Genes, Global Warming, and Bread: A Talk with M.S. Swaminathan

The president of the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs is M.S. Swaminathan, a geneticist known as the father of India's "Green Revolution." He discussed his current concerns with Peace's editor

By Metta Spencer (interviewer) | 2007-07-01 12:00:00

METTA SPENCER: You are both a Gandhian and a scientist. That's unusual. Gandhi promoted very simple technology, but you are a scientist working on the genetic modification of food. Do you find that there's any incompatibility in these commitments?

M.S. SWAMINATHAN: Gandhi, in his day, favored what he called "swadesh" -- self-reliance. He wanted people to adopt technologies that were appropriate at that time. He spoke not of mass production, but of "production by masses." Mass production meant replacement of people with machines. His concept was that science was the search for truth. He wanted India to be self-sufficient in food and textiles. He referred to the "god of bread," which must prevail in every home and hut. He was against exporting raw cotton to the UK and getting back finished textiles. So Gandhi emphasized the economics of human dignity. People should be earning their own daily bread, not be given it, not become beggars. He wanted to improve the productivity of the soil without doing damage. He was an early ecologist, promoting nonviolence toward nature and toward each other.

SPENCER: A new law in India guarantees the right to paid work. I guess it must be the only country that has such legislation. Is this a legacy of Gandhi's influence?

SWAMINATHAN: Yes, it's unskilled work for those who have no other income. This act makes it obligatory for government to provide jobs to one member of the family so there will be some income in order to ensure that no one goes to bed hungry. When the present government introduced this act it was conscious of the fact that Gandhi wanted people to earn their bread.

SPENCER: Is it working? Are they actually able to provide jobs?

SWAMINATHAN: Yes, because it is obligatory for the government. They guarantee 100 days work per year to one person per family. Much of it is done in rural areas -- such work as water harvesting, storage, improvement of irrigation structures and so on - something connected with improving the productivity of the land. The kind of work to be done is determined by the village panchayat - the people's grassroot democratic structures. It has double benefits: It provides work for those who have none, and the work benefits the community in terms of drinking water, sanitation, and so on.

SPENCER: Wonderful. You're called the father of the Indian "Green Revolution." Sometimes today we hear that the Green Revolution is not moving ahead as fast as one hoped. You promote something called the "Evergreen Revolution." What do you mean by that and what are the prospects of being able to feed India's expanding population?

SWAMINATHAN: The "Green Revolution" is a term referring to improving productivity, not merely expansion. In 1968 the term "Green Revolution" was coined by a Mr. Gaud in the United States to indicate the new productivity of wheat and rice. The Green Revolution had actually started in the United States in the forties with hybrid corn in Iowa. Wheat and rice happened in the mid-sixties in India, Pakistan, and other countries in that region. Green is the color of chlorophyll, which occurs only in plants. Animals can't produce it directly. Therefore the "Green Revolution" meant an increase in the harvest of sunlight by plants. But even before this term was coined, I gave a lecture in which I warned farmers that if they applied too much fertilizer and pesticide, the Green Revolution would become a "greed" revolution. So I coined a term -- "Evergreen revolution" -- which is now widely used. I define it as improvement of productivity in perpetuity without associated ecological harm. In countries like mine, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and China, which are land-hungry, the only method of meeting the growing demand for food and fiber is through productivity. It should not cause harm to soil or water. These "green technologies" involve integrated pest management, conservation farming, and so on. Another term for it is "sustainable agriculture."

SPENCER: Your institute's annual report shows that you are also working on organic farming. Is that part of the "evergreen revolution"?

SWAMINATHAN: It is one method. In many areas where the organic matter in the soil is good, and where there is livestock, we can do organic farming, especially for salad vegetables and medicinal plants, which should not contain any pesticide. But most farms in India are very small. We have 115 million operational holdings, of which 80 percent are one hectare and below. Many of them do not have animals, so it is difficult for them to adopt organic farming. For them we recommend "green agriculture" -- integrated pest management and supply, using just the minimum essential fertilizer. So we recommend both types of farming, particularly organic where vegetables are to be consumed without cooking -- tomatoes, for example, and medicinal plants.

SPENCER: Are you hopeful that the innovations will keep pace with the growing demand?

SWAMINATHAN: They will keep pace. Organic farming is especially knowledge-intensive. It needs much more technical help than chemical farming. A farmer can just buy some fertilizer and apply it, but in the case of organic farming, the farmer needs advice on soil health improvement, plant protection measures to save crops, and so on. One size does not fit all. You have to have a cafeteria approach in terms of local conditions. Unfortunately, these days soils are both thirsty and hungry. They have been cultivated for several thousand years, so the organic matter is low.

SPENCER: I've read recently about a type of soil that's been discovered in the Amazon region where the ancient farmers added charcoal to the soil, which made it into very rich loam. There's a possibility of using that method in a number of other countries.

SWAMINATHAN: In the Amazon there are a number of advantages. Any forest soil has organic matter and deposits. The health of the soil involves microbiotics - earthworms and so on -- and soil biology. Knowing about the soil chemistry alone is not enough.

SPENCER: Tell me about Africa. Why has the Green Revolution not made great strides in Africa?

