Santosh Kumar, Wheat Breeder at AAFC Brandon

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Santosh Kumar, PhD is a Research Scientist at the Brandon Research and Development Center (BRDC) for Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC). Kumar completed his master’s degree at the Indian Agricultural Research Institute in New Delhi, India before moving to Canada for his PhD program. As a PhD student at the University of Manitoba (UM) Kumar worked on barley physiology and genetics. He currently lives in Brandon, Manitoba with his wife and two children.

Where did you work before the AAFC-BRDC?

After my PhD and before I became a Research Scientist at the BRDC I was working at the UM as a Research Associate focusing on the genetics and genomics of flax.

What got you interested in this area of work?

I started my career learning about the basics of agriculture: how do you manage plants, what do the fields look like, and so forth. But I felt I wanted to be more specialized and better understand how the plants function. So, I did my master’s in the physiology of plants. When I was doing my master’s, I was advised to look into the emerging discipline of biotechnology. So, I did my PhD in Molecular Physiology learning a lot about biotechnology. After my PhD, I worked on genomics and bioinformatics as a research associate.

As I advanced my academic career, I was becoming more and more focused and I asked myself, where can I use all of this knowledge I have gained? If I’m not using it then why have I become so focused? That’s how I got into breeding and working with plants, and utilizing my specialized knowledge to help improve a crop we rely on.

Tell us a bit about what you’re working on the AAFC-BRDC.

I’m a Wheat Breeder whose primary role is to develop new, premium quality wheat varieties. My job is to develop elite wheat breeding populations in the Canada Western Red Spring cultivars for the eastern prairies (region east from the middle of Saskatchewan into Manitoba) and the northern prairies (region north from Saskatoon across all three prairie provinces). Those two areas are my ‘playground’ where we look at early maturing varieties (for the northern region) and high yielding disease tolerant varieties (for the eastern region).

For the eastern prairies, we focus on disease resistance traits like fusarium head blight resistance, leaf rust, stem rust and stripe rust, while maintaining the high yield and quality parameters of Canada Western Red Spring varieties. For the northern prairies we look at early maturing lines where wheat yield can start to suffer because the plants are not staying in the field for that long. In this case we have to push yield while maintaining the early maturity type as well as the Canada Western Red Spring quality with the disease package that is required in the northern prairies.

It’s a diverse program where we are looking at very different traits for different regions, and are coming up with varieties to suit those areas.

In addition, I manage a molecular genomics lab where we develop new molecular markers to assist with breeding. The markers and genomics allow us to do efficient selection faster for the germplasm so we can get those varieties into the hands of the farmers sooner. It can take 10 to 15 years to develop a variety (too long) and farmers need something that is better than the previous variety, sooner.

The work I do is a team effort. I would like to acknowledge and thank all of the people who are involved in breeding at the BRDC in the wheat group and in our cereal group. We cannot perform without the help of our Canadian and international partners. We collaborate with other researchers and teams working in different areas like pathology, quality, and agronomy. These collaborations are highly appreciated and a critical part to what we do.

What can you say about the value of farmers providing funding and support to your organization?

Breeding is expensive and time consuming. We are funded through AAFC as well as all three prairie provinces under the Canadian Agricultural Partnership (CAP). Without that funding the research doesn’t progress, it’s a very critical component. We need that patience, continuous flow of funding and resources so we can continue to do the breeding that benefits farmers and the country as a whole.

Some figures tell us that the return on investment is 20 to 1. That means every one dollar spent on breeding returns 20 dollars back to farmers, to the community, and to the country. We strive to provide the best value for that investment back to farmers.

How does that farmer funding and support directly benefit farmers?

The varieties we develop in Canada serve two purposes. The first purpose is the variety becomes the source material to make more improved varieties for the future. The second purpose is the varieties we develop are seeded in the field. Those varieties that perform and yield well, have good disease resistance and high quality allow the farmer to sell it to the international market.

How do you spend your time outside of work?

I’m mostly an outdoorsy person. I like long walks in the evening, playing with my kids and I love movies. I also like to learn a lot about technology (be it in science or just any new things) that makes me think ‘okay, how does this work?’.

What is your favourite piece of technology? Why?

My cell phone – it comes in handy every time I need something. Looking for information, taking pictures, watching videos when I’m stuck trying to solve a problem or looking up diseases, its just amazing what a cell phone can do these days.

What gets you excited about the work you do?

The people! I work with an amazing group of people and I appreciate their dedication towards the work we do. I believe in the model that if you take care of the people, work takes care of itself.

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