Former CIMMYT Global Wheat Program Director Wins 2014 World Food Prize
The eminent plant scientist Dr. Sanjaya Rajaram, born in India and a citizen of Mexico, will be honored as the 2014 World Food Prize Laureate for his scientific research that led to a prodigious increase in world wheat production …
Rajaram – known affectionately as “Raj”— led bread wheat breeding research at CIMMYT for more than three decades. His leadership and commitment to wheat improvement resulted in the release of more than 480 varieties of bread wheat with increased yield potential, wide adaptation, and resistance to important diseases and stresses. Rajaram’s wheats are grown on some 58 million hectares worldwide and approximately 30 million hectares in South Asia. His new varieties increased the yield potential of wheat by 20 to 25 percent. He also led efforts at CIMMYT to apply the concept of durable resistance to rust—the most damaging disease of wheat worldwide. His accomplishments include training or mentoring more than 700 scientists from dozens of developing countries.
Rajaram was nominated for the World Food Prize by Dr. Thomas Lumpkin, Director General and Dr. Hans Braun, Director Global Wheat Program at CIMMYT, with support from National Agricultural Research Institutes around the world.
Sanjaya Rajaram was born in 1943 near a small farming village in the state of Uttar Pradesh in northeastern India, four years before the country won its independence from Britain. His family, including his parents, an older brother and a younger sister, made a meager living on their five-hectare farm growing wheat, rice and maize. Recognizing that, at an early age, Sanjaya was keenly interested in learning about the world around him, his parents sent him to primary and secondary schools in a village five kilometers away from his home. This was at a time when roughly 96 percent of the rural population had no formal education.
He was a successful student, rising to first place in his primary and secondary schools. He eventually became the top-ranked student in the entire Varanasi District, which included thousands of village and city schools. He won a state scholarship to attend high school, and from there he went to the College of Jaunpur at the University of Gorakhpur, earning a B.S. in agriculture in 1962. He next studied genetics and plant breeding under Dr. M.S. Swaminathan at the Indian Agricultural Research Institute in New Delhi, graduating with his master’s degree in 1964.
The following year he went to Australia where he studied for his Ph.D. in plant breeding at the University of Sydney on a scholarship from the Rotary Club of Narrabri. His professor and mentor at the university was Dr. I.A. Watson, who had been a fellow graduate student with Norman Borlaug under Dr. E.C. Stakman at the University of Minnesota. Watson recommended him to Dr. Borlaug and Dr. Glenn Anderson at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) in Mexico – and this set in motion Rajaram’s distinguished scientific career in wheat research.
Having grown up in a small village where people had very little, Rajaram knew he wanted to conduct plant research, through which he could directly effect change and make a difference in food production. In this regard, Rajaram agreed with Borlaug concerning the importance of hands-on field research, the application of science and the practical approach to achieving results.
Rajaram’s research and field work began at CIMMYT in 1969, as he worked side by side with Borlaug in the experimental fields of El Batán, Toluca and Ciudad Obregón. In 1972, Borlaug asked Rajaram to succeed him and head up the wheat breeding team at CIMMYT. Rajaram has said that the following year was a learning phase during which he came to realize the diversity in wheat and began experimenting with cross breeding winter and spring wheat varieties.
Dr. Rajaram and Dr. Borlaug working in wheat fields in Mexico.
Rajaram implemented a major expansion of Borlaug’s ingenious shuttle-breeding approach in countries beyond Mexico, emphasizing: wide adaptation of new plants to differing climate and soil conditions; superior grain quality; and increasing the resistance to diseases and pests that had devastated farmers’ crops. This shuttle breeding technique involved growing two successive plantings each year in northern and southern latitudes, which produced two test generations of wheat each year instead of one, cutting in half the years required for research and breeding new varieties. The variation in climatic conditions also resulted in wheat plants that were broadly adaptable to varying temperatures, altitudes and soil types.