‘Sustainable Farming’ is defining the future of crop production by eliminating or reducing the use of agrichemicals, which are nasty for the ecosystem and environment.

Gunjan Gera, our next pathbreaker, R&D team leader at Zond Beneficials Ltd ( Auckland), produces biological organisms for better yield and pest control in crop production.

Gunjan talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about the challenges in producing living organisms on a commercial scale, while maintaining the production line without compromising quality and hygiene.

For students, as our human population grows, we need to adopt eco-friendly practices based on IPM (Integrated pest management) and biological control agents to reduce our reliance on nasty chemicals which spoil our soil and waters.

Gunjan, what were your early years like?

I was born in a village called Bhirdana in Haryana. My family’s livelihood came from farming, and so while growing up, the most familiar thing for me was ‘farming and agriculture’. Despite my rural background, my parents understood the value of education and always inspired all us siblings to study well and make a good career. 

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

I did my bachelors in Biological Science, masters in Botany and then PHD in Plant physiology. As I loved nature, agriculture and plants, I chose my subjects around this field.

What were some of the drivers that led you to such an offbeat, unconventional and unique career?

My father has been a main influence for me. All his life, he did farming in a very traditional way which meant long, tedious and laborious hours in the field, for months, without much gain at the end. That always intrigued me to devise and utilize new agrotechnical practices to make it a nice desirable profession with a good output at the end of season.

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 doctoral research was focused on screening the genotypes of wheat to gain better yield under low phosphorus soil, since phosphorus is an expensive fertilizer and a lot of agricultural areas in India are low in phosphorus. For my research, I studied the biochemical, physiological and molecular profile of twelve different wheat varieties in response to low P level in soils.

How did you get your first break?

My first job was as a teacher- ‘Lecturer of Botany’ at DN college Hisar. I think I had better and meritorious qualifications among the other candidates, that made me more qualified, as a result of which I got that job. It was very special for me as I did my bachelors from the same college, and so teaching in the lecture room where I once sat on benches as a student, was a moment to cherish.

After this job I also worked as Assistant Lecturer for Biology at HAU, Hisar. It becomes easy to score a job after you have some experience in a similar role.

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

After finishing my PHD at HAU, Hisar; I moved to New Zealand to accompany my husband. Having the highest academic degree and a good teaching position at a post graduate college and university, I was confident that I was well qualified and skilled to get employed at a workplace of my choice. But the reality was far from my expectations. I struggled a lot to get a decent job in my skill area. The main reason was that all my qualifications were in ‘cereal crop production’ and in New Zealand there was not much cereal production especially in Wellington where I was based initially. I had to work in supermarkets to pay my bills. But then I decided that I should make some changes to bring about a change in my career. We moved to Auckland which was the hub of horticulture and vegetable production. I approached a company which produced biological agents on a commercial level to aid in Horticulture (like Bumblebees for pollination and predatory mites to combat pest infestation). I was hired as a ‘research assistant’ to help develop new products for the company. Soon after that, because of my hard work, inputs and enthusiasm at the workplace, I was promoted to Team leader and R&D manager, which is my current position.

Where do you work now? 

I am a production and R&D team leader at Zonda Beneficials Ltd, Auckland. It’s a very challenging work place where we produce biological organisms for benefits in crop production. Since we produce living organisms on a commercial level, it is an ever challenging task to maintain the production line without compromising the quality and hygiene.

What problems do you solve? 

Maintaining a team of sixteen staff members to run a smooth, consistent production schedule even in extreme weather, can be tricky especially when you are producing loving mobile creatures. But because of hard work and a good team, we make it happen. 

One of our major biocontrol agents is P. persimilis which very efficiently wipes out the spider mite pest from a range of edible and ornamental crops such as tomatoes, capsicum, cucumber, roses, orchids etc. The other main one is a generalist predatory mite A. cucumeris which feeds on a variety of pests such as thrips, spider mites, psyllids, aphids etc. I am currently working on developing a breeding system for another very effective and generalist predatory mite- A. Limonica. If successful, it will be a major breakthrough for NZ horticulturists and heavily reduce the usage of agrichemicals.

Besides predatory mites, we also breed B. terrestris for pollination purposes in covered and outdoor crops such as blueberry, tomato, kiwifruit, cherry, avocado, passionfruit etc.

What skills are needed in your role? How did you acquire the skills? 

Understanding of commercial crop production, entomology, plant physiology and NZ climate and environment are the foundational skills required in my job. I learnt some of these during my studies and work period in India. I had to upskill myself in terms of NZ specific climate, flora and fauna to be able to fit in my current role. The ease of technology makes it easy these days to upgrade your knowledge and skill base from anywhere in the world.

What’s a typical day like? 

A typical day at work means a lot of running around to make sure all the breeding systems are working as they are supposed to, as well as looking after my team members, dealing with customers and clients and finding time for research and development.

What is it you love about this job? 

My job is food for the brain all the time. I love it, the day goes so fast, and the end results are satisfying.

How does your work benefit society? 

My current job and career is focused towards ‘Sustainable Farming’. By introducing biological organisms in crop production, we eliminate or reduce the use of agrichemicals, which are nasty for the ecosystem and environment. So, for me this is the future.

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

I have recently led a research project worth $400,000. In this project we will be looking into gaining more efficiency from existing biological organisms and also develop more of them for better yield and pest control in the crop production without relying on agrochemicals. I am very excited and elated about this project and we are already working on it.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

In order to make our earth lively and livable for our future generations, it’s high time we adopt eco-friendly pathways. If you can make a career in it, do it. Your future generations will thank you for this.

Future Plans?

I would like to gain more skills and knowledge in IPM (Integrated pest management) and biological control agents to further eliminate the reliance on nasty chemicals which spoil our soil and waters. I am also keen to expand my wings into vertical farming. As the human population is only going to expand, we need to devise more sustainable and compact agri practices to feed the increasing number of people.