The unsung hero of the Green Revolution: Dr.Surajit Kumar De Datta

Dr.Surajit Kumar De Datta

One of the most important foods in the world is rice that billions of people call their staple. They grow it in the tropical Asia but also in other climates where the conditions permit the farmers to grow it and with good results. But most of the world population lives in South and South East Asia where rice is grown extensively.

In the 1960s, there were hundreds of varieties that farmers grew under irrigated and rain fed conditions, in tropical and sub tropical climates but they had one problem in common. It was the low average yield of 1400 kg/ha.(1.4 t/ha)

There are many reasons for this. The varieties tended to grow tall and lodged in high winds during typhoons or heavy rains, thus reducing the grain yield. These were traditional rice varieties that had few panicles that form the seeds, low number of tillers per plant and did not respond well to fertilizer. So the scientists at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) started to look at ways to produce a variety that would be high yielding and would not lodge.

The world needed more food because the rice growers could not meet the demand of the consumers, so in the ’60s, IRRI was set up in the Philippines as the primary research center where a select group of scientists from all over the world began the process that would eventually lead to the development of a new type of rice plant that would be called High Yielding Variety or HYV.

The plant breeder at IRRI started to cross many varieties collected from different regions of Asia and narrowed the field down to a tall variety from Indonesia called Peta and a semi-dwarf variety from China called Dee Geo Woo Gen (DGWG).

The miracle rice IR-8, next to its parents Peta and DGWG (source: IRRI photo archive)

When Peta was crossed with DGWG, a new type of rice plant was born that was shorter than Peta but stronger and more upright than DGWG. It had the architecture that let the leaves absorb more sunlight and had profuse number of tillers that had panicles loaded with seeds that were heavy.

The agronomist who tested this new variety for the first time at IRRI was a young scientist called Dr. Surajit K. De Datta. He published his ground-breaking results in scientific journals as well as IRRI publications to record his findings which were nothing short of spectacular. Never had a variety of rice yielded 9.4 tons per hectare. The breeding line 1R8–288–3 was widely publicized as Miracle Rice, which was named as IR8 by IRRI.

Miracle rice IR-8 ( source IRRI photo archive )

The results of the research at IRRI carried out by Dr. De Datta produced the following nitrogen yield response curve that clearly established IR8’s superiority as an HYV over other varieties tested.

Effect of levels of nitrogen on the grain yield of indica rice varieties. IRRI, 1966 dry season. (extract from Dr. De Datta’s report in the Agronomy journal 1966)

Reference: De Datta, S. K., A. C. Tauro, and S. N. Balawing. 1968. Agron. J. 60: 643–647.

It was an advanced breeding line called IR8–288–3 that was released by the seed committee of IRRI as IR8 in 1966 as the first modern semi-dwarf indica variety. Dr. De Datta was a member of that committee which was chaired by Dr. Chandler.

That is what started the Green Revolution in rice cultivation and the pioneer agronomist and scientist who spearheaded in identifying the high yielding potential of IR8–288–3 was Dr. De Datta. He obtained excellent results at the IRRI farm where it produced the highest yield of 9.4tons/ha with the highest level of applied Nitrogen. Simultaneously, Dr. De Datta’s research trial in the farmer’s field in Calauan, Laguna where IR8 produced close to 9 tons/ha. In another farmer’s field in Bukidnon, Mindanao, IR8–288–3 yielded 7tons/ha without any fertilizer and 10.3tons/ha with a high dose of Nitrogen fertilizer.

Drs. Peter Jennings and Hank Beachell were renowned for their contribution to make the cross and advancing and selecting the breeding line which Dr. DeDatta tested in multiple sites for yield potential. Beachell got the World Food Prize award. Dr Chandler, the Director of IRRI at the time, also got the same award for his leadership of IRRI.Dr. Mano D. Pathak of IRRI, Entomologist at IRRI conducted extensive research on insect pest resistance of the HYVs which benefited IRRI’s breeding program.

