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Genome Editing would replace GMOs: MS Swaminathan

Prof. MS Swaminathan

In a candid interview with Tafeem Siddiqui, Father of India’s Green Revolution, Prof. MS Swaminathan says the government should invest more public sector research which is transforming agriculture and gene editing technology is the new mantra for higher productivity

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Son of a renowned surgeon envisaged to carry forward the legacy, but nature had different plans. How and why you become involved in food and agricultural issues?
Yes, my family has a medical background. My father, MK Sambasivan was a medical doctor, my daughter, Soumya Swaminathan is the head of Indian Council of Medical Research. I too was studying medical science. Then a number of problems came into my way. My family was a Gandhian family. My father was a close associate of Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi ji also stayed in my father’s house when he used to visit my place Kumbakonam. Just after Gandhi ji's Quit India Movement in 1942, in 1943-44, there was big famine in Bengal. Gandhi ji said, those who are hungry, God is bread. Therefore, we must see the God resides in every home and family. So I decided to get into agriculture. I changed my admission to the Coimbatore Agriculture College. Now it’s called Tamil Nadu Agriculture University. It was a momentary decision for me, useful for independent years. One thing was clear during 1943-44 that we are going to get independence soon. Science was there, but the question was what one can do for his country. After my B.Sc, I did my post graduate work in plant breeding and genetics from Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI), New Delhi.

How has the Gandhian ideology influenced your thoughts and actions towards agriculture?
Mahatma Gandhi’s Swadeshi philosophy was the most influential element for me to choose agriculture. For food security for all, we needed to be self sufficient in food which can only come through agriculture. That’s how I went into agriculture.   After B.Sc from Pusa Institute (IARI), I chose my career as agricultural research in plant breeding and genetics for developing new varieties of rice and wheat so that people of my country can benefit from it. Then, I got admission into Wageningen University & Research Centre, Netherlands. Then, did my PhD in Cambridge. Came back to India and joined National Rice Research Institute, Cuttuck. Then, there has been a long career.

Green Revolution and biotechnology off late came under sharp criticism across geography and intelligentsia; as environmentalist, economist, NGO’s etc. Rachel Carson in her book ‘Silent Spring’ elucidated the damage owing to excessive and indiscriminate use of fertilisers and pesticide, further there were allegations and censures from economists because technologies are not resource neutral. Do these condemnations carry any weight?
The major areas of criticism of Green Revolution are inputs and ecological issues.  Inputs such as fertilisers, seeds, water for higher productivity are limited for people with adequate resources. The technology is not resource neutral, but can be scaled neutral. It can be applied by any farmer. If we have new variety of rice or wheat, it is not limited to the large farmers who have money. The small and marginal farmers do matter. They can get benefit out of it. It is not limited to the large farmers who have money. The second criticism was the ecological aspects of agriculture. Higher use of fertilisers, pesticides, and overdrawn of groundwater. But, I dealt with this in my lecture in Science Congress in 1968. I was the president of agriculture section of that Congress. There are two ways to address it. As far as resources are concerned, we told the government that it should start a programme for small and marginal farmers on providing credit for inputs. Fortunately, that time there was a good minister, C Subramaniam.
I coined the term, Evergreen Revolution, means increasing productivity in perpetuity. It is based on technologies which are not environmentally harmful. 1968 was the year when Green Revolution was termed by William Gaud in United States. Before the term Green Revolution was coined, I had given my lecture. I had said what are the consequences of use of fertilisers, pesticides and overdrawn of groundwater. 
We had foreseen earlier, it could happen if farmers are not aware. But, many of the farmers were aware of the problem those days. Green Revolution is the vertical growth of productivity, not horizontal growth in area. It's producing more from less land.

How will you asses the intervention of MNC’s with an array of biotech products, particularly the product of Gene Revolution based on IPR and global monopoly?
Indian agriculture had one good fortune, there was more public sector research. Private sector research in those days was confined with flowers, horticulture and on cash crops, not on wheat and rice. In public sector research there was no question of IPR. It is available for anybody whoever wants them to grow. That’s why Green Revolution spread so fast. If there was a question of IPR or other conditions, then it was not possible. The large number of Indian farmers, approximately 83 percent are small and marginal. And therefore, public sector research is very crucial.
If a private sector company spends a lot of money and develops a new variety or new micro-organism, obviously they would like to take benefit from their investment. All three sectors, public, private and cooperative sectors are important.

