unemployment. “We were supporting farmers in other countries instead of our own agricultural workers,” he said.
As director of the Indian Agricultural Research Institute in New Delhi, he worked on the improvement of productivity. He experimented with cross-bred wheat seeds from Mexico, crossing them again with Indian seeds, and eventually achieved a strong grain with a rich yield. He set up 2,000 model farms to show what could be done, and secured government help in buying several thousand more tons of Mexican seeds. Other Asian countries learned from Swaminathan. He kept up his work with further manipulation of rice and potato species. Fox six years he served as director general of the International Rice Research Institute.
Now, he said, “Over 45 years I have worked in collaboration with scientists and policymakers on a wide range of problems in basic and applied plant genetics and agricultural research and development.”
He is credited with having been at the forefront of moving India from having the largest food defict in the world to producing enough grain to feed all its people. His contributions include the conservation of plant genetic resources and biodiversity, manipulation of genes to improve the yield, quailty and stability of wheat, rice and potatoes, and identification of the barriers to high yields.
Among his many rewards are over 34 honorary doctorates from institutions in three continents. He has received the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership, and three prizes from the president of India. He is also the recipient of the Albert Einstein World Award on Science, and is the first laureate of the World Food Prize, the “equivalent of a Nobel Prize in the field of food and agriculture.”
There are more — many more — awards, which keep on coming. With the funds associated with the World Food Prize, the Tyler Prize and the Honda Prize, in 1998 Swaminathan set up a research center in Madras, which he heads in an honorary capacity.
He calls the major aim of the research center “the promotion in villages of job-led economic growth strategies, rooted in the principles of ecology and gender equality.” He receives used computers from firms in Tokyo, and sets them up in a network system providing information on a variety of subjects vital to remote villages. Each village in the project has a “Knowledge Center” staffed by volunteers, most of whom are women. Swaminathan believes strongly in the positive results of this particular socioeconomic experiment.
Swaminathan will be delivering a millennium address, open to the public, at the United Nations University in Tokyo. The Jan. 21 conference, entitled “On the Threshold,” occupies all day. Swaminathan will also be lecturing at the International House of Japan in the evening of Jan. 18, and will be speaking at the luncheon meeting of the American Chamber of Commerce at the Tokyo American Club on Jan. 20.