Tuesday, February 19, 2019

5 Questions with Dr. C.D. Mayee, the Farmer's Son Who Became India's Champion of Biotech

In order to succeed, one has to hold on to his dreams and aspirations and learn to work hard despite the difficulties along the road to success. These words of wisdom seemed to be the guiding principle of a young boy from Sakharkherda who had to join farmer caravans to sell the cotton from his father's farm.

The young boy, so full of inspiration and desire to help his father and their family live a better life, held on to his dream of becoming an agriculturist and is now one of India's strongest advocates of science-based agriculture. Dr. Charudatta Digambarrao Mayee, Dr. C.D. Mayee to most, is a renowned cotton scientist, and a firm believer that new tools can help in the advancement of Indian agriculture.

Dr. Mayee has guided more than 50 graduate students, wrote books and monographs, published over 200 scientific publications in reputable journals, and promoted the production technologies of cotton, groundnut, sunflower, coarse cereals, and remained active in sports, games, cultural activities, and helping students. But how did Dr. Mayee become India's top biotech champion? In this edition of ISAAA's 5 Questions with... Series, we asked Dr. Mayee five questions to get a glimpse of his advocacy and the road he travelled to become a biotech champion.

How did you get into agriculture and biotech?

The young Dr. Mayee
I was born in Sakharkherda, a small village in Buldana District, Maharashtra State, India, to a big extended family of 30-35 people. We totally depended on agriculture, and my childhood aspirations have been to get educated and earn money to help my father who was planting cotton, groundnut, pigeon pea, and sorghum, which are all rain-fed crops. As a child, I saw the ups and downs in our farm output due to good or bad monsoon. The only cash crop was cotton, which used to be sold to ginners in the nearest city some 60 km away. 

Even in those days when I was in 8th standard, I remember to have gone with the caravan of bullock carts (it was difficult to travel all 60 km alone, and farmers selling cotton traveled in caravans) full of cotton to sell in the nearby city. If the cotton season was good, we got new clothes, otherwise, we will wait until the next good crop season. These hardships made me resolve that I will go to agriculture in college and help my father raise the productivity in our farm—regardless of the monsoon—so that our family could live better.

"If the cotton season was good, we got new clothes, otherwise, we will wait until the next good crop season." - Dr. C.D. Mayee

But sending me to college would be a big financial burden. My father never studied beyond 7th standard because my grandfather chose him to help on the family’s farm. Despite this, my father was keen on sending me to college to get an agriculture degree, and I appreciate his vision for my aspiration. He worked hard to support this and even got a loan against our land. My background in farming helped me to get admission in an agriculture college, Akola, which was 80 km from my village. Suddenly, I was in a hostel and was confronted with English as the medium of education in agricultural subjects. Field activities became easier for me than studying theories because of English, but I got accustomed to the studies. Fungi, bacteria, viruses, and such microorganisms made me curious about biology and I decided to study them, choosing Plant Pathology as my major subject. A small aspiration to study agriculture, the science of crop cultivation, landed me into microbe-based plant pathology as a career.

Dr. Mayee was born into a big extended family.

What was the greatest challenge that your job has presented to you?

My family, especially my father, was very happy and supported me when I continued my education in agricultural sciences. I did not realize that he had to sell part of our land so I could continue with my post-graduate education. I decided then that I will not be a burden to the family. I took on whatever small jobs I can get to earn enough to enter the famous “Pusa Institute,” the Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI) for post-graduate studies. Admission to that Institute was the ambition of every student in the late 60s, and I was no exception. The Institute was famous due to Drs. M.S Swaminathan, A.B. Joshi, and other luminaries of agricultural research. At IARI, I was selected for an administrative position, but I decided to do my Ph.D. in Plant Pathology. 

Dr. Mayee with his wife Mrs. Hema Mayee during his Post Doc, AVH Fellow at University of Hohenheim, Stuttgart, Germany in 1980s.

