The World Food Prize Foundation

The World Food Prize Foundation Offers Tribute to 2014 Laureate Dr. Sanjaya Rajaram

02/18/2021

On behalf of all of the World Food Prize Laureates and our Council of Advisors, the World Food Prize Foundation extends its deepest condolences to the family, friends and colleagues of Dr. Sanjaya Rajaram, 2014 World Food Prize Laureate, who passed away on February 17, 2021.

Dr. Rajaram was honored as the 2014 Laureate for impacting the lives of hundreds of millions of people with the development of high-yielding and disease-resistant wheat varieties grown on more than 58 million hectares throughout the world. His achievement increased global wheat production by more than 200 million tons during his lifetime in diverse regions across the globe.

Barbara L. Stinson, President of the World Food Prize Foundation, paid tribute to Rajaram, stating, “The world lost an agricultural giant late last night. In succeeding Dr. Norman Borlaug, in heading CIMMYT's wheat breeding program, Dr. Rajaram developed more novel and improved wheat varieties than even Norm did - over 480 disease resistant high-yielding varieties grown in over 50 countries. His memory will live on forever through the millions of lives he impacted around the world.”

Dr. Norman E. Borlaug, 1970 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and Father of the Green Revolution, called Rajaram, “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 across the globe.”

In 2014 the world honored the 100th Anniversary of Dr. Borlaug’s birth - The Borlaug Centennial. Dr. Rajaram’s selection for the Prize occurred in the year of the centennial observance, highlighting the special connection between him and his mentor and their shared legacy. 

“In announcing Dr. Rajaram as the 2014 Laureate, I observed how appropriate it was that ‘Raj,’ as he was widely known, having worked so closely with Dr. Borlaug in Mexico, would now be receiving the award that Norm had created,” said Amb. Kenneth M. Quinn, President Emeritus, World Food Prize Foundation. “Raj was born in India and spent most of his professional life in Mexico, the two countries most associated with Dr. Borlaug. This added to the poignancy of Dr. Rajaram being named the Borlaug Centennial World Food Prize Laureate. May he forever be remembered as such.” 

On receiving the World Food Prize, Rajaram said, “I felt highly honored to receive the news that the 2014 World Food Prize would be awarded to me, and through me, to hundreds and thousands of wheat researchers and farmers around the world. I believe that the challenges of 21st-century agriculture and food production are surmountable compared to the past and can be overcome provided we can bring together new knowledge and delivery systems to farmers in a very sustainable manner. 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. It will require all the resources from international research centers, national governments, foundations, NGOs and farmer groups together to synergize future agricultural technologies and food production.”

"This award honors the resilience and innovative spirit of farmers in the developing world and the national agricultural systems," Rajaram said as he accepted the Prize. "Without their contributions my research would not have been possible. The mission was – and the mission remains -  to serve them."

In speaking at the Announcement of Rajaram as the 2014 World Food Prize Laureate, then U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said, “When you do the math, when our planet needs to support two billion more people in the next three decades, it’s not hard to figure out: This is the time for a second green revolution. That’s why Dr. Sanjaya Rajaram is being honored with the World Food Prize. We are grateful for the hundreds of new species of wheat Dr. Rajaram developed, which deliver 200 million more tons of grain to global markets each year and feed millions across the world.”

Sanjaya Rajaram was born in 1943 near a small farming village in the state of Uttar Pradesh in northeastern India. His family made a meager living on their five-hectare farm growing wheat, rice and maize. He worked hard to be a successful student, and won a state scholarship to attend high school. 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 the University of Sydney where he studied for his Ph.D. in plant breeding. 

Rajaram’s research and field work began at CIMMYT in 1969, as he worked side by side with Dr. Norman Borlaug in the experimental fields of El Batán, Toluca and Ciudad Obregón in Mexico.  In 1972, Borlaug asked Rajaram to succeed him and head up the wheat breeding team at CIMMYT. 

Rajaram significantly advanced his mentor’s work in improving wheat varieties during a period that has been described as the “golden years” of wheat breeding and production. Like Borlaug, Rajaram had the extraordinary ability to visually identify and select for cross breeding the plant varieties possessing a range of desired characteristics, an ability that was essential to wheat breeding in the 1980s and ‘90s. The yield potential of Rajaram’s new cultivars increased 20 to 25 percent.

Rajaram also developed wheat cultivars with durable resistance to rusts—the most damaging disease to wheat worldwide—through his concept of “slow rusting.” The varieties produced using this technique have been grown on millions of hectares worldwide. His method proved a cost-effective and environmentally sound way to control plant disease.

Realizing the importance of freely sharing knowledge to provide developing countries with the ability to grow more food, Rajaram launched efforts to expand the global scientific wheat network – a worldwide exchange of genetic resources, information and innovations among researchers – which had not been done before. This led to the accelerated development and worldwide spread of high-yielding wheat varieties, which has kept the expansion of global wheat production ahead of population growth and made wheat even more accessible to the world’s poor. He also realized the importance of nutrition and strongly supported research on micronutrient-enriched wheat varieties.

Rajaram later worked with the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) as the Director of the Integrated Gene Management Program; he retired in 2008, but continued as a special scientific advisor on overall wheat improvement strategies. He also founded and served as the director of Resource Seeds International in Mexico, where he made his home for many years.

In 2007, Dr. Borlaug expressed high praise for Rajaram in a personal note when he wrote: 

“You have developed into the greatest present-day wheat scientist in the world… have made and continue to make many important contributions to further improve world wheat production… have learned to work effectively in many different countries with political leaders of different ideologies… and are a scientist of great vision.”

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