Gurdev Singh Khush, Ph.D.

Khush's Departure from India
Gurdev Khush’s departure from the Punjab, India for England, December 1955
“Foreign countries are in your destiny but do not forget your motherland” (Urdu). Courtesy of the Khush Family.

UC Davis Professor Gurdev Singh Khush (born August 22, 1935) is an agronomist and geneticist who received the 1996 World Food Prize for his achievements in increasing and improving the global supply of rice during a time of enormous population growth in the developing world.  He is known as the Father of the Green Revolution in rice.  He is an example of the global reach of the Punjabi Americans in the Sacramento Valley who were trailblazers in science and other professions in the postwar era.

As the head of the rice breeding program at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines, Professor Khush developed more than 320 improved varieties of rice. These modern rice varieties helped avert a major catastrophe in recent world history by exponentially increasing the global food supply.  He visited and promoted research and training programs in 50 rice-growing countries that helped local farmers grow modern rice varieties, helping to double the world’s rice supply in just 25 years from the 1970s to the 1990s. As a result, major rice-producing countries became self-sufficient and some became net rice exporters, including India.

Family History

Professor Khush came from a Sikh Jat (farming) family in the Jallandar district of the Punjab in British India.  His father, S. Kartar Singh Kooner, was the first person in his village to graduate from high school.  He inspired his son to value education and academic achievement.  His mother did not receive a formal education, but she taught her son to be pious and hard-working. 

Early Years

Born in the small village of Rurkee, Dr Khush fondly remembers the simple lifestyle he enjoyed as a child.  The eldest of four children, he grew up on a wheat farm; his earliest memory is playing with his cousins, making small fields, putting some wheat seeds in the soil and adding water.  As a young boy he attended primary school in his village.  His early education was rudimentary: his school was a single room with one teacher to instruct four classes. In 1945, Dr Khush joined the Khalsa High School in Bundala, a school managed by the Sikh community that included teachers and students belonging to various religions (Sikh, Muslim, and Hindu).  Despite the fact that there was no electricity at home, he would study until late at night with a kerosene lamp.  He graduated first in his class.  In high school he enjoyed writing poetry and changed his name to “Khush” (happy or joyful).

During high school, he also lived through two momentous events in 1947 — India’s independence from British rule and the partition of India.  His village remained on the India side of the border, so his family was not displaced by partition.  Still, it was a difficult, uncertain time and he saw many Muslim families leave the villages to relocate to Pakistan.

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 Higher Education

After matriculation at the top of his class from Punjab University Chandigarh, he completed his undergraduate degree in plant breeding at Punjab Agricultural University in Ludhiana in 1955.  Although he wanted to become a doctor, he followed his father’s wish that he study agriculture instead. After graduation, Khush sought further education and opportunity abroad. He borrowed money from his relatives to purchase an airline ticket to England where he worked in a canning factory. In 18 months, he saved enough money to pay back his relatives and to buy a ticket to the US. As he worked in the canning factory near London, he studied German and French at night, adding two more languages that he would need for graduate school to those he already knew (Punjabi, Urdu, Hindi, Persian and English).

He decided to pursue his graduate work at the University of California, Davis due to a generous research assistantship offered to him by the famous evolutionary biologist, Dr G. Ledyard Stebbins.  Arriving in 1957, he earned his Ph.D. in just three years, specializing in cytogenetics.  After continuing at UC Davis as a postdoctoral researcher working on the cytogenetics of the tomato genome, he was offered an Assistant Professorship.  During the 1960s, it was a rare honor for a scientist from Asia to be offered a faculty position at a Tier One US research university.

Scientific Career in Rice Breeding

However, due to visa complications, he decided to join the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines as a plant breeder instead.  When he arrived at IRRI in 1967, he had never seen a rice plant in his life (rice is not a traditional crop in the Punjab).  He was tasked with developing high yield rice varieties with disease and insect resistance and good grain quality that could grow in diverse climates and conditions.  His major breakthrough came in 1976 with the release of the so-called super rice variety, IR36, one of the most popular rice varieties ever grown that fed one billion additional rice consumers.

He was appointed as the Head of the Plant Breeding Department in 1972.  In pursuit of developing improved rice varieties to nourish the growing developing world and support its agricultural economies, he spent 35 years directing and participating in rice genetic research and breeding.  During that time he played a key role in the development of more than 320 improved rice strains.  World rice production more than doubled, increasing from 257 million tons in 1966 to 600 million tons in 2000.  He retired from IRRI in February 2002 as Principal Plant Breeder and Head of Division of Plant Breeding Genetics and Biochemistry.

Honors

In recognition of his outstanding research and its global impact in alleviating world hunger and contribution to global food security, Dr Khush was awarded the world’s top prizes in agriculture.  The international awards include the Japan Prize (1987), the World Food Prize (1996) in the US, Padma Shri award (2000) from President of India, and the Wolf Prize in Agriculture (2000) from Israel.  He was elected a Fellow of The Indian National Science Academy (1978), US National Academy of Sciences (1989), the Royal Society of London (1995).  He has been awarded honorary doctorate degrees by over fifteen universities in the US, India, England and Canada, including one from Cambridge University.  With the proceeds from his awards, he established the Dr. Gurdev Singh Khush Foundation for the Advancement of Agricultural Studies in 2010, which is a non-profit philanthropic organization dedicated to promoting agricultural development in the Punjab (http://www.khushfoundation.org).

Conclusion

In 2002, Dr Khush returned to UC Davis as an Adjunct Professor.  He lives in Davis, CA with his wife, Dr. Harwant Kaur Khush.  They have raised four children together: Ranjiv, Manjeev, Sonia, and Kiran. He continues to lecture and consult nationally and internationally.

SOURCES:

Interviews with Professor Gurdev Khush by Nicole Ranganath, July 14 and 20, 2016, Davis, CA.

Khush, Gurdev S.  “Green Revolution: Preparing for the 21st Century” National Research Council Canada 42:4 (1999), 646-55.

Singh, Ranjit, Gurdev Singh Khush: Man Behind the Green Revolution in Rice Farming (Ludhiana, India: Punjab Agricultural University, 2000).

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