We cannot imagine a world without two wonder crops, Tomato and Potato, which have been an integral part of our staple food for as long as we can recollect !

Neeraj Sharma, our next pathbreaker, Senior Potato Breeder at Tuberosum Technologies Inc. (Saskatchewan, Canada), conducts research on potato in order to breed different processing varieties for the North American market.

Neeraj talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about plant breeding, and its significance in unifying the vision of public and private sectors to develop improved and commercially successful crop varieties to meet the consumption needs of the entire world.

For students, no matter how much we develop as a society, we need food to survive. As our populations breeds, we need superior crop breeding techniques to meet our growing needs !

Neeraj, Your background?

With the family roots in Haryana, I was born and initially brought up in Delhi. My native place in Haryana was almost 30 km away from Delhi, so selection of my educational institutes was largely influenced by that association. I did my primary schooling from Delhi, then moved to Haryana for my higher schooling and university education. As a kid, I used to dream of becoming a news reader. Though it was not an era of the news industry, which evolved later, now I can safely say that I was not a bad dreamer. After completing my matric, I secured admission in Haryana Agricultural University Hisar, later renamed as CCS HAU Hisar. It was considered among the best-rated agricultural universities at that time at the national and regional level, and I believe it still is enjoying that status. To be honest, I was never passionate about studying in the agricultural stream when I was in school, as most of the studious students around me were either aiming for commerce or science stream. I was too young to understand those differences, so you can say that I entered the agricultural stream accidentally. My father was running his own business and my mother was a government school teacher, who resigned from her post before my birth. For my paternal family, it was always about business and for my maternal family, it was always about better education. Still, my father encouraged me to go for higher education, as that was the missing part from my paternal side. Now being a PhD holder, I am the most-educated person in my family, along with my wife. 

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

I did my BSc in Agriculture at CCS HAU Hisar, MSc in Vegetable Breeding at CCS HAU Hisar and PhD in Vegetable Breeding at the same university (CCS HAU Hisar).

After I got enrolled in the university, there were not many options, and the study path was simple and straight forward – complete graduation, post-graduation, and finally doctorate. Meanwhile, if someone did get a job offer, this sequence would break. There were some competitive exams being held by Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) for post-graduation, to move to other institutes with scholarships, but I did not appear for those. After completing graduation in the university, we were allocated specialisations for masters based on merit. Among the divisions available for me, I chose Vegetable Science as I believed that this is an area where I could get a better job in the growing seed industry. I opted for specialisation in breeding in Vegetable Science, which was considered a tough choice against agronomy. My logic was that as a breeder, I would work on all fields like plant protection, agronomy, breeding and seed technology. As a breeder, I would be creating variability in living material, rather than exploring something which already exists.  

For the duration of my graduation, I got a national scholarship, while during my postgraduate and doctorate, I was a recipient of university scholarship.

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

When I completed my graduation, that was a phase of temporary recession in agriculture-related jobs. So, those lucky students who got a job after graduation or post-graduation rarely opted for further studies. Private sector, which is quite competitive, prefers post-graduates over doctorates as it minimizes the chances of employees moving to government jobs. Still, I was somehow determined to complete my doctorate, though I appeared for a few job interviews. But of course, I was not selected. Jobless PhDs in the Agriculture sector was not something very uncommon those days. But because of my specialisation, I was clear about my future plans, which was to work for a seed company as a breeder. Like all other university students, we were looking at our colleagues, seniors as role models in their respective fields. After submitting my doctoral thesis, I started looking for a job.  

In agriculture, there are three major job sectors – sales, research and extension specialists (trained individuals whose aim is to assist farmers and give instructions where and when necessary). Marketing or Sales sector is always considered more lucrative due to its steep growth and better remuneration, as it directly contributes to the company’s profit. The research team includes agronomists, product development managers, pathologists, entomologists, soil specialists, breeders, statisticians etc.. I was always interested in the research sector, that too as a breeder. I have always felt that the marketing team needs better products to sustain profit in the market. So, I believe that, in the coming years, more emphasis would be put on research, which has proven to be true. Now, all the leading agricultural companies spend a significant part of their budget on research and development.  

