2014 World Food Prize laureate reflects on success in wheat genetics

By Jessica Vaughn

DES MOINES, Iowa — Sanjaya Rajaram, 2014 recipient of the World Food Prize, has had a profound impact on wheat production and genetics through his work with Norman Borlaug and other wheat scientists.

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Sanjaya Rajaram, recipient of the 2014 World Food Prize, speaks at a press conference on Thursday.

Rajaram has always been interested in agriculture, but his first fascination was with soil. Later he became enchanted by wheat and made bold strides in improving the cereal grain.

He spoke with reporters Thursday before receiving the prize.

In his early years of wheat studies, Rajaram worked at the University of Sydney with Professor Irvine Armstrong Watson on rust resistance. It was there that he found his first opportunity to work with Borlaug.

“I must have done very well there, because Irvine wanted me to go and work for two years with Dr. Borlaug before taking any other position anywhere,” he said.

Rajaram began working with Borlaug in 1969, and planned to return to India after finishing his post-doctoral fellowship to work with M.S. Swaminathan, Green Revolution geneticist and first recipient of the World Food Prize.

Borlaug had other plans.

“He offered me a job working hand in hand, learning; but also challenging him,” Rajaram said. “It was not easy to challenge Dr. Borlaug.”

Those challenges led to collaboration, and in 1973 Rajaram was appointed leader of Borlaug’s International Maize and Wheat Improvement Program, CIMMYT, where he held the title of global wheat breeder. His learning from Borlaug continued.

“One great thing I realized about Dr. Borlaug was that in military terms he was a soldier, a private, working in the front lines, but also he was a general, altogether in one,” Rajaram said. “He was always in the front lines. He always respected the science, but also embraced the hard work in the field.”

Rajaram continued Borlaug’s legacy through further improvement of wheat, and global expansion of the CIMMYT program. He developed more than 400 varieties of wheat and increased yield by about 30 percent.

He believes future generations will have a greater challenge than he and Borlaug faced during the Green Revolution. The goal of feeding 9 billion people by 2050 comes with the task of furthering crop genetic innovation and addressing post-harvest loss concerns in developing countries.

“People who are dying of starvation, it is not all because of the lack of food, but because they don’t have storage,” Rajaram said. “The hunger is linked to people not having buying power.”

Food waste and food loss in the developing world have been highlighted at this year’s conference. Although the losses cannot be fully remedied now, Rajaram and fellow scientists continue to improve the production side of the problem through genetic modification..

“This is a technology that we’ve never seen before,” Rajaram said. “We can move the gene wherever we want to. But we don’t want to do it that way, we want to do it in a very planned way. It has to be done very carefully, regulatory control has to be dealt with very clearly, and any effects on the environment have to be very well studied.”

Rajaram says his greatest successes came as a result of collaboration, and in feeding the world through genetic innovation.

“I can’t speak about my success without first talking about Dr. Borlaug,” Rajaram said.

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