TOP FOOD SCIENTIST PUBLISHED FALSE DATA
By Joseph Hanlon
New Scientist, London, Vol. 64, No. 922, pp. 436-37
(reproduced from Self-Immolation of a Scientist – A memoir to Dr. Vinod H Shah)
False claims for a new strain of wheat were made for more than two years by India's top food scientist, Dr. M.S. Swaminathan. His spectacular claims for simultaneous lysine and protein increases were important both in winning Dr. Swaminathan the $10000 Ramon Magsaysay Award and in shifting food research funds to the highly controvercial area of radiation mutations.
The story is well known in plant breeding circles, but has been kept quiet until now. Not only is there fear of retribution from the powerful Swaminathan, but some scientists sincerely believe that the harm done by Swaminathan's exaggerated claims is small compared with the good he has done in helping to bring the Green Revolution to India.
Indeed, the story might never have come out had it not been for the suicide of a senior agronomist of Swaminathan's staff, Dr. V. H. Shah, and the unremitting campaign of a retired FAO scientist, Dr. Ronald A. Silow.
Dr. Monkombu Sambasivan Swaminathan is the 49 year old director-general of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) and is highly influential in the world food community. He is the Chairman of a panel formed by FAO (UN Food and Agriculture Organisation)last year to advise member governments on "Food Production Technology and the Achievement of Social Goals", is a member of the Technical Advisory Committee to the Consultative Group on Agricultural Research which distributes through FAO more than £ 10 million per year in research funds, and is a member of the UN protein advisory group. Finally, he is a member of the board of Trustees of CIMMYT, the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre in Mexico run by Nobel Peace Prize winner Dr. Norman Borlaug.
The story starts in 1963, when-Borlaug was distributing the dwarf wheat varieties that were to win him the Nobel Prize in 1970. Dwarf varieties were the foundation of the green revolution: tall plants collapsed if the grain head was made bigger, but short plants did not, so that with dwarf varieties more fertiliser and water could be used and yield could be more than doubled.
In 1963, India received several dwarf wheats and one, Sonora 64, proved highly suitable for late sowing. But it had a drawback. It was red rather than the amber preferred in India, and thus gave the chapati (bread) an unacceptable colour, which meant a lower price.
To solve this, in November 1963, a team headed by Swaminathan at the Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI) subjected some Sonora-64 seeds to a combination of gamma radiation and ultraviolet light. In 1967, Swaminathan made the spectacular announcement that one of the mutants produced had, with one dose of radiation, been made better in four different ways.
Not only was the new wheat, called Sharbati Sonora, the required amber, but it was higher in both protein and lysine than its parent Sonora 64 and had better baking qualities. Lysine is an amino acid that is high in animal protein but low in plant protein, and thus often deficient in vegetarian diets.
In October 1967 Swaminathan told a New Delhi symposium that the protein content of Sharabati Sonora was nearly comparable with milk protein with regard to lysine content. The next month in an article in the Food Industries Journal (November 1967, p. 4) he said that the lysine percentage of protein in Sharbati Sonora was 4-61 per cent—not the 7-8 per cent he gave for milk, but still two-and-a-half times the 1-86 percent he reported for Sonora-64. Further, he noted that while Sonora-64 had 14 per cent protein, Sharbati Sonora had 16-5 per cent protein. In his paper he noted that the human brain does not properly develop if the child does not get enough protein before tire age of four, and thus Sharbati Sonora and similar grains "offer the least expensive and immediately practicable way of diminishing the threat of intellectual dwarfism."
Not only was the announcement important to "India, but it was also politically important on the world food scene. It showed that Third World Scientists could combine the best products of the green revolution with the most sophisticated nuclear technology and produce something even the US experts thought impossible. And it gave a vital boost to the FAO/International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) joint Division of Atomic Energy in Food and Agriculture, which was coming under increasing attack for producing no results and wasting its nearly £1 million per year budget.
