From the humblest of beginnings to the pinnacle of scientific acclaim, Dr. Gebisa Ejeta, an agronomy professor, plant breeder and geneticist who is a native of Ethiopia, is the winner of the 2009 World Food Prize.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was the featured speaker as Ejeta was announced as the 2009 World Food Prize Laureate at a ceremony at the U.S. Department of State June 11 in Washington, D.C. The ceremony also featured U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, along with World Food Prize President Ambassador Kenneth Quinn and World Food Prize Chairman John Ruan III, among others.
Ejