Monkombu Sambasivan Swaminathan

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Since 1988 the plant geneticist Monkombu Sambasivan Swaminathan has headed his own M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF) in Chennai (Madras) India. The Foundation sees GM crops, and biotechnology in general, not only as having immense potential but as 'the only way we can face the challenges of the future'. It also sees India as needing to 'move forward vigorously in mobilising the power of biotechnology' in order not to lag behind China and more developed countries. (The Chennai Declaration: Bridging the Genetic Divide)

As M.S. Swaminathan is considered the Godfather of the Green Revolution in India, his promotion of GM crops is inevitably projected as an ushering in of a second Green Revolution. Indeed, that was the title of an International Conference in August 2004 in New Delhi, organised by the MS Swaminathan Research Foundation in partnership with the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) and the biotech industry-backed International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Application (ISAAA).

The conference, whose speakers included Swaminathan, was organized to 'deliberate on the recommendations of the Task Force on Application of Biotechnology in Agriculture'. This Task Force, headed by Swaminathan, had been charged by the Indian Government with the task of making recommendations on how to reform India's biosafety system.

The Task Force's recommendations have proved controversial. Greenpeace India accused the Task Force of seeking 'to strip away regulation of biotechnology, rather than improve it'. Earlier P.V. Satheesh of the Deccan Development Society had similarly warned that the real agenda behind the proposed regulatory reforms was to introduce 'fast track approval'. (Swaminathan Panel Recommendations on Biotechnology Flawed and Dangerous)

Although regarded as a GM proponent, Swaminathan does not present as a pugnacious propagandist for the technology like Norman Borlaug, that other Green Revolution scientist. The alternative title of Swaminathan's Foundation is 'The Centre for Research on Sustainable Agricultural and Rural Development'. And traditional organic farming is researched there alongside genetic engineering which Swaminathan argues can assist organic agriculture. The Foundation is also at great pains to emphasise the need for technology development and dissemination to be 'pro-nature, pro-poor, and pro-women' in orientation. Similarly, Swaminathan and the Foundation promote the idea of 'biovillages', which combine IT and biotechnology with the rhetoric of village india, women's empowerment, etc.

This more sophisticated stance, together with Swaminathan's international status as the scientist-hero who brought about India's Green Revolution, has meant that biotechnology supporters have found him an attractive figure to involve in the promotion of GM crops both in India and beyond. In UNDP's highly controversial Human Development Report 2001, for instance, the Lead Author, Sakiko Fukuda-Parr, in seeking to justify the report's support for GM crops quotes Swaminathan. Swaminathan in turn quotes Ghandi on the need to remember the poor.

In an article he was asked to provide for the report Swaminathan tells his readers how, 'Genes have been transferred by scientists in India from Amaranthus to potato for improving protein quality and quantity'. This is given particular emphasis in the report by being printed in bold type. However, the claims made for this GM potato project have been shown to be little more than hype. Even Prof. C Kameswara Rao, a keen supporter of GM crops, has pointed out that the project has been so unsuccessful to date that the GM potato is 'unlikely to see the light of the day in this decade'. According to Rao, 'I noticed that the potato used to make wafer chips in England has 6.0 to 6.5 per cent of protein, while that of the GE potato is only about 2.5 per cent. I do not understand how this dismal product could generate so much euphoria...' ('Dismal' GM potato a decade away)

The reason is simple - in being a locally-led and philanthropically directed project, it has the hallmarks of acceptability. In a similar way, Swaminathan provides an acceptable face for GM crops in the Third World, creating a facade of an unthreatening, ecologically and socially sensitive biotechnology 'domesticated' to local conditions.