Not only in technology, in the larger policy perspective, how India has evolved for ages? These information we cannot get from any other person as you have also spent time with Mahatma Gandhi. From the colonial era, how did agriculture and socio-economic condition evolved till now?
The agricultural destiny has changed. The year 1968 was the turning point. The British focussed on plantation crops, not on rice, wheat or millets. The great Bengal famine changed the attitude of the government. Nehru said that, everything else can wait, but not agriculture. He saw during 1943 Bengal famine, the women and children dying on the roads of Kolkata due to hunger. I remember those pictures on the front pages of the newspapers. 

Monsoon is getting erratic frequently, in last one decade. Farmers are still growing water intensive rice. Cannot we shift to low water intensive rice or some other cereals like millets which doesn’t need water but containing high nutrients?
Rice cultivation is a 10,000 year old tradition. it is the only crop which could be grown on Indo-Gangetic plain due to availability of water. Mahatma Gnadhi had rightly said, nature provides for everyone’s need, not for greed. There are 150,000 varieties of rice, out of these 120,000 are with the gene bank of International Rice Research Institute. Some are grown in less water.

India did not accomplish the top UN – MDG of reducing the hunger and poverty by half. To whom this failure can be attributed; to the lack of sincerity of Government or the ultimate vacuum of political will for agriculture.
The first goal of MDG (Millennium Development Goals) was to eradicating poverty and hunger. Reducing poverty as half has happened, but not hunger. Hunger is still widely prevalent. Even now we are one of the worst in Global Hunger Index. That’s why in the last five years, I have been mainly concentrating on eradicating hunger and malnutrition. It can be done, but the Government is not doing enough. Maternal malnutrition leading to low birth weight babies and child nutrition. 

Including climate change, what are the current challenges Indian agriculture is going to face?
There are many challenges Indian agriculture is facing. One is to attracting and retaining young people in farming. One survey says, 45 percent of farmers want to leave farming. They have another better options. It is very difficult to get young people. India is the land of youth who are technologically more oriented. Second problem, how to retain good farm land for farming. I recommended special agriculture economic zone (SAEZ) like SEZ (Special Economic Zone). The Indira Gandhi canal area in Rajasthan and Kuttanad area in Kerala should be maintained as SAEZ so that we could not take away the farmland for non farm purposes. We need policies which ensure adequate land available for agriculture. Our country requires good number of SAEZs which would maintain food security. And finally, the climate change is going to be a real problem. For example, Punjab will lose 5 million tonnes of wheat if temperature rises one degree more. This year, I don’t know as already there are talks of approaching El-Nino which may result into low rainfall. If it happens, there will be a problem.

‘Only changing the name of the Ministry alone can’t make things better’ Dr. Swaminathan Report – where the farmers were recommended a price of C+50 a part of BJP’s manifesto and the promise of making it the backbone of BJP’s agriculture policy during 2014 LS poll is still not implemented in words or deeds, what can be the probable reasons?
First time in India, a commission was formed for farmers. When I was asked to lead it, I asked a question to myself what is the difference between National Commission on Agriculture and National Commission on Farmers. I thought, we must be the voice of the farmers. We must look everything in farmers’ view point, not on how many tonnes of wheat, rice or any other crops should be produced. Therefore, we had consultations with larger number of farmers. There were two important elements, monsoon and the market which farmers were concerned. Monsoon behaviour, they said, is getting erratic and leading to climate change. Market behaviour is very erratic, even the Government announces the procurement prices around 26 crops, but they are not implemented. Only for rice and wheat, the Minimum Support Price (MSP) is given. And therefore, the farmers told me, you emphasise on nothing else just on market, pricing and marketing. We would do the rest. Therefore, I recommended that the MSP needs to be 50 percent more than cost of production (C+50). Then I had discussion with the then Chairman of Commission for Agricultural Costs & Prices. He said that the MSP is 10-15 percent higher than the cost. It was painful. In medical industry, the difference is 300 to 400 percent. The cost of agricultural production varies across the country due to various types of agro -climatic zones and further, differences in wages. In Kerala, the average wages maybe Rs 300 to Rs 400 per day while in another states, it maybe low. It is a very variable country. That’s why whatever the cost of production is, the cost of production plus additional 50 percent will mitigate the farmers’ problems.

