A Purdue University scientist who was born in a one-roomed thatched hut in Ethiopia and went on to become one of the world’s leading experts on sorghum has been named the recipient of the 2009 World Food Prize.
The $250,000 prize, which was conceived and begun by Norman Borlaug, known as the father of the Green Revolution and a native of Iowa, will be presented to Gebisa Ejeta Oct. 15, during ceremonies at the Iowa State Capitol in Des Moines.
Ejeta’s selection was announced by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during a press conference at the U.S. State Department June 11. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, World Food Prize President Ambassador Kenneth Quinn and World Food Prize Chairman John Ruan III, also spoke at the announcement.
“Dr. Ejeta began his journey in a hut in Ethiopia, where he was born to a mother who was passionately committed to his education,” said Clinton. “He walked 20 kilometers every Sunday to attend school. He boarded in town for the week and then walked home to his family every Friday.
“Eventually, he made it to college, where he planned to study engineering, but his mother convinced him he’d do more good for the world if he studied agriculture.”
Ejeta’s work with sorghum, which is a staple in the diet of 500 million people living in sub-Saharan Africa, began in Ethiopia in the 1970s. Working in Sudan in the early 1980s, he developed Hageen Dura-1, the first ever commercial hybrid sorghum in Africa. This drought-tolerant hybrid out-yielded traditional varieties by up to 150 percent.
He then turned his attention to battling the scourge of Striga, a deadly parasitic weed which devastates farmers’ crops and severely limits food availability in Africa. Working with a colleague at Purdue University, he discovered the biochemical basis of Striga’s relationship with sorghum, and was able to produce many sorghum varieties resistant to both drought and Striga.
In 1994, 8 tons of Ejeta’s drought and Striga-resistant sorghum seeds were distributed to Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Mali, Mozambique, Niger, Rwanda, Senegal, Somalia, Sudan, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe. Yield increases were as much as four times the yield of local varieties, even in severe drought areas.
“Even while he was making breakthroughs in the lab, he took his work to the field,” said Clinton. “He knew that for improved seeds to make a difference in people’s lives, farmers would have to know how to use them, which meant they would need access to a seed market and the credit to buy supplies.
“So he traveled to India and studied its flourishing seed industry and the returned to Sudan where he helped create one there, along with a system to train farmers in crop management and help them purchase seed and fertilizers on a regular basis. Today, more than a dozen seed companies are operating in Sudan in the market he helped to build.”
Ejeta reminds us, Secretary Clinton said, that a system of agriculture that nourishes all humankind requires more than a single breakthrough or advances in the field. “It requires a sustained and comprehensive approach. We need to create a global supply chain for food. Today that chain is broken, and we need to repair it and make it stronger.”
“By ridding Africa of the greatest biological impediment to food production, Dr. Ejeta has put himself in the company of some of the greatest researchers and scientists recognized by this award over the past 23 years,” said Vilsack. “We are inspired by the tireless efforts of Dr. Ejeta has demonstrated in the battle to eliminate food insecurity and are committed to employing a comprehensive approach to tackle the scourge of world hunger.”
“Dr. Ejeta’s accomplishments in improving sorghum illustrate what can be achieved when cutting-edge technology and international cooperation in agriculture are used to uplift and empower the world’s most vulnerable people,” said Borlaug in a statement read at the State Department. “His life is as an inspiration for young scientists around the world.”
The World Food Prize, which is sometimes referred to as the Nobel Prize of food and agriculture, will be presented as part of the 2009 Borlaug Dialogue, which this year focuses on “Food, Agriculture and National Security in a Globalized World.” Further information about the Laureate Award Ceremony and Symposium can be found at www.worldfoodprize.org.