Just how credible Swaminathan and his promotion of a locally aware biotechnology really are remains open to question. His track record remains controversial and some, like Dr Claude Alvares of the Goa Institute, accuse him of being a shrewd political operator whose real strength lies in knowing how to get things done and how to adapt his rhetoric to create a veneer of public acceptability:

'At a Gandhi seminar, he will speak on Gandhi. At a meeting in Madras, on the necessity for combine harvesters. At another meeting on appropriate technology, he will plump for organic manure. At a talk in London, he will speak on the necessity of chemical fertilizers. He will label slum dwellers "ecological refugees", and advertise his career as a quest for "imparting an ecological basis to productivity improvement". This, after presiding over, and indiscriminately furthering, one of the ecologically most devastating technologies of modern times - the [High Yielding Varieties - HYV] package of the Green Revolution.'

While Swaminathan is feted around the globe as the hero of India's Green Revolution, the manner in which he achieved such prominence is much less well known. He did so, charges Alvares, in a way that has a parallel in India claiming credit for its conquest of space when it was riding piggyback on Soviet science and technology. Swaminathan imported borrowed science evolved in Mexico by Norman Borlaug and American interests. In taking India down this path, his critics say, he neglected high yielding indigenous varieties adapted to local conditions in favour of chemical and irrigation dependent varieties which have with time had adverse effects on both productivity and the environment, often with catastrophic consequences for India's millions of small and marginal farmers.

It is also alleged that Swaminathan's rise to prominence went hand in hand with the suppression of the work of Indian scientists who were making a case within the agricultural mainstream for less input-intensive farming. One of these was Dr R.H. Richharia who worked all his life to develop indigenous rice species and whose guiding principle was, 'Your work is only valuable if it helps the poor farmers'. Richaria almost single-handedly put together a germplasm collection of over 20,000 rice varieties. Currently in the possession of the Indira Gandhi Agricultural University in Chhattisgarh; this collection was at the centre of a major controversy when Syngenta attempted to take it over under the guise of collaborative research, a move only thwarted by civil society pressures. Dr Richaria himself sees Swaminathan and his backers as being linked to both his removal from his post at the Central Rice Research Institute and attempts to gain control over his germplasm collection. Of the latter he says, 'He was behind it all, because he held all the power... He was the all in all.' (Crushed but not defeated)

Perhaps most disturbingly, Swaminathan has been censured for making misleading scientific claims and has been linked to scandals involving the suicide of scientists at the institute from which he launched the Green Revolution. However, even these scandals, as we shall see, have had no serious adverse impact on Swaminathan's career.

He is the recipient of almost every conceivable award - national and international. He has also been India's Secretary for Agriculture (1980-81), the Director of the Indian Agricultural Research Institute (1966-72), the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (1972-80) and the International Rice Research Institute (1982-88), the Independent Chairman of the FAO Council (1981-85), and the President of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (1984-90).

Swaminathan was born in India in 1925 in what is now the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. He almost became a police officer, but a change of career path led to a Ph.d in genetics from Cambridge in 1952. By 1966, Swaminathan was Director of the Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI) in New Delhi. With help from the Rockefeller Foundation, he started importing large quantities of cross-bred wheat seed developed by Norman Borlaug in Mexico. Swaminathan disseminated these plants, which were far more tolerant of chemical fertilisers, in the Punjab. He would later marry this plant to an Indian variety. 'Our history,' he says, 'changed from that time.'

Swaminathan's apparent scientific successes were first acknowledged in 1971 with the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership. This award set the precedent for a plethora of awards and honours in the years to come, including over 40 honorary doctorates from universities around the world and the World Food Prize in 1987.

As well as achieving a rapid dissemination of Norman Borlang's dwarf strains of Mexican wheat, Swaminathan claimed to have developed a new wheat (Sharbati Sonora) by subjecting the Mexican parent lines of the Sonora variety to radiation. At a popular lecture in Delhi in 1967, Swaminathan claimed that Sharbati Sonora contained as much protein and lysine as milk. Dr. Claude Alvares takes up the story:

'In three subsequent papers he continued to claim a high lysine content. In 1967, Dr Y.P. Gupta, an Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI) scientist, disputed the claim and said that the figures had been manipulated. A number of researchers from abroad also stated that the lysine content of Swaminathan's wheat and that of the Mexican wheat did not differ in any significant content. Finally the Central International de Mejoramiento de Maizy Trigo (CIMMYT) itself reported in 1969 that there was no significant difference between Sonora and Sharbati Sonora.

