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Published by Communications and Public Affairs (519) 824-4120, Ext. 56982 or 53338

News Release

May 07, 2002

U of G student awarded prestigious international fellowship

A University of Guelph graduate student is one of only two researchers worldwide to receive a prestigious fellowship to study the conservation of plant genetics.

Kirit Patel, a PhD candidate in rural studies in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, received a 2002 Vavilov-Frankel Fellowship from the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute in Rome, Italy. The fellowships are awarded to outstanding young researchers to carry out innovative research at an advanced institute outside their own country for up to a year.

Patel, a native of Gujarat province in India and a PhD student since the fall of 1999, will use the $24,000 US fellowship at Guelph for his research on poverty and agrobiodiversity, which supports farmers’ efforts for crop improvement and conservation.

Patel’s supervisor, Prof. Sally Humphries, said the fellowship is a major coup for both Patel and the University. “Within the world of conservation, it is an extremely prestigious award for young scholars, maybe the most prestigious,” she said. “And it almost always goes to biological scientists. So to have it go to a social science student at Guelph is quite a feat.”

Before coming to Guelph, Patel earned a master’s degree in agricultural sciences from Gujarat Agricultural University in India in 1991, then began working on a national project that focused on the creativity of small farmers and other grassroots innovators, examining how they evolve and how they develop solutions to day-to-day problems. It led to significant policy changes at the national level in India by establishing the National Innovation Foundation in 1999. “It was a very exciting learning experience for me,” Patel said.

Inspired both by the academics and the farmers he was working with, Patel decided to continue his education, this time focusing on the social science aspects of natural resource management and rural development. He chose Guelph’s rural studies PhD program because of its interdisciplinary approach and its focus on sustainable rural communities and because of Humphries’s well-known work with small farmers in Honduras.

Here at Guelph, Patel’s focus has been on the conservation and sustainable use of the enormous local agrobiodiversity that exists in the fields of small and marginal farmers in India and other parts of the gene-rich south. Because marginal farmers can earn higher returns by growing commercially preferred high-yielding crop varieties than by growing diverse but often lower-yielding local varieties, crop biodiversity is under serious threat in developing countries, he said.

“In India, we are really at a crossroads in this area. Farmers are keen to adopt new promising varieties, but if they do so, genetic diversity will be lost. I am not against farmers growing new varieties, but you need a balance for ensuring on-farm conservation to maintain a diverse gene pool. You never know what value a particular local variety may have in the future for ensuring global food security. And once it’s lost, it may be lost forever.”

For Patel, receiving the fellowship confirms the importance of his collective work and represents recognition of the valuable contributions marginal farmers make in the conservation of genetic resources, as well as the value of interdisciplinary research. “It also speaks highly of the international reputation of the University of Guelph,” he said.

The Vavilov-Frankel Fellowship was launched in 1989 by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research to commemorate the contributions of academician Nikolai Ivanovich Vavilov and Sir Otto Frankel to plant science and global food security. It aims to encourage the conservation and use of plant genetic resources.

Contact: Kirit Patel
(519) 824-4120, Ext. 3531

For media questions, contact Communications and Public Affairs, (519) 824-4120, Ext. 3338.

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