Keywords: M.S. Swaminathan; Green Revolution; GMOs; high yielding varieties; seeds; Mark Dowie; Communism; New Deal; Socialist agriculture.
I’m trying to prepare for an interview with M. S. Swaminathan within the next couple of weeks. Normally I don’t have to do any homework to get ready for a Peace Magazine interview, but when I talk with Dr. Swaminathan, it will not be predominantly about peace or even Pugwash, which he heads, but mostly about agriculture — and I am far from an expert on that subject. So I started by reading articles of his from the Internet.
But he is a geneticist, and his articles have a technological, non-controversial tone. I cannot hold readers’ attention unless I go for debates. And, although he does not show it in the articles I have read, Swaminathan must be a rather controversial figure, but he is called “the father of India’s Green Revolution.” And the Green Revolution is reportedly a subject about which there is no consensus. Though I downloaded the annual report of his own M.S. Swaminathan Foundation in Chennai, it did not remark on any disputes about the hundreds of ongoing projects that are being conducted there. I had to go to Wikipedia to find what is contested about that subject.
I should have guessed that the current debate is about the value of genetically modified plants. Swaminathan has been rearranging the inner molecules of rice and other seeds for a long time, though the objections against “GMOs” seem to be increasing. People worry that they are dangerous and may escape into the atmosphere and contaminate other traditional organisms. I don’t know whether to worry about that or not. However, I found an interesting book on the Amazon web site and have ordered it. (Amazon is smart to let us sample their wares pretty liberally on-line, since I generally wind up ordering the books that I inspect.)
But Wikipedia gave me an older set of objections to the Green Revolution — one that partly dates back to the late 1960s. It’s hard to complain too harshly against those changes, since it is certain that they have saved many thousands — probably many millions — of lives. Today, Indians consume about 25 percent more calories than before the “revolution” began. It takes a weird mind to find fault with an innovation that achieves such results.
Nevertheless, there were critics right away. The problem is, the new strains of grain (HYV for “high yielding varieties“) require pesticides, irrigation, and synthetic nitrogen fertilizer. (In the absence of these inputs, they do not always perform better than certain traditional varieties.) Also the seeds are hybrids that have to be purchased by a farmer every season instead of being saved from previous crops.
All this is fine for prosperous farmers, but small, poor ones may lack the cash or access to credit. It has been said (I don’t know how accurately) that the Green Revolution increased disparities between regions and economic groups. Moreover, the relative abundance of food reduced prices, making life easier for urban people to buy food. This presumably increased the rate of migration to the cities — a trend that is generally considered regrettable by Indian writers, though I am disposed to think otherwise. (I would certainly move from a rural Indian village to a city if I possibly could, wouldn’t you?)
Another complaint against the Green Revolution is that it increased monoculture and hence decreased biodiversity. This does not surprise me, since I understand that the same thing is happening in all the large, agribusiness farms of the developed countries, including Canada.
Also, I learned of one other allegation that did surprise me. Mark Dowie (whom I once knew slightly) was a critic of the Green Revolution who complained that it was part of the Cold War. He argues that the revolution’s Western funders, especially the Ford Foundation, were motivated to create stability in the underdeveloped countries as a way of limiting the appeal of communism. The agricultural changes offered this stability by providing increased food to the poor.
This reminds me of the argument that Roosevelt’s New Deal was concocted to prevent the spread of communism by ameliorating suffering. Certainly it had that effect – thank God — but it seems simplistic to say it was done just for that purpose.
In any case, the outcome is surely something to be celebrated. The US indeed might have gone communist during the Great Depression, and India might have gone communist when large populations were hungry. In both cases, the world would have been the worse for it. Dowie is probably correct in arguing that the “technological fix” allowed people to avoid the alternative approach — land reform —which was favored more by socialists. However, just think about it: The countries that adopted socialism may have “reformed” land tenure all right, but by confiscating it from smallholders and consolidating it as collective farms. I do happen to know a bit about collective farming, and it clearly was a disastrous approach. In this case, the “technological fixes” were vastly superior.
So I shall not encounter M.S. Swaminathan with a long list of vicarious grievances. I think he has contributed immensely, especially in view of the alternatives that have been avoided, thanks to his innovations. And today he is in his eighties, but he’s working ceaselessly to solve the remaining problems with yet more innovations — including conservationist policies such as organic farming in addition to his genetic manipulations of food plants.