An acclaimed plant breeder and geneticist who was born and grew up in rural Ethiopia has won the 2009 World Food Prize for his major contributions in the production of sorghum, one of the world’s five principal grains.
The work of Gebisa Ejeta, a professor at Purdue University in Indiana and a U.S. citizen, has dramatically enhanced the food supply of hundreds of millions of people in sub-Saharan Africa, said Kenneth Quinn, president of the World Food Prize Foundation, which is based in Des Moines, Iowa.
The announcement came during a June 11 ceremony at the State Department. Ejeta will accept the prize during an international symposium in Des Moines on October 15.
The World Food Prize is awarded annually to individuals whose efforts significantly contribute to improving the quality, quantity and availability of food in the world.
Working in Sudan during the early 1980s, Ejeta developed Africa’s first commercial hybrid variety of sorghum tolerant to drought. Later, with a Purdue colleague in Indiana, he discovered the chemical basis of the relationship between the deadly parasitic weed striga and sorghum, and was able to produce sorghum varieties resistant to both drought and striga.
In 1994, eight tons of drought- and striga-resistant sorghum seeds were distributed in Eastern Africa. They yielded four times more grain than traditional varieties, even in drought areas.
“By ridding Africa of the greatest biological impediment to food production, Ejeta has put himself in the company of some of the greatest researchers and scientists,” U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said at the ceremony.
High in protein and easily digestible, sorghum is a staple food crop in Africa but is used mainly for livestock feed in the United States, Ejeta told Africa News Report. He said he is working to develop sorghum varieties that can be used in food products that will appeal to U.S. consumers.
“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 Norman Borlaug, founder of the World Food Prize and a Nobel Peace Prize laureate. Borlaug is recognized around the world as "Father of the Green Revolution" and is credited with saving millions of lives from starvation during the 1960s and early 1970s.
Ejeta also has worked with national and local authorities and nongovernmental groups to improve the lives of subsistence farmers in Africa through the creation of agricultural enterprises.
“Even while he was making breakthroughs in the lab, Ejeta took his work to the field,” said Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. “He knew that for his improved seeds to make a difference in people’s lives, farmers would have to use them, which meant they would need access to a seed market and the credit to buy supplies.”
The making of a plant scientist
During primary school, Ejeta planned to study engineering when he reached college age, but his mother convinced him he could do more working in agriculture, Clinton said.
With aid from Oklahoma State University, he attended an agriculture and technical secondary school in Ethiopia. The university and the U.S. Agency for International Development helped him earn a doctorate from Purdue.
This year’s October symposium will focus on “Food, Agriculture and National Security in a Globalized World.”
At the announcement of Ejeta’s honor, Clinton also announced a U.S. initiative to develop a new global approach to hunger. The approach would help countries carry out strategies to meet their specific food security needs, she said.