Yet nine months after the CIMMYT report appeared, Swaminathan once again submitted the 1967 Food Industries paper to a short lived journal called Plant Foods for Human Nutrition, in which he again claimed a value of two and half times the normal lysine value for Sharbati Sonora. Eight months later [in 1971], he was given the Magsaysay Award, for having "developed a wheat variety containing three per cent lysine", and which, the Magsaysay Foundation claimed, "was now alleviating the deficiency of essential amino acids in the Indian diet so harmful particularly to brain development in young children." Every word of the citation was false... The award, however, was instrumental in Swaminathan being made the director general of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR)'.

What brought the lysine scandal to public notice was the suicide in May 1972 of Dr. Vinod Shah, an agronomist at the Indian Agricultural Research Institute. The IARI was where Swaminathan had launched his Green Revolution.

According to Bharat Dogra, a very senior and respected journalist in India who has researched Swaminathan and contemporary agricultural scientists for many years, Dr Shah had been repelled by the 'glaring irregularities, victimisation, nepotism, bogus research, sycophancy' he had found at the IARI. (Bharat Dogra, The Life and Work of Dr R.H. Richaria , p.99) Dr Shah's death was not the only suicide by a scientist at the institute but 'it attracted more attention partly because of his youth and partly because of the suicide note left behind by him in which he clearly explained the dishonesty and irregularities... which had disillusioned him so much.' (Bharat Dogra, p.100)

It also emerged that Dr Shah had met with Swaminathan, the IARI's Director, some time before he committed suicide. Following that meeting, he had stopped taking any food. His suicide note was addressed personally to Dr Swaminathan. It alleged, 'A lot of unscientific data are collected to fit in your line of thinking.' It also said, 'A person with ideas and constructive scientific criticism is always victimised'. (Bharat Dogra, p.107)

An Achievement Audit Committee Report had already been critical of the 'pompous or exaggerated statements made in IARI documents' (Bharat Dogra, p.101) as well as of the generally poor quality of research at Swaminathan's Institute - research which failed to meet the claims made for it. And the lysine content of Swaminathan's wheat was not the only case of 'blatantly dishonest research' to come to light in the enquiries made following the allegations contained in Dr Shah's suicide note. (Bharat Dogra, p.102)

A pulse variety known as Baisaki Moong was claimed to have achieved very high yields in IARI research in the late 60s and early 70s. However, enquiries showed that in trials around the country its performance had been nowhere near as good. In Punjab and Delhi, for instance, 'the yields were only about half of those claimed to have been obtained in the IARI experiemnts' (Bharat Dogra, p.102).

Claims relating to a super-nutritious maize developed at IARI also 'became a major scientific scandal'. Initially the research had been credited with having developed 'a new strain of maize with the protein content doubled and having nutritious value like milk' It was even claimed that mothers were reporting that children fed on this maize were less irritable than milk-fed babies. 'Subsequent experience revealed all such claims to be figments of imagination'. (Bharat Dogra, p.103)

The most serious accusations had come from Dr Y.P. Gupta of the Bio-Chemistry Division of the IARI. Gupta had worked on the lysine content of various wheat varieties and contested Swaminathan's published data on the protein and lysine content of Sharbati Sonora from an early stage. Gupta specifically alleged that the figure for Sharbati Sonora's parent plant had been deliberately reduced in a half-yearly report in order to make Sharbati Sonora appear in a more favourable light.

