Those of us who are fortunate enough to live in an era which celebrates teenagers who launch vegetable delivery apps looked back with pride at the life of one India’s biggest gamechangers, MS Swaminathan. As John Reed wrote on the FT last week, “MS Swaminathan, who has died aged 98, was a university student in Kerala during the devastating Bengal famine of 1942-43..Swaminathan went on to become the chief architect of India’s “green revolution”, which would transform a chronically hungry nation and perpetual ward of foreign donors into one of the world’s largest food producers.”

Indian by birth and nationality, MS Swaminathan was a poster child of the scientific revolution which swept through the 20th century and transformed the world that we live in: “Mankombu Sambasivan Swaminathan was born in Kumbakonam, Madras (today Tamil Nadu) state in southern India on August 7 1925. He studied zoology at Maharaja’s college in Trivandrum, but switched to agriculture after taking stock of India’s wartime food shortages and the Bengal famine, which new scholarship suggests was caused by the actions of the British authorities.

In his twenties, Swaminathan travelled overseas on a Unesco fellowship, first researching plant engineering in the Netherlands, then completing a doctorate at Cambridge university. He completed his postdoctoral research at the University of Wisconsin, where he met Norman Borlaug, the US agronomist and green revolution proponent who won the 1970 Nobel Prize for his work on global food supply.

Back in India, Swaminathan experimented with creating new strains of rice with higher yields at the Central Rice Research Institute in the eastern state of Orissa (today Odisha). In its post-independence years, the country was suffering from small-scale famines and depended on foreign aid — what Swaminathan and others called a “ship-to-mouth existence”….

Swaminathan began a collaboration with Borlaug, importing seeds for a semi-dwarf wheat variety, which was higher yielding than that under cultivation in India and responded well to irrigation and fertiliser. The crop was then rolled out across a network of model farms. Borlaug later credited Swaminathan with recognising the potential value of Mexican dwarf wheat. “Had this not occurred, it is quite possible that there would not have been a green revolution in Asia,” the US agronomist wrote to him, upon receiving the Nobel.” 

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