How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Can you talk about your initial projects in Vegetable Breeding

After getting admitted to masters, I was clear about my career path on working as a plant breeder. My initial and brief assignment with a local seed company was also as a breeder. Continuing with the same profile, I moved to my parental university as Research Associate in a project on hybrid development of vegetables. Tomato is always considered the most preferred crop for private companies, and I got a chance to work on tomatoes during that project. Though the project was primarily focused on tomatoes, as a part of division’s breeding team, I got involved in maintaining the pedigree record of other vegetable crops like onion and garlic. During this assignment, I also participated in crossing of more complex vegetable crops like okra and broccoli. I was just starting my career and these seasonal engagements helped me to understand the breeding mechanisms of different crops. Our breeding targets were development and identification of the genotypes having better yield, coupled with the desired resistance against diseases and viruses. Leaf curl and mosaic viruses, and early blight are among the major issues in tomato, whereas yellow vein mosaic has been a grave concern in okra production. We were targeting the resistance of these major diseases. I was involved in occasional visits to the seed farm for verification of true to type germplasm, identification and rouging of diseased and off-type material (eradication of pathogens from infected plant parts). I also started making statistical comparisons of the evaluated genotypes to reach a substantial conclusion for the selection of superior material. So that’s how I started establishing myself in the breeding sector. For a brief period, I worked as Asst Manager-Technical Development, where my major responsibility was to facilitate the registration of new agricultural chemicals including insecticides, pesticides and weedicides. I was coordinating with the state universities to conduct the trials of these chemicals and submit the report, in support of the registration of these chemicals.

Then, I moved to Namdhari Seeds (Bangalore) as a tomato breeder, where my mandate crop was tomato , but targeting a bigger sector. Namdhari Seeds was the leading vegetable seed company for tomato, melons and chilies during that period, with a strong customer base in India and other countries. Here again, our target was to develop high yielding and disease resistance hybrids. I was also working on indeterminate tomatoes there. This was my first exposure to working in a large private and professional breeding program and I learned a lot there. While in the public sector, we aim to develop better germplasm, document all the traits and make extensive trails, in the private sector, the emphasis is more on developing hybrids with superior commercial values at faster rate for region-specific markets. I was amazed to see the scale of their crossing program and selection intensity. In the public sector, while it took many years to develop even a single hybrid, in a private company we were coming up with many superior hybrids every year. Even conducting large trials was relatively easier, as the yield evaluations were done only on the selected superior quality material, not on all genotypes. All the field management work like pre-scheduled irrigations, fertilisation and chemical applications were assigned to the field team, and as a breeder my major responsibility was to plan crossing programs and make selections. Research in the public sector is rather complex where genotypes are also developed for abiotic stress areas like heat and water stress. Private sector breeding primarily focuses on major growing areas where manageable biotic stresses are present. So, they always aim for high yielding disease-tolerant hybrids to cover a large market area.  

Neeraj, Tell us about your shift from being a Tomato Breeder to a Potato Breeder

My first major breakthrough came when I joined as potato breeder with International Potato Center (CIP) – one of the CGIARs’ centres. CGIAR is a global partnership that brings together international agricultural and related organizations engaged in research to address challenges on food security targeted mainly at smallholder farmers.  CIP, headquartered in Lima, Peru, works on improving root and tuber crops, specifically potato and sweet potato. At CIP, I was employed in a national position, where I was working in India on a project that was running across four countries in South Asia and Central Asia. This was my first introduction to potatoes as a crop. For me, it proved to be a fascinating crop which challenged me with all the possible field stresses. Our research was focused on developing water-stress, heat-stress and salt-stress tolerant varieties. During the course of our project meetings, emails, discussions, conferences etc., I got to know more about the issues related to global agriculture. 

The job became more interesting to me as it was no longer a routine breeding work, but a combination of research efforts to address the region-specific, but diverse farming issues. After working for more than six years with CIP, I moved to another CGIAR centre – Bioversity International, to their Delhi office, again working for an international project – “Seeds for needs” and representing India. I was responsible for conducting trials in different states in India. This time, my role was more on diversification of the seed system for different cash crops like wheat, rice, vegetables etc.  I was continuously visiting different provinces in India and interacting with the local farmers. The idea behind the project was to grow a broad range of varieties, rather than using a few which narrows down the genetic diversity of farming. Crop and varietal diversification develop a farming system which is not only climate-resilient but also improves soil fertility, disease and insect management. It also broadens the germplasm base needed for any breeding program. 

