We Celebrate A Food Hero

First impressions can be important. Let's take a reaction test.


Yum! Large luscious fruit. A thornless bush. What's not to love?

Genetic modification

I'm hearing a lot of Boo! Hiss! Nasty Monsanto!

Monkombu Sambasivan Swaminathan (MSS)

I can hear a pin drop. You've never heard of him, have you?

No, neither had I till I read his obituary the other day. Yet Time magazine included him with Gandhi in its list of the 20 most influential Asian people of the 20th century.

Son of a surgeon of Brahmin caste, MS Swaminathan (as he was always known) was studying zoology when he was deeply influenced and appalled by the famine in Bengal in 1943. A change of career direction saw him determined to improve food production. In the 15 years after India gained independence in 1947, food supplies, especially of wheat, were in a parlous state. The country was heavily dependent on imports from the US. The population was increasing at a ferocious rate. Outside observers were predicting a food Armageddon.

Working in conjunction with US plant scientist Norman Borlaug, MSS obtained high yielding wheat and rice plants from Japan. An important feature was their short stems, which made them less likely to break in stormy weather. (Here in Scotland we've done something similar with our barley.) He crossed them with Indian plants which could withstand the climate, and created a hybrid.


A hybrid, in the same way that a loganberry is a cross between a North American blackberry and a European raspberry. These were the days when genetic modification science was in its infancy. MSS was determined to learn more. In 1967 he produced his miracle grain, a dwarf wheat variety known as Sharbati Sonora. Wheat production increased to 20 million tonnes (now over 300 million). Inside a decade India went from being the world's largest importer of food grains to being a net exporter.

More research followed. For much of the 70s MSS was Director-General of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research. Genetic modification was becoming his thing. He headed a programme designed to restore lost rice species destroyed in the Cambodian civil war. In the 1990s he used genetic modification techniques to produce varieties of rice which would be more tolerant of salt water and require less fertiliser and fewer pesticides.

Genetic modification. Boo! Hiss! Nasty Monsanto! Actually, MSS agreed with the latter sentiment. He was firmly of the belief that the science ought to be available to all, especially the poorer nations. He thoroughly disapproved of its exploitation for commercial gain. It says everything about the man that when he won the World Food Prize in 1987 ($200,000), he used the money to establish a research foundation to study nutrition and climate change. The organisation is still in existence. He died on September 28 aged 98.

Ladies and gentleman, I give you MS Swaminathan. A true food hero.


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