Agriculture Industry

IRRI scientist honored with Borlaug Field Award for her work on farmer engagement and empowerment

20 September 2023, New Delhi: International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) scientist Dr. Swati Nayak – a highly accomplished researcher known for her pivotal role in engaging farmers in demand-driven rice seed systems, from testing and deployment to access and adoption of climate-resilient and nutritious rice varieties – has been honored as the recipient of the 2023 Borlaug Field Award by the esteemed selection jury of the World Food Prize.

Endowed by the Rockefeller Foundation, the Borlaug Field Award, named in honor of the renowned agricultural scientist and Nobel laureate Dr. Norman Borlaug, is presented annually to individuals under the age of 40 whose pioneering and exceptional science based work have significantly advanced the world’s food production and helped alleviate hunger and malnutrition. The recipient is awarded USD10,000 and an award diploma.

Nayak’s illustrious career, spanning over 13 years, has been characterized by outstanding contributions, unwavering perseverance, and a profound commitment to bridging the gap between scientific knowledge and practical applications.

Apart from being the South Asia Lead for Seed Systems at IRRI, Nayak also has been serving as the lead for cereal seed system group under the key initiative SeedEqual of CGIAR.

Throughout her career, Nayak has organized more than 10,000 on-farm and comparative testings and participatory evaluations for more than 500 rice varieties and disseminated more than 20 critical path-breaking varieties that are climate resilient, high-yielding, bio-fortified, and healthier through seed systems and scaling channels in many countries.

One of her critical accomplishments include her role in positioning and creating early entry points for many potential drought-tolerant varieties in India. Nayak and her team formulated a strategy for introducing the drought-tolerant rice variety Shahabhagi Dhan in Mayurbhanj, one of the most populous, mostly tribal, districts in Odisha, India. Eight years after Nayak’s initial intervention, Sahabhagi Dhan remains one of the most in-demand products in Odisha and the rest of India.

She is also one of the key scientists working in the international seed policy agreement that speeds up the distribution of modern rice varieties across South and Southeast Asia called Seeds Without Borders. The Bangladesh Ministry of Agriculture Secretary Wahida Akter said in her nomination letter for Dr. Swati Nayak, “Her role in releasing and expanding a number of promising novel rice varieties, developed in Bangladesh and introduced to India is highly regarded as this has effectively crossed geographic boundaries – research innovations reaching the hands of farmers, regardless of their nationality at a faster scale.”

Nayak has always advocated for gender inclusion in agriculture research, actively engaging women in participatory research. Her initiatives have led to the establishment of numerous women-led seed enterprises, benefiting not only in productivity but also income, decision-making authority, and overall empowerment of women.

Indian Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare Joint Secretary (Seeds), Shri Pankaj Yadav supported Nayak’s nomination and said, “Dr. Nayak has been championing various rural innovation models focusing on agriculture technology transfer, extension and enterprise development. Her stewardship in scaling various participatory field research and extension models are highly appreciated in the national system and replicated widely.”

From 2021 to 2022, through Nayak and her seed system team’s efforts, women-led seed enterprises were able to produce, distribute, and sell approximately 8.5 metric tons of quality seeds. More than 40 percent of the participants in her programs, whether on-farm testing of varieties, varietal demonstrations, participatory rice variety evaluation, or seed production, have been women farmers.

In addition to that, Nayak helped empower women in agriculture through her work with the National Rural Livelihood Mission (NRLM) spearheaded by the Indian Government and the World Bank. At NRLM, Nayak anchored a critical initiative known as MKSP (Mahila Kisan
Sashaktikaran Pariyojna). This was the first ever such dedicated initiative approved by
Indian Cabinet for women farmers. The MKSP initiative has benefited four million women farmers to date.

The Borlaug Field Prize selection jury was impressed by Nayak’s tireless commitment to addressing the pressing challenges facing our planet and her accomplishments that have resonated far beyond the laboratory and in the field.

She expressed deep gratitude for receiving this prestigious award, stating, “I am deeply grateful to the World Food Prize Foundation for this honor which echoes our joint pledge to build a resilient food system and a better world for all. As a proud IRRI-CGIAR Scientist and having the opportunity to work with several eminent researchers, I dedicate this award to thousands of agriculture extensionists, change agents, and scaling and innovation experts specifically to all the young women professionals who are directly working with the farmers.”

“This moment is a new beginning and a great opportunity to further strengthen my efforts, voice, and impact as a field scientist. I look forward to working relentlessly, and ensuring that novel technologies, knowledge, and resources reach the farmers faster while ensuring equity and inclusivity,” she added.

IRRI Interim Director General Dr. Ajay Kohli attested to Nayak’s exemplary work. He said, “Dr. Nayak has made a significant and quantifiable impact on sustainable rural livelihoods, agricultural extension, and food security. Through her dedicated efforts, numerous farming communities have experienced increased crop productivity, improved income generation, and enhanced seed availability.”

The award was officially announced on 19 September 2023 during a CGIAR-hosted event at the New York City Climate Week. Dr. Swati Nayak is set to formally receive the award during the Borlaug Dialogue scheduled to take place on 24 October 2023 in Des Moines, Iowa.

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