Wasting food is a crime ! But wasting a majority of the Agricultural Produce that farmers have cultivated by taking on the vagaries of climate, seasonality and global demand, is a bigger crime that we are all accountable for !

Vijay Yadav Tokala, our next pathbreaker, Assistant Professor in Amity Institute of Horticulture Studies and Research at Amity University, Noida, manages research and teaches undergraduate, postgraduate and doctoral students a range of topics related to production, postharvest and marketing of horticulture crops.

Vijay talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about an online training conducted by The Postharvest Education Foundation (PEF) that made him realise the enormity of the food loss and waste problem in the world which led him to a PhD in Postharvest Horticulture at Curtin University, Australia.

For students, if the needs of the rising global population are to be met, we need R&D on improving Crop Productivity as well as Storage to run hand in hand. Focus on technology to save what has already been produced !

Vijay, tell us about your background?

I was born and raised in Hyderabad (a city in South India), a beautiful and multicultural place. My father is a professor of Civil Engineering at Osmania University, one of the top universities in the state. We used to live in university quarters, i spent all my childhood in the campus environment and was always fascinated with laboratories and equipment. The greenery in the university has also moulded me into a nature lover. We had a very strict upbringing, and my father was very particular about our grades. At school, I was good at studies and enjoyed participating in all possible extra-curricular activities. Both my elder siblings were engineers, the same as my father and everyone expected me to be the same. But I always had different thoughts and I crazily wanted to be a Neurosurgeon from an as tender age as class 5. I still remember the first book I bought with my years of savings was “Oxford Concise Medical Dictionary” in class 8. Ultimately today I am not a medical doctor but ended up being a ‘Plant Doctor’.

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

Even after a vigorous struggle and taking an extra year to crack the medical entrance, I did not manage to get a seat in a good medical university. Many people suggested that I opt for the “then popular” courses like dental, pharmacy, biotechnology, bioinformatics etc. But maybe I was destined to be close to nature, and ended up choosing horticulture. Frankly speaking, I didn’t even know what horticulture means when I got the seat, but now I feel fortunate horticulture chose me. I did my BSc (Honors) Horticulture from Andhra Pradesh Horticultural University (now Dr YSR Horticultural University). After that, I moved to Rajasthan and did my MSc (Agriculture) Horticulture from SK Rajasthan Agricultural University. That was the first time I went out of my state to a new environment with a different climate, language, food and culture. I enjoyed learning and experiencing a lot of new things. Immediately after my masters, I got selected as Horticulture Officer in Government of Andhra Pradesh. Though it was the choicest job for many, I could not resist my desire for higher studies and a year later, I resigned the job and joined Punjab Agricultural University to do PhD in Fruit Science. One year later, I won a highly competitive International Postgraduate Research Scholarship and the Australian Postgraduate Award. Then I moved to Curtin University, Western Australia and finished my PhD in Environment and Agriculture with specialization in Postharvest Horticulture.  

What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and unusual career?

After completing my graduation, I got selected and participated in a one-year online training conducted by The Postharvest Education Foundation (PEF), USA on the topic of postharvest. The program was a turning point in my life, and I learnt the intensity of the food loss and waste problem in the world. I learnt a lot of interesting facts about this field and also developed a very good network of professionals, by the time I completed the training. After all these events I decided to be in the field of postharvest horticulture and strive to contribute my part in reducing the global food losses. I was lucky to meet Dr Lisa Kitinoja, the founder of PEF, who has been my mentor and influenced me a lot in choosing my present path. During the training, I was actively involved in online activities and kept myself busy networking with the people in the field. That has helped me while developing my research proposal for PhD and winning my scholarship for PhD. I prepared a research proposal on different techniques to manage ethylene action in fruits. Regulating the activity of the plant hormone ethylene can significantly extend the storage life of fruit and also reduce postharvest losses. After I joined my PhD, I had series of interactions with Western Australian horticulture stakeholders and with help of my supervisor, I refined my proposal to suit their immediate needs.

