MS Swaminathan, the eminent crop geneticist who combined plant breeding science with sharp administrative skills to produce bountiful harvests that ended famine and steadily transformed India into one of the world’s top producers of wheat and rice, died Thursday in Chennai, India. He was 98.
His daughter Nitya Rao confirmed the death.
Known worldwide as the father of the Green Revolution in India, Dr. Swaminathan, along with training programs he developed to teach farmers how to grow more productive varieties of wheat and rice, could prevent starvation for hundreds of millions of people.
For more than seven decades, Dr. Swaminathan steadily forged one of history’s most formidable careers in crop science and food production. As a young scientist, he muddied his boots in fields and strained his eyes in laboratories on three continents. He was recruited to hold senior leadership positions in Indian government agencies, agricultural research institutes and advisory boards at home and abroad. He also participated in prestigious committees in many countries.
Between 1979 and 1982, he was principal secretary of the Ministry of Agriculture and Irrigation in India, a senior executive of the Planning Commission and chairman of the Cabinet’s Science Advisory Committee. From 1982 to 1988, he was director general of the International Rice Research Institute, a center for plant breeding and innovative breeding practices in Los Banos, the Philippines, funded by the Rockefeller Foundation.
When he returned to India, he chaired a committee that prepared the country’s national environmental policy and another that studied groundwater monitoring. In 2007, he was one of twelve nominees appointed to a six-year term as a member of Rajya Sabha, the upper house of the Indian Parliament.
The events that defined his path to worldwide fame took place in the early 1960s. As a plant geneticist at the Indian Agricultural Research Institute, Dr. Swaminathan on the exceptional yields of new and sturdier wheat varieties tested in Mexico by American scientist Norman E. Borlaug.
Though gentle and excellently mannered, Dr. Swaminathan could be persistent. He urged the director of the research institute to appoint Dr. Borlaug to India. He arrived in 1963 and Dr. Swaminathan accompanied him on a tour of small farms in Punjab and Haryana, northwestern states that are now among the country’s largest grain producers. The two developed a productive collaboration, with Dr. Swaminathan crossed the Borlaug species with other species from Mexico and Japan. The genetic mixing resulted in a wheat variety with a strong stem that produced a golden-colored flour favored by the Indians.
Dr. Swaminathan was appointed director of the Indian Agricultural Research Institute in 1966 and used his fame to convince the government to import 18,000 tons of Mexican wheat seeds. The next harvest yielded three times as much grain as expected.
The reward impressed Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, who invited Dr. Swaminathan mandated that India’s administrative, research and agricultural policy infrastructure be reorganized to produce more large harvests. In 1974, India was self-sufficient in wheat and rice. In 1982, wheat production reached almost 40 million tons, more than triple the harvest in the early 1960s.
Dr. Borlaug earned the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for developing the seeds that could prevent mass famine and feed the world. Upon receiving the award, he praised his Indian colleague: “To you, Dr. Swaminathan, much of the credit goes to your initial recognition of the potential value of the Mexican dwarfs. If this had not happened, it is entirely possible that a green revolution would not have taken place in Asia.”
Dr. Swaminathan delighted in refuting Malthusian forecasts that low yields and high population growth in India would lead to mass famine. “I remember the 1960s,” he said. “Many books have been published by doomsday experts. Paul and Anne Ehrlich, the well-known population experts. They said Indians had no future unless a thermonuclear bomb killed them. Another group of experts said Indians would die like sheep sent to the slaughterhouse. We decided that this would not happen.”
In 1987, Dr. won. Swaminathan the first World Food Prize – a leading agricultural prize founded by Dr. Borlaug. Javier Pérez de Cuéllar, then Secretary General of the United Nations, mentioned Dr. Swaminathan “a living legend who will go down in the annals of history as a world scientist of rare distinction.”
President Ronald Reagan added this tribute: “Many in the global food and agriculture community have long known that your efforts have had a dramatic and lasting impact on improving the world’s food supply.”
