Groundbreaking work in wheat production garners World Food Prize win

by Sue Stanton

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The 2014 winner of the World Food Prize is Sanjaya Rajaram, a native of India and citizen of Mexico who receives the award for his groundbreaking work in maximizing the potential of wheat production. 

Rajaram received the award Thursday -- World Food Day -- at a ceremony held in the Iowa State Capitol Building in Des Moines, Iowa.

Wheat is the most widely grown crop in the world and is an important staple in developing countries. Rajaram's research focused on the development of over 480 different varieties of wheat used in 51 countries by small- and large-scale farmers. According to the World Food Prize website, wheat has a "higher protein content than both maize and rice, [and] wheat is the main source of vegetable protein in the human diet. It's also an important source of fiber and carbohydrates and contains various vitamins, minerals and fats."

Rajaram was born in 1943 and grew up in northeastern India, surrounded by fields of wheat, maize and rice, where his family worked. He was sent to school in an era when the majority of the population in India had no access to education, and he proved he could excel in his studies. He graduated from the University of Gorakhpur with a bachelor's degree in agriculture in 1962 and studied plant genetics and breeding at the Indian Agricultural Research Institute in New Delhi, earning a master's degree in 1964. 

After graduating from the University of Sydney with a doctorate in plant breeding, Rajaram was referred to Dr. Norman Borlaug, who was then working on wheat breeding in Mexico. When Rajaram joined Borlaug, the stage was set for his life's career. 

The World Food Prize Committee this week is also celebrating the centennial of the birth of Borlaug, known as the father of the "Green Revolution."

After Borlaug won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 and sought to help address the growing agricultural needs across China and India, Borlaug appointed Rajaram to take over the work he began in Mexico. 

Soon, Rajaram began a program known as "shuttle breeding," crossing two different types of genetic pools -- in this case, summer and winter wheat -- that would normally never come into contact with one another. His breeding techniques have resulted in a more nutrient-rich wheat product that is resistant to types of rust, the major challenge of growing wheat in many parts of the world, especially the Middle East and Asia. 

In Mexico, Rajaram was able to raise two crops a year, shortening the time it would normally take to double a yield and feed millions more people with better-quality food. 

Since the beginning of the World Food Prize in 1986, its mission has been to recognize those individuals who have contributed to a nutritious and sustainable world food supply. Previous World Food Prize laureates have come from Bangladesh, Brazil, China, Cuba, Denmark, Ethiopia, India, Mexico, Sierra Leone, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, the United Nations and the United States.

Last year's prize created controversy among some activists after it was awarded to three scientists -- Marc Van Montagu, Mary-Dell Chilton, and Robert T. Fraley -- with direct ties to corporate agriculture.

Public dissent continues to grow in Des Moines as well as across the globe as people begin to question what exactly is in their food. Voices such as the Des Moines group Occupy the World Food Prize have been gaining momentum for its annual protest. The Occupy group plans to hold parallel events during World Food Prize week, culminating in a nonviolent rally and civil action by several members during the award ceremony.

Earlier in the week, a talk was given by Dennis and Elizabeth Kucinich held in the First Unitarian Church of Des Moines about the long-term effects of genetically modified food and the legislative road blocks placed by lobbyists of agricultural interests during Dennis Kucinich's time in Congress. 

[Sue Stanton is an author and freelance journalist in Ames, Iowa.]

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