After the circumstances surrounding Dr Shah's suicide had caused uproar in the Indian Parliament, the government had felt compelled to appoint an enquiry committee headed by the late Dr P.B. Gajendragadkar, a former chief justice of the Supreme Court. Dr Alvares takes up the story:

'The committee examined the charge of unjustified claims and ruled against Swaminathan... In 1974, the New Scientist published a detailed report on M S Swaminathan's lysine falsehoods. Swaminathan survived the attack. Immediately after the Emergency, it was the Statesman in a detailed report dated May 17, 1977, that re-opened the entire debate. It was only on this occasion, for the first time since 1967, that Swaminathan admitted that the data concerning lysine was incorrect. Six years had passed since he had won the Magsaysay Award, which, if the citation was totally wrong, was improperly conferred.'

Swaminathan put down the 'analytical error' to one of his subordinates but, Alvares argues, there are other indicators that support a lack of ethics:

'One is his harassment of all those scientists who had exposed his claims on lysine in the first place. Within a year, for example, of questioning the data in 1967, Dr Y.P. Gupta's students were taken away from him, he was denied promotions, his junior was selected to become his head, and his application for a Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) assignment was held back by the IARI till [after] the due date.'

It was only 15 years later that the Supreme Court of India was able to vindicate Y.P. Gupta. Dr Gupta, the court ruled, 'has been the victim of unfair treatment' and the court went on to describe the attitude of his employer as 'unethical'. It also termed the action of the institute's academic council, chaired by Swaminathan, as 'callous', 'heartless', and 'shocking'. (The Great Gene Robbery)

However, none of this stopped Swaminathan becoming chairman of the Scientific Advisory Committee to the Cabinet (SACC). Then in 1982 he left India for the highly paid post of Director General of the Rockefeller- Foundation assisted International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), based at Los Banos in the Philippines. After seven years with IRRI, Swaminathan returned to India to devote his efforts to his M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF).

The Foundation is now at the centre of Swaminathan's promotion of India's second Green Revolution. Its conferences have provided platforms for the industry. In 2004 two events were organised at Chennai to commemorate 'the occasion of the International Year of Rice 2004': a National Colloquium on Molecular Breeding and Shaping the Future of Rice, and a Forum on Biotechnology and the future of rice. Both events were dominated by panelists who favored the introduction of the GM seeds, like Golden Rice Network Coordinator and former Monsanto employee, Gerard Barry and William James Peacock of CSIRO. (GM supporters confronted in India)

An MSSRF event had also provided Gerard Barry with a PR platform four years earlier to promote Monsanto's provision of royalty-free licenses for the development of 'golden rice', as well as the corporation's willingness to open its rice-genome sequence database to researchers around the world. GM lobbyist CS Prakash was another speaker on that occasion. (Gene revolution may not feed all)

Critics like the New Delhi-based food and trade policy analyst, Devinder Sharma complain that the right lessons have not yet been learned from Swaminathan's first Green Revolution before the second is being promoted. The Indian scientist and environmentalist, Vandana Shiva points out that the Green Revolution:

'has led to reduced genetic diversity, increased vulnerability to pests, soil erosion, water shortages, reduced soil fertility, micronutrient deficiencies, soil contamination, reduced availability of nutritious food crops for the local population, the displacement of vast numbers of small farmers from their land, rural impoverishment and increased tensions and conflicts. The beneficiaries have been the agrochemical industry, large petrochemical companies, manufacturers of agricultural machinery, dam builders and large landowners.' (The Green Revolution in the Punjab)

And there have been high human costs from forcing the Green Revolution's industrial farming model onto small and marginal farmers. Writing in response to the news in summer 2004 that many hundreds of poor farmers had once again taken their own lives, often by drinking pesticides, Devinder Sharma noted, 'the tragedy is that the human cost is entirely being borne by the farmers'.

The greatest irony, writes Sharma, is that 'those who created the problem in the first instance are the ones who are being asked to provide the solutions.' (Farm Genocide: The Killing Fields of the Green Revolution)