M.S. Swaminathan, agricultural scientist who helped feed India, dies at 98

M.S. Swaminathan, an Indian agricultural scientist who vastly expanded his country’s production of wheat and rice as a mastermind of the “Green Revolution” in the 1960s, an initiative that was credited with saving millions of people from starvation, died Sept. 28 at his home in the city of Chennai. He was 98.

His death was announced by the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation in Chennai, a nonprofit organization founded by Dr. Swaminathan to speed agricultural and rural development through science and technology. The cause of death was not immediately available.

Earlier this year, the United Nations released data showing that India, with more than 1.4 billion people, would shortly overtake China as the world’s most populous nation. There was perhaps no one in India — no politician, no business leader, no philanthropist — who did more to help feed the teeming country than Dr. Swaminathan.

He came of age amid one of the worst disasters to strike India in the 20th century, the Bengal famine of 1943, estimated to have killed as many as 3 million people. The son of a surgeon, he had hoped to pursue a career in medicine, but set aside those plans to study agriculture after witnessing the agony of the famine.

Dr. Swaminathan held an array of positions in government and scientific institutions, including the Indian Agricultural Research Institute in New Delhi and, in the later years of his life, the Rajya Sabha, the upper house of India’s Parliament.

Before the innovations that Dr. Swaminathan helped introduce, India struggled to feed its rapidly expanding population and faced widespread deprivation and death even absent acute famine like the one that devastated Bengal. The country was heavily dependent on imports of food products including wheat, to the extent that it become known as living “ship-to-mouth.”

Dr. Swaminathan built on the work of Norman E. Borlaug, an American botanist who launched the international Green Revolution by helping to make Mexico a self-sufficient producer of wheat in the 1940s and 1950s.

Applying Borlaug’s principles to Indian agriculture, Dr. Swaminathan introduced high-yield crop varieties, irrigation and fertilizers — essentially delivering industrial farming to India, particularly the states of Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh.

The annual wheat crop increased from 10 million tons in 1964 to 17 million tons in 1968. In an obituary for Borlaug, who died in 2009, the New York Times reported that the Indian wheat crop of 1968 was so great that schools were made into makeshift granaries.

“This infused a great deal of confidence,” Dr. Swaminathan told the publication the Indian Express, “because those were days when Indian farmers had been written off by very leading authorities.”

By the end of his career, although India continued to struggle for periods with drought and famine, it had become one of the world’s top producers of wheat and rice.

In 1987, Dr. Swaminathan was named the inaugural winner of the World Food Prize. He was quick to share credit with others, including Chidambaram Subramaniam, India’s minister for food and agriculture in the 1960s, and Borlaug, who received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970.

As the decades passed, the innovations of the Green Revolution, including the use of certain fertilizers and pesticides and the techniques of industrial farming, were criticized as damaging to the environment.

Dr. Swaminathan spoke and wrote of transforming the “Green Revolution” into an “Evergreen Revolution,” one that might allow agriculture to withstand the consequences of climate change and feed the world’s population in a sustainable way.

Mankombu Sambasivan Swaminathan was born in Kumbakonam, in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, on Aug. 7, 1925.

His mother was a homemaker, the Times reported in an obituary; his father was a prominent physician. Like his father, Dr. Swaminathan was a follower of Mohandas K. Gandhi, the leader of the anti-colonial movement that brought Indian independence from Britain in 1947.

“I believed I had to serve the nation,” Dr. Swaminathan once told Time magazine.

Dr. Swaminathan studied agriculture and plant genetics in Tamil Nadu and later in the Netherlands; in England, where he received a doctoral degree from the University of Cambridge in 1952; and in the United States, where he declined a professorship.

“I asked myself, why did I study genetics?” Dr. Swaminathan reflected. “It was to produce enough food in India. So I came back.”

His wife of more than six decades, Mina Swaminathan, died in 2022. Survivors include their three daughters, Soumya Swaminathan, Madhura Swaminathan and Nitya Rao.

In recent years, as India has continued to face food shortages and climate change brought new challenges to agriculture, Dr. Swaminathan recalled the words of President Franklin D. Roosevelt in his second inaugural address, amid the Depression.

“The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much,” he said. “It is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.”

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