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Jeju, Korea

From Green to Evergreen

Dr M S Swaminathan, the father of India's Green Revolution, is a scientist who has earned both bouquets and brickbats in his long career. An illustrious geneticist with a brilliant track record in his field, he was hailed by TIME magazine as one of the 20 most influential Asians of the 20th century and one of only three from India, the other two being Mahatma Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore.

A doctorate in Genetics from Cambridge University, he was singularly responsible for making India self-sufficient in food by introducing high yielding varieties of hybrid wheat in the country in 1966. His stint as the Director General of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) from 1970-80 was the hey day of the countrys Green Revolution. Dr Swaminathan won a string of honours including the Ramon Magsaysay Award in 1971.

His tenure as Director General, International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in Manila from 1982-88, was just as eventful. He organised the International Rice Germplasm Centre during this time. As Independent Chairman of the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) Council from 1981-85, Dr Swamination played a significant role in establishing the Commission on Plant Genetic Resources.

However, as these varieties started elbowing out indigenous varieties all over the country and depleted groundwater levels while impoverishing farmers with their high demand for pesticides and chemical fertilizers, alarm bells were sounded everywhere. Today, ironically, the very government that had pushed the Green Revolution in the past is now promoting organic farming all over the country.

As a member of the Rajya Sabha and Chairman of FAOs High Level Panel of Experts (HLPE) on Food Security and Nutrition, Dr M S Swamination defends his past record to ECO and speaks about the future he looks forward to through forging a coalition of the concerned for global food security.

ECO: How does it feel to have the Indian state overturn the Green Revolution which you had once scripted and go all out to promote organic farming all over the country, especially now when you are a member of the Rajya Sabha?
Dr M S Swaminathan: I will always maintain that what we need is not a Green, but an Evergreen Revolution, a revolution in harmony with nature. But mind you, there was nothing wrong with the Green Revolution. Knowledge is a continuum. We have the traditional repositories of agricultural knowledge and then there are new varieties of seeds. Wherever the Green Revolution has gone wrong, it is because it became the Greed Revolution. The desire to have more and more out of the land made things go wrong.
Every farmer needs a marketable surplus and that is what the Green Revolution had aimed for. But if man in his greed cuts down all the forests to produce more and more food grain, we end up nowhere. Agriculture is applied ecology. There is a saying in the Caribbeans The forest holds the sky. If the forest is destroyed, the sky falls down. Yet, even in the Caribbean islands, mangroves are being cut down. And that is the tragedy facing mankind. Mahatma Gandhi had said, Nature can provide for everybodys need, but not everyones greed.

Do you mean to say that farmers are to be blamed for what went wrong? Dont you think the hybrid seeds and chemical fertilisers that they needed caused the depletion of our groundwater resources?
Whether they be chemical or organic, fertilisers dont matter. Urea, for instance, is an important ingredient for the soil. It is widely used in eastern India and Cambodia. It is the efficient use of pesticides that is very important. I was with the Punjab Chief Minister the other day and I pointed this out. Punjab, as you know, is badly affected today. I was telling him, If you give subsidies for the wrong things, this is bound to happen. Why do you, for instance, need to give free water? Way back in 1968, I had warned of this state of affairs. When you overuse pesticides, there will come a time when the soil cannot take it any more.

But the population will continue to grow, especially in India. What do you see as the key to conserving our precious water resources while making provision for food security for the growing numbers?
Family farmers hold the key to food security. That is the reason, we, at the UN, have declared 2014 as the Year of the Family Farmer. Public policy should aim at taking care of the input-output and pricing. Governments must follow Panchasheel, the 5 principles of farming for sustainable food security. This will mean using locally adapted technology, providing farmers technical inputs and water, fixing a minimum support price, arranging for markets and providing credit and insurance.

You just mentioned locally adapted technology. Traditionally, farmers have always been developing new varieties. Landrace or local varieties that have developed over thousands of years are the only ones that can withstand frequent and violent weather conditions that are becoming the norm with climate change. But there is a concerted move to ignore and subserve the farmer with modern technology. Do you agree?
You are right. For best results, it is important for us to have a Plant Variety Protection and Farmers Rights Act in India. We need to respect the farmer and his knowledge to ensure better equity in the agriculture sector. Farmers rights must be respected. New varieties developed by farmers must be acknowledged and disseminated. I am currently advocating a union for the protection of farmers and Breeders rights and EUCURN or Equity Union for the Protection of New Varieties.

What is your opinion about Genetically Modified (GM) crops?
If we must have GM, there ought to be a monitoring mechanism to check on GM . However, in the absence of one, we cannot opt for GM.
What do you think of biofuel production?
I cannot generalise on this. Brazil is growing sugarcane for biofuel. If there is land to spare, then you can certainly divert land for biofuel production. But in India or in most Asian countries, we cannot afford to divest land from food for fuel. If it has to be, let them be secondary products which are converted to fuel. We can produce fuel from bagasse or rice huskthere is no problem with that.

In view of climate change and the problems it has given rise to, what would you advocate as the best means to provide for the Indian population? As you well know, the southern states, especially Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, are facing an acute shortage of water. There is also the problem of very little moisture in the soil.
Sustainable Rice Intensification or SRI can reduce the water consumption for rice cultivation by 30 per cent. We should think seriously in terms of sea water farming. Cultivating salt water plants or halophytes can provide us fodder and perhaps, even food grains along with fish. You already have several salt-resistant varieties in Bengal that are traditionally grown in waterlogged soil. There are traditional varieties that can always stay above water.
The world must opt for vegetarianism, since a large part of our food grain produce is being directed towards feeding animals for producing meat. We ought to start giving more attention to the fisheries sector. It is much cheaper than producing meat through feedlots or concentrated animal feeding operations.

You just spoke against the meat industry. Do you consider meat eating dangerous to our ecosystem?
Most certainly. Unless, of course, the meat is naturally produced from free range cattle. At the moment, 80 per cent of all antibiotics used are by the meat industry. These are injected into cattle for meat production and ultimately find their way into our natural water-bodies and the ecosystem.
Besides, as I told you, 40 per cent of the cereals produced are fed to cattle. This must stop. The meat industry also accounts for a large amount of greenhouse emissions. It is unhealthy and dangerous for mankind. A vegetarian diet is our best bet today.

The original article can be accessed here