In memoriam: M.S. Swaminathan (1925-2023)
IUCN mourns the passing of Dr Mankombu Sambasivan Swaminathan, the renowned Indian agricultural scientist who served as President of IUCN from 1984 to 1990. He was 98 years old.
Dr Swaminathan made historic contributions to food production and security in the world, and promoted and advanced sustainable development policies that were informed by the communities they were meant to assist. He was a true and inspiring leader in the field of agriculture, environmental conservation, and inclusive development.
“M.S. Swaminathan wasn’t only a towering figure in his own field, but also a vital voice in discussions around conserving nature,” said Dr Grethel Aguilar, Acting Director General of IUCN. “He brought untold experience and wisdom to IUCN, all of which helped sharpen our resolve to do more to protect the environment and responsibly manage our natural resources. He will be greatly missed.”
Dr Swaminathan was born in India in 1925, and was spurred by the Bengal famine of 1943 to study agriculture, later focusing on the potato and rice. His research turned towards genetics, and he was instrumental in breeding new strains of wheat that sparked India’s Green Revolution and made the country far less reliant on agricultural imports – and dramatically increased access to food for millions of his countrymen and women.
He went on to roles as a government administrator and educator, serving as president of the International Rice Research Institute, where in 1987 he was awarded the first World Food Prize.
Speaking at the time, Mr Javier Pérez de Cuéllar, who served as the United Nations Secretary General, said: “Dr Swaminathan is a living legend. His contributions to agricultural science have made an indelible mark on food production in India and elsewhere in the developing world. By any standards, he will go into the annals of history as a world scientist of rare distinction.”
Mr Vivek Menon, IUCN’s Regional Councillor for South and East Asia, remembers Dr Swaminathan as “an agricultural scientist par excellence and a great contributor to India becoming self-reliant on food”.
Starting in 1984, he served in leadership roles for both IUCN and the World Wildlife Fund. He was the first Indian President in IUCN’s 75-year history, and only the second to come from the developing world.
During his tenure at IUCN, Dr Swaminathan raised alarms around how deforestation and climate change impact food yields in countries like India. The not-for-profit he created, the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation, continues to produce research and development on areas related to agriculture and biodiversity, pursuing what it calls “a pro-poor, pro-women and pro-nature approach”.
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