The World Food Prize

1987: Swaminathan

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Dr. M.S. Swaminathan

INDIA

Dr. Monkombu Sambasivan Swaminathan received the first World Food Prize in 1987 for spearheading the introduction of high-yielding wheat and rice varieties to India’s farmers. "The word ‘impossible' exists mainly in our minds," his father once told him, "but given the requisite will and effort, great tasks can be accomplished." In a career dedicated to alleviating human suffering, Dr. Swaminathan has completed the work of many lifetimes, and, like his mentor and colleague Dr. Norman Borlaug, he is recognized as a leader in the world’s "Green Revolution.”

Overview

Background
Early Years, Education, and Career
Wheat Breeding in India
Honors and Awards
Legacy
Published Works
Related Links

 

Background 

Agriculture has traditionally been India’s most important economic sector. Over time, it has provided approximately one-third of the country’s gross domestic product and employed nearly two-thirds of the population.  Farmers in India had long suffered from a lack of food security.  In the 1960s, it was widely predicted by demographers and economists that the population would outstrip food production so much in the developing nations that the 1970s would be a time of famine in India and throughout the rest of Asia. At the time, massive shipments of imported grain were the only means by which the continent was averting famine.

 

Early Years, Education, and Career

M.S. Swaminathan was born in Kumbakonam, Tamil Nadu, India, on August 7, 1925. Inspired by the example of Mahatma Gandhi, the young man was committed to serving his country and considered becoming a police officer. Winning a fellowship in 1949, he instead studied agriculture in the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, earned a Ph.D. in plant genetics from Cambridge in 1952, and continued his research in the United States. Dissatisfied with the idea of living abroad as a professor, he returned to India, where scholars and leaders were actively pursuing solutions to the crisis of ballooning populations and low food production rates across Asia.

Dr. Swaminathan became a scientist at the Indian Agricultural Research Institute in the 1950s. He served as Director General of the Indian Council of Agriculture Research from 1972 to 1979 and served as Principal Secretary of the Ministry of Agriculture between 1979 and 1980. From 1980 to 1982, he was member in charge of agriculture and rural development in India’s Planning Commission.  After this, from 1982 to 1988, he was Director General of the International Rice Research Institute located in the Philippines, a position first held by Dr. Robert Chandler, the 1988 World Food Prize Laureate. From 2004 to 2006, he served as Chairman of the National Commission on Farmers for the Government of India.

Dr. Swaminathan currently serves as Chairman of the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation (a position he has held since 1989) and also holds the foundation’s UNESCO Cousteau Chair in Ecotechnology.

 

Wheat Breeding in India

As a young scientist at the Indian Agricultural Research Institute in the 1960s, Dr. Swaminathan learned of Dr. Borlaug's newly developed Mexican dwarf wheat variety and invited Dr. Borlaug to India. The two scientists worked side by side to develop wheat varieties that would yield higher levels of grain as well as develop stalk structures strong enough to support the increased biomass. In addition to this scientific breakthrough, Dr. Swaminathan also innovated new methods to teach Indian farmers how to effectively increase production by employing a combination of the high-yielding wheat varieties, fertilizers, and more efficient farming techniques.

In 1965, Dr. Swaminathan set up thousands of demonstration and test plots in the northern region of India, helping small-scale producers see that the new, genetically superior grain could thrive in their own fields; the first year’s harvest tripled previous production levels. Not only did agricultural yields improve, but scientific advances in agriculture were introduced to and used by the producers themselves. Dr. Swaminathan’s direct work with farmers overcame the obstacles of illiteracy and lack of formal education, and converted a generation of Indians to a belief in the effectiveness of modern agriculture.

Dr. Swaminathan’s vision transformed India from a "begging bowl" to a "breadbasket" almost overnight, bringing the total crop yield of wheat from 12 million tons to 23 million tons in four crop seasons and ending India’s reliance on grain imports.  He later worked with former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to establish agricultural policies and programs that would maintain long-term self-sufficiency across the country.

 

Honors and Awards

In 1974 Dr. Swaminathan became chair of numerous prestigious international conferences, including the United Nations World Food Congress in Rome. As an advocate of scientific collaboration, he influenced renowned organizations such as the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources, the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics, and the International Federation of Agricultural Research Systems for Development.

In 2002, Dr. Swaminathan was elected President of the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Pugwash Conferences, which brings global leaders and thinkers together with the goals of reducing the danger of armed conflict and cooperatively solving global problems. He is the first citizen of a developing country to hold this post. Also in 2002, Dr. Swaminathan joined that year’s World Food Prize Laureate, Dr. Pedro Sanchez, as a Hunger Task Force coordinator for the United Nations Millennium Project, which in early 2005 developed clear targets and a practical plan for reducing poverty, hunger, disease, illiteracy, environmental degradation, and discrimination against women, to achieve over the next decade.

For his scientific brilliance, his life mission of bringing improved technology to citizens at all levels of society, his pioneering advocacy and humanitarianism, and his inspiration to thousands, Dr. Swaminathan has received 64 honorary doctorate degrees from universities around the world and is a member of over 30 academies worldwide, including the Indian National Academy of Science and the Royal Society of London. Dr. Swaminathan has won numerous international awards such as the 1994 UNEP Sasakawa Environment Prize, the UNESCO Gandhi Gold Medal in 1999, the 1999 Indira Gandhi Prize for Peace, Disarmament, and Development, and the Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Award in 2000. Time has honored him as one of the twenty most influential Asians of the 20th century. 

 

Legacy

Dr. Swaminathan used his World Food Prize award funds to open a research center, the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation, in Chennai, India, in 1988. With distinguished contacts on every continent, he initiated dialogue among agricultural scientists, social scientists and field workers to, in his own words, “reach the unreached.” The foundation’s projects collaborate with global leaders and rural citizens alike to ensure coordinated research and action for issues such as protecting coastal biodiversity, promoting biotechnological approaches to micro-level farming, pursuing groundbreaking innovations in ecotechnology, fostering new methods for community education and technical training, initiating low-cost and self-maintained programs for rural Internet access, and empowering grassroots-level food producers to take action towards increased food security and sustainable development.  He is the author of the ever-green revolution concept, which aims to increase productivity in perpetuity with associated ecological harm.


Former United Nations Secretary General Javier Perez Cuellar has hailed Dr. Swaminathan as “a living legend who will go into the annals of history as a world scientist of a rare distinction.”

  

Published Works

Dr. Swaminathan has published over 650 papers in international journals and several books, including Building a National Food Security System, Science and Integrated Rural Development, Science and Sustainable Food Security, From Green to Evergreen Revolution, Indian Agriculture; Performance and Challenges and Towards and Era of Biohappiness: Biodiversity and food, Health and Livelihood Security.

 

 

 

Related Links

Indian Agricultural Research Institute

International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT)

International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN)


M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF)

Pugwash Conferences


UN Millennium Project

 M.S. Swaminathan Web Site

 

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