It wasn’t too long ago that India’s food security needs depended on what was known as a “ship to mouth” existence: In the decades following independence, the Indian government depended on large shipments of wheat and other food grains, largely from the US,
to feed its starving millions. Intellectuals of the period such as the
Paddock brothers (authors of the book Famine 1975! American’s Decision: Who Will Survive?) and
Paul Ehrlich (author of
The Population Bomb) predicted mass starvation in India due to lack of agriculture productivity gains to keep up with an ever increasing population rate. A number of Indian farmers, entrepreneurs,
and policymakers vowed to overcome this expected catastrophe and were fortunate enough to have willing partners in private foundations, humanitarian
Norman Borlaug, and two devoted and passionate Indian men in particular: plant geneticist
M S Swaminathan and then Union Minister for Agriculture, C Subramanian. What started as a strong desire to change the status quo in agriculture resulted in a revolution that changed the country forever.
And as Africa deals with its own catastrophic droughts and resulting famine, and its response, I can’t help but think about my country and experiences growing up the grandson of a small farmer in India.
The revolution in response to the growing mass starvation is now known as ‘the Green Revolution’ in India. It involved a combination of better seeds and improved management, facilitated by the effective policies to dramatically raise yields and made the
country self-sufficient in food production. It was a partnership led by the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations and the efforts of Borlaug, Swaminathan, and Subramanian – the latter being instrumental in changing the policy environment – that helped make India
resilient and food secure.
But the true heroes of the Green Revolution were the millions of small-holders who sustained it. My grandfather is one of them. He was eager to contribute to this national mission and mitigate the risks of farming. To do so, he started a seed company
that would research, multiply, and distribute high quality, high yielding seeds to ensure higher food production in the farms around our village, Jalna, and beyond. I fondly remember that the dinner table at home often served as a showcase for the different
varieties of improved vegetables and crops produced through these efforts.
Growing up in Jalna myself, I was exposed to the numerous risks faced by farmers and continued to be impressed with their resilience. But, I never understood why Africa was left behind by the Green Revolution, and I wanted to learn how we could achieve the
same results in a more sustainable, environmentally friendly, manner. That was a strong motivation for me to spend my summer as an intern at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation on the Agriculture Development team, which strives to emulate the efforts of the
Ford and Rockefeller Foundation’s earlier work in Asia and Latin America.
During my time at the foundation, I’ve learned that farmers in Africa aren’t different from farmers elsewhere. They are as active, innovative, and perseverant – if not more – than their global counterparts. They do, however, face greater hurdles in the
form of drought, poor quality inputs and underdeveloped markets– but perhaps most importantly in the form of un-friendly government policies on agriculture. The sector is highly taxed and, on average, receives less than 10 percent of budget allocation, despite
the fact that it employs roughly half or more of the work-force.
Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) is one vehicle through which the foundation is trying to improve small-holder agricultural productivity in Africa in a sustainable manner. It is an impressive model
supported in partnership with the Rockefeller Foundation, and led by Africans. I experienced AGRA’s efforts first hand at the Foundation Seed Tour in Champaign, Illinois. The tour was organized to introduce representatives of the African agriculture community
to the policy environment, commercial seed sector, and agriculture university system of America so that they could then transfer any learning, where relevant, to their countries in Africa.
Interacting with AGRA’s partners from Nigeria, Ethiopia, and Tanzania remind me of my grandfather’s stories about how similar Rockefeller Foundation sponsored tours had served as a source of inspiration and technical expertise when he set out to start his
company. Such interactions can go a long way to unleashing a new sustainable Green Revolution in Africa that can lead to more resilience and food security – not only in Africa, but also globally. The time to act, however, is now. As the world continues to
struggle to feed a growing population, we must take some of the lessons learned from India and ensure that Africa is able to address its own hunger and poverty as well.
Editor's note: Professor MS Swaminathan shares his thoughts on the role of agricultural innovation in tackling undernutrition in India
on the latest podcast from the UK's Department for International Development (DFID). He was interviewed ahead of this week's
Global Hunger Event by DFID's Deputy Chief Scientific Adviser, Professor Tim Wheeler.