It was one of more than 100 major awards from India and around the world that Dr. Swaminathan earned for his scientific and humanitarian efforts. He used the $200,000 World Food Prize to establish the MS Swaminathan Research Foundation. The foundation, based in Chennai in Tamil Nadu state, not far from where he grew up, is one of India’s most prominent innovation centers, applying science and technology to support women and rural development.
But due to his status, Dr. Swaminathan a target of rival scientists. A colleague accused in the 1970s of exaggerating the protein content of a variety of wheat he helped develop that had become popular in India; a government panel acquitted him of the charge.
In the 1990s and early 2000s, he was attacked by environmental groups for encouraging industrial agricultural practices that relied on expensive and polluting fertilizers and pesticides, and for supporting the development of genetically modified crops.
Dr. Swaminathan and his allies countered that he had devoted his career to promoting crop production practices that were safer and less polluting – an agricultural system he called the “evergreen revolution.”
He described these practices – water-saving, genetically diverse and energy-reducing – in his 2010 book “From Green To Evergreen Revolution,” one of many he published. The benefits of his strategy, he argued, were ecologically safer planting methods that were affordable to small farmers.
“Land and water management must be the number one priority in achieving an evergreen revolution,” said Dr. Swaminathan. He added: “If agriculture goes wrong, nothing else in our country will have a chance to go right.”
Edward O. Wilson, the Harvard naturalist and theorist, praised the so-called evergreen revolution in his 2002 book “The Future of Life,” calling it a solution to feeding billions of people with less harmful impact on the environment and rural communities.
In November 2010, President Barack Obama, in an address to the Indian Parliament, cited the Evergreen Revolution as a compelling response to climate change and frequent droughts affecting Indian crops.
Monkombu Sambasivan Swaminathan was born on August 7, 1925 in Kumbakonam, a small town in the Cauvery River basin, the major grain-producing region in Tamil Nadu, the southern Indian state on the Bay of Bengal. He was the second of four children. His father, MP Sambasivan, was an esteemed surgeon who led successful campaigns to eradicate malaria and other mosquito-borne diseases. His mother, Parvathy Thangam, was a homemaker who encouraged her children to study and achieve their dreams.
Dr. Swaminathan loved to tell stories about his childhood, when he said he learned about tragedy and resilience. His father, who died when he was eleven, once told him that “the ‘impossible’ exists mainly in our minds. But given the will and effort required, great tasks can be accomplished.”
He also learned about inspiration and public service. He was a devoted follower of Gandhi, who visited his family’s home. In the fall of 1946, three years after millions of Indians died in a famine in Bengal, Dr. Swaminathan was so moved by Gandhi’s call to “the god of bread” to bless every home and hut that he switched his university studies from medicine to medicine. agricultural research.
After graduating from a top agricultural college in Tamil Nadu, he joined the Indian Agricultural Research Institute in New Delhi, after which he pursued post-doctoral studies in plant genetics in the Netherlands and England, where he earned a Ph.D. in genetics from the University of Cambridge in 1952.
He met Shrimati Mina while in Cambridge and they married in 1955. She survives, as do their three daughters: Dr. Soumya Swaminathan, Chairman, MS Swaminathan Research Foundation; Madhura Swaminathan, professor of economics at the Indian Statistical Institute in Bangalore; and Ms. Rao, professor of gender and development at the University of East Anglia in England. He also leaves behind five grandchildren.
As a young scientist, Dr. Swaminathan’s potato breeding career, which prompted the University of Wisconsin to invite him to spend time as a postdoctoral researcher. His work impressed his American colleagues. But he turned down the university’s offer of a teaching position and returned to the Indian Agricultural Research Institute in 1954.
“I asked myself: why did I study genetics?” he said in 1999. ‘It was meant to produce enough food in India. So I came back.”
Sameer Yasir reporting contributed.