‘Rice Can Now Be Grown Without Stagnant Water In A Field’

A teacher, researcher and innovator, Dr Jameel A Khan’s expertise in developing drought-tolerant varieties has helped address climate change challenges. Currently serving as Programme Manager at C-CAMP, one of the respected addresses for cutting-edge research and innovation, the young scientist reveals his learning curve and the contributions he made to the agricultural science

KASHMIR LIFE (KL): What are the new goals in agricultural sciences for increasing production?

DR JAMEEL A KHAN (JAK): During the green revolution of the 1960s, there was a growing demand for increased food production due to a rapidly growing population. MS Swaminathan employed genetics knowledge to meet this demand and address the issue of food scarcity. One of the strategies employed was to cultivate short-stature crop varieties instead of tall ones, as the tall ones had a tendency to fall over, causing crop loss. This strategy successfully addressed the issue of lodging and increased food production. As the population continues to grow, biotechnology will become a key area of intervention in agriculture, aimed at meeting the demands of the next green revolution.

KL: So what is the status right now?

JAK: While current agricultural yields are stable, there are still major challenges such as droughts, pests and diseases, and post-harvest losses. Improving storage technologies and addressing these issues will help meet the food needs of both current and future populations. Approximately 40-50 per cent of food production is lost due to factors such as drought, heat, salinity, and floods. To address these issues, biotechnology has a significant role to play in finding solutions for these challenges and reducing post-harvest losses.

KL: Before we go into your accomplishments and research can you offer us details about your learning curves and challenges faced during your career journey?

JAK: I started my educational journey at New Convent, Gogji Bagh, Srinagar where my teachers instilled in me the importance of thinking big and pursuing my dreams. After completing the 10th standard, I decided to study BSc in Agriculture at SKUAST, Jammu. I then went on to secure a seat for a Master’s in Plant Biotechnology at the University of Agricultural Sciences, Bangalore by qualifying for the national level exam JNU-DBT. Initially, I had intended to follow in my brother’s (Er. Muneer Khan) footsteps and pursue a career in engineering, as he had studied at SSM. However, I decided to forge my own path when I went to a counselling session and ended up being selected for BSc Agriculture, my parents were astonished but happy.

Eventually, I did a PhD in the same field. I was the sole individual from Kashmir to secure a PhD in UAS-Bangalore at that time.

I was determined to do something innovative in my research and this led to the start of my journey in innovation. Throughout my academic journey, I faced challenges but my determination and hard work helped me secure my place in the field of Plant Biotechnology.

KL: What were the key takeaways from your PhD?

JAK: Research can be as brief as a one-page publication, as evidenced by Watson and Crick’s research on the structure and model of DNA, which won a Noble Prize. This just goes to show that the length of scientific research can range from being short to extensive, like discussions on black holes. The human genome, which can be measured in megabytes and terabytes, contains vast amounts of information that we are now able to comprehend. Similarly, research on genes related to human traits such as appearance (eye colour and height) and behaviour (intelligence, addiction, and even depression) etc., are influenced by gene expression. Researchers are understanding which genes are responsible for these traits. For example, if I wanted to select intelligence, I would look for someone with genes that express high intelligence.

In the realm of plant research, we divide the phenotype into visual and performance aspects, as we observe how plants perform under biotic and abiotic stress, such as water scarcity in agriculture, particularly in rice cultivation. It takes about 2500 litres of water to produce one kilogram of rice, from growth to consumption. By reducing water consumption in rice cultivation by just 10-20 per cent, we could make a significant impact on humanity. Rice can now be grown without stagnant water in a field, thanks to the research I have been a part of.

During my PhD, I worked on exploring the phenotypic and genotypic factors affecting plant growth and productivity, specifically focusing on rice cultivation. I developed a technology for root phenotyping and utilized German technology at the ICAR-National Institute of Abiotic Stress Management. This was a major milestone as it was the first platform of its kind developed in India and I made it available to other scientists by not patenting it. My aim was to make advanced technology accessible to farmers at an affordable cost.

My research also involved studying the genes that express high levels of root growth and analysing the correlation between gene expression and phenotype. By combining both phenotypic and genotypic information, I was able to gain a better understanding of the factors affecting plant growth and productivity.

I also looked at the impact of abiotic stress, such as water scarcity, on agriculture and specifically rice cultivation. I found that a significant amount of water is required for rice growth and that reducing water consumption by just 20-25 per cent can lead to a big step towards sustainable agriculture. Our laboratory developed a rice variety called aerobic rice that utilizes deep roots to absorb water from deep soil, thereby saving 20-25 per cent of water compared to traditional rice varieties.

Overall, my PhD research aimed to improve our understanding of the factors affecting plant growth and productivity and to develop practical solutions to reduce water usage in agriculture.

KL: Is this rice variety being grown anywhere?

