Swaminathan, famously known as the Father of Indian Green Revolution and Economic Ecology, is one of the most revered Indian agricultural scientists. He is acclaimed as one of the most influential Asians of the 20th century for his contributions to the revival of agriculture, and hunger reduction. He also has the honor of being the first-ever recipient of the World Food Prize (seen as the ‘Nobel Prize for Food and Agriculture’) instituted by Norman Borlaug.
Coming from a family of doctors, Dr. Swaminathan wanted to pursue medicine too. But as he witnessed the Great Bengal Famine of 1943, he was deeply moved and decided to devote his life to eliminate hunger from India.
After completing a double Bachelors, Masters, and PhD in Cytogenetics, he spent two decades in research and administrative positions at agriculture institutes. While India continued to import tons of foodgrains from other countries, Dr. Swaminathan’s resolve to end this dependence grew stronger.
As a young scientist at the IARI he learned about Dr. Norman Borlaug’s newly developed Mexican semi-dwarf wheat varieties and was convinced that it could significantly boost grain production in India. So he invited Dr. Borlaug to help him introduce these varieties to Indian fields. The two scientists worked alongside each other to develop high yielding varieties of wheat and set up thousands of demonstration and test plots to display the potential of the new, genetically superior grain in varied soils and climatic conditions. Through widespread planting of these new wheat varieties, education of farmers, use of fertilizers, efficient farming techniques, and the political leadership, crop yield almost tripled and a famine was averted. Over the years the total crop production of wheat increased from 12 million tons in the 1960s to nearly 70 million tons in 1999, steering India on a path of self-sufficiency. Swaminathan’s vision transformed India from a “begging bowl” to a “breadbasket”. Also, the high yielding rice varieties that were developed under his leadership at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in Philippines, transformed agriculture in Southeast Asia and lifted millions out of poverty. Dr. Swaminathan was awarded the first World Food Prize for extending the Green Revolution in India, ensuring food security, and improving the livelihoods of millions.
Dr. Swaminathan also worked with Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to establish agricultural policies and programs to maintain prolonged self-sufficiency across the country. Owing to his advocacy of scientific collaboration, Dr. Swaminathan became the Principal Secretary of the Ministry of Agriculture, thus taking charge of the agriculture and rural development in India’s Planning commission. He introduced the concept of Evergreen Revolution to emphasize the need for enhancing productivity in perpetuity without ecological harm. His idea to “reach the unreached” helped collaborate with global leaders and rural citizens to ensure research for scientific innovations, food security and sustainable development.
Dr. Swaminathan’s scientific achievements and humanitarian contributions have been acknowledged in the form of countless awards, degrees, honors, publications, and books. His legacy continues through the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF) that he founded using the proceeds from the World Food Prize. The foundation works towards using science and technology for agricultural and rural development to improve the livelihoods of communities.