How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Or how did you make a transition to a new career? Tell us about your career path

My career path has been a roller coaster ride with many unexpected twists. After failing to get into medical, I felt lost and was devastated psychologically. But at that point, I wanted to do something different and decided to pursue a horticulture degree. Though horticulture was nowhere near my priorities during 12th class, after I joined BSc, I put in all my efforts to do my best in it. The degree was more associated with farm activities in rural areas. Being born and brought up in a city initially, I felt that the environment and the field work was a bit tough. But that four year period transformed me completely and prepared me to face all types of challenges. I completed my degree with 89 % and was the top-scorer of the college. I then joined MSc in SK Rajasthan Agricultural University and learnt a lot about different cultures, languages, foods and people. The decision to do my master’s degree away from my home state was the first step of my network building. I met people from different parts of the country and visited many places during this period. And while doing this I learnt and gained practical experience in various aspects of agriculture in different places. I completed my MSc with good grades and was awarded the University Gold Medal for my performance. During this period, I had an opportunity to teach a group of rural youth and motivate them towards horticulture based self-employment.

Immediately after completing my MSc, I was selected as Horticulture Officer in the Government of Andhra Pradesh. I was posted in Ananthapuramu (a district in Andhra Pradesh state) and fortunate enough to meet many progressive farmers there. At that time, the place had no good rainfall in the past four years, but that did not stop the farmers from producing a variety of best quality fruits. The farmers were very innovative and practised all the modern water and energy-saving techniques to improve their production and quality. My job included duties of field consultant and extension worker with the prime motto to increase horticulture area and production. During this period, I not only gained field experience but also got clarity about different issues that farmers face. After eight months in the field, I was deputed to the Commissionerate of Horticulture, Andhra Pradesh to manage and process the official files related to state department administration. It was a very hectic job working directly with the state administrators, but I learnt a lot about administration and also how different factors influence the budget allocations. Though my position was a dream job for many, I was feeling uneasy about not being able to complete my higher studies. I then started applying for PhD positions in different universities around the world. I did manage to get offers from a few universities, but I did not want to go abroad without a good scholarship, which would pay for my tuition fee and living allowances. I appeared for PhD entrance in Punjab Agricultural University (PAU), one of the top universities for agriculture research, and managed to secure the second rank. Without any hesitation, I resigned from my job and packed my bags to go to Ludhiana, Punjab. No one around me appreciated my decision of resigning the permanent job to pursue a PhD. Nevertheless, within my heart, I was convinced that what I was doing was right and happy that I was doing what I wanted to do. 

Being in PAU were the happiest days of life but I still did not stop my attempts applying for scholarships to go abroad. I approached many professionals around the world asking for suggestions to improve the quality of my research proposals and ways to win full scholarships. I ultimately won ‘2016 International Postgraduate Research Scholarship (IPRS), and ‘Australian Postgraduate Award (APA)’, through merit-based international competition. I then discontinued my PhD in PAU and moved to Perth, Western Australia to join Curtin University. It was a great experience working with Professor Zora Singh and in one of the best postharvest laboratories. In my PhD, I worked with two new compounds which improve the storage life of horticulture commodities and also tested them in different storage environments. I have also worked as a teaching assistant and laboratory demonstrator in the Curtin Horticulture Research Laboratory and used to teach and provide bench level guidance to MSc students and international visiting scientists.

Apart from my academics, I was elected and have been voluntarily working as one of the board of directors in The Postharvest Education Foundation, a US-based non-profit public charity organization that aims to provide training and information to help people around the world to reduce postharvest food losses and food waste. (www.postharvest.org). I perform a range of activities for the organization out of which the most important is to organize and manage the postharvest e-learning programs and training activities for participants from more than 34 different nations. I also manage international organization contacts and interact with clientele and trainees to update our activities. I was involved in writing and reviewing several technical documents about postharvest management of horticultural produce. 

