Sep 26, 2019

Borlaug overrated?

Turns out M. S. Swaminathan actually did a lot of the heavy lifting to kick off the Green Revolution in India and Pakistan.

From Charles Mann's The Wizard and the Prophet:

The chapati is as much a part of daily life in much of South Asia as the baguette is part of daily life in France. It was such an emblem of Indian identity that it was used as a symbol of rebellion against the British in the nineteenth century. To South Asians, the whiteness of a chapati “suggested purity, luxury, even modernity” (I am quoting Cullather, the Indiana University historian).

Because most Indian and Pakistani families ground their wheat at home between two circular stones, bran was mixed in with the flour. With amber-colored wheat, the bran doesn’t change the color of the flour. The dark red bran in Mexican wheat produces dark flour, which to Indians has an aura of dirt and poverty. In addition, the texture of the bread and the feel of it in the mouth were wrong. Even the smell while it cooked was wrong.

For a Westerner, Iowa-born and -raised, to insist that Indians and Pakistanis make chapati with this strange Mexican wheat was as if a foreigner were demanding that French people make baguettes from pumpernickel. French people would regard the demand as a cultural affront. Similarly, the vice chancellor believed, South Asians would – and indeed should – reject this alien wheat.

Borlaug dismissed this kind of complaint as nit-picking. In none of his writing have I encountered any suggestion that this kind of “minutia” should be given more than “minor consideration.”

Borlaug seems to have viewed himself like a doctor faced with a patient’s arterial bleeding – and a patient who refuses treatment because he objects to the doctor’s nationality /or the color of the bandages. That doctor would ignore the complaints and slap on the bandages. As for the farmers, he did not believe that they would refuse to plant more-productive, disease-resistant grain because it had a different color or smell. Nor would hungry people refuse to eat it. The widespread adoption of Mexican wheat varieties in India and Pakistan, in his view, testified to the correctness of this idea.

Only when I spoke to Swaminathan did I learn of the sequel to the meeting in Pakistan. After the first tests of Mexican wheat, Swaminathan and his associates realized that it would not fit well into South Asian culture for the reasons identified by the Pakistani vice chancellor. Without telling anyone at Rockefeller, they began irradiating the Sonora wheat at the particle accelerator in Mumbai in November 1963, three months before the meeting in Pakistan. Nothing happened the first year.

The second year, Swaminathan got lucky. The color of wheat bran, we now know, is mainly controlled by four genes that are in turn switched on or off by a single gene known as R. By chance, the gamma rays passing through the seeds disabled some aspect of this mechanism; the bran color in the next, mutated generation was amber. Miraculously, its yield seemed to be unaffected.

A deft politician, Swaminathan called his new variety Sharbati Sonora – Sharbati is a celebrated traditional wheat variety from Madhya Pradesh. He introduced it with fanfare in 1967, emphasizing that Sharbati Sonora had been created by Indian scientists for Indian families in an Indian atomic-research facility.

The variety turned out to be vulnerable to rust. Nonetheless, Swaminathan had removed the foreign red tint from the Green Revolution. By crossbreeding Sharbati Sonora with other local varieties, Swaminathan was later able to develop rust-resistant cultivars that seemed wholly Indian. This was the wheat that transformed Indian agriculture, the methodological cousin of the rice that became entangled with the social conflicts witnessed by Boyce and Hartmann.