Dr. Glenn B. Gregorio: UN Food Systems Champion

“The year 2021 must be a year where previous justifications are to be rendered as no longer acceptable. Instead, the touted ‘new normal’ clearly means concrete actions that are wiser, effective, and sustainable.”

Those words came from the mouth of Dr. Glenn B. Gregorio, a famous plant breeder researcher and current director of the Philippines-hosted Southeast Asian Regional Center for Graduate Study and Research in Agriculture (SEARCA).

The good news is: Dr. Gregorio has been appointed as one of the new Champions of the United Nations (UN) Food Systems Summit 2021.

Dr. Gregorio is honored for being appointed as such. But what is very important is that the citation “aligns well with SEARCA’s mandate and its focus on accelerating transformation through agricultural innovation while pursuing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by strengthening academe-industry-government interconnectivity.”

The SDGs are the blueprint for achieving a better and more sustainable future for all. They address the global challenges the world faces, including poverty, inequality, climate change, environmental degradation, peace, and justice.

The UN Food Systems Summit will be held this coming September yet. Its objective is “to raise awareness on the centrality of food system to the entire sustainable development agenda and draw attention to the urgency of transforming food systems, particularly in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Dr. Gregorio will join other food systems champions from around the world.

“The Champions Network mobilizes a diverse range of people in every region of the world to call for fundamental transformation of the world’s food systems. Champions are leaders of institutions and networks advancing food systems transformation and thought leadership,” the United Nations explains.

Dr. Gregorio said becoming a food systems champion will “give us more opportunity to work with like-minded organizations and individuals towards the same goal of achieving the SDGs and food security.”

The forthcoming landmark meeting seeks to help stakeholders achieve the SDGs “in 10 years through a food systems approach, leveraging the interconnectedness of food systems to global challenges such as hunger, climate change, poverty, and inequality.”

As part of the Champions Network, Dr. Gregorio commits to contribute to substantive discussions, generate ideas, and take action to strengthen food systems, and share information to ensure anyone with an interest in food systems at all levels can engage with the UN summit.

Indeed, Dr. Gregorio has gone a long way. Even at the young age of 15, he was already showing his “logical-mathematical mind” while attending a rural high school in Bukidnon. He reportedly designed a pyramid solar dryer for farm produce, which earned him an award from the Department of Science and Technology (DOST) as one of Ten Outstanding Young Scientists (TOYS).

He earned all his educational degrees from the University of the Philippines at Los Baños (UPLB) in Laguna. He is a graduate of Bachelor in Agriculture (in agronomy) as a Dean’s Lister in 1986; Master of Science in plant breeding (soil science) in 1991 as International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) scholar; and his Ph.D. in genetics (statistics) in 1997 as a DOST scholar.

From being a research aide, Dr. Gregorio rose to become the deputy head of IRRI’s Plant Breeding, Genetics, and Biotechnology Division. He was a senior scientist and plant breeder specializing in the breeding of rice that tolerates saline and other problem soil in Asia and Africa.

Throughout his career, Dr. Gregorio has bred more than 15 rice varieties, mostly salt-tolerant varieties that have greatly helped farmers in Bangladesh, India, Nigeria, and the Philippines. He also led efforts to develop micronutrient-dense rice varieties to address anemia and malnutrition in Bangladesh, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Vietnam.

Rice breeding, however, is not his only forte. He also served as crop breeding manager for corn at the East-West Seed Company, Inc. from 2015 to 2018, where he was the global leader of the sweet corn and waxy corn breeding programs for South and Southeast Asia, Latin America, and sub-Saharan Africa.

In 2004, he was given The Outstanding Young Men (TOYM). In 2012, the Ho Chi Minh Medal was bestowed to him for “having great contribution to the cause of agriculture and rural development of Vietnam.”

In 2018, he was conferred the rank of Academician as a member of the National Academy of Science and Technology (NAST). He was cited for his major contribution “in the genetics and breeding for salinity tolerance and related abiotic stresses in rice… His studies on the genetics and molecular mapping for salinity tolerance along with the development of rapid screening techniques has fast tracked the identification and development of salt tolerant germplasm and breeding lines that help research institutions in the Philippines and around the world to established and support their breeding program towards development of climate change ready rice varieties.”

In 2019, he was conferred by the UPLB Alumni Association as one of the recipients of the College of Agriculture and Food Science Distinguished Alumni Award. The recognition was bestowed to outstanding alumni “who exemplify honor and excellence for the contribution of their own field to the scholarship of agriculture and food science.”

A few days later, he was recognized by the Crop Science Society of the Philippines for his significant contributions to crop science through his pioneering breeding research. “His studies on the genetics and molecular mapping for salinity tolerance, and his development of rapid screening techniques resulted in the first batches of salt-tolerant varieties in the Philippines, and other countries in Asia and Africa,” said a press statement.

In his acceptance speech, he told the young crop science professionals: “Continue to explore and enjoy; to try and to be ready to fail and learn from it. We tried it; succeed or fail, we always learn. Explore, dare, be different and take risks for the sake of science. But, at the same time, be patient. Perseverance is the key.”

In October last year, he was installed as the new director of SEARCA. He became the 11th director since the center was found in 1966. He is the 7th UPLB professor to assume the leadership role – after Dr. Dioscoro L. Umali, Dr. Joseph C. Madamba, Dr. Emil Q. Javier, Dr. Fernarndo A. Bernardo, Dr. Percy E. Sajize, and Dr. Ruben L. Villareal.

At SEARCA, Dr. Gregorio works on reinforcing transformative change in agricultural food systems through various initiatives with its partners. Such efforts include developing a digital agriculture platform to provide farmers with real-time farm management technical support and access to modern markets.

Together with the Economic Research Institute for ASEAN and East Asia (ERIA), SEARCA is also developing the ASEAN Guidelines that will outline conditions and actions needed for the inclusive and sustainable use of digital technologies for agriculture and food system improvements.

Dr. Gregorio is also a Professor at the University of the Philippines Los Baños-College of Agriculture and Food Science and Academician at the National Academy of Science and Technology (NAST), Philippines. Moreover, he is President of the Society for the Advancement of Breeding Research in Asia and Oceania (SABRAO) until 2023 and the Chairperson of the Commission on Higher Education (CHED) Technical Panel for Agriculture until 2024.