SWAMINATHAN: It is not enough to show farmers how to produce more. Many times farmers produce more but the prices crash. So it has to be an end-to-end approach from the day the seed is sown until the day it reaches the consumer's table. You must look at all the links of the chain. Often in Africa in the past, people demonstrated that it was possible to double the yield of corn. But then, the market wasn't there. In Canada the wheat marketing board assured farmers a fair price. When you don't have such a mechanism, then farmers may buy fertilizer at a high price and apply it, with an immediate effect -- doubling the yield -- but then they may not get an assured price.

But now, the pieces are coming together in Africa. The Green Revolution is an idea whose time has come. There are a number of states like Malawi that are now doing well -- so long as they can be sure that the advice to farmers and the land use are related to market opportunities.

SPENCER: As you know, the current WTO negotiations, the Doha Round, were supposed to reduce the protectionist advantages of industrialized countries over the Third World. It would prohibit rich countries from subsidizing their agricultural exports and maintaining tariffs against the imports of Third World farm products. But now the Doha Round is about to fail. If it does, how serious will the consequences be for farmers in the less developed countries?

SWAMINATHAN: If the multilateral Doha Round fails, you have to go to bilateral agreements between countries. India has over 115 million farming families; 70 percent of the population is rural. But the United States has less than one million farming families in the country. Two or three percent of Americans feed the rest of the population. In Canada also, you have maybe four percent in the farming population. Clearly, 95 percent can subsidize five percent without difficulty by guaranteeing the prices of their farm products, but 30 percent subsidizing 70 percent? No, that becomes very difficult.

The world is getting polarized into two parts. One part has high technology, capital, and subsidies for agriculture. That is the US, Western Europe, and so on. The other is poor, with inadequate technology, weak government support, and with people thrown into the open market where subsidized foods are being imported and undercutting local producers. All governments have now recognized that trade in agriculture has not only to be free, but also fair. At the moment there is no level playing field between the agriculture of industrialized and the developing countries because of the high technology and subsidy supports. One has to resolve these conflicts.

SPENCER: Another topic that is being debated now concerns ethanol - especially when cellulosic ethanol is developed. Is there going to be enough land to produce ethanol and still meet the food requirements of the future?

SWAMINATHAN: Fuel versus food is now becoming an important issue that must be dealt with, country-by-country and region-by-region. For example, Brazil has a lot of land, although I am not in favor of their cutting down their forests in order to grow plants for fuel. The land use policy of every country has to be developed by that country. The danger is that more and more land is used for biofuels. The state of Iowa is a corn state. It used to be feeding the world. Now it is fueling the world, for the corn is used for ethanol production. I think it has to be carefully thought out. Food security must be the over-riding priority of developing countries. But we are not attaining the Millennium Development Goal of reducing hunger and poverty by half.

SPENCER: We have not achieved anything close to that?

SWAMINATHAN: No, we will not be able to achieve it. We must improve farm productivity. When two-thirds or 70% of the population are in farming, and the majority of them are small farmers, enhancement of small farming holds the key to reducing hunger.

The difference between the industrialized and developing countries is in the distinction between producer and consumer. In the US, three percent of producers feed 97 percent of consumers. But take my country, India. Sixty-six percent are both producers and consumers. The majority of consumers are producers - small farmers. If hunger persists, the farmer himself will not be able to eat enough, or eat a balanced diet. So, I say that globally and nationally, we must have food security as the highest priority, and second comes fuel policy - how much land are you going to allocate to fuel?

SPENCER: How big a part does the genetic modification of food play in food security?

SWAMINATHAN: Genetic modification means using the "new genetics" -- to introduce genes from alien species. Formerly one could not make crosses other than between those that are sexually compatible. Today we can move genes across sexual barriers. It really depends on the purpose for which you are pursuing this technology. For example, in my own centre, in Chennai (Madras) we started work seventeen years ago. We live in a coastal area. We asked ourselves whether there was going to be a rise in sea level. Now it is becoming clear that it is going to happen. If the sea goes up by one meter, what will we do? Most of our crops along the coast will be gone. So we started developing varieties of rice, millet, and other crops that are tolerant to sea water. The genes had to come from mangroves.

The three major aspects of global climate change involve temperature, precipitation, and changes in sea level. You have to develop new crop varieties that can be adapted to these new conditions by bringing in genes from other sources. But with transgenic material, you must subject it to very rigorous analysis regarding its impact on human health, the environment, and on local biodiversity.

The public must have confidence. Always there is some suspicion of technology. Once you do it, genetic modification is like anything else. For example, in the fifties when irradiated food came in, there was much criticism of it, but today irradiation has been accepted as a way of preventing spoilage. So it takes some time for any technology. Biotechnology includes many other innovations, such as vaccines for animals, fermentation, bio-fertilizers, bio-pesticides, and so on. Those are not controversial. Only one is controversial: genetic food modification. So I would say: hasten slowly. Hasten in terms of preparing material for climate change. At the same time, subject it to all possible tests.

Food security is the factor that will be most affected by climate change. There are going to be many changes in fisheries, and a number of other threats. I think we should have a global, local, and national strategy for food security in the context of climate change. It is very urgent. Clearly Siberia will benefit from global warming. Its temperatures will be higher. Parts of Canada also may produce more, but there will be more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Most of the computer models show that countries such as India and Africa will be more affected by increased temperature and decreased precipitation. That will be disastrous to human beings. I think the time has come to take this seriously and mobilize all technologies that are available to us. That is why biotechnology has become more important in the context of climate change.

Peace Magazine Jul-Sep 2007

Peace Magazine Jul-Sep 2007, page 12. Some rights reserved.

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