Cholani Weebadde is a plant breeder by training. She’s also an expert in international agriculture. Her work with Michigan State University (MSU) takes her around the world, where she facilitates the development of organizational relationships that lead to agricultural improvements. She aspires to increase access to nutritious food. But perhaps most importantly, Weebadde is a proud Sri Lankan.
Her fondness for the country where she was born — a small island nation off the southeast coast of India — is what prompted her to begin a career in agriculture more than a decade ago. One instance in particular made her realize that she could bring together her skills in plant breeding and capacity building to give back to her native country.
While on a trip to Sri Lanka in 2006, Weebadde repeatedly heard from prominent agricultural and governmental leaders about a surging strawberry industry. During her childhood, she recalled seeing small plots of the fruit but nothing on a large scale. Intrigued, Weebadde visited a nearby market and purchased strawberries sold by a Sri Lankan company called Jagro.
“I thought there was definitely room for improvement,” said Weebadde, an assistant professor in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources. “I am spoiled because of my access to great varieties in the U.S., and I did my doctoral research on strawberries. I thought this was an area where we could lend some expertise and a new perspective.”
When she returned to East Lansing, Weebadde relayed her experience to MSU plant breeder Jim Hancock, who is internationally acclaimed for developing many successful blueberry varieties.
“I told Jim that I thought the quality of strawberries wasn’t where it could be,” Weebadde said. “He looked at me and said, ‘Well, why don’t you do something about it?’”
Learning the ropes
From 2000 to 2005, Weebadde was a fresh-faced doctoral student in Hancock’s laboratory. Hancock — a professor emeritus in the MSU Department of Horticulture — has trained dozens of students over his more than 40-year career. Though his protégés have ventured to MSU from all over the globe, Weebadde was the first from Sri Lanka.
Noticing the enthusiasm of his pupils, in particular Weebadde, Hancock suggested that international graduate students organize a recurring meeting to discuss agriculture in their home countries and how they wanted to improve it.
For several weeks, Weebadde listened to her peers express ambitions of influencing policy, breeding techniques, technology and more. She was inspired but didn’t know how to channel her energy in the most efficient way. That’s when Hancock brought in a guest to speak to the group about international agriculture.
“After the final student presented, Jim brought in Karim Maredia,” Weebadde said. “I had seen Karim around campus before, but I didn’t know who he was and I certainly didn’t know the depth of MSU’s international work. When I heard Karim speak, it solidified what I wanted to do after graduation.”
Maredia is the director of the World Technology Access Program (WorldTAP) at MSU and a trailblazer in the fields of integrated pest management, biotechnology, biosafety and agricultural policy. He is currently leading a $12 million project funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to assist in the development of agricultural biotechnology in Africa.
“Karim is a builder,” Hancock said. “He gets people from different sectors to work together in ways they hadn’t considered. Knowing what Cholani was interested in, I knew she would be eager to talk with Karim about what he does and how he does it.”
A few days after hearing him speak, Weebadde bumped into Maredia in the parking lot outside of the Plant and Soil Sciences Building on the MSU campus. She complimented his presentation, and the duo began chatting about international collaborations. By the time they made it from the parking lot into the building elevator, Maredia asked Weebadde if she wanted to work with him.
“I was so excited, and I ran to Jim to ask if it was OK,” Weebadde said. “Jim was so supportive, and he gave me the freedom to continue pursuing my program in plant breeding while simultaneously establishing international contacts through Karim. It was amazing to have those two as mentors guiding me.
“Toward the end of my graduate program, Karim said something that really stuck with me. He told me that I could do far more for Sri Lanka, or any other country, by being at MSU and utilizing those resources than I could by moving back home and working in the country. That has definitely proven to be true.”
Upon graduation, Weebadde earned a faculty position at MSU. Armed with her knowledge of breeding, genetics and international agriculture, she was ready to make an impact.
Connecting the dots
To build her network of contacts, Weebadde — who is now the plant breeder for international programs and associate director of WorldTAP — accompanied Maredia on various international trips. One journey in 2006 took her to Sri Lanka, where she met influential individuals in academia and government, including representatives of the Council for Agricultural Research Policy.
Both Maredia and Weebadde talked with the minister of agriculture, Hon. Chamal Rajapakse, and his advisors in parliament. The following year, the minister visited MSU to establish collaborations with Sri Lanka for capacity building, which are now conducted by Weebadde.
Meanwhile, Weebadde learned more about Jagro strawberries. After her tasting experience and at Hancock’s urging, she pursued strategic partnership funding from the MSU Center for Global Connections. Once that was secured, Weebadde returned to Sri Lanka in December 2013 — this time with Hancock.
A contact at the U.S. embassy introduced Weebadde to Jagath Fernando, the Jagro CEO. Although Weebadde was initially nervous to broach the subject of quality, the conversation was extremely positive.