After doing my Ph.D., the big challenge was to get my ideal job due to political instability in the country. Somehow, I got one in Punjab Agricultural University, Ludhiana in vegetable research. My mind was not into it, and I kept asking myself how I could help farmers like my father in increasing their productivity and sustainability. Five years later, I got lucky when I became a professor in a small town called Parbhani in the rain-fed area of Maharashtra not too far away from my village. I built a school for students who worked in disease management of major rain-fed crops such as cotton, sorghum, pigeon pea, pearl millet, and sunflower. However, I could not forget my early attraction to cotton, and my desire to conduct research and development on this crop became intense.

"I kept asking myself how I could help farmers like my father in increasing their productivity and sustainability." - Dr. C.D. Mayee

The greatest challenge for me was to protect cotton from parawilt, bollworms, and boll rot because every alternate year there was a bollworm epidemic and farmers resort to heavy pesticide sprays. This doubles production costs which exceed the income from cotton. I needed to do something for the cotton farmers so that their profits improve. Two mega-projects were planned and executed under my leadership in Marathwada Agriculture University, Parbhani around 1997 to 1998. One project involved the total adoption of a 500-acre village for a demonstration of the cost-saving technologies so that the profit increases without compromising on yield. The other project was conducted with the help of an expert from Israel, which was implemented with high input, highly mechanized cotton cultivation demonstration under drip irrigation on 250 acres contiguous plot for those farmers who could only afford limited irrigation. Both projects were successful and useful, and the farmers learned that the profitability of cotton cultivation can be enhanced by good practices. These cotton demonstration technologies are the major challenge in my 25 years at the University.

Why do you think there is a place for biotechnology in your country?

Cotton gave me an opportunity to learn about biotechnology as a tool to manage pests and diseases. In August 1998, while I was the Vice-Chancellor, scientists from Mahyco Life Sciences in Jalna sent the request to conduct the Bt cotton trial in the University farm as mandated by the regulatory bodies.

My knowledge about the technology was limited, so I went through the relevant literature and knew that our cotton farmers will be overjoyed if they get bollworm-resistant cotton without having to spray the crop with pesticides. I allowed Mahyco to test three Bt cotton hybrids in the university farm despite severe opposition against the trial. This was my induction to biotechnology. 

Dr. C.D. Mayee joined CICR in 2000.

In 2000, I joined the Central Institute for Cotton Research (CICR) in Nagpur as Director, and this gave the opportunity to boost the technology in the Institute, moving forward with the commercialization as a member of the apex regulatory body, Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC). I am proud that the son of a cotton farmer assisted in the commercial release of the first genetically modified crop—Bt cotton—in India in 2002. Now, millions of farmers have benefited from the technology. I also take pride in creating the necessary infrastructure in CICR Nagpur. Under my guidance, CICR developed the first indigenous Bt detection kit which got patents in many countries outside India. This kit helps extension workers in detecting illegal Bt cotton production in India.

"I am proud that the son of a cotton farmer assisted in the commercial release of the first genetically modified crop—Bt cotton—in India in 2002. Now, millions of farmers have benefited from the technology." - Dr. C.D. Mayee

After the release of Bt cotton in India and continuously studying its impact for the last 17 years, I have a firm belief that our smallholder farmers need similar technologies to enhance their income. Pest and diseases which damage the crops of poor farmers can be efficiently managed by tools such as biotechnology. In India, we have several opportunities for biotech crops such as Golden Rice, iron-rich banana, and Indian mustard. These crops have traits that help in pest and disease management, nutritive food development, nutrient use efficiency, and most importantly, abiotic stress tolerance such as drought, salinity, and climate change. My country and our farmers need the technology, but the opposition is delaying it. I am optimistic that one day it will all be clear because the Indian scientific community is competent and will deliver the technologies in the future.

Dr. C.D. Mayee with Dr. Ingo Potrykus

What is your vision for India's agricultural productivity?

I am fortunate to have seen the productivity gains of India’s crops, animal, and fisheries sectors. After gaining independence, the country faced the challenge of feeding 330 million people. Droughts in mid-1960 made the situation grim, and we depended on imported red wheat and milo sorghum from the United States.

