M.S. Swaminathan was named the first World Food Prize Laureate for developing and spearheading the introduction of high-yielding wheat and rice varieties into India during the 1960s when that country faced the prospect of widespread famine. Wheat production doubled in just a few years, making the country self-sufficient and saving millions from extreme food deprivation.
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 its 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 population would outstrip food production in developing nations, leading to 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.
As a young scientist at the Indian Agricultural Research Institute in the 1950s, Swaminathan learned of Dr. Norman Borlaug’s newly developed Mexican dwarf wheat variety and invited him 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 participating in this scientific breakthrough, Swaminathan also created 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, Swaminathan set up thousands of demonstration and test plots in the northern region of India, showing small-scale producers 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 also scientific advances in agriculture were introduced and used by the producers themselves. Swaminathan’s direct work with farmers overcame the obstacles of illiteracy and lack of formal education and provided a generation of Indians with knowledge about the effectiveness of modern agriculture.
Swaminathan’s vision transformed India from a “begging bowl” to a “breadbasket” almost overnight. Raising the total crop yield of wheat from 12 million tons to 23 million tons in four crop seasons ended India’s reliance on grain imports. Swaminathan later worked with Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to establish agricultural policies and programs that would maintain long-term self-sufficiency across the country.
Swaminathan became chair of numerous prestigious international conferences, including the 1974 United Nations World Food Congress in Rome. As an advocate of scientific collaboration, he influenced renowned organizations and research centers 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 – serving as its Director General from 1972 to 1979.
Swaminathan served as Principal Secretary of the Ministry of Agriculture in 1979 and 1980. He was in charge of agriculture and rural development in India’s Planning Commission from 1980 to 1982. He became Director General of the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines in 1982 – a position first held by Robert Chandler, the 1988 World Food Prize Laureate.
Swaminathan was selected as the first World Food Prize Laureate, receiving the award in 1987. He used the funds he received from The World Food Prize 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 toward increased food security and sustainable development.
In 2002, Swaminathan was elected President of the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Pugwash Conferences on science and world affairs, which brings global leaders and thinkers together with the goals of reducing the danger of armed conflict and cooperatively solving global problems. He was the first citizen of a developing country to hold this post.
Dr. Swaminathan joined the 2002 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 be achieved over the following decade. In 2008, he assumed chairmanship of The World Food Prize Selection Committee, when Dr. Borlaug’s declining health no longer allowed him to serve in this capacity.
For his scientific brilliance, his life’s mission of bringing improved technology to citizens at all levels of society, his pioneering advocacy and humanitarianism, and his inspiration to thousands, Swaminathan received over 50 honorary doctorate degrees from universities around the world and has been a member of over 30 academies worldwide, including the Indian National Academy of Science and the Royal Society of London.
Swaminathan 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 Magazine honored him as one of the twenty most influential Asians of the 20th century. Former United Nations Secretary General Javier Perez Cuellar once hailed Dr. Swaminathan as “a legend who will go into the annals of history as a world scientist of a rare distinction.”