Today, Manjit Misra is helping to shape the future of feeding America as director of the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), but decades ago, he was first shaped by the seven years he spent at the University of Missouri’s College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources where he received his master’s and doctoral degrees.
“I certainly got a world-class education, but I really enjoyed learning and doing all sorts of other things,” Misra said of his time with CAFNR.
Misra will return to the University of Missouri campus on Thursday, Oct. 5, when he is the keynote speaker for the CAFNR Research Symposium. The symposium will begin at 9 a.m. in Memorial Union. The event is free and open to the public. Misra’s talk is titled “Good Health Begins with a Seed in the Soil.”
Among the lessons outside of his formal curriculum, Misra left CAFNR with deep appreciations for connections with others, effective communication skills, the land-grant mission and care for community.
Those lessons are reflected in the work he is doing at NIFA. As director, he has the opportunity to give shape to the projects funded by the organization’s $2 billion budget, and he takes pride in focusing on projects that will deliver the most impact – especially for small farmers and the food-insecure.
“Right now, I am very interested in food insecurity, and that is why I took this job here at NIFA,” Misra said. “We are feeding and nourishing people. Not just feeding. The nourishing is important.”
For Misra, this means supporting research and programs aimed at providing more nutrient-rich foods to more Americans and a focus on the concept of 1,000 days. The concept, he explained is that the first 1,000 days from conception to a child’s second birthday is a critical time for nutrition and that deficits in nutrition can create both physical and cognitive deficits with lifelong implications.
This desire to take care of others through his work is a big part of who Misra is, but he credits experiences had among his peers at CAFNR for inspiring that desire. He talked about the incredible support of the international student community — Misra grew up in India — who created an entire second wedding for him and his wife so they could experience both of their native cultures, Hindu and Catholic, on their wedding day. And, he talked about witnessing the way Americans help their neighbors.
“Americans do a lot of volunteering, especially in retirement,” he said. “I saw that as a graduate student — how people loved their communities.”
Americans loving their communities is not news to Missouri’s family farmers, but Misra’s dedication to them may be. He views getting resources to farmers as an integral part of what he and NIFA do as they help fund land-grant universities across the nation.
“I learned the land-grant mission at CAFNR,” Misra said. “I started as extension, and I am very much into extension, research and education. I like the idea that we can take the land-grant mission to the public. People should have access. This is about access, not only for those who can afford it.”
For producers, that may look like courses or other resources to teach them about managing the business side of their farms; how to keep books or make a business plan. For parents, that may look like workshops or community demonstrations to learn how to identify or prepare healthier foods for their families. For scientists, it may be funding to build that communication piece to put their research in the hands of those it will help the most.
With this love of community along with science and the land-grant mission, it is no surprise that Misra describes Missourian George Washington Carver as his “personal hero.” In fact, he says he had a statue of Carver placed outside of the Seed Science Center at Iowa State University when he was director of the Center.
To current CAFNR students, Misra has two pieces of advice. The first is to say, “yes” to allowing new opportunities in their lives.
“The second thing I would tell them: don’t limit themselves,” Misra said. “The limitations we put on ourselves are the big limitations. With confidence, not arrogance, but confidence, with humility, say, ‘Yes, I want to try.’ People will tell you we tried, we have done that before. But, I would say, it’s not necessary to argue. Just say, ‘Let me try.’”
He also encourages young scientists to become good communicators — a skill he himself learned from his advisor at CAFNR who was a Toastmaster.
“Our scientists need to be great communicators,” he said. “If you do all kinds of research and don’t tell anyone about it, it’s not worth a hoot.”
Misra earned his M.S. in Agricultural Engineering from CAFNR in 1973 and his Ph.D. in Agricultural Engineering in 1978. Following graduation, he stayed at Mizzou for one more year as a post-doctoral research associate before taking an academic position at Iowa State University where he remained until spring 2023, eventually earning the title of endowed chair of seed science, technology and systems in 2016. He joined NIFA as director this past spring.
The National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) provides leadership and funding for programs that advance agriculture-related sciences. It invests in and supports initiatives that ensure the long-term viability of agriculture. NIFA applies an integrated approach to ensure that groundbreaking discoveries in agriculture-related sciences and technologies reach the people who can put them into practice.