Contribution to Green Revolution

The term “Green Revolution”, as described in Wikipedia refers to “the transformation of agriculture that occurred from the 1940s through the 1960s, when farmers used the discoveries of science, planting higher-yielding rice varieties to great success. In 1968, Dr.De Datta, then an agronomist at the institute, published his findings about IR8, a variety of rice that yielded 5 tons of rice per hectare with almost no fertilizer and 9.4 tons per hectare with fertilizer. This was nearly 10 times the yield of traditional rice and came to be known as Miracle Rice (see note on the reference).

The introduction of IR8 and new management practices changed a hungry landscape to one of food self-sufficiency in Asia. It is difficult to overstate this achievement; rice sustains about 3.5 billion people either partially or fully for caloric intake around the world, mostly in Asia.” (source-adapted from Wikipedia)

Dr.De Datta explaining the rice yield results to an interested President Marcos at IRRI, Philippines (source: IRRI photo archive)

Ferdinand Marcos, then President of the Philippines, visited IRRI in June 1966, and was very impressed by Dr. De Datta’s research results at IRRI farm and subsequently received 2kg of IR8 seed from IRRI, which the Philippine Seed Growers Association headed by its President Abel Silva then multiplied it in Laguna farms. It was then spread to various parts of the rice growing regions of the country. This was done under a program called Masagana 99 that made the Philippines self sufficient in rice production in about three years’ time. This was a promise made by President Marcos to the nation which he fulfilled during his Presidency.

Spread of IR8 across the rice-growing regions of Asia

IR8 was introduced to many countries including India within that period, where the farmers in the south India were very happy to get more than 9 tons of rice per hectare. The IR8 was then firmly established as the miracle rice as it spread rapidly from South India to the rest of the country.

I was working in Vietnam in 1967 with my rice farmers and soon heard of this Miracle Rice when I visited IRRI in early 1968. IRRI at that time started testing IR8 in an area north of Saigon but I was able to get some seeds to plant in TayNinh that later spread to many farmers.

The cultivation of IR8 spread rapidly in tropical Asia because of its high yielding characteristics but its cooking quality was not very good so the scientists kept working on developing better quality grain and succeeded in breeding and releasing many rice varieties later on but none surpassed the high yield of IR8.

The rest is history. For his research findings, Dr. De Datta was awarded the Norman Borlaug Award in 1992 for the Green Revolution and for Outstanding Contribution to Agricultural Sciences in India by the Vice President of India who later became the President.

Later in 2004, in recognition of his great contribution to the self sufficiency in rice in the Philippines and as a pioneer in the Green Revolution, Dr. De Datta was awarded the Presidential citation by President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo of the Philippines.

However, in spite of Dr. De Datta’s monumental contribution in the identification of IR8–288–3 with the record yielding capacity in 1966, dry season, all the write-up on Green Revolution in rice failed to recognize Dr. De Datta’s contribution to IR8 adequately and in most cases none at all.

I came to know about this omission when I found an article published by The Better India recently where the credit for the Green revolution was given to others, and where Dr. De Datta’s name was misspelled and merely mentioned in passing. That is when I started to think about the injustice of it all and thought about setting the record straight.

Dr. De Datta’s quiet contribution to rice farming in rural Philippines and Haiti

I came to IRRI as a research fellow in 1974 and worked with Dr. De Datta who was then the head of the Agronomy Department. He became my mentor and sent me to the Bicol region to execute testing of a program that he had designed with other IRRI colleagues, called “yield constraint studies in lowland rice” where I worked with the rice farmers and obtained very good results. I measured the yield gap between what the research stations and the farmers got, and accounted for the constraints. Here again it was Dr. DeDatta and his pioneering research that was behind the success in the Bicol region of the Philippines.

Years later in 1984 I found myself working in Haiti and in search of strong rice varieties to improve local rice cultivation in the Les Cayes area. When no others would help, it was Dr. De Datta who sent me seeds of 10 High Yielding rice varieties from IRRI. Of the 10 that he sent me, one variety which I named Amina, gave high yield and was so liked by the farmers that I set up a seed multiplication cooperative in Bruny, Les Cayes with the USAID funding to spread its cultivation. Another IRRI variety that I named Colette also proved successful with the farmers and spread in the Les Cayes area where I tested it and proved its merits.

