Indian-Mexican agricultural expert, Dr. Sanjaya Rajaram, was awarded the Padma Bhushan after his death. He created wheat varieties that are grown by small and large farmers in 51 nations.
Dr. Sanjaya Rajaram, who died on February 17, 2021, at his home in Ciudad Obregón, a city in Mexico’s Sonora department, was one of the most remarkable agricultural experts of our time.
Building on the success of the Green Revolution, his research has resulted in the development of 480 wheat varieties grown by small and large farmers in 51 countries spanning six continents, resulting in an increase in world production of more than 200 million tonnes.
In January 2022, the Indian government posthumously awarded him the Padma Bhushan, the third-highest civilian honour, in recognition of his tremendous success.
According to the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), his wheat varieties are produced on over 58 million hectares around the world and have saved starvation in various parts of the world.
In 1972, Rajaram was only 29 years old when he took over CIMMYT’s wheat breeding programme from Nobel Laureate Dr Norman Borlaug. He worked with the organisation for 33 years and then joined the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas. During those 33 years, Rajaram served as Director of the Global Wheat Program (ICARDA) for seven years. In 2008, he formally retired from his official duties.
What distinguishes the 480 wheat varieties he developed is their “improved production potential and stability, as well as wide adaptation and resistance to significant diseases and stresses.”
CIMMYT says Rajaram’s varieties have boosted the production potential of wheat by 20 to 25%.” In 2014, Rajaram was awarded the World Food Prize for “crossing of winter and spring wheat types, which were different gene pools that had been isolated from one another for hundreds of years.”
Rajaram was born in 1943 in a humble family near Raipur, a small farming community in Varanasi district, Uttar Pradesh. His family made a living by cultivating wheat, maize, and rice on their 5-hectare farm. He was a talented student who got a scholarship to attend high school before going on to the University of Gorakhpur, where he earned a BSc in agriculture.
Following graduation, he earned a master’s degree at the Indian Agricultural Research Institute in New Delhi, where he studied genetics and plant breeding under Dr. MS Swaminathan, who is well-known for his contribution in India’s Green Revolution.
Following his master’s degree, he travelled to Australia on a scholarship to pursue his PhD in plant breeding at the University of Sydney.
He met with Dr. IA Watson, who had been a graduate student at the University of Minnesota with Dr. Norman Barlaug. Dr Watson was the one who recommended Rajaram to Barlau at the CIMMYT in Mexico.
Dr. Sanjaya Rajaram recognised his future lay in agricultural research, where he could make a substantial difference in food production and implement long-term good change, given his family’s farming experience.
Rajaram started at CIMMYT in 1969, working alongside Borlaug in experimental areas in Ciudad Obregón, Toluca, and El Batán, Mexico.
It began as a pilot programme to facilitate food security in Mexico and abroad “through selective plant breeding and crop improvement” in 1943 as a joint venture between the Rockefeller Foundation and the Mexican Ministry of Agriculture, with the initial goal of breeding rust-resistant (wheat leaf rust is a fungal disease) and higher-yielding wheat.
His most important contribution to the discussion of plant breeding was the creation of high-volume’shuttle breeding.’ Borlaug would also spearhead efforts in India to breed superior wheat varieties, becoming the scientist who helped build the country’s Green Revolution.
In 1970, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to save millions of people from famine. Rajaram would undertake his research and fieldwork under Borlaug’s supervision from 1969 to 1972 before taking over as leader of the wheat breeding team at CIMMYT.
According to the citation for the World Food Prize, “Rajaram, like Borlaug, had the amazing capacity to visually detect and choose plant varieties with a variety of desired qualities for crossbreeding, a talent that was critical to wheat breeding in the 1980s and 1990s.
Further, he could predict some of the diseases that could endanger this main crop. Working with his colleagues at CIMMYT, they would improve the resistance to these diseases in their wheat cultivars.”
Through his notion of’slow rusting,’ Rajaram also developed wheat cultivars with long-lasting resistance to rusts, the most destructive disease to wheat worldwide. He employed a number of genes with small effects that impede disease development, reducing the impact on yield but not forcing the rust pathogen to adapt and overcome resistance. This approach has resulted in cultivars that have been grown on millions of hectares around the world.
“His technology proved to be a cost-effective and environmentally sound method of controlling plant disease,” according to the citation he got after winning the World Food Prize in 2014.
Aside from his inventiveness, Rajaram was a man who emphasised the significance of sharing his knowledge and discoveries with the rest of the world. He trained and mentored over 700 scientists from the developing countries. These scientists would go on to speed up the development of high-yield wheat varieties.
Despite acquiring Mexican citizenship, Rajaram never forgot about India and stayed involved in advancing wheat breeding, genetic engineering, and precision agriculture in India. His legacy, on the other hand, extends to the work he made for the globe, which we should honor.