A breeder who started out studying chickpea, pigeonpea and groundnut, and then worked for long on rice, Dr Arvind Kumar is happy to be leading the research on these three and other mandate crops of ICRISAT. We discover interesting aspects of our new Deputy Director General – Research who assumed office on 21 December 2020.
Growing up in a farming family in rural Bihar, India, young Arvind spent some time in a military school but ultimately chose to pursue agricultural research rather than become a soldier.
“Starting out as a research associate at the Indira Gandhi Agricultural University (IGAU), Raipur, Chhattisgarh, the first five years I worked on chickpea, pigeonpea and groundnut, apart from rice,” he reminisced. “It was only later that I moved to rice as my focus crop.” After working at IGAU for 12 years, he moved to the International Rice Research Institute in Manila, Philippines, as a Post-Doctoral Fellow in 2004 and then continued in various capacities. Dr Arvind worked at the ICRISAT Hyderabad campus between 2012 and 2016, setting up IRRI’s South Asia Regional Breeding Hub. After another stint as leader of CGIAR Research Program Rice’s Flagship 5 and as Interim Head, Rice Breeding, at Manila, he moved to Varanasi, India, to set up the IRRI South Asia Regional Center, before joining ICRISAT as Deputy Director General – Research (DDG-R) on 21 December. He took over from Dr Kiran Kumar Sharma.
“While in the 1960s, agriculture in India was all about food security and self-sufficiency, now the whole world is aiming for nutrition security, and therefore, in the next decade or so, the nutrient-dense mandate crops of ICRISAT are going to attain great significance,” said Dr Arvind. “Moreover, I feel that these crops have a lot more potential than they are credited for. We need to work hard to make them as popular as rice, wheat or maize.”
Citing the factors that drew him to ICRISAT, he said, “ICRISAT’s work on crop improvement that combines genetic resources – genomics, trait development and breeding strategies – to develop high-yielding climate-resilient nutritious cultivars, crop-water-soil-nutrient-disease management, developing market linkages to its crops, the agribusiness arm, the watershed interventions, and much more, fascinated me and I saw an opportunity to bring about positive holistic change by integrating these aspects.”
When asked about his immediate and long-term goals as DDG-R, he said that his immediate actions would be to drive enhancement of research programs and breeding programs to align to a rapidly changing world, as well as to prepare to position this work in the best possible way in the One CGIAR setup. He emphasized the importance of effective communication as a great means to engage and enthuse the staff towards any change. He stated long-term goals as a) to improve nutrition security in the drylands, not just for the smallholder farmers but also consumers and b) to elevate and uphold ICRISAT at a position of leadership in agricultural research.
As an accomplished breeder, Dr Arvind aspires to highly effective breeding programs at ICRISAT, saying, “New knowledge is being generated almost every single day. In our breeding programs, we need to be able to combine breeding experience with the new technologies being discovered and use them to develop comprehensive breeding strategies for different crops. This will enable breeders to develop varieties quickly, accurately and efficiently to obtain significant genetic gains in our crops.” He commended the strides made already towards modernization of our breeding programs, and said that a combination of technology, talent and effort would reap rich rewards.
The staff here – scientists as well as support staff – are the biggest asset of the institution, he said. Their combined knowledge and experience will be the driver that can propel ICRISAT to greater heights. Therefore, he said, there is much to be gained from motivating, supporting and empowering our staff so that they can carry out their work to the best of their ability.
“ICRISAT’s legacy of several decades of life-changing work among the poorest of the poor in the semi-arid tropics – be it watershed management, the genebank or any other aspects – is also a distinct advantage that we have,” he said. “We need to converge our facilities and our staff to get optimum outputs to help our stakeholders.”
Talking about life lessons, Dr Arvind said, “We’re scientists, and science is dynamic. My biggest lesson in life has been to always be ready to learn new things. Being aware of new information will enable us to absorb it and use it to deliver better products to our ‘clients’ – the smallholder farmers.”
To young researchers just beginning their journey in science, his advice is: “Dream big, and follow it up with consistent hard work.”
On the upcoming One CGIAR initiative, Dr Arvind was optimistic that it would contribute towards more cohesive working among different CGIAR centers for greater productivity and efficiency.
“I wish that 2021 be a year of hope, better life and positive environment for all of us at ICRISAT and everywhere else and that we start our research for development activities in 2021 with new energy,” said Dr Arvind.