Then the Green Revolution began, and new wheat and rice cultivars developed in the country reached the farmers and their productivity increased. Hybrid technology revolutionized the production of millets, maize, cotton, sunflower, vegetables, and many other crops. Tissue culture techniques coupled with micro-irrigation, polyhouse technology further boosted the production of fruits and flowers. Thus, in the last 70 years, India became not only self-sufficient in food but has become a net exporter of several agricultural products. The cotton production, which was stagnant at 300 kg lint per ha for 20 years until 2002 saw a major change due to Bt technology and production and productivity doubled in the first decade of the 21st Century.

Dr. Mayee with Bhagirath Choudhary, Founder Director of the South Asia Biotechnology Centre (SABC).

However, I am worried as there are many crops where productivity is either stagnant or declining due to several factors such as climate change, water crisis, soil degradation, and lack of new technologies. To meet the demand of the country’s growing population, it is time to adopt biotechnology tools to break the yield barriers. Realizing this need, I set up a scientific society called South Asia Biotechnology Centre (www.sabc.asia) to identify, pilot, scale up and commercialize farm technologies necessary to provide solutions to crop problems that cannot be tackled by conventional technologies. I have also been nurturing a young team of scientists of SABC who contribute to improving science literacy and bridging the gap between science and society. 

Dr. Mayee talks to young students.

Why are you a believer of biotechnology?

I am a firm believer of biotech because of my initial association with Bt cotton. Between 1999-2002, I visited 55 coordinated Bt cotton trials in 11 different locations. I evaluated nearly 145 field trials in farmers’ fields. All of them were so impressive that the technology was deeply imprinted in my mind. I believe that farm productivity constraints due to biotic, abiotic stresses, as well as issues of quality production, could be very well addressed by breeding methods developed through biotechnology.

India’s Union Minister of Agriculture and Farmers’ Welfare Mr. Sharad Pawar launched the report, "Adoption and Uptake Pathways of Bt Cotton in India" authored by Dr. Mayee and Bhagirath Choudhary in the presence of Dr. BR Barwale, Chairman of Mahyco and Dr. KR Kranthi, Director of Central Institute for Cotton Research (ICAR-CICR).

My belief in these technologies was further strengthened when under the John Templeton Foundation project, I conducted a survey of 2,400 farmers in three diverse States who were cultivating Bt cotton. They seemed to have one voice in saying that they need the technology in other crops, too. Other people speak about the technology, but what do they know? As a farmer’s son, I have faith in our farmers and know that what they say is true.

About Dr. C.D. Mayee (from the SABC website):
Dr. Mayee is the President of the Board of Directors of the South Asia Biotechnology Centre (SABC), New Delhi and concurrently serving as Vice President of the National Academy of Agricultural Sciences (NAAS), New Delhi. Dr Mayee obtained his agricultural degrees from Maharashtra and PhD specialized in plant pathology and epidemiology from the Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI), New Delhi. He commenced his career in plant pathology research at IARI and worked in various capacities in Central Rice Research Institute (CRRI), Cuttack; Punjab Agricultural University (PAU), Ludhiana; Maharashtra Agricultural University (MAU) Parbhani for nearly 30 years. The research, teaching and extension experience led him to work as Vice Chancellor-MAU Parbhani; Director-Central Institute of Cotton Research (CICR) Nagpur and Agriculture Commissioner, Government of India, New Delhi before retiring as the Chairman, Agricultural Scientists Recruitment Board (ASRB), Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers’ Welfare, Government of India. Though specialized in Plant Pathology, Dr. Mayee committed himself for the growth of Indian Agriculture. In Plant Pathology, he guided 20 PhD and more than 38 MSc students, wrote books and monograph, published over 200 scientific publications in journals of repute and served the cause through development of the subject. During his scientific career, Dr. Mayee promoted the production technologies of cotton, groundnut, sunflower, coarse cereals and always remained active in sports, games, cultural activities, helping students in placement. Dr. CD Mayee can be reached at: charumayee@sabc.asia

5 Questions With… is a continuing series on the ISAAA Blog. A new personality will be featured every month, so watch out for our next feature!

Written/Compiled by Dr. C.D. Mayee, and Clement Dionglay, Project Associate at ISAAA Global Knowledge Center on Crop Biotechnology.