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Swaminathans: Illustrious dad, daughter come together for a healthier India

The 94-yr-old agricultural scientist M S Swaminathan is working with his daughter Soumya Swaminathan on projects which aim to grow crops that would make India healthy and hunger-free.

Aug 25, 2019, 10.54 AM IST
The Swaminthans (MS Swaminathan and Soumya Swaminathan) have often discussed how agriculture and health affect each other.
The last time agricultural scientist M S Swaminathan worked on a project with his daughter, Soumya, was when she won the national science talent test as a teenager in school. Her topic of choice was chromosomes, which was close to Swaminathan’s field of expertise, genetics.

Although her dad was her role model, Dr Soumya’s fascination was more with humans than plants. She joined the Armed Forces Medical College in Pune while Swaminathan was busy helping farmers increase their crop production. “I was happy she joined medicine. She fulfilled my father’s wish, Dr M K Sambasivan, who played a key role in bringing down incidence of filariasis,” said Swaminathan.

But after that they did little work together, since at that time no one thought agriculture was deeply connected to health. “I used to take her to the farms where I held discussions with farmers on their needs. But many of them would leave me and go to her because they needed a doctor more than an agricultural scientist,” he said. In the mid-1970s, when Swaminathan became the director-general of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) and later the principal secretary in the ministry of agriculture, Dr Soumya went on to do her masters at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences in New Delhi. She then travelled to the US on fellowships in paediatric pulmonology. Soon, she was heading the National Research Institute for Tuberculosis in Chennai.

Over the years, agriculturists who were once busy dealing with natural resource constraints, extreme weather conditions and pests realised they were being challenged by globalization, pollution, environmental degradation, labour loss and changing lifestyles. This brought them closer to health concerns, which had moved from the battle against HIV/AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis, and malnutrition to diseases such as cancer, heart attacks, depression and digital addiction. This stimulated a dialogue between the father and the daughter.

In 2015, when Dr Soumya became the director-general of the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), she connected back with her father, more than four decades after her school project, to bring back the culture of healthy eating.

“It re-established the connect between health and agriculture. The amount people spent on their food had increased substantially in the past few decades, but the quality of food had gone down. The biggest losers were in the 0-3 age group,” Dr Soumya said.

Together they developed intervention strategies to address the problem of undernutrition and hidden hunger. In the districts of Palghar in Maharashtra, Gorakhpur in Uttar Pradesh and Koraput in Odisha, ICMR, ICAR and Biotechnology Industry Research Assistance Council planned genetic gardens of bio-fortified plants. For this, where women were empowered with knowledge on nutrition.

“The integrated programme aimed at zero hunger districts,” Dr Soumya said. It may take some time before scientists see results from these ongoing projects, but interim studies done of women are showing signs of positive outcome.

Dr Soumya, went on to serve the World Health Organisation (WHO). Around the same time, ICMR also held discussions with scientists, including Swaminathan, on the need to increase millet cultivation.

Now, as chief scientist at WHO, Soumya has taken on the challenge of tackling the resurgence of communicable diseases and increasing incidence of non-communicable diseases such as cancer, heart disease and stroke. “More and more scientists have realised that it is necessary to work closely with agricultural scientists for prevention of many diseases,” she said.

While as a doctor, she primarily aimed at accessible and affordable food, her agriculturalist father said it was important to grow environment-friendly crops such as sweet potato (fortified with vitamin A) that consume less water and leave little carbon footprint. Thus began their work on the “climate smart” agriculture. “It’s the kind of cultivation where we use a balance of traditional and modern ways of farming,” Swaminathan said.

The Swaminthans have often discussed how agriculture and health affect each other. While nutritious food can make people healthy and reduce expenses on medicines, agricultural fields increase risks of water-related diseases such as malaria. It can also cause foodborne and zoonotic diseases and pesticide poisoning. When there is an epidemic or outbreak, it can lead to huge labour loss. At the end of their discussions, they often concluded that coordinating agriculture and health interventions can yield significant welfare benefits for India.

The traditional farming ways, he hopes, will bring healthy foods back to people’s plates, besides allowing him to brainstorm more with his daughter.

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