While I was writing my PhD thesis, I was offered the position of Assistant Professor at Amity University, Noida, India and I am presently working here. 

How did you get your first break? 

My first full-time paid job was in Government of Andhra Pradesh as Horticulture Officer. I secured this position through merit-based competition. But later in my life, for all the achievements, I feel that my wide networking habit helped me directly or indirectly.

What were the challenges you faced? How did you address them?

All the way from my graduation, I have been moving from place to place and performed a variety of jobs. The challenges also varied from place to place. During graduation, adjusting to a rural environment and concentrating on my studies was a huge challenge to me. And when I first moved to Rajasthan, the social issues over there made me very uncomfortable and unfortunately, I couldn’t escape being part of it. Similarly, while I was working as a Horticulture Officer, the politics and administration matters were very frustrating. And many more small and big challenges came across my path. I feel that I was flexible enough to shape myself to suit the new environments. Therefore, though I had trouble at initial stages, I quickly got adapted to the changes and tried to learn from new experiences. Every challenge has imparted new and useful qualities in me such as leadership and people-management skills; confidence in working collaboratively with multidisciplinary, multinational, multicultural, multilingual teams. And the most important thing I learnt was by being confident but humble, solves the majority of the issues.

Where do you work now? What do you do?

Presently I am working as Assistant Professor in Amity Institute of Horticulture Studies and Research at Amity University, Noida. My major roles are managing research and teaching undergraduate, postgraduate and doctoral students. I teach a range of topics related to production, postharvest and marketing of horticulture crops. Having a clear idea about the concepts and relevant experience is essential to justify the job of teaching. Sharing personal field experiences with students enrich the classroom environment, motivate students to learn and encourage them for a discussion. All the places I have been to, the challenges I faced and regular interactions with horticulture stakeholders from different parts of the world, imparted these required qualities in me. 

I am also working voluntarily as President-Elect and board of directors in PEF. I manage the activities and communications of the organization. Regularly updating myself with different regional and international programs is the main skill which is needed for this job. Moreover, being patient and polite is very important when dealing with people from different nations and cultures. 

My typical day includes multi-tasking with teaching, research, writing and interacting. The tasks at the university include teaching, interacting with students and answering their queries. Apart from that I also get involved in research planning and administration activities of the department. I also regularly write, edit, and review different technical and scientific documents. Other times, I manage activities of the PEF, provide consultation for clients interested in horticulture production and postharvest management businesses. 

I get a great sense of satisfaction in regularly learning new things, sharing my knowledge and helping people.

How does your work benefit society?

The rapid increase in the global population will go hand in hand with an increase in food demand. The ability of the world to provide sufficient and safe food to a growing population will become very uncertain with proliferating issues such as environmental degradation and climate changes. Apart from the different technologies being developed to increase the crop productivity, in the past few years, reducing food losses and wastage are increasingly being quoted as a sustainable means to reduce global hunger and malnutrition as well as reduce carbon emissions. 

At university, I am training students with the ways and concepts to reduce food losses and waste and preparing them to perform their crucial role in the coming future. Through PEF, we train the trainers with different aspects of postharvest management, which not only help the respective nations to reduce the food losses but also improve their incomes and living quality. 

Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!

The most memorable moment was when I presented my work at the First International Postharvest Conference in Rome, Italy. I received a full travel grant from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. That was my first international travel, first travel grant I won, and most importantly visiting United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization Headquarters was a very inspiring moment.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

Whichever field it is, I would suggest students interact more and develop a good network. That helps a lot in achieving what we dream for.

Quotes I believe in

“Always do something because you want to do it, not because everyone is doing it.”

“Being humble and calm helps to solve the majority of challenges”

Future Plans? 

I wish to conduct research for developing sustainable solutions to reduce food losses as well as widely share the knowledge I gained. My goal is to contribute my best to ensuring global food and nutritional security.