“When we first visited Jagro, I expected to see a relatively small production area,” Weebadde said. “But Jim and I both remarked that this was a world-class operation. We saw and tasted some good strawberries, but those were for export. The berries that entered the local markets were not of great quality, so that’s where Jim came in.”
Along with his blueberry efforts, Hancock’s strawberry breeding program dates back nearly 40 years to his beginnings at MSU in 1979. Back then, Hancock was working with wild germplasm in an effort to determine what may be horticulturally useful. He gradually combined that germplasm with the established varieties of the time to create a diverse bank of genetic material.
Creating new varieties of strawberries — or any other crop, for that matter — is a painstaking practice. It involves many years of testing, picking the ideal traits from multiple parent plants to generate a cultivar that meets the needs of the grower. Some growers want day-neutral plants, meaning that they can continue to flower regardless of day length and exposure to sunlight. Others require cold-hardiness so that varieties can better withstand low temperatures, among a plethora of other characteristics.
Testing for Hancock’s strawberries is mostly conducted in the temperate climate of Michigan, a stark contrast to the tropical Sri Lankan environment. But because most of Jagro’s strawberries are grown in greenhouses, Hancock wasn’t concerned. He suggested that the company grow some of his varieties to compare with its current products. If they perform well, Hancock and Weebadde discussed helping Jagro develop its own breeding program.
“We were really pleased when Jagro was receptive to our ideas,” Weebadde said. “They wanted to get moving on implementing Jim’s varieties as quickly as possible, but there was a lot to figure out before that could happen.”
A long process
The first step to getting plants to Sri Lanka was deciding which ones to send. Hancock and his lab technician Peter Callow have spent years in field trials with a host of varieties. Ultimately, they decided to send 17 advanced breeding lines to Sri Lanka.
Two of those 17 have been officially released as varieties and are on their way to commercialization. The first, known as Redstart, was intended for growing in the U.S. Midwest, Northeast and Pacific Northwest. It is a day-neutral variety that Hancock said has high marks for yield, color, firmness and flavor. The second, known as Wasatch, is to be grown in the same geographical regions but is stronger in its day neutrality than Redstart, fruiting longer in a Michigan trial.
The remaining 15 are what Hancock referred to as “elite selections,” some of which are good candidates for release as varieties.
During the selection process, Weebadde was in negotiations with Jagro. She told the company she would be willing to move forward with sharing the costs of testing and shipping the plants if Jagro let her participate in a research field trial. Weebadde wanted to see how varieties designed for a temperate climate perform in a tropical environment.
“This is a great scenario for us because we get research data, but we don’t have any of the costs of maintaining the field or facilities,” Weebadde said. “If they decide to move forward, Jagro pays a royalty to MSU for the right to grow and sell the strawberries as well, so it’s a win-win for the university.”
Though the benefits to MSU were vast, the team faced challenges in simply getting the strawberries to Sri Lanka. Callow was instrumental in completing this massive task, handling the day-today paperwork and shipping duties.
Callow first needed to obtain a material transfer agreement. It stipulates what the recipient will do with the shipment. In this case, the strawberry varieties are patented by MSU, so Jagro will pay a royalty if the company decides to propagate and sell them.
Next Callow needed an import permit, which detailed the requirements set forth by Sri Lanka for the plants’ entry into the country. This included thorough disease testing.
“Being an island nation, Sri Lanka has a ton of rules about what can and can’t come into the country,” Callow said. “The disease testing alone took us almost a year to finalize. We had to send plant samples all over the U.S. The Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development was a big help in connecting us with testing entities.”
Once disease testing was completed, the import permit stated that every plant must be free of soil. Callow and Weebadde spent several hours gently washing soil off of the roots and carefully packaging each plant.
“Obviously it’s not good for the plants to remove all of the soil, so we did that as the last possible step before packing and shipping,” Callow said. “It was a nervous few days waiting for them to arrive.”
When the plants reached their destination safely in October 2016, Jagro employees sent Weebadde photos to ease her worries. Only a few of the 85 plants showed any signs of wear and tear.
Just the beginning
Weebadde receives pictures of the strawberries each month to monitor progress. A few of the varieties have started to develop small offshoots that can be clipped and used in propagating the plants. Weebadde will visit the facility this summer to identify the varieties that are performing best. With each visit to Sri Lanka, she is reminded of the advice from Hancock and Maredia.
“Jim told me to follow my heart, and that was really meaningful to me,” Weebadde said. “I’ve had two amazing mentors in Jim and Karim. I’ve always been treated as a colleague instead of a student. I wouldn’t be here and in this position if not for their guidance, so I don’t take for granted anything they’ve done for me.”
Hancock said it’s rewarding to see a former student flourish, particularly in an area so personally meaningful.
“It’s wonderful to have a former student do what Cholani is doing,” Hancock said. “To be able to continue working with her as a colleague is exciting. This project puts all the pieces together for her to make a significant contribution to Sri Lanka, in addition to the other work she’s doing all over the world. She’s following her passion, and as a teacher that makes me feel good.”