On September 21, the World Food Prize Foundation (WFPF) named Dr Swati Nayak as the recipient of the 2023 Norman E. Borlaug Award for Field Research and Application. The WFPF presents this prestigious award instituted in honour of the Nobel-winning American agronomist Norman Borlaug (1914-2009) every October for “exceptional, science-based achievement in international agriculture and food production by an individual under the age of 40”.
Nayak currently works as the South Asia Lead for Seed System and Product Management at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), New Delhi. The WFPF lauded her for her pioneering work with farmers from small landholdings in demand-driven rice seed systems. Her popularity among farmers is such that they address her fondly as bihana didi (seed sister).
Born and brought up in Odisha’s Puri, Nayak had no direct contact with farming in her younger days. But she had an inclination for plant science, which inspired her to get a bachelor’s degree in agriculture from Andhra Pradesh’s Acharya N.G. Ranga Agricultural University. It was while she was doing her master’s in rural management at Gujarat’s Institute of Rural Management, Anand, that she started working with farming communities. This got her interested in application-based research, leading to her PhD in Agriculture Extension Management and Technology Transfer from Amity University, Noida.
Her work stems from the observation that although many high-yielding varieties of seeds are being developed not all farmers can access them, resulting in the stakeholders being deprived of the benefits of innovation. Nayak is trying to bridge this gap between scientific knowledge and its practical application by working closely with farmers. Her work covers the entire gamut, from testing and application to adoption of climate-resilient rice varieties and ensuring equitable access.
Her strategy of spreading the use of the drought-resilient rice variety Shahabhagi dhan (paddy) in Odisha’s Mayurbhanj eight years ago remains a milestone. The variety transformed cultivation in rainfed areas and became an important part of farmers’ food habits and agricultural practices.
Nayak will formally receive the award at a ceremony to be held from October 24 to 26 in Des Moines, Iowa, US, as part of the 2023 Norman E. Borlaug International Dialogue, which will bring together leaders, experts, educators, and students from more than 65 countries to discuss issues related to global food security and nutrition. Edited excerpts from an online interview with Nayak, who is based in Delhi:
Can you tell us something about the rice seed varieties that have been developed? How will they benefit farmers?
I’m not a breeder, so I have not developed any variety. But I have surveyed what various eminent breeders have developed in India or in neighbouring countries. I have extensively mapped and collected nominations from them about the latest or upcoming varieties in their breeding programmes.
I have also carried out extensive evaluation of farmers’ field conditions, taking into consideration the agronomic or optimal management practices. In real-life situations, a farmer may not have the resources to cultivate the varieties being developed. So, we evaluate how the seed varieties perform under available conditions. Then the varieties are popularised and scaled through a partnership mode. I have been involved in the nomination and scaling of a lot of climate-resilient rice varieties, which are tolerant to conditions like floods, droughts, or both. They have high nutritional value, and reduced climate vulnerability, which are important factors for a farmer.
We have also brought in a lot of new, drought-tolerant varieties, which we are trying to produce and popularise by creating awareness among farmers and by partnering with seed corporations, private entities, and community enterprises. We basically play a catalysing role by providing linkage support and information to promote these varieties.
You have crafted the Seeds without Borders policy. How does it help speed up the distribution of modern rice varieties throughout South and South-East Asia?
This is a one-of-a-kind policy innovation. And it evolved from the concept that while a farmer from one country is growing an amazing variety, another farmer from a neighbouring country, working under the same ecological conditions, is deprived of the benefits of that variety because it is not released or developed in their country. Since developing a new variety takes several years, with all the attendant processes—testing and evaluation, seed production, marketing, etc.—we tried to make good use of the time and effort by making the new varieties available to farmers of more than one country. With such a policy in place, we can pass a variety from one country to another and push it directly into the food chain. If the agroecological conditions, markets, or the preferences of the farmers of different countries are almost similar, then why wait for years? After we brought in the innovation, several countries signed the agreement.
The next challenge was how to create the systems, processes, and ownership within the importing countries. Our goal was to create a linkage for seed multiplication and take it to the farmers’ doorstep. It worked splendidly, with thousands of farmers showing the willingness to adopt the varieties, thus contributing to the local markets and their own varietal basket. More of such innovations should be fostered. And the signatory countries should increase cooperation among one another so that the benefit can be reaped by farmers.
“Landraces (indigenous varieties) are a part of our tradition and culture. They need to be conserved. But at the same time, we must ensure that they get a strong supply and value chain.”