Behind all the success, it was Dr. De Datta who was always ready to help me wherever in the world I worked, so I was very thankful on behalf of my farmers.

Biography (an extract from Wikipedia):

Dr. Surajit Kumar De Datta is an Indian American agronomist who is best known for his high yielding variety of rice IR8 that contributed significantly to the Green Revolution across Asia”. He worked 27 years at the International Rice Research Institute in Philippines helping Southeast Asia get self-sufficiency in rice production. His 641pages-book on rice production,Principles and Practices of Rice Production, published by John Wiley, New York, is considered an authoritative opus in the field of rice cultivation. He has also written two books namely, “Availability of Phosphorus and Utilization of Phosphate Fertilizers in Some Great Soil Groups of Hawaii” in 1963 and “Availability of Phosphorus to Sugar Cane in Hawaii as Influenced by Various Phosphorus Fertilizers and Methods of Application” in 1965. Dr. De Datta’s research in rice production at IRRI contributed to the green revolution that helped Southeast Asia gain agricultural self-sufficiency.

A Green revolution pioneer:

After serving IRRI, Philippines for over 27 years where he was the Principal scientist and Agronomist, Dr. De Datta joined Virginia Tech where he served both as Associate Vice President of International Affairs and Director of the Office of International Research, Education, and Development (OIRED) where he managed a portfolio of USD 150 million in donor-funded grants mostly from the USAID in his 20 year-tenure at Virginia Tech.

The programs ran with these grants improved lives in developing countries by promoting economic development, food security, sustainable natural resource management and gender equity. As Associate Vice President for International Affairs, he provided leadership in establishing Virginia Tech’s regional centers in developing regions of the world.

Dr. SK DeDatta receiving an award in Chicago in 2009

Awards:

He received numerous awards during his distinguished career and was made a fellow of the American Society of Agronomy ( ASA), a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), Soil Science Society of America( SSSA) ,Crop Science Society of America (CSSA), Indian Society of Soil Science ( ISSS)and National Academy of Agricultural Sciences in India,(NAAS).

He is the recipient of awards for International Services in Agronomy, Crop Science and Soil science in the United States……..a distinction very first scientist received in the USA.

Dr. De Datta has advised a total of 77 Master’s and Ph.D. students in his career including myself. He has published 366 journal articles, technical bulletins, and other reports in the areas of soil science, soil and crop management, and weed science. He has served on numerous boards, societies, and committees.

He has been an active member of the American Society of Agronomy (ASA), Soil Science Society of America (SSSA) since 1963 and a member of the Crop Science Society of America (CSSA) for over 15 years, served as an A-6 Chair( International Agronomy division of ASA) and organized symposia and was a member of the Agronomic Science Foundation (ASF) board serving the Tri societies of America ( ASA, SSSA and CSSA) for two terms.

Dr. De Datta is retired and currently lives in Davis, California in the United States.

It has been my great privilege to know him and write this blog.

Note: The complete report of the results were published by the Agronomy Journal, Vol.60, Nov.-Dec. 1968, pages 643–647

References :

1. “SK De Datta’s Contribution to the Green Revolution”. Virginia Tech. Retrieved 8 October 2014.

2. “Dr. Surajit Kumar De Datta”. Virginia Tech. Retrieved 8 October 2014.

3. “SK De Datta’s Contribution to the Green Revolution”. Virginia Tech. Retrieved 8 October 2014.

4. “Availability of Phosphorus and Utilization of Phosphate Fertilizers in Some Great Soil Groups of Hawaii”. Scholar Space — University of Hawaii.

5. Availability of Phosphorus to Sugar Cane in Hawaii as Influenced by Various Phosphorus Fertilizers and Methods of Application. Google Books.

6. “S. K. De Datta to be named American Association for the Advancement of Science fellow”. Virginia Tech. Retrieved 8 October 2014.

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