Some nights it’s stressful enough to put dinner on the table for my family. Imagine being responsible for feeding millions of people.
That’s the achievement of Dr. Sanjaya Rajaram, announced as the winner of the 2014 World Food Prize. His wheat varieties have boosted global wheat production by 200 million tons.
Dr. Rajaram would be a fitting recipient of the World Food Prize at any time, but this year it is even more poignant and appropriate because it also marks the centennial of Dr. Norman Borlaug, the father of the Green Revolution. As Borlaug’s successor at CIMMYT, the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center, Rajaram is one of Borlaug’s most accomplished students.
Before Dr. Borlaug died five years ago, he praised Rajaram as “a scientist of great vision who made a significant contribution to the improvement of world wheat production, working for the benefit of hundreds of thousands of farmers in countries around the globe.”
I’m one of them. On our family farm in Oklahoma, we grow a variety of Hard Red Winter Wheat, ideal for bread, which was developed at Oklahoma State University. We plant it toward the end of September and harvest it in June—and the success of each crop makes a big difference in my family’s bottom line.
That’s another reason I appreciate the selection of Rajaram this year: The United Nations Food & Agriculture Organization has decreed 2014 as the International Year of Family Farming. The work of scientists like Rajaram improves family farming.
I’m reminded of Borlaug’s final words: “Take it to the farmer.” They were spoken to Dr. Bill Raun, one of his many friends at Oklahoma State University as he was showing Dr. Borlaug the technology his team had developed to help farmers better manage the use of nitrogen fertilizer. Today, the Greenseeker technology is helping farmers around the world cut costs and safeguards the environment.
Rajaram has embodied these words his whole life.
He started out on a family farm himself—a poor one, in rural India. His parents raised wheat, corn, and rice on a handful of acres. In that time and place, almost nobody received a formal education. Yet Rajaram’s parents were dedicated to their children—and in Rajaram, they saw a special intelligence and drive. So they sent him to school.
This was the start of a brilliant career. From the beginning, he was a top student who leaped from opportunity to opportunity. He eventually earned a Ph.D. in plant breeding from the University of Sydney in Australia. One of his professors there had studied with Borlaug in the United States and recommended Rajaram to his old friend. Soon, Rajaram was working by Borlaug’s side in Mexico as a member of CIMMYT’s team.
Rajaram was halfway around the world from his humble origins, but he never forgot his roots. He wanted to alleviate the struggles of the other family farmers he knew as a boy. So he worked to create the crops that would help them live better lives.
Today, he’s credited with developing 480 high-yielding wheat varieties that resist disease and other stresses. They’ve been grown on more than 100 million acres in 51 countries, from the acidic soils of Brazil to the mountains of Pakistan.
Rajaram picked a good crop for his focus. Wheat covers more acreage than any other cultivated plant and it represents the primary source of calories for more than half of the world’s people.
Despite its importance, wheat sometimes seems like the crop that technology forgot. It has not yet felt the innovations in biotechnology that have transformed the way we grow corn and soybeans, two other staple crops.
My family farm would benefit enormously from genetically modified wheat that makes more efficient use of the soil’s nitrogen. And we can’t have drought tolerance soon enough: This year’s wheat harvest is the worst I’ve seen in 20 years and it may be the worst in Oklahoma since the 1950s.
I’m hopeful, if only because Rajaram is hopeful: “I believe that the challenges of 21st-century agriculture and food production are surmountable,” he says. Yet he also warns that technology must keep up with changing times: “Future crop production is bound to decline unless we fully factor in the issues related to climate change, soil fertility, and water deficits, and utilize advanced genetics in the next 20 to 30 years.”
This October, Rajaram will receive the award formally, during the World Food Prize celebrations in Des Moines. Family farmers will celebrate with him, and hope that just as Borlaug inspired him, he will inspire a new generation of scientists to help us grow more and better wheat.
Hope Pjesky and her family are farmers / ranchers in northern Oklahoma where they raise cattle and wheat. Hope volunteers as a board member for Truth About Trade & Technology (www.truthabouttrade.org).