But problems had already begun. The same month Swaminathan's article appeared, the IARI received a letter from Professors Edwin Mertz and Oliver Nelson of Purdue University, the two men who developed high lysine maize. Their analysis showed virtually no lysine difference: Sharbati Sonora had 2-6 per cent and Sonora-64 had 2-5 per cent. A similar test at about the same-time at the University of Nebraska showed Sharbati Sonora to actually have slightly less lysine than Sonora-64.
In three papers in 1968, Swaminathan's claims were toned dov/n, but only somewhat. He claimed 3 per cent lysine for Sharbati Sonora, compared with 2-2-3 per cent for Sonora-64.
CIMMYT : "No Difference"
Finally, the CIMMYT News (July-August 1969) reported that “in no case was there a significant difference between the normal varieties and the mutation." Not only was the lysine about the same (2-9 percent), but so was total protein (14-6 per cent for Sonora-64; 14-25 per cent for Sharbati Sonora).
Borlaug had spoken, and that was it as far as western food scientists were concerned. Last month, Dr. Erna Bannet, a Genetic Conservation Officer of the FAO and a winner of the American Genetics Association Medal, declared flatly that "the claims for Sharbati Sonora have all been demonstrated to be false."
Yet, nine months after the CIMMYT News Report, in April 1970, Swaminathan submitted his 1967 Food Industries Journal paper to the short-lived pergam on journal Plant Foods for Human Nutrition. Containing the most extreme claim of two-and-a-half times the lysine, it was published in January 1971 (Vol. 2, p. 89) with no indication that it had been published in another journal more than three years earlier.
And on 7 August 1971, Swaminathan won the Ramon Magsaysay Award off 10000 "for his contribution as scientist, educator of both students and farmers, and administrator toward generating a new confidence in India's agricultural capabilities." The Magsaysay Foundation specifically noted that "Swaminathan recently developed a dwarf wheat variety, Sharbati Sonora, with amber grain containing 16-5 per cent of protein and 3 per cent of lysine. This is now alleviating the deficiency of essential amino acids in the Indian diet so harmful particularly to brain development in young children."
Ironically, by that time Sharbati Sonora was well on the way out. According to CIMMYT'S Dr. Glenn Anderson, both Sharbati Sonora and Sonora-64 are susceptible to rust, and in the late 1960s were almost completely replaced by rust resistant strains from CIMMYT. And Borlaug himself noted three years ago that Sharbati Sonora "has played no significant .role in the Green Revolution in India."
Swaminathan became director-general of the ICAR, which oversees the IARI and other research institutes, on 13 January 1972. Probably the whole Sharbati Sonora story would then have been forgotten had it not been for the suicide four months later of Dr. Vinod H. Shah, the third ICAR suicide in 12 years. In a 600 word suicide note, Shah wrote, "I think the time has come again that a scientist will have to sacrifice his life in disgust so that other scientists may get proper treatment."
The suicide was front page news and caused a substantial protest in Parliament. The government was forced to appoint an inquiry committee to investigate ICAR. Although the bulk of Shah's complaints were over promotion policies, he also said in his note (addressed to Swaminathan) that "a lot of unscientific data are collected and passed on to you to fit your line of thinking." The committee investigated not only several cases cited by Shah, but also four allegations of "exaggerated claims" put forward by the ICAR including the lysine content of Sharbati Sonora that came up in Parliamentary debate.
The Committee's report was published in August 1973. It concluded that "the claim that Sharbati Sonora has high lysine content is not substantiated. The report noted that the CIMMYT data were made available in India at the All India Wheat Workshop in August 1969. "It was resolved in that meeting that the lysine content should be verified.... It is very surprising and indeed regrettable that no wheat of this variety was sent during the past three years... for analysis."
A special technical advisory panel was highly critical of Swaminathan's publication of widely varying lysine figures, and especially of his publication of the highest value nearly a year after the CIMMYT data were well known in India.
What Went Wrong ?
The history of the lysine content seems deeply enmeshed in the troubles of the Indian science bureaucracy. It is generally agreed that the first erroneous lysine measure occurred because a newly established analytical laboratory had difficulty with this complex test. "That initial report probably started with whole miserable mess," commented Professor Nelson. "After trumpeting the triumph of nuclear energy applied to plant improvement, no one was willing to admit that the report was erroneous."