JAK: At present, the government of Katakana has already approved the growing of this rice cultivation. Our technology is ready for any future water scarcity and is proven to be effective. We have taken a thorough approach to this technology, even down to the genetic level, to ensure that farmers can access the aerobic rice variety ARB6 (BI 33) whenever they may need it in the future.

KL: Does aerobic rice BI 33 require specific ecology for growing?

JAK: ICAR has a policy of multi-location trials, which must be completed before any new variety of rice can be approved. Recently, Tamil Nadu scientists conducted research on drought-resistant varieties, with BI 33 outperforming all other varieties in the trials. This variety has now been approved, after having passed all tests.

KL: How does it work on a yield?

JAK: Despite a 5% drop in yield, the comparison between aerobic rice and rice grown in water is not applicable here. We are instead comparing how rice will be grown using technology in the future when water scarcity becomes more severe.

KL: Will this technology ever suit growing rice in Kashmir?

JAK: Kashmiri people rely heavily on rice as their main source of food, and the agricultural sector is always looking ahead to anticipate potential needs and address potential issues. In the case of a water scarcity crisis in Kashmir, science and technology are prepared to mitigate any potential losses in yield. Scientists are always looking forward, anticipating the needs of the future, and this is what drives the research and development of new technologies–even if it may seem out of reach at the present moment. For instance, Elon Musk’s ambitious plans to take humans to Mars or the Moon demonstrate the potential for future technology to make the seemingly impossible a reality. In this way, my own work falls in line with this outlook, searching for solutions that may open up new possibilities.

Dr Jameel A Khan (Agriculture)

KL: With immense success in your field of research, why you changed your career path?

JAK: I have always been passionate about technology and its potential to innovate and create a bigger, brighter future. With a background in agriculture, I wanted to be part of the Agrotechnology revolution that is currently taking place in India. My experience has enabled me to understand how technology can be used in the most effective ways, and I am eager to use my knowledge to contribute to the industry.

Also, the recent initiatives in Agritech and the focus on agriculture accelerators in the budget proposed by the Government of India indicate that research must be effectively adapted and implemented for real-world applications. This emphasis on agriculture accelerators in the budget is a clear sign that the government is actively pursuing work that can have tangible impacts on the agricultural sector, which could have a significant ripple effect throughout the country. We at C-CAMP have been forefront runners in such research and innovations.

KL: What are the present projects you are working on?

JAK: At the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Platforms (C-CAMP) in Bangalore, we are part of the Bangalore Life Science Cluster (BLiSC) and have three major institutions and top bio incubators. C-CAMP has been awarded the best incubator of India across all sectors, owing to our expertise in life sciences, be it biotechnology, agro technology, health technology, or any other industrial biotechnology. We also received an award during National Startup Day as the best Ecosystem Enabler in India. We feel proud to contribute to bioeconomy in India. We provide the handholding for the latest technologies that a startup or an individual innovator is working on.

I handle multiple programs, the basic objective is to assess the proposal, considering its scientific acumen, financial theme, and future innovation in technology. We provide a grant of Rs 50 lakhs for eighteen months to help develop a product and mentor the startup with proper guidance for early-stage innovators.

I work on a programme where we train innovators to find a relevant problem and make a venture out of it. In this programme along with a monthly fellowship of Rs 50,000, a kick-start grant is given. Young innovators in Kashmir should consider applying for this programme.

At C-CAMP, I also work with the Centre of Excellence in Agriculture with the objective to identify gaps in agriculture. We were successful in handholding startups that are making a national impact, for example, Krishitantra.

KL: What are the innovations taking place in agriculture? Is there any contribution from Jammu and Kashmir in Agrotechnology?

JAK: Agriculture is undergoing a transformation due to the introduction of innovative technologies. Indoor vertical farming is one of the most popular advancements, as it increases crop yields and reduces the negative impact on the environment. Farm automation technology is also becoming increasingly popular, as it automates the crop or livestock production cycle. In addition, livestock technology is being used to monitor health and increase productivity through wearable sensors. Other innovations that are expected to hit the market include agricultural robotics, artificial intelligence in agriculture, and the use of drones. All of these technologies are helping to make agricultural processes more efficient and effective.

The Vice Chancellor of SKAUST-K has been a great mentor to me and has taken a number of new and innovative initiatives at the university. In Kashmir, it can be difficult to get acceptance for new ideas and advancements, but many universities like SKUAST have taken steps to bring about change. I also met the VC of Kashmir University and the DIQA Director, I could see the enthusiasm to work on innovations.

There are many innovators who have applied for these projects, and I have taken on the role of mentor, as I feel that it gives me a chance to give back to the community. We also have the JK Scientist programme, which helps students to get accepted for doctorates and PhDs.

I take this platform for productive collaboration with C-CAMP for making impactful innovations in life sciences.

Ifra Reshi processed the interview


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