I met the prime minister Narendra Modi and urged to implement the Farmers Commission Report. He announced from the Red Fort on August 15 about the changing of the name of the Ministry of Agriculture to Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare. It is an indication that the Ministry is not only for how much tonnes of food needs to be produced, but for the welfare of the farmers. But, nothing has changed on the ground, only changing the name of the Ministry alone can’t make things better. The 60 percent of the people are farmers in the country. When I was in Rajya Sabha, I introduced a bill, Empowerment of Women Farmers. Unfortunately, the discussion was not complete as Parliament was disrupted. If I go outside India, people ask me that you have been working for agriculture for so many years, why the farmers in your country are committing suicide? For example, this year every day farmers are committing suicide in Tamil Nadu due to water problem. This was similar in Maharashtra last year.

Is it the lack of political will in implementing the Farmers Commission Report?
I wrote to the chief minister of Rajasthan for developing Indira Gandhi canal area to preserve it for agriculture only, maximise the productivity there, you can compensate it to your arid (Thar desert) land. But somehow agriculture policy could not get same attention as it is given to the industries. I have also recommended for the development of coastal areas so that buildings and non agricultural activities do not come up. But, yesterday (March 22, 2017) I saw that the environmental clearance is no longer needed for any industrial activity. It is very dangerous.
Technology, pricing, marketing and research are the crucial aspects for agriculture. Anticipated research looks at the problems of the future while participatory research collaborates with the farming families. When I started my foundation, several people offered land to me. I said I won’t take land. We work with them which is called participatory research. Third one is translational research which is actually a medical term, how to convert, know how to do how. We require more investment on research in public sector. The Farmers Commission report carries a number of ideas.

What the three recommendations would you like to submit in front of the government through us?
There is nothing new. I have already said to the government on policies on land and water. Every state has a problem. For water, states are fighting each other. For example, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka have been fighting like India and Pakistan on Cauvery water dispute. Secondly, agriculture must become a profession. They don’t have a pay commission like government servants. It would ensure remunerative prices for them like C+50 (cost plus 50 percent) and then C+60 (cost plus 60 percent) over a period.
The third area is, in the wake of rising temperature, the water usage need to be minimised. We have 7,500 km of coastal area, but we are not aware that the see level is rising. The 25 percent population of the country live along the see coast. What steps have we taken? There will be climate refugees.

When we talk of Global Warming, agriculture is said to be contributing 32 percent to the Global Warming through greenhouse gas emissions, particularly with methane. How to control that? 
They bring exaggerated data because they don’t want to cut down the use of petroleum products. Agriculture is the only activity which absorbs carbon dioxide and releases oxygen. Methane can be used by biogas plants. The contribution of agriculture what Dr. Verghese Kurien had said, my poor buffaloes being blamed for climate change, not Americans who are consuming too much of fossil fuels. I won’t say, agriculture is not contributing emissions. However, agriculture’s contribution is very significant in terms of absorption of carbon dioxide.       

There has been a lot of technological disruption in agriculture these days. Do you see these disruptions will totally change the scenario of agriculture?
There are large number of technologies coming in, particularly conversational agriculture what we call Green Revolution. Technologies has always been coming into agriculture. Go to Pusa Institute (Indian Agricultural Research Institute), there are large number of technologies on the shelf. There is procedure of testing before applying these technologies. I am confident, even GMO (genetically modified organism) is not needed any more. We have a new gene editing technology now. We have transferred gene from mangrove to rice for water tolerance. Mangroves tolerant the sea water. Technologies are there, some of the technologies create controversies. There are two types of controversies, one is social and another one is economic. IPR is a very reality. There is big fight for IPR in United States. But, for advancement genetic editing will replace genetic modification. The Government should invest more on public sector research. Who is doing with all the satellites now? ISRO. It is a big success of India’s public sector research. When all the countries in 1972 banned India as result of India’ nuclear programme, we developed our own method of power generation through Thorium. India was the first country to generate power from Thorium because necessity is the mother of invention. That would happen in replacing GMO with genetic editing too.

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