US: Acclaimed Ethiopian agronomist gives back

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As the world’s population grows, so does the need to produce more food. A new generation of agricultural researchers and mentors to encourage them will have to step up to meet that need, said Gebisa Ejeta, 2009 World Food Prize laureate.

Ejeta, an acclaimed plant breeder and agronomy professor at Purdue University in Indiana, consistently mentors agriculture students and young professionals. “The mentoring I received as a graduate student and professional was so helpful to me. I wanted to do the same for the younger generation,” he said.

Ejeta grew up in a rural village in Ethiopia. A gifted student, he initially wanted to study engineering. Then the head of the plant science department at his secondary school told him about opportunities in agriculture. At the time of the conversation, U.S. crop researcher Norman Borlaug had just won the Nobel Peace Prize for developing new varieties of disease-resistant wheat. Borlaug’s work had already transformed crop production in Mexico, Asia and Latin America, sparking years of harvest levels that would become known as the “Green Revolution.” Borlaug established the World Food Prize, awarded annually to people whose efforts have made significant contributions to improving the quality, quantity and availability of food in the world.

Ejeta was inspired.

He applied to an agriculture college and earned a bachelor’s degree in plant science in 1973. “A world of opportunity opened up to me,” he said. After graduating, Ejeta met a second important mentor, renowned sorghum researcher John Axtell of Purdue. Axtell invited Ejeta to assist him in collecting sorghum samples in Ethiopia, then to become his graduate student at Purdue.

Today, Ejeta himself is renowned and in a position to give back. He travels regularly to Africa, where he encourages young agricultural scientists to explore a range of job opportunities in agriculture. He tells them not to get discouraged by the slow pace of their research work and to help policymakers in their countries understand the benefits of new food and farm technologies. He wants the younger generation of students to link research groups with government extension agents and farmers.

“My message is the same. … It has to be all of us working together,” Ejeta said.

Edwin Price, who directs the Borlaug Institute for International Agriculture at Texas A&M University and thus sees many young researchers from Africa and other continents, said universities like his need to teach students to develop national institutions to support agricultural development. (Texas A&M, like Purdue where Ejeta teaches, is a public “land-grant” institution. Congress created the land-grant college system in the 1860s to build the U.S. agricultural capacity at a time of unprecedented economic growth. The colleges have a decades-long tradition of helping agriculture students and faculties from developing countries.)

For most international students, “agriculture has not been a glamorous opportunity” like business or medicine, said Glen Shinn, a professor at Texas A&M who works for Price. But Shinn said that recently there has been a renewed interest in agriculture among international students, many of whom find U.S. programs by searching the Internet. As more agriculture students travel the globe to study, they undoubtedly expand their chances of finding mentors — teachers like Ejeta had or like Ejeta is.

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