India's GM Godfather - a GM WATCH profile (10/8/2004)


Here's a profile of the Godfather of India's Green Revolution, M.S. Swaminathan who's a key speaker at the 3-day International Conference which opens in New Delhi, India, today (Tuesday): "Agricultural Biotechnology: Ushering in the Second Green Revolution".

Swaminathan, India's premier Green Revolution scientist, has a talent for dressing up the industry lobby's agenda in the rhetoric of village India, women's empowerment, eco-tech etc., creating a facade of an unthreatening, ecologically and socially sensitive biotechnology 'domesticated' to local conditions.

But how credible Swaminathan and his promotion of a locally aware biotechnology really are remains open to question. His track record remains controversial. There are accusations of scientific fraud as well as scandals involving the suicide of scientists at the institute from which he launched the Green Revolution. But these have been buried beneath a plethora of awards and honours.

The real importance of Swaminathan's record is that it points to the errors India will repeat if it embarks on a Swaminathan-led "Second Green Revolution".

M.S. Swaminathan - a GM WATCH profile
(for all the links: http://www.lobbywatch.org/profile1.asp?PrId=291&page=S )

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 is 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 include Swaminathan, has been 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 it of seeking 'to strip away regulation of biotechnology, rather than improve it' while P.V. Satheesh of the Deccan Development Society had earlier warned that the real agenda behind the reforms was to introduce 'fast track approval'. (Swaminathan Panel Recommendations on Biotechnology Flawed and Dangerous)

Although a GM proponent, Swaminathan does not present as a pugnacious propagandist for the technology in the style of Norman Borlaug, that other Green Revolution scientist. For instance, 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 information is marked out in bold type. In fact, however, this GM potato has been shown to be little more than hype. Even Prof. C Kameswara Rao - a keen biotech supporter - has pointed out that it is 'unlikely to see the light of the day in this decade'. According to Prof 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 answer to Rao's question is simple. The fact that the GM potato is a locally-led and philanthropically directed project gives it the hallmarks of acceptability. This makes it a perfect poster child for promoting the technology. 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] 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 Borlang 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 le

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