Last week, one of the architects of India’s agricultural revolution passed away at the age of 98. So in today’s Finshots, we decided to look back on India’s tryst with high-yielding crop varieties.

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The Story

In 1943, India was ravaged by a famine in the Bengal region. Over 3 million people lost their lives due to starvation.

But this event triggered a young man named M S Swaminathan. He was just getting ready to enrol himself at medical school but at the last minute, he changed tracks. He joined an agricultural course in Coimbatore. And the reason for that, you ask? He felt this was the best way to contribute to a soon-to-be independent India.

And let’s just say that it’s a good thing he did because this man went on to revolutionise Indian farming.

You see, back then India suffered from an acute food shortage partly due to the colonial hangover. We were dependent on foreign aid for imports of wheat. The ships would land on our shores with grains and they would directly go to feed the people. We didn’t have anything to store for a rainy day. And they called it a “ship-to-mouth’ existence. Things were quite dire.

But things changed radically in the 1960s — suddenly, India’s wheat production nearly doubled between 1965 and 1970.

But how did Dr Swaminathan achieve this massive feat, you ask?

In one simple word — crossbreeding.

He figured that the only way to bring about a change was by tweaking the genes and manipulating the various varieties of wheat. Give them the superpower of being more responsive to fertilizers and water. And even to reduce their height to deal with something called ‘lodging’. The thing that happens when the root or stem breaks down because of the height. And all this reduced yield drastically. The only way that Dr Swaminathan and his team could counter it was by making a dwarf-like variety of the crop.

But wait…we have to admit that this actually wasn’t his brainwave or creation.

In fact, the seeds of this revolution were sown across the seas in Mexico. In the 1940s, an American scientist named Norman Borlaug was hard at work creating his own strain of these dwarf varieties. These offered better yields while also being disease resistant. And it’s this Mexican variant that eventually became the catalyst for India’s green revolution.

You see. Dr Swaminathan had seen Borlaug’s work and invited him over to India to learn about it and collaborate. India was convinced the seeds would work. And soon we began to import this Mexican dwarf variety.

The end result?

We had a bumper crop in 1968. We didn’t have a place to store the surplus and we used schools and theatres to stock it. India’s green revolution had begun.

But it didn’t end there. Mexico transferred the technological know-how to India too. That way, Indian scientists could put their heads down and create even better derivatives of the crop. Ones that were more resistant to diseases and more suited to India’s climate. And by 1969, 35% of the land for wheat cultivation in India was earmarked for this genetically modified crop.

We went from producing just 10–12 million tonnes of wheat in a year in the early 1960s, to over 110 million tonnes today! Simultaneously, we embarked upon a similar endeavour to solve the rice shortage problem too. We were focused on these high-yield dwarf varieties. And because Dr Swaminathan helmed matters during those tumultuous times, he earned the moniker of “the father of the green revolution.”

But hey, all good things have a bad side to it, right? And that’s the same thing with the green revolution too.

And it’s not us saying it, but Dr Swaminathan sounded a prescient warning way back in 1968. He sounded the alarm by saying that if farmers didn’t focus on soil fertility, we could see desertification of land. And that rampant use of pesticides and sucking out groundwater could lead to a doomsday scenario.

That brings us to today and the significant fallout from this indiscriminate use of fertilizers — especially the heady concoction based on nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium (NPK).

Research suggests that a desirable mix of NPK has to be in the ratio of 4:2:1. But in our quest to keep beefing up output, we amped up fertilizer use and the soil now boasts NPK of 7:2:4. In agricultural heavy states like Punjab, things are even worse — the ratio is at 31:8:1. And a 2019 report sounded an even more ominous proclamation — Nitrogen levels were at “alarming levels” with soil health taking a turn for the worse. Sure the excess fertilizers will help boost output in the short term. But if the trend persists then the soil may turn toxic. That’s pretty bad for food security.

So yeah, while we’ve had one green revolution already, in the words of Dr Swaminathan, today we need an “evergreen revolution” — one that combines science with ecology. One that’s sustainable. And maybe someone else will pick up the baton now that he’s passed. We need someone to solve today’s problems.

Until then…

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