- Dr Swati Nayak is the recipient of the 2023 Norman E. Borlaug Award for Field Research and Application given by the World Food Prize Foundation
- The World Food Prize Foundation lauded Nayak her for her pioneering work with farmers from small landholdings in demand-driven rice seed systems
- Her work stems from the observation that although many high-yielding varieties of seeds are being developed not all farmers can access them.
- Nayak is trying to bridge the gap between innovation and its practical application in the field of agriculture by working closely with farmers
You have worked directly with farmers. How has that helped you in your research?
Whenever we develop or present a new variety, we tend to advertise it as a high-yielding variety which is better than older varieties. But I have seen that the perceptions and preferences of farmers are quite diverse, and their adoption behaviour depends on these parameters, rather than simply on yield. There are various other factors—the grain quality or cooking quality of that variety, how adaptable it is to local taste buds, etc. For example, in Odisha, the choice of paddy variety depends on which one makes for better puffed rice, or chudda. These preferences overpower the yield. So, culture plays a vital role in cultivation—this is something we have learnt while working with farmers.
How have you sought to make agricultural activities more gender inclusive?
We recently got the sad news of Dr M.S. Swaminathan’s demise. In my early career, I had an opportunity to work with him and his team. He wanted to craft a dedicated programme for women farmers, Mahila Kisan Sashaktikaran Pariyojana. Fortunately, I became the face of that programme because I helped shape it along with my teammates. That learning process was so enriching that it made me determined to keep the gender angle always in mind, as a woman, as a scientist, and as somebody working in the rural community empowerment space.
Women make up 50 per cent of the workforce in agriculture, but just because they are not the landowners, they miss out on a lot of opportunities, be it subsidy, training, input distribution, or the information dissemination process. The solution might not consist simply in providing them with technology or training; they need to be enterprised. Our work focusses on creating enterprise opportunities for communities and local people. For instance, there is a huge potential for increasing the quality of seed access locally. Since formal institutions are unable to reach out to all farmers in that direction, local entrepreneurs and local enterprises are going to remain the mainstay here.
So, why not harness the potential of women—women who are organised, could be organised, who can get economic empowerment, not just input access, in the process? This is what we are trying to do.
Climate change is hitting the poorest the most. Developing climate-resilient varieties of crops can be one of the ways of protecting their interests. Your views on this.
Climate change is a reality, and the resulting negative impact is a fact. I don’t think we can stop much of its implications any time soon. The only thing we can do is make our community resilient so that they can fight these stresses better. If we can provide farmers with climate-resilient seeds at a mass scale, they will get security against floods, drought-related damages, etc.
I would also like to talk about new-generation varieties with low input responses, varieties that are suitable for direct-seeded rice systems [a sowing system where rice seeds are sown directly into the field, as opposed to the traditional method of growing seedlings in a nursery, then transplanting them into flooded fields]. These varieties require less fertilizer, less water, or any kind of input. That also reduce carbon footprint. So, yes, the varietal and seed system intervention is going to be central to combatting the climate vulnerability of the farming community.
Odisha has made significant efforts to preserve indigenous varieties of rice. For example, a grassroots movement in Koraput, with over 1,400 farmer-conservators, is engaged in the conservation of over a thousand heirloom rice varieties, many of them endangered. How important are such efforts in a world facing the climate crisis? Should they not be speeded up all over India?
Landraces (indigenous varieties) are a part of our tradition and culture. They have amazing traits, be it in terms of nutritional value, climate resilience, aroma, or grain quality. They need to be conserved. But at the same time, we must ensure that some of these striking varieties, which have good market potential, get a strong supply and value chain. That way, farmers who are growing these crops can also benefit.
It is advisable to grow these varieties locally in order to conserve their original traits. In this they are unlike high-yielding varieties, which are more commercially viable since they can be grown in diverse regions. So, what are the incentives of the producers who are growing these varieties? Where is the consumer base? How can we position these varieties? These are important factors to consider in coming years because landraces will always have a yield disadvantage as compared to modern varieties.
When the yield potential is low, the only incentive for the producers is the price, which can be to their advantage if they manage to market the variety as a speciality rice. We cannot talk about growing landraces without providing the market for growers or producers. That is something we need to work on. When we try to increase the area under these landraces, we also need quality seeds. The landrace seed system is still underdeveloped in India. Seed preservation and seed chain development for landraces must go hand in hand. And landraces need to co-exist with other varieties to protect the interests of farmers.
Aishwarya Mohanty is an independent journalist covering gender, social justice, and environment issues.