50 years of dwarf wheat research
Mar 20 2013
The Bengal Famine (1942-43) provided the backdrop to our independence. Average yields were below 1 t/ha in wheat and rice. Because of tall and thin straw, the then cultivated varieties were not responding well to fertiliser or irrigation. Dr K Ramaiah, the first director of the central rice research institute (CRRI), Cuttack, proposed that we should transfer genes for fertiliser response from japonica to indica varieties. This was the beginning of the breeding of high yielding varieties, which subsequently led to what was termed by Dr William Gaud of the US in 1968 as “the green revolution”. I worked at CRRI, Cuttack on the indica-japonica hybridisation programme for some time in 1954. In late 1954, I joined the staff of the Botany Division of IARI. I mentioned to Dr B P Pal, who was then the director of IARI, my desire to work on semi-dwarf and fertiliser responsive varieties of wheat, using multiple research strategies, including radiation induced erectoides mutants. He warmly supported my proposal and mentioned that breeding wheat varieties, which can respond to fertiliser application, was the need of the hour. In 1955, I learnt from Dr H Kihara, the famous Japanese wheat scientist that Dr Gonziro Inazuka of the Norin experiment station in Japan has semi-dwarf varieties with long panicles and that these were being used by Dr Orville Vogel in Pullman, Washington State, in his winter wheat breeding programme. I wrote to Dr Vogel and he was kind enough to send seeds of the semi-dwarf variety Gaines. He, however, also wrote that being winter wheat, Gaines may not flower in Delhi. He, therefore, suggested that I approach Dr Norman Borlaug in Mexico who had incorporated the same dwarfing genes in a spring wheat background. I had met Dr Borlaug in 1953 at Madison, Wisconsin, when he delivered an interesting lecture on ‘Multi-line Breeding in Wheat’ for imparting enduring resistance to stem, leaf and stripe rusts. I wrote to Dr Borlaug in 1962 requesting him to send a wide range of breeding material containing the Norin dwarfing genes. He promptly replied offering to send the seeds, but he expressed a desire to visit India to study the growing conditions before making a set for being sent to me. His visit materialised in March, 1963, when he and I travelled all over the wheat belt in north India.
In September 1963, Dr Borlaug sent seeds of both finished varieties and segregating population. The segregating material helped us to breed outstanding semi-dwarf varieties like Kalyan Sona and Sonalika, possessing amber grains and good yield potential. In contrast, the Mexican dwarf wheats had red grains. Kalyan Sona and Sonalika proved to be very popular with farmers. Consumers liked their chapati making quality. I organised a large number of national demonstrations in the fields of small farmers to enable them to see for themselves the new opportunities available for increasing yield and income. In 1964-65, when it became obvious from the multi-location trials conducted with the semi-dwarf varieties sent by Dr Borlaug that we could achieve a major yield breakthrough, I devised a two pronged strategy for purchasing time in terms of seed multiplication. The two-pronged strategy comprised, first, organising the Jounti village of Delhi as a seed village. In 1967, Indira Gandhi visited the Jounti seed village and inaugurated the Jawahar-Jounti seed cooperative.
The second aspect of the strategy was to get bulk quantities of seeds from Mexico. In 1966, we had wanted to import seeds of the desired varieties from Mexico. C Subramaniam and prime ministers Lal Bahadur Sastri and Indira Gandhi accepted our recommendation for the import of 200 tonnes and 18,000 tonnes of seeds of Lerma Rojo and Sonara 64 in 1965 and 1966, respectively. These imports were done as part of our “Purchase time” strategy.
In 1968, about four million tonnes of additional wheat became available due to the high yielding varieties programme. Most of this belonged to the red grain Mexican variety Lerma Rojo. The Agricultural Prices Commission recommended a difference of Rs 5 per quintal between red and amber grain varieties. It was clear that such a difference would dissuade farmers from growing the Mexican varieties during the following year. I mentioned to Dias, who was the then food secretary, that we should announce a uniform support price for amber and red grain varieties. He was kind enough to take me to the then minister, Jagjivan Ram in his chamber in parliament to explain the reasons why we should have a uniform purchase price. After hearing me, Jagjivan Ram announced in parliament, a uniform minimum support price of .65 per quintal for all wheat varieties. This one decision of Jagjivan Ram played a catalytic role in spreading the new high yielding varieties on a large scale during rabi 1968-69 and in subsequent years. Meanwhile, we had intensified our work in developing new varieties with the desired culinary quality. I captured the enthusiasm of farmers in the following words in my article on the Punjab Miracle published in The Illustrated Weekly of India (May 11, 1969) “Brimming with enthusiasm, hard-working, skilled and determined, the Punjab farmer has been the backbone of the revolution. Revolutions are usually associated with the young, but in this revolution, age has been no obstacle to participation. Farmers, young and old, educated and uneducated, have easily taken to the new agronomy.
It has been heart-warming to see young college graduates, retired officials, ex-armymen, illiterate peasants and small farmers queuing up to get the new seeds. At least in the Punjab, the divorce between intellect and labour, which has been the bane of our agriculture is vanishing”.
To sum up, the seeds of the green revolution were sown in the fields of the central rice research institute, Cuttack in the early 1950s through the indica-japonica hybridisation programme. Research on semi-dwarf, non-lodging varieties was started at IARI in the mid-nineteen fifties. The arrival and assistance of Dr Norman Borlaug in 1963 helped to accelerate our dwarf wheat breeding programme and purchase time in launching a yield revolution. The wheat improvement and production programmes were entirely conceived, planned and executed by us. We achieved rapid progress and proved the prophets of doom wrong only because we could achieve synergy among packages of technology, services and public policies.
(M S Swaminathan is an agricultural scientist who led India’s green revolution )