Plant physiologist, Dr Autar Mattoo struggled a lot before he landed in the US Department of Agriculture-run Sustainable Agricultural Systems Laboratory at Beltsville, Maryland. In the last 44 years of service, this erstwhile Rainawari (Srinagar) resident has immensely contributed in the areas of genetic engineering and allied technologies
KASHMIR LIFE (KL): What is the status of hunger across the world, especially in wake of the progress humankind made in agricultural sciences?
DR AUTAR MATTOO (DAM): It is ameliorating to some extent. Even Africa is getting sustenance now. Genetically engineered (GE) foods that have had DNA changed using genes from other plants or animals to increase food production were neglected by people due to certain false assumptions that contributed to hunger issues.
I earlier went to the Philippines, and Bangladesh, in order to explain and make people aware of how genetically modified (GM) food is also good and boosts nutrition. After 20 years now, they are using these commodities. Now, Africa has also accepted these engineered foods and it is slowly expanding. We are hoping that sooner or later, hunger will get diminished.
KL: What were the milestones and learning curves of your journey from Kashmir to the USA?
DAM: I am basically from Rainawari, Srinagar, and among, one of the prominent families in Kashmir, known as Mattoo’s. I did my schooling at Tyndale Biscoe, Srinagar and for higher studies, I went to SP College, Srinagar, and then eventually moved to Baroda University for my master’s in biochemistry. I did my PhD at the same University. Later, I started teaching at the same University as well.
I was invited to study for two years in Adelaide (Australia). Later, I moved to America for one year. I thought I could perform better in India, so I came back to Baroda. With the passage of time, I observed that I was not getting what I desired and deserved. So, I went all over India in search of a befitting job but I could not get it because my portfolio was too much for people to stand.
I had some friends in Israel and they somehow managed and helped me connect to the channels. I was awarded a fellowship in Israel. After parental consent, I went to Israel. Luckily, there I discovered something which was not known in biology for a long time. On the basis of that, I was requested to stay back in Israel. But because of the language and other issues, I decided to leave and went to America instead.
Finally, I got a job and citizenship in America and became a professor in the same enterprise, where I have been serving for the last more than 40 years. I also became a research leader in two different laboratories and worked and studied Genetic Engineering all over the world.
KL: What was your PhD all about and what were the major takeaways from it?
DAM: I worked on mangoes in my PhD at Baroda University. The research was on how to increase mango productivity and taste. I studied many things involving the fruit’s biology and biochemistry.
I went into animal research in Israel. I worked on euthanizing (killing animals for ex-vivo studies in laboratories) rats, to find out certain things in the brain. But because I didn’t like the practice of vivisection and animal testing, I stopped that intervention.
In America, I opted for Agro-biology. And for a long time now, I have been working on all aspects of biology.
Most of my work got followed up, but one of the major discoveries was the research that I did in Israel, which was a totally new pathway for genetics. It was a basic research concept that got converted into a real utilization. We were trying to engineer certain fruits and vegetables and I was among the first ones to do that biotechnology.
We used biotechnological methodologies to improve the varieties. We made tomatoes that can stay on a desk for more than 40 days and can have a long shelf life without any sag. It became a big discovery and a lot of people began working in this arena. During that period, I also visited the University of Kashmir to learn about the improvisation of agriculture, but I found people were not very interested in that mode.
I think Kashmir has a lot of possibilities in agriculture, but the authorities and management are not impactful at the ground level. Genetic modification is very effective and I think with that, agriculture can become much better with new commodities and everlasting production.
Right now, I am working on how we can manage the biological stress on plants. Usually, excessive rain and draughts cause damage to crops and the commodity turns out not up to par. So, we are trying to find out processes and mechanisms for how plants and crops can be taken care of at times of atmospheric stress.
KL: Where do you find yourself in the debate on genetic engineering?
DAM: There has never been anything in biology or agriculture that was set in stone. All human beings have slowly worked and found ways to improvise it. Genetic engineering is just a part of it. The idea is to utilize this technology in the best way one can.
I have usually been a spokesperson for this genetic intervention and it tells how to go about it. Bangladesh, which had no foodstuff earlier is now becoming a big commodity holder and is sending products all over the world. The Philippines has also accepted this after a long time and they are leading towards good production, while India is lagging behind. Unfortunately, India is moving backwards in this particular case and there is an immediate need for improvisation. So, to achieve this goal, India has to be open to newer modules and modifications, as this can be quite beneficial also.
As far as Kashmir is concerned, it encompasses many things that are rare to the rest of the world. So, with the influence of modification and good agricultural production, it can also become a big thing for the market strategy of India.
Rather than having the perception that modified foods are not good, or we should not intervene in the natural or God-given possessions, or having stigmas that technological evolution or intervention is egregious, people should emphasize more on how to progress and make things better for them, which also includes the eradication of hunger.
Everything has changed because of technology, as it is the only medium for growth and advancement. So, instead of believing and getting into falsified statements, people should adapt to evolve, whether technology is consumed through other fields or food production.
KL: What are the modules or models in agriculture that Kashmir can be copied from countries like the US and Israel?
DAM: All I can say is Kashmir is a good place filled with brilliant and astute minds and it can improvise and fabricate with its essential commodities. All it needs is the experimental flux that will help eventually. The lowest that can be done is globally putting scientists and researchers into it by addressing the issue and taking a keen interest in it. The idea should be to get the modules that are there slowly adopted in Kashmir. It is the perception of now or never, that will take time but sooner or later, it will be a drastic amelioration.
KL: Crops and spices grown in Kashmir are better in taste and quality in comparison to the same crops and spices grown elsewhere. How can this phenomenon be explained?
DAM: Kashmir has a very good plus point, and that is the weather it has. It has the same essential credentials that one needs for good production. The basic model used in Kashmir and the way farmers work hard put an effort into making the production distinguished. But what is needed is improvisation and help to those people who are there producing proficient things. They can be the best and the finest if they utilise the progressing technologies.
I would suggest that the people and the government in Kashmir need more interaction with people all around the world in order to utilize the beneficial information and get things right and better for them. And it would be a trigger to enormous success for Kashmir.
…… Umaima Reshi processed the interview