In 2009, I met M S Swaminathan during a visit to India. A plant genetistist, who was at Cambridge at the same time as Watson and Crick, he is often known as the father of India’s green revolution. A towering figure in the history of farming in India, the green revolution there has generated considerable controversy since the short-strawed wheat and rice varieties that responded well to fertiliser and water were introduced in India in the late 1960s.
When I met him at the research Foundation in Chennai that bears his name we recorded a wide ranging conversation about his lifetime experience, his views on the rhetoric and reality surrounding food security and creating a hunger free world, the role of science, and five key needs in India – for soil, water and biodiversity care, credit and insurance, and technical services for farmers. I have just edited this interview to remove some of the dated material and checked with him to ensure he is happy to have the views he expressed then published now, which he is.
He also reflected on the commodity-focussed green revolution, a key part of which was farmers were given a remunerative price they knew they would get. He felt that what went wrong with the green revolution was that it became a greed revolution, despite warnings he gave to avoid excessive soil and water exploitation, monocultures and not replace the many existing varieties. He discussed the importance of organic farming as well as assured and remunerative markets for farmers, with farming being the backbone of livelihood security. He also talked of the increasing social unrest and its links to gross inequity.
In reflecting on how in his day there were no patents and research was done for the common good, he discussed how patents and the expansion of intellectual property rules inhibited the sharing of knowledge and led to an emphasis on one type of technology. While he does not see problems with the use of biotechnology in medicine it is much more controversial in food. Key questions concern its impact and who will control it. The green revolution, he notes, was a public good enterprise but the gene revolution is a private sector enterprise and the issues we face are not just scientific but social and ethical. Do listen for yourself:
0 – 3’ 00” Food security and hunger – rhetoric & reality
3’ 00” – 8’ 35” Role of science – soil, water, biodiversity, credit & insurance, technical services
8’ 35” – 13’ 30” From green to evergreen revolution – ecological farming systems approach, appropriate and affordable technology, assured remunerative markets
13’ 30” – 18’ 17” Importance of political will to change paradigm, eg in 1960s, plus professional skill and farmers’ action but farmers now want to leave
18’ 16” – 22’ 00” India’s economic & technological image and role of farming
22’ 00” – 28’ 05” Climate change, poor suffer most, equity and sustainable lifestyles and living
28’ 05” – 31’ 57” Patents, intellectual property, public good and sharing knowledge
31’ 57” – 37’ 09” Green revolution became greed revolution, mining soils & water, monocultures, abusing technology
37’ 09” – 42’ 30” Biotechnology, gene transfer between different species, difference between medicine and food, questions of impact and control, public good vs private interest, transparency and ethics
42’ 30” – 47’ 09” (end) Looking back, looking ahead: technology, population, employment and access to food