Dr M S Swaminathan, the Father of India’s Green Revolution, who holds the UNESCO Chair in Ecotechnology at the MS Swaminathan Research Foundation in Chennai, was the former director general of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research as well as of International Rice Research Institute. He also became president of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources in 1988. He has also served as Independent Chairman of the FAO Council, along with as the Chairman of the UN Science Advisory Committee set up in 1980 to take follow-up action on the Vienna Plan of Action. A plant geneticist by training with a Ph.D. from Cambridge University, Dr Swaminathan has established the National Bureau of Plant, Animal and Fish Genetic Resources of India and the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute, besides serving as the Principal Secretary in the Ministry of Agriculture, Government of India...
Q: The world looks upon to you as the “the Father of Economic Ecology” and refers you more popularly as the “Leader of Green Revolution”. You have been extensively associated with sustainable agriculture and food security. Please let us know how has your journey been so far in projecting food crisis to the world?
There is much greater understanding of the basic fact that where hunger rules, peace cannot prevail. Also, my message that the future belongs to nations with grains and not guns is now making an impact worldwide. We are today much better prepared to face famines and food crisis than we were at the time of the great Bengal famine of 1942-43. I give below an extract from my speech at the Indian Science Congress held at Varanasi on January 3, 1968.
“Exploitative agriculture offers great dangers if carried out with only an immediate profit or production motive. The emerging exploitative farming community in India should become aware of this. Intensive cultivation of land without conservation of soil fertility and soil structure would lead, ultimately, to the springing up of deserts. Irrigation without arrangements for drainage would result in soils getting alkaline or saline. Indiscriminate use of pesticides, fungicides and herbicides could cause adverse changes in biological balance as well as lead to an increase in the incidence of cancer and other diseases, through the toxic residues present in the grains or other edible parts. Unscientific tapping of underground water will lead to the rapid exhaustion of this wonderful capital resource left to us through ages of natural farming. The rapid replacement of numerous locally adapted varieties with one or two high-yielding strains in large contiguous areas would result in the spread of serious diseases capable of wiping out entire crops, as happened prior to the Irish potato famine of 1854 and the Bengal rice famine in 1942. Therefore, the initiation of exploitative agriculture without a proper understanding of the various consequences of every one of the changes introduced into traditional agriculture, and without first building up a proper scientific and training base to sustain it, may only lead us, in the long run, into an era of agricultural disaster rather than one of agricultural prosperity.”
The above is the basis of the concept of the ever-green revolution viz increases in productivity in perpetuity without ecological harm.
Q: Can you please throw us some light on the role of CGIAR (Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research) towards development of Indian Agriculture and its policies on patent issues, plant variety protection, in situ and ex situ conservation, and the dissemination of information on CGIAR genetic resources research.
CGIAR has been playing a major role in genetic resources conservation and plant variety protection through Biodiversity International. I played an important role in setting up the International Board of Plant Genetic Resources in 1972-74, an organization now known as Biodiversity International. As Chairman of the CGIAR Genetic Resources Policy Committee for over 10 years, I helped to develop procedures for defensive patenting of important scientific material, so that they are always available for public good and not for private profit.
Q: Where does India stand in terms of Plant Variety Protection and Farmer’s right compared to her other counter parts? Are Indian farmers and breeders much aware of this privilege and Biodiversity Act?
India is the only country in the world which has an integrated legislation on breeders’ and farmers’ rights. The Act is known as Plant Variety Protection and Farmers’ Rights Act. I prepared the first draft of this integrated Act. In my view, farmers and breeders are allies in the struggle for food security. Therefore, their rights should be mutually reinforcing and not antagonistic. Also, we should rename UPOV as the International Union for the Protection of Breeders’ and Farmers’ Rights.
Q: Indian Cultural heritage and indigenous knowledge is counted as one of the world’s top ten hot spots of biodiversity. But there has been a substantial amount of IP infringement and attack on national biodiversity due to various external and internal instances. How strong is Indian Biodiversity Act to protect local flora and fauna?
India has a rich heritage in biodiversity based on culture, culinary habits and medicinal applications. The Indian Biodiversity Act in whose formulation also I played a major role is very strong in the areas of conservation, sustainable use and equitable sharing of benefits.
Q: Agricultural lands are being snatched away by large scale industries, real estate and infrastructure development leaving a little space for cultivation. How do we cope with this problem?
At the moment, land is becoming a very expensive commodity. Therefore, there is tendency for land grab. We have dealt with this in detail in the report of the High-Level Panel of Experts to the Committee on Food Security (of which I was Chairman until recently). We have shown that converting prime farm land for fuel production may lead to food shortages, particularly in an era of climate change.
Q: Is there acute shortage of investment in agriculture compared to other sectors in the country?
Investment in agriculture is rather low. We need more investments particularly in the areas of rural communications, grain storage, soil health care and enhancement and water conservation and sustainable use.
Q: You had supported the government’s decision to allow 51 per cent FDI in multi-brand retail. What steps should state government take in order to safeguard the interest of farmers?
I did not support FDI in Retail except where it is going to help improve rural infrastructure in post-harvest technology. FDI should be a win-win both for rural families and for the commercial firm. It should be based on a participatory process with emphasis on the livelihood security of the poor and on ethical behavior.
Q: What is your take on Genetically Modified Food? Recently America introduced the bill “Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act” in order to prevent maximum level of accidental GMO presence.
Genetic modification is a very important tool in all the sectors like medicine, industry and environment. Bio-remediation is important to control pollution. However, in the case of food biotechnology, there is need for caution. We need an effective regulatory mechanism in the areas of biotechnology and bio safety which can help to measure risks and benefits objectively and in a transparent manner.
Q: Do we see a second green revolution in India in near future?
I do not believe in a second green revolution. What I would like to see is an ever-green revolution which leads to improvement in productivity in perpetuity without ecological harm. We must mainstream ecology in technology development and dissemination.