P. Nair (India)
Opposite Rotary Center
KANHANGAD 673 541
Position: Chairman of the Independent Expert Committee to advise the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee of the Government of India on the suitability of genetically modified crops in Indian agriculture (since August 2006)
1. When did you decide to study soil science?
To be quite frank, I did not decide to study soil science. It was purely an academic accident, perhaps, a very fortuitous one at that. I did my Masters and Doctorate degrees in Agronomy (Crop Production) in India, the former from the Agricultural College, Coimbatore, established by the British during the imperial rule of India, and the latter from the famous Indian Agricultural Research Institute in New Delhi in the mid sixties. Those days in India, only students with a background of pure chemistry went into soil science. But, I was an agricultural graduate and only had minimal knowledge of chemistry. It was in 1980 when I was selected for the prestigious Senior Fellowship of the world-renowned Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, and went on to work in the Institute of Plant Nutrition, in Giessen, affiliated to the Justus von Liebig University, headed by Professor Konrad Mengel, that I realized that without good grounding in soil science, I would not make a good Agronomist. So, my studies in soil science actually began in 1980.
2. Who has been your most influential teacher?
Although I was exposed to some soil science in mid sixties, working under the supervision of late Professor Andre Cottenie, Director of the Laboratory of Analytical and Agrochemistry , at the Faculty of Agriculture, State University of Gent, Belgium, on a Post Doctoral Fellowship awarded by the Ministry of National Education and Culture, the real exposure to soil science began only in 1980 when I joined Professor Mengel. The pioneering work of Professor Cottenie in micronutrients exposed me to the idea that I needed to be well grounded in soil science, especially physical chemistry. But, it had to wait until 1980 to take shape, when I joined Professor Mengel. Thus, I would consider both Professor Cottenie and Professor Mengel, as my most influential teachers, but, it was the latter who really challenged me to understand a lot more of the intricacies of soil science, especially with regard to nutrient dynamics, which finally led to the development of 'The Nutrient Buffer Power Concept'- a path breaking soil testing procedure, which, I believe, is recognized now, globally. I have been invited thrice to contribute chapters to the very prestigious publication Advances in Agronomy.
3. What do you find most exciting about soil science?
How a plant root absorbs nutrients from the soil matrix. A colossal amount of research,spanning more than a century, at tremendous cost ,has gone into the question of defining the precise meaning of the term 'available' nutrient. I believe, in the ultimate analysis, it is the plant and plant alone that will decide whether a soil nutrient is 'available' or not. And this view has been shared by Mr. Peter Nye, of the Soil Science Department, Oxford. But then, it is our prime responsibility to tell the farmer, in as precise a manner as possible, what an available nutrient is and how best one could quantify this entity so that he reaps the maximum from his investments in fertilizers on the basis of our practical recommendations. I find this the most exciting field to explore, I still do not have all the answers, but, my research has come a long way in helping the farmers of the developing world.
4. How would you stimulate teenagers and young graduates to study soil science?
I think, I would start from grade I. Start with simple experiments like wetting a mass of soil, a clayey one and a sandy one, exposing both to sunlight for a fixed period of time, say an hour to two, and then ask the child to look at both and arouse his/her curiosity as to why the former is still moist while the latter turns dry. Take the child to a flowing stream and arouse his/her curiosity by dropping a pebble and a piece of paper and try finding out why the former sinks, while the latter floats. As for the graduates in soil science, the best way to enthuse them is to drive home vigorously the point that without soil there is no life on planet earth and soil ,indeed, is SOUL (S) OF (O) INFINITE (I) LIFE (L), an invaluable gift of God to life on earth and unless we manage it intelligently, humanity has no future.
5. How do you see the future of soil science?
Right now, the leaders of global soil science have a unique opportunity to impress upon political leadership that it is the intelligent management of global soil resources that will open up the greatest opportunity in producing food in abundance. Though the so-called 'green revolution', the bedrock of which is the liberal and, more often than not, unbridled use of chemicals - fertilizers and pesticides -, produced an enormous quantity of food, the price we paid on the environmental front has been enormous. Professor Jeffrey Sacchs elaborated on this point during his keynote address at the 18th World Soil Science Congress in Philadelphia, USA. Soil degradation, drying aquifers, vanishing bio diversity (due to continuous monoculture) is the price we paid for this increased food production. Asia, India, in particular, stands testimony to this environmental catastrophe. This, indeed, is a very great opportunity for soil scientists to tell the world leaders that one can still produce much food from the same patch of land without paying this price, if only we devise ways for it. I believe it is not easy task, as a lot of havoc created has to be undone. But, therein lies the greatest opportunity for committed soil scientists and I believe, the real future of soil science.