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Dr. Mahalingam Govindaraj
Dr. Mahalingam Govindaraj, Senior Scientist for Crop Development with HarvestPlus at the Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT, has been named the 2022 recipient of the Norman E. Borlaug Award for Field Research and Application, Endowed by The Rockefeller Foundation. He is recognized for his outstanding leadership in mainstreaming biofortified crops, particularly pearl millet, in India and Africa. For more than a decade, he has directed the development and dissemination of high-yielding, high-iron and high-zinc pearl millet varieties which have contributed to better nutrition for thousands of farmers and their communities.
As a scientist at the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) starting in 2011, Govindaraj defined a strategy for biofortification of pearl millet with high iron and zinc content and dissemination of these high-yielding, drought-tolerant varieties to farmers. Biofortification is the process of increasing the micronutrient content of a crop through selective breeding, and has become a keystone strategy for reducing vitamin and mineral deficiencies in low- and middle-income countries. Pearl millet is a climate-resilient staple food crop that grows in dry regions on marginally productive land, and as such is most often cultivated by smallholder farmers and accessible to those with low income. Having come from a farming background, Govindaraj saw that biofortification of pearl millet could have a strong positive impact on the nutrition and health of rural communities.
In 2014, Govindaraj released Dhanashakti, the world’s first biofortified pearl millet. Independent clinical studies showed that 200 grams of Dhanashakti provided women with more than 80 percent of their recommended daily allowance of iron, compared to only 20 percent in regular pearl millet varieties. Now, more than 120,000 farming households in India grow Dhanashakti. Estimates say that by 2024, ten years after Dhanashakti’s release, more than 9 million people in India will be consuming iron- and zinc-rich pearl millet and reaping the health benefits of better nutrition.
Govindaraj’s active collaboration with the Indian Council of Agricultural Research led to India becoming the first country in the world to commit to iron and zinc standards as core traits in their national cultivar release policy. Pearl millet became the first crop in which minimum levels of these essential micronutrients were mandated in 2018. As it is estimated that India loses over US$ 12 billion in GDP annually to micronutrient deficiencies, this was an important policy milestone in advancing a nutrition-sensitive food system.
Govindaraj has been directly involved in the development of more than ten significant high-iron, high-zinc pearl millet cultivars in India and Africa, positively impacting thousands of farmers, seed producers, processors and consumers. He released the first biofortified millet in West Africa in 2019, which quickly became the predominant variety grown in the region, with over 20,000 hectares planted.
His unflagging efforts toward high-throughput screening have significantly increased breeding efficiency. He streamlined the process for screening new cultivars by defining benchmarks and standard operating protocols for developing biofortified varieties. He also established a rapid, cost-effective micronutrient screening facility for finger millet, sorghum and pearl millet and developed an online portal for use of the facility by partners, allowing for better collaboration. His research outputs convinced the international pearl millet research community to accept biofortification and mainstream nutrition traits in breeding programs.
Govindaraj’s work has ensured a sustainable pipeline of biofortified varieties of pearl millet that can be fast-tracked for production and release. Plant breeding materials he created have reached beyond India throughout Sub-Saharan Africa, including in Kenya, Zimbabwe, Sudan, Niger, Nigeria and Senegal, among other countries. More than 1000 advanced high-iron lines resulting from his research have been shared with public and private sector breeders for use in crop development programs.
With staunch dedication, Govindaraj built a network of more than 25 public and private sector partners for disseminating biofortified pearl millet seeds to farmers in India. He played a key role in facilitating an agreement between the national agricultural research systems and seed companies for large-scale production of pearl millet hybrids, modeling a proactive method for seed dissemination of public-bred hybrids.
Govindaraj’s commitment to communication with stakeholders increased acceptability and sustained funding for breeding programs with donors. His efforts made pearl millet a flagship crop in HarvestPlus’s biofortification strategy. His research supported capacity building for partners, connecting them with food companies for pilot procurements. Notably, Nestlé began to explore iron and zinc biofortified grains for formulating solid baby foods.
Emulating Dr. Borlaug’s example of understanding the importance of local circumstances, Govindaraj reaches across cultures to identify the needs of communities and connect them with partners. He has successfully led agricultural professionals, field researchers and practitioners working collaboratively to revitalize communities and reduce hunger, malnutrition and poverty.
Govindaraj’s research and advocacy have been fundamental in creating the cheapest source of dietary iron and zinc for low-income households in the dryland tropics. His tireless work across disciplines, geographies and communities has resulted in improved nutrition for thousands of families and enhanced livelihoods for smallholder farmers across India and Africa who rely on pearl millet for food and nutrition security.
Govindaraj received M.Sc. and Ph.D. degrees in Plant Breeding & Genetics from Tamil Nadu Agricultural University and a B.Sc. degree from the Agricultural College and Research Institute, Killikulam.