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 was 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 included Swaminathan, was 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 the Task Force of seeking 'to strip away regulation of biotechnology, rather than improve it'. Earlier P.V. Satheesh of the Deccan Development Society had similarly warned that the real agenda behind the proposed regulatory reforms was to introduce 'fast track approval'. (Swaminathan Panel Recommendations on Biotechnology Flawed and Dangerous)
Although regarded as a GM proponent, Swaminathan does not present as a pugnacious propagandist for the technology like Norman Borlaug, that other Green Revolution scientist. 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 is given particular emphasis in the report by being printed in bold type. However, the claims made for this GM potato project have been shown to be little more than hype. Even Prof. C Kameswara Rao, a keen supporter of GM crops, has pointed out that the project has been so unsuccessful to date that the GM potato is 'unlikely to see the light of the day in this decade'. According to 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 reason is simple - in being a locally-led and philanthropically directed project, it has the hallmarks of acceptability. 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,