Dr. Sanjaya Rajaram honoured as 2014 World Food Prize Laureate

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The eminent plant scientist Dr Sanjaya Rajaram, born in India and a citizen of Mexico, will be honoured as the 2014 World Food Prize Laureate for his scientific research that led to a prodigious increase in world wheat production – by more than 200 million tonnes – building upon the successes of the Green Revolution. This is the first World Food Prize award to a wheat scientist since the establishment of the Foundation.

His breakthrough breeding technologies have had a far-reaching and significant impact in providing more nutritious food around the globe and alleviating world hunger. Dr Rajaram succeeded Dr Norman Borlaug in leading International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre (CIM- MYT)’s wheat breeding programme, and developed an astounding 480 wheat varieties that have been released in 51 countries on six continents and have been widely adopted by small- and large-scale farmers alike.

In announcing the name of the 2014 Laureate, Ambassador Kenneth M Quinn, President of the World Food Prize, in Washington on June 18, noted how highly appropriate it is to honour Dr Rajaram during the Borlaug Centennial Year.

“Dr Rajaram worked closely with Dr Borlaug, succeeding him as head of the wheat breeding programme at CIM- MYT in Mexico, and then carried forward and expanded upon his work, breaking new ground with his own invaluable achievements. His breakthrough breeding technologies have had a far-reaching and significant impact in providing more food around the globe and alleviating world hunger,” Quinn said. “Dr Borlaug himself called Dr Rajaram ‘the greatest present-day wheat scientist in the world’ and ‘a scientist of great vision.’ It is an honour to recognise Dr Rajaram today for his development of an astounding 480 varieties of wheat, bred to offer higher yields, resistance to the catastrophic rust disease, and that thrive in a wide array of climates.”

Born in a small village in India, Dr Rajaram worked to be the top in his class as he moved through school, and dedicated his life to making direct improvements for farmers and all people who depend on agriculture. Now a citizen of Mexico, Dr Rajaram conducted the majority of his research in Mexico at the CIMMYT. His work there led to a prodigious increase in world wheat production during the 25-year-period known as the “golden years of wheat”.

Dr Rajaram succeeded Dr Norman Borlaug in leading CIMMYT’s wheat breeding programme. His crossing of winter and spring wheat varieties, which were distinct gene pools that had been isolated from one another for hundreds of years, led to his development of plants that have higher yields and dependability under a wide range of environments around the world.

As the World Food Prize celebrates the centennial year of his mentor, Dr Norman Borlaug, as well as the UN- FAO’s International Year of Family Farming, it is especially fitting that we recognise the impact of Dr Rajaram’s achievements.

Quinn also noted the importance of carrying forward the great work of leaders such as Dr Borlaug and Dr Rajaram as we endeavour to feed our growing population.

In an email interview with Ayesha Siddiqui of BioSpectrum Asia, sister publication of NuFFooDS Spectrum, Dr Sanjaya Rajaram shared his views on many issues ranging from his interaction with Dr Borlaug to GM technology and to shuttle breeding. Excerpts:


Congratulations on winning the World Food prize. You have made India Proud. This is the first World Food Prize award given to a wheat scientist since the establishment of the Foundation. Your Comments.


This is the first World Food Prize award since the establishment of the Foundation. I am indeed very happy to receive this award. However, I must clarify that I would be receiving this prize on behalf of all wheat researchers and wheat farmers who have been associated with me. I do share your sentiment that India should take some pride in this regard.


How was it to work with Dr Norman Borlough? What role has he played in your research work and overall professional journey?

Dr Norman Borlaug hired me in 1969 as post-doctoral fellow just after I finished my PhD programme from Sydney, Australia. I joined his wheat programme in May 1969. I was only 27 years young at that time. If you know the culture of Mexico that it so different from ours as regards to food habit, language and the religious belief. To make some headway I needed to adapt to Mexican culture, so you can see there were lot of inner conflict as to what I wanted. At the same time, opportunity to work with Dr Norman Borlaug was very enticing. I decided that I would work with Dr Borlaug and his team for some years and can get some experience and after that pursuing a career somewhere in non-Latin American countries including India.

So I decided to work with his team whole heartedly and started contributing to the broader goals of wheat pro- duction and productivity worldwide which Dr Norman has the objective. Dr Borlaug was a very hard task master. It was not easy for an Indian young scientist to adapt his way of working. He was straight shooter for his objective and he wanted everybody lined up for the same objective. Pursuing a freelancing career in his programme was not possible. However, I felt his mission was very noble, he was openly talking about humanity and wheat production. He was appearing to be a politician at that time, and also came from a small farmer background.

