Dr. Ejeta received the $250,000 World Food Prize on Thursday at the Iowa State Capitol. The prize is the centerpiece of a symposium at which food experts and decision-makers from around the world are discussing how adequate access to food and nutrition can contribute to the security of all people.
As the planet gets warmer and more crowded, poor farmers will need access to genetically engineered seeds if they are to raise enough food, said keynote speaker Bill Gates, the Microsoft Corp. chairman who is using his fortune to ease global poverty.
Gates said food production must be boosted globally without harming the soil and water, and he challenged environmentalists to drop their resistance to high-yield, high-tech agriculture. "They act as if there is no emergency, even though in the poorest, hungriest places on Earth, population is growing faster than productivity, and the climate is changing," Gates said.
Dr. Gebisa Ejeta (Photo courtesy World Food Prize)
Dr. Ejeta made his sorghum hybrid breakthroughs with traditional plant breeding techniques, resorting to genetic engineering only to combat the deadly Striga weed.
Sorghum is made into breads, porridges, syrup, and beverages. Dr. Ejeta developed the first hybrid sorghum varieties for Africa, which are drought tolerant and high yielding.
While working in Sudan as a sorghum researcher at the International Crop Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics, ICRISAT, Dr. Ejeta's Hageen Dura-1 sorghum hybrid was released in 1983 following field trials in which the hybrids out-yielded traditional sorghum varieties by 50 to 100 percent.
Its superior grain qualities contributed to its rapid spread and wide acceptance by farmers, who found that yields increased to more than 150 percent greater than local sorghum, far surpassing the percentage gain in the trials.
Born in 1950, Ejeta grew up in a one-room thatched hut with a mud floor, in a rural village in west-central Ethiopia. His mother's deep belief in education provided the young Ejeta with the means to rise out of poverty and hardship through high school and technical school.
Ejeta earned his bachelor's degree in plant science in 1973 at Alemaya College in eastern Ethiopia, which was established by Oklahoma State University and supported by the U.S. Agency for International Development.
His college mentor introduced Ejeta to renowned sorghum researcher Dr. John Axtell of Purdue University, who invited him to assist in collecting sorghum species from around the country and later to become his graduate student at Purdue University. This invitation came at a time when Ethiopia was about to enter a long period of political instability which would keep Ejeta from returning to his home country for nearly 25 years.
Dr. Ejeta in his lab at Purdue University (Photo courtesy Purdue)
Ejeta entered Purdue in 1974, earning his Ph.D. in plant breeding and genetics. He later became a faculty member at Purdue, where today he holds a distinguished professorship.
To help poor farmers in Sudan feed themselves and their families and rise out of poverty, Dr. Ejeta urged the establishment of structures to monitor production, processing, certification, and marketing of hybrid seed and farmer education programs in the use of fertilizers, soil and water conservation.
By 1999, one million acres of his hybrid sorghum Hageen Dura-1 had been harvested by hundreds of thousands of Sudanese farmers, and millions of Sudanese had been fed with grain produced by Hageen Dura-1.
Another drought-tolerant sorghum hybrid, NAD-1, was developed for conditions in Niger by Dr. Ejeta and one of his graduate students at Purdue in 1992. This cultivar has had yields up to five times the national sorghum average.
Using some of the drought-tolerant germplasm from the hybrids in Niger and Sudan, Dr. Ejeta developed elite sorghum inbred lines for the U.S. sorghum hybrid industry. He has released over 70 parental lines for the U.S. seed industry's use in commercial sorghum hybrids.
Dr. Ejeta's next breakthrough came in the 1990s, the culmination of his research to conquer the greatest biological impediment to food production in Africa – the deadly parasitic weed Striga, known commonly as witchweed. This plant devastates crop yields of maize, rice, pearl millet, sugarcane, and sorghum, severely limiting food availability.
A 2009 UN Environmental Programme report estimates that Striga plagues 40 percent of arable savannah land, disrupting food supplies to over 100 million people in Africa.
Dr. Ejeta conducts research on varieties of sorghum. (Photo courtesy Purdue)
Crop management techniques and application of herbicides had failed to control Striga until Dr. Ejeta and his Purdue colleague Dr. Larry Butler formulated a novel research paradigm for genetic control of this scourge.
With financial support from the Rockefeller Foundation and USAID, they integrated genetics, agronomy, and biochemistry that focused on unraveling the intricate relationships between the parasitic Striga and the host sorghum plant. They identified genes for Striga resistance and transferred them into locally adapted sorghum varieties and improved sorghum cultivars. The new sorghum also can adapt better to different African ecological conditions and farming systems.
Distribution of the new sorghum varieties as initially facilitated in 1994 by Dr. Ejeta, working closely with World Vision International and Sasakawa2000. Those organizations coordinated a pilot program, with USAID funding, that distributed eight tons of seed to Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Mali, Mozambique, Niger, Rwanda, Senegal, Somalia, Sudan, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe.
The yield increases from the improved Striga-resistant cultivars have been up to four times the yield of local varieties, even in the severe drought areas.
In 2002-2003, Dr. Ejeta introduced an integrated Striga management package, again funded by USAID, to deploy in Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Tanzania along with the Striga-resistant sorghum varieties he and colleagues had developed at Purdue. This package increased crop productivity through a combination of weed resistance in the host plant, soil-fertility enhancement, and water conservation.
By partnering with leaders and farmers across sub-Saharan Africa and educational institutions in the United States and abroad, Dr. Ejeta has trained and inspired a new generation of African agricultural scientists who are carrying on his work.
"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 Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in June when the award was first announced. "The Obama Administration is inspired by the tireless efforts of Dr. Ejeta has demonstrated in the battle to eliminate food insecurity and is committed to employing a comprehensive approach to tackle the scourge of world hunger."
The World Food Prize, established in 1986, recognizes contributions in any field involved in the world food supply. Previous laureates have come from Bangladesh, Brazil, China, Cuba, Denmark, India, Mexico, Sierra Leone, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, the United Nations and the United States. The World Food Prize is sponsored by U.S. businessman and philanthropist John Ruan.
Copyright Environment News Service, ENS, 2009. All rights reserved.