Indian scientist proves ‘good’ GM seeds have place in developing nations


Even in late March, the mid-day heat in subtropical Chennai, India, formerly called Madras, hovers near a Las Vegas-like 100 degrees.

As our big bus bounces on a pot-holed street that hasn’t seen repair since the first Gandhi, India’s ever-present Brahma cows nose through the ever-present trash along the road.

We jostle to a stop. On one side sits an abandoned factory surrounded by walls topped with shards of flesh-cutting glass shimmering in the glaring sun.

On the other side, a square of shaded, low buildings beckon.

Oasis. We enter it to find a courtyard oasis – tumbling water, green plants, swaying trees – that dampens the heat by 20 degrees.

A small, brown man in a dark, open-collar shirt steps briskly toward us. He is Monkombu Swaminathan and he welcomes us to the agricultural research foundation he established 16 years ago.

This is “an investment in the livelihood of the poor,” he explains as we stroll the perimeter of the center garden, “to mobilize the best technology to the reach the poorest of the poor. It is pro-nature, pro-women and pro-poor.”

India’s Borlaug. Swaminathan is India’s Norman Borlaug, the Iowa farmboy who became the father of the then-Third World’s Green Revolution.

Borlaug, the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize winner, was the scientific pile driver that developed new wheat and rice varieties which quickly quadrupled food production in the 1960s throughout hungry Asia and Latin America.

If Borlaug was the way, Swaminathan was the means.

Geneticist. As a young geneticist, he used Borlaug’s new seeds to turn India’s centuries-empty begging bowl into an overflowing breadbasket almost overnight.

That pivotal role earned him the first World Food Prize, an award initiated by Borlaug, in 1987.

A year later, Swaminathan used the prize’s $250,000 as seed to plant the research center in whose cool shade we now stand.

Ambition. The center has a simple, ambitious goal: to harness science and technology “for an environmentally sustainable and socially equitable” job-led economic growth of India’s rural areas.

An overarching theme is “people first, technology second,” Swaminathan stresses.

It is a natural progression on the intellectual trip Swaminathan began 40 years ago.

Revolution then and now. Science – plant breeding – then; science – genetically modified organisms, GMOs – now.

At first blush, GM seed technology appears incongruent with his sustainable, pro-nature, pro-women, pro-poor ag research philosophy.

Not at all, Swaminathan says.

India does have concerns with GMOs, he explains: food safety, intellectual property rights and “will the technology increase the rich-poor divide.”

In these contexts, “technologies that compound social problems are not needed,” he explains.

Dividing line. So there’s a dividing line somewhere – on one side, GMOs are welcome; on the other, they’re not?

“Yes,” he explains. “Bt cotton is good; Roundup Ready soy is not so good.”

Bt cotton is welcome because is it a sustainable, natural technology that addresses India’s insecticide-soaked cotton shortage which, in turn, could fuel the rise of a rural textile industry.

GM soy, however, is not as good because it replaces wage-earning, female weed pickers with more chemicals.

Indeed, GM seeds that do not “make an investment in the livelihoods of the poor” are unwelcome.

Gene isolation. To emphasize the divide, Swaminathan squires us into one of the foundation’s labs where researchers isolated the gene that allows mangrove trees to thrive in salt marshes.

The gene then was introduced to rice because he believes salt-tolerant crops will play an increasingly important role as global warming impacts developing nations’ future food supplies.

In short, a good GMO.

Awareness? If aware of these good/bad distinctions, global biotech companies aren’t addressing them.

They see GM sees as always-green, and they are pushing for the right to protect their patents and sell the seeds across the developing world.

The shoving won’t help because “one size does not fit all,” warns Swaminathan.

The nation, he has written, like much of the developing world, is positioned “to move forward with biotechnology,” but it will do so on its own terms.

It’s a very sensible approach from a very sensible, almost saintly, scientist.

(The author is a freelance ag journalist who lives in Delavan, Ill. He can be reached via e-mail at: Read his columns online at

© 2004 ag comm

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Alan Guebert was raised on an 800-acre, 100-cow southern Illinois dairy farm. After graduation from the University of Illinois in 1980, he served as a writer and editor at Professional Farmers of America, Successful Farming magazine and Farm Journal magazine. His syndicated agricultural column, The Farm and Food File, began in June, 1993, and now appears weekly in more than 70 publications throughout the U.S. and Canada. He and spouse Catherine, a social worker, have two adult children.