Blog In Memory of Professor Swaminathan

The Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT pays tribute to one of its founding fathers and strongest advocates for the conservation of agrobiodiversity and its sustainable use: Professor Mankombu Sambasivan Swaminathan, who died peacefully at his home in Chennai, India on 28th September, aged 98.

The endless list of national and international awards in his name – including the first World Food Price in 1987, the UN Equator Initiative Award in 2002, India’s Genome Saviour Award in 2007, and the 84 honorary doctorate degrees – show the incommensurable tribute paid to him globally over the years. His contribution to the advancement of Agricultural Science is unparalleled. He is popularly known as being one of the fathers of the Green Revolution, and for the development of high-yielding wheat varieties which saved millions of people from starvation. However, he has also left behind a legacy of innovative approaches to food production, which he named the ‘Evergreen Revolution’: a ‘systems approach’ inspired by a respect for biodiversity (that he called biohappines), and for people – especially women – at the forefront of conservation efforts, as he passionately reiterated in many talks. 

His work has guided policymakers in improving equity in farmers’ rights, and highlighting their role as invaluable custodians of plant genetic resources and indigenous knowledge. At the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation – the institution he established in 1988 – he built the Italian-supported G.T. Scarascia Mugnozza Genetic Resources Centre to conserve 100s of heirloom seed varieties on behalf of Indian communities, and facilitate closer participation of farmers in plant breeding activities. Likewise, he was our best advocate for in situ/on-farm conservation, which he regarded as highly complementary to ex situ conservation, a critical measure he stressed for the maintenance of ecological integrity in both common crops and their wild relatives. To put advocacy into practice he established field stations across India to help local populations – especially the more disadvantaged communities – to conserve biodiversity whilst generating incomes. “Conservation, cultivation, consumption, and commercialization” –  the ‘4Cs’ proposed by him – have become the mantra of a new paradigm that blends conservation and development for sustainable farming: A task followed today by countless organizations across the world. 

Swaminathan was also one of our founding Fathers, as he was instrumental in establishing the IBPGR, our first predecessor. Back in 1972 at Beltsville, USA, he chaired the meeting of leading scientists whose recommendations led the establishment of the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources “to promote and assist in the worldwide effort to collect and conserve the plant germplasm needed for future research and production”. Since then, through the MSSRF Swaminathan has been one of our closest and most active partners, especially in the promotion of neglected and underutilized species, which he referred to as ‘orphan crops’, highlighting the insufficient attention given to these species by researchers and policymakers alike. 2023 has been named the International Year of Millet, but this would not have come about if it were not for the work of Professor Swaminathan. 

Prof. M.S Swaminathan won’t be with us anymore, and he will be greatly missed. However, his legacy of ideas and techniques for sustainable agriculture and rural livelihoods remains, and is carried forward by the millions of scholars across the world to whom he has been an inspirational guide, mentor and fatherly figure. 

The Alliance extends its deepest condolences to the Swaminathan family.

Discover more about this thought leader's contributions to India's Green Revolution here.

Credits for header photo: MSSRF