A Life of Cultivation

Article by Edin Simms and Laina Schneider

Earlier in September, innovATE caught up with S.K. De Datta, an international agricultural expert, to learn about his work in agricultural research and education.

“My philosophy in life is to have a passion to excel so that your work benefits others,” says S.K. De Datta, retired associate vice president for international affairs and former director of the Office of International Research, Education, and Development.

De Datta, a rare combination of visionary and pragmatist, has devoted his life to battling food insecurity. He has done some other extraordinary things along the way as well. On a recent trip to Blacksburg, De Datta spoke with Edin Simms, program assistant for InnovATE, about his personal and professional accomplishments, life philosophy, and perspective on international development.

innovATE: Your work and accomplishments have been well-documented, but not your personal life. Can you tell me about your childhood?

De Datta: I grew up in Burma where I was 1 of 7 children, and my father was a British civil servant. When we came back to India, I studied at a non-sectarian school and lived in a dormitory through high school. In college, I played tennis, cricket, and ping-pong most of the time. I was more into sports than anything else.

innovATE: As a young man, was there a turning point in your life that made you decide you were going to dedicate yourself to agricultural development issues?

De Datta: I wanted to be a medical doctor. Medicine was my passion, but I realized it would be hard for my father to send me to medical school. Agriculture was a very important field. I didn’t know anything about it because I grew up in big cities. I ended up at one of the best agricultural universities in India. [Banaras Hindu University.] After I got my bachelor’s, I went on to study soil science and agricultural chemistry in New Delhi. The real turning point was when I was doing my master’s and I started learning about food problems in the world. That changed me. I decided I had to go where I could be helpful for food security. Later in my career I was asked to be a part of the International Rice Research Institute, where the focus was that whatever you do in science should help the end user, the farmer, the grower. That changed my whole philosophy of science. I knew this would be my lifelong effort—to see if I could contribute to global food security.

S.K. De Datta delivers remarks upon receipt of the International Plant Protection Award f Distinction.

innovATE:What would you say your greatest accomplishments were in this lifelong effort?

De Datta: I am very proud of my graduates. I had 77 master’s and PhD graduates from 22 countries. One of my passions was that the students studying with me would not just get a degree, but that they would have a piece of my philosophy of life. The most exciting period of my life was at the International Rice Research Institute, because we were doing research on a food crop, rice, which feeds over 3 billion people. We developed a new breeding line, IR8, which has been grown on millions of hectares and increased production by 3 to 4 times in every country. I was really fortunate to be associated with research which helped change a hungry world to a less hungry world. That was the most significant contribution of my scientific career.

I also have a small family, me, my wife and my son, who now has two youngsters of his own. My wife was a former movie star in India—her screen name was L. Vijayalakshmi. I was introduced to her by her brother, who was my colleague. I chased after her for a year and she finally agreed to get married. She later had a very successful second career in accounting here at Virginia Tech. Our son is the main reason we moved to California, where he has his own company called BloomReach. I am very proud of my family.

innovATE:What is it that led you to be specifically interested in gender as a component of agricultural development?

De Datta: When I was at the International Rice Research Institute, the director pushed our program toward gender. Most of us on the technical side did not understand its importance, but he told us we had to make an impact, and if you bypass 50% or more of the citizenry, who are women, you are not helping. His program thrived. So when I came to Virginia Tech, I knew that would be the centerpiece of my legacy, and I hired a full-time gender program director.

innovATE:A common objection to using funds from the United States to do development work is that the U.S. has a lot of domestic problems which the money could solve. How would you reply to this concern?

De Datta: This is a very important question for taxpayers. We are using government money. You see, we are living in an interconnected world, and what happens in country X impacts the United States in every single way: economic, social, political, geopolitical—in every way we are interconnected. We are one of the, in fact THE, best country in the world in terms of economic leadership.  So if the U.S. thrives, the world thrives, and if the U.S. is not doing well, the whole world goes down. We cannot export and increase our resources to the hungry people of the world. They don’t have the capacity to buy our goods and services. Secondly, a hungry world is a desperate world. [People] will go to war, which means the U.S. could be negatively impacted. So, by helping others, we are really helping ourselves. It would be almost criminal for us to be negligent of the rest of the world going hungry while we have all this abundance and don’t share it. I guess this kind of benevolence in helping others is very much American. It is the soul of America that you cannot be just inward looking.

innovATE:What do you think are the biggest obstacles to achieving food security that the world faces?

De Datta: Poor political leadership and corruption. Many countries need to change their policies and determine their development priorities. The International Food Policy Research Institute is doing policy research for international agriculture, and they are doing a good job in helping developing countries change their policies. These countries also need to refocus, because the landscape has changed. Climate change is a reality, and it is negatively impacting agriculture, health, everything. We have serious problems ahead of us, and the world cannot be aloof. Everything is the U.S.’s problem, France’s problem, Germany’s problem, Canada’s problem, and of course developing countries’ problem. That is why international collaboration is crucial.