The advisory panel to the committee investigating ICAR noted that Dr. Y. P. Gupta, who worked on the lysine measurement, seriously disputed the data published by Swaminathan, and that in October 1968 his Head of Division "deliberately changed" a report of the lysine content of Sonora-64 from 3-26 per cent to 2-26 per cent "so that Sharbati Sonora might appear in a more favourable light."
"Many junior scientists in IARI rightly or wrongly, feel that they are not free to publish a scientific finding because it does not suit somebody higher up or that in fact unscientific data are being passed on to the higher authorities in return of favours and promotions," warned the panel.
"The phenomenon is not confined to ICAR" it continued. "Barring minor exceptions, it pervades the entire scientific and academic community in this country. At the root bf it is the greed for bureaucratic power and love of a comfortable life which afflicts this class."
On an international level, the most dramatic effect of Sharbati Sonora was to save the flagging FAO/IAEA atomic energy programme. An article favourable to the programme in 1970 in New Scientist (Vol. 45, p. 450), declared that Swaminathan's "teaip has been one of the most successful in applying the induced mutation technique."
''Unfortunately, many of the data used to convince governments of the value of (nuclear) mutation breeding were based on the ill-founded case of Sharbati Sonora," wrote Borlaug three years ago. "This over-sell or over-kill by the International Atomic Energy Agency has resulted in an imbalance and unwise allocation of resources by governments of a number of developing nations. Not only has an unrealistically large portion of the total research budgets of these countries been committed to mutation breeding, but many of the best scientists have been siphoned off into these programmes. This disease is now spreading to many of the smaller developing countries.
Radiation mutation does have some successes under its belt, primarily dwarf stature, some widely used breeding stock was produced this way. But opponents of the way the programme is operated, such as Si low (deputy director of the joint FAO/IAEA division until 1966), argue that it is much cheaper to search for natural dwarfs. Borlaug still uses natural dwarfs, and a world search for high lysine barley and sorghum breeding stock Iras been extremely successful.
"If one tenth of the money that was spent on mutation breeding was spent on searching for genetic variation that already exists, then plant breeding would have gone a great deal further," declared FAO's Dr. Erna Bennet.
Perhaps the final irony is that Sharbati Sonora may not be a radiation mutation at all. CIMMYT uses Sharbati Sonora as a breeding stock in place of Sonora-64, treating it as a single gene mutant of Sonora-64 different only in colour. Some such mutations occur naturally, and it could well be that a natural mutation showed up in the irradiated Sonora-64 seeds independently of the gamma rays.
Support For Swaminathan
Despite the widespread acceptance in the plant breeding community that Swaminathan published false data and that -they had a deleterious effect by encouraging support for radiation mutation research, Swaminathan is still one of the most influential Third World Food scientists and retains surprising support.
"Swaminathan is the best agriculturalist in India. He is one of the most organised men I have ever seen in bringing together separate pieces of information and pulling out the useful bits," declared Anderson. He has been especially important in organising research and obtaining funding.
Professor Ralph Riley, director of the Plant Breeding Institute in Cambridge, had Swaminathan as a research student in the early 1950s. "He is an extremely able man," who did "a good piece of research" then on potato genetics. As a scientist, "his analysis of mutation has improved our understanding of wheat." But his "major contribution to India is the drive he gave to getting Mexican varieties taken up in India, and especially in getting these varieties so widely adopted so quickly."
And Borlaug declared that "Undoubtedly, Swaminathan is -the most talented biological scientist in India. He is extremely influential at all levels of government—and his influence for good greatly outweighs any shortcomings."
The questions remain. Should Swaminathan be excused because he is "an able scientist who overstretched himself and published inadequately supervised work done by graduate students," as Riley argues? Or is it, as Silow argues dangerous "to have sitting on the highest level advisory bodies a scientist who has so extensively published so much non valid science in those very fields" ?