Usha Barwale Zehr
But her microbiology courses sparked a fascination with new technologies that promised to transform farming, and Zehr soon found herself immersed in the subject she had intended to avoid.
Zehr has continued to work at the cutting edge of plant biotechnology, taking a science-based, holistic approach to breeding that combines conventional and novel techniques, including genome editing, to develop crops that benefit both smallholder farmers and the planet.
As director of a small private company, Zehr is well-placed to ensure those improved crops reach their intended beneficiaries. One example is insect resistant Bt brinjal, the first genetically modified (GM) food crop adopted in South Asia. It has helped farmers in Bangladesh reduce applications of pesticides while achieving a six-fold increase in income.
“The small holder farmer who we serve wants to improve their livelihoods and one way we can do that is to provide products which perform better, yield more — and thus more income — and do so in a sustainable manner,” Zehr explains.
“To see the benefits delivered to the farmers brings me the most joy.”
Under Zehr’s leadership, her company has developed other earth-friendly GM crops that are still in the regulatory process, including rice that can tolerate salinity and make efficient use of nitrogen and water.
“If we can use even just 10% less water to grow a crop, that is huge in many parts of India, and similarly, if agriculture is shown to be the solution for climate mitigation and carbon sequestration, it offers scalable and sustainable benefits,” she says.