His philosophy of work was field oriented application of science, which meant many times sweating in the field, getting your boot dirty, and the long hours. So you can see challenging as the situations were and one needed to adapt to such rules if you wanted to be a team member of Dr Borlaug and of course I did. Not expanding this part very much we became great colleagues and good friends. However, at times differing in our philosophy and our ap- proach in achieving the final goals.

In summary, he inspired me a lot in pursuing my career in International Agriculture, which is more service to farmers than ivory tower research and doing some academic narrow field research.


What inspired you to study agriculture science?

I come from small farming background in the district of Varanasi in a village called Raipur. These are all farming community. However I must confess that I was not interested in the beginning in agriculture. As I moved to the secondary school I was interested in Sanskrit language. What that means I really didn’t know. Later on I moved towards intermediate schooling I got fascinated with Mathematics, Chemistry, Physics and Geography and I was very much a top student in these subjects.

I became inspired to Agriculture Science because I met few professors, who talk- ed about good agronomy especially green manuring and consequently increasing the production. I must say agriculture to me was my village. Later on I pursued interest in soil chemistry, by some default I got interested and entered into plant breeding at Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI), New Delhi. Eventually pursued the wheat breeding in University of Sydney for my Doctoral degree.world seems to be split in opinion.


But we are keen to know what your thoughts on GM crops are?

Basically I am pro GM technology in developing countries provided we have established sufficient safeguards so that it does not have secondary spillover effects on environment and other on biological ecosystem. Having said that I do worry the GM technology is mostly in the advanced countries controlled by agri-business companies. Some way we need to share these technologies by purchasing or by free exchange. I strongly believe that it will help advancing crop production in India. At the same time GM technology should be inclusive with technological advancement in India in crop care, nutrients, water and soil management.


What is your observation on the overall scenario of agriculture?

In regards to this point, I would limit my observation in relation to wheat R&D and its application up to the farmer level. I believe, we have done very well reflecting the production and productivity rise since green revolution period to 2013. Our wheat production goes from 10-11 million metric tonnes to 95 million metric tonnes. This is almost nine times increase in wheat production. I believe other crops have experienced similar rise. However, by 2030, India would require additional 20-25 million metric tonnes. This scenario is very challenging to both the farmers and policy makers. However, it can be done provided we have sufficient funding for R&D and timely availability of inputs to the farmers and their training.


What are the key technology trends that can bring about the next revolution in agriculture?

Agricultural technology is a continuous process. However, time-to-time it required re-focusing on certain issues which can be very catalystic in enhancing the food production. Largest investment would be needed in hybrid wheat production technology, redefining especially micro nutrient balance in our soil, major investment in creating modern silo system for storage, water conservation technology etc. Seed production system has also to be revisited through private sector intervention.


What are the challenges that you foresee?

The biggest constraint I see is that of proper financial resourcing for R&D. I strongly believe that public sector involvement sharing some of the burdens is highly warranted.


Would you please shed some light on ‘shuttle breeding’? How is it helpful in agriculture development?

It is breeding technical word which implies that we grow germplasm for evaluation in two contrasting environment such testing in Ludhiana in highly favourable environment and the resulting progenies of the same material is taken to Himalaya’s foothill and the Nilgiris in the summer season. The system allows genetic constellation in a single variety for adaptation to a wide range of conditions. Shuttle breeding terminology was borrowed from shuttle diplomacy which was carried by Dr Henery Kissinger, between Pakistan and China which led to the opening of China to US and the World.

’Scientist of Great Vision’

Dr Sanjaya Rajaram, receiving World Food Prize is very significant in more than one way. First it is a person brought up in a small farming family from UP will be re- ceiving the award in the year which is UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation’s International year of family farming. And secondly, the prize will be presented to a scientist who worked closely with Noble Laureate and father of Green Revolution, Dr Norman Borlaug, in the year which is being celebrated as birth centenary. And again the prize initiated by Dr Borlaug is getting awarded to his close associate.

Work of agro scientists like Dr Rajaram is highly significant when the world is on the threshold of food shortage crisis as the growing world population would need

70% more food but the limited availability of land and water would restrict the production to a great extent. This is the time for a second green revolution, agriculture experts in the world feel. Dr Rajaram feels it is possible to overcome the crisis with the utilisation of advanced genetics and pooling the resources from research centres, governments, foundations, NGOs and farmers groups to synergize future agriculture technologies. His vision carries a weight as he has actually shown increase in production through his work. For Dr Rajaram though this prize is a big achieve- ment, his real award was long back when Dr Borlaug in a personal note to him described him as “greatest present-day scien- tist in the world… and a scientist of great vision.”

 

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