Due to logistical issues, potato was not part of this project, and I was missing it in my program. But, I got an opportunity to go back to CIP when I got an offer of a global position in Vietnam. I relocated to Vietnam as a breeder, and started coordinating a public-private partnership project. The project, known as TAP-5, is aimed at developing improved potato varieties for Asian and African farmers, particularly small-holder farmers. The project is a research collaboration between the globally leading potato seed company – HZPC, B.V. and CIP, with financial support by SFSA (Syngenta Foundation for Sustainable Agriculture) and both involved organizations. This amazing venture, in which the best technical brains on global potato research are involved, gave me a chance to learn and work for a more meaningful outcome. The project unifies the vision of public and private sectors through a joint effort to develop improved and commercially successful potato varieties for smallholder farmers. We adopted all the modern techniques to breed and develop desirable varieties in a short span of time. 

Building upon the experience I gained in Vietnam, I am currently working with a Canadian based potato research company Tuberosum Technologies Inc as a Senior Potato Breeder. Though, here the breeding mandate is little different, but as a crop, potato works on the same breeding principles. Now, I am targeting breeding priorities for the North American markets, which is a new challenge for me. 

Over the years, I have been associated with different organizations in diverse roles working as a breeder and beyond. But I always made sure that my profile did not deviate significantly, and that complements my identity as a breeder. 

How did you get your first break? 

My first job happened by chance. I was visiting a local seed company in Hisar, where I did my higher education, with one of my friends . The company is dealing in vegetable seeds and during an informal interaction, after coming to know about my background, the owner offered me a job as a breeder in his company. Though it was not a very large company, but for me, the offer was not bad either, as I was waiting for my final PhD viva. That’s how I got my first job. In my role, in addition to supervising an already running program, I initiated and established the seed export for the company, which was an alien field for me at that time. That’s how my interesting journey started in this field. 

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

At a personal level, I faced several challenges- at the beginning of my career, getting a job was not easy. While in the government sector, there are thousands of applicants vying for each post, while in the private sector, they expect you to carry relevant experience. Once I began my career with a small company, I gradually started moving to bigger organizations. Remember, after creating your own identity in the research sector, it is easier to get better opportunities. 

Second challenge was to own and claim an achievement to support my candidature – initially, I was moving from one industry to another, and spending a short period of around one year in every company s. In agricultural research, to achieve some significant milestones, like developing successful varieties, you need to work with an organization for a longer period. So, I started accumulating my achievements after my first long stay with CIP. Therefore, spending enough time with an organization is necessary for career growth, and to claim some significant outcomes as your contribution. 

Third challenge was that, working in field conditions in remote areas is not easy. For any organization, it is not feasible and commercially viable to provide all the required support in the farmers’ field. So, I needed to learn how to manage with available resources in the field. I needed to sharpen my networking and communication skills with farmers. Working in a diverse environment, I realized that farmers across the globe are very docile, always helpful, willing to listen and if you communicate well, will follow your advice too. 

At a professional level, for everyone, initially the biggest challenge is to compete with the large number of applicants for the small number of job openings. Rejection is normal, so do not let yourself down because of that. Rather, keep exploring better opportunities. Based on my experience, I can say that rejections are always helpful in shaping your career for a better outcome, than the selections. Rejections force you to explore your career in a diverse direction, whereas selections stop you from thinking beyond your assigned job-graph. So, take rejections as an opportunity, not as a stress factor. Once you start advancing in your career, you will face less competition and get better options. 

The second challenge within this profession is that field-based jobs are not concentrated in big cities or around, so make sure that if needed, you are ready to work in remote places lacking modern facilities. 

As field experience is a significant strength in the sector, be prepared to work under the supervision of someone who has lesser educational qualification than you but strong expertise in your field. Agricultural research is an applied science field, so practical experience in combination with qualifications carries more weightage than qualification alone. 

Where do you work now? What problems do you solve?

I am working for a potato research company Tuberosum Technologies Inc. in Canada. We are partnering with breeders and companies in the Netherlands, Chile and the United States. 

Potato is a major crop cultivated globally and its production is increasing due to its diversified utilization in the growing processing sector. Until a few years back, as a breeder, my prime target was to develop high yielding disease-resistant table purpose varieties, but now our emphasis is strongly diverted towards developing potato processing varieties. Developing processing varieties need more efforts, as in addition to all the traits of table-purpose varieties, it should be packed with processing traits like frying, chipping, dry matter etc. Additionally, we are also developing small-sized potatoes and coloured-flesh potatoes. As I already have spent a large part of my career in plant breeding, and more than half of that in potato breeding, it is a continuous learning in the same field while targeting diverse traits. To achieve our goals, we breed potato varieties by crossing different genotypes, evaluating them in fields and labs, and then proposing them for release as varieties. All these steps run in parallel at different stages. Saskatchewan province, where I work, is famous for its harsh winters where temperature goes down up to -400C, so of course, field evaluation is not possible round the year. During summers, we conduct crossings and field trials, whereas in winters, we remain busy in in-house evaluations, storage analysis, statistical analysis of our trials, and planning for next year trials. 

What is it you love about this job? 

The best thing about my job is that I spend time with the plants and stay connected with nature. Unlike white-collar jobs, it gives me chance to stay and work outside in fields, interact with the farmers and travel globally. I love traveling. For a non-agricultural scientist, it might look like very basic research, but now agricultural research is a blend of traditional and modern approaches for better and sustainable production. Agricultural sciences are on the path of growth, and traditional divisions are being replaced with more specific streams like data mining, climate-resilience, water use efficiency, sustainability, remote sensing, biotechnology, crop modelling, nutrition security, gender equality, to name a few. 

How does your work benefit society?

Outcomes of all the agricultural research programs are projected to have more production of better-quality food. I am working for potatoes, which is considered the third largest food crop globally. It is being grown by small as well as large farmers, in poor as well rich countries. After production, in addition to table purposes, it is being utilized by the processing companies for french fries, chips and many other products. So, as a crop, it not only provides income to the farmers, but also generates employment for the youth. Breeding varieties for different purposes is my job, and as a small unit of a global potato research-community, I am continuously working on it. Surprisingly, not enough trained potato breeders are available for the jobs available in this field. So, there are jobs waiting for the emerging scientists. 

Agriculture is amongst the oldest professions of the world, and breeding in the form of selection has been adapted by humans since the domestication of farming, or even before that. Despite this, agriculture is not among the profitable professions, where even an assured income can be guaranteed. I have met and interacted with farmers across the globe from Africa, South Asia, South-East Asia, Europe, Latin America and North America. No matter where they work, farmers are always the most vulnerable community, irrespective of the economic status of the country. In Asia, Africa and Latin America, where they have small land holdings, their profit is uncertain due to less or over-production, whereas in Europe, a large part of farmers’ income goes towards paying off their debt to the financial institutes for their land. In North America, despite owning large tracts of land, climatic adversities and market challenges bring them to the same level. So, as agricultural scientists, our job is to address not only issues related to increased production, but ensure we improve the farmers’ income through sustainable production under changing climatic conditions, by managing overproduction, improving market acceptance of the products etc. 

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

Working with CGIAR centres gave me chance to meet resource-poor farmers in remote areas of different continents. Normally, due to their poor buying capacities, these farmers are not in the beneficiaries list of commercial players, and they remain neglected. While working with them, I understood their concerns and provided them with the best solutions as a team. In CIP, during my first assignment, we were developing potato varieties, suitable for dry and hot conditions in Rajasthan in India. I conducted trials in Jodhpur, and the farmers working with me were amazed with the production of these clones in their fields. Despite being traditional farmers, it was their first exposure to the potato as a crop. 

Your advice to students based on your experience?

As I mentioned before, rejections are more important in shaping your career than selections. So, keep on exploring opportunities around you, keep on growing and love your profession. Try to accumulate more achievements in your profile by spending considerable time in your current organization, and then grow in your career based on those achievements. 

Agricultural research is the profession, where you are working for the welfare of the farming community, who feed the world. So feel proud of yourself, if you are an agricultural science student. 

No matter how much we develop as a society, we need food to survive. There is no substitute for food, but only food. So, research on agriculture which started long back, since the evolution of human beings is going to remain an integral part of global priorities.  

Future Plans?

I am quite unpredictable. So, I never think about “where do I see myself in five years from now?”. I am taking life as it comes. It has been a wonderful journey so far, and I believe something better is still to come. One thing I am sure about is, for the rest of my career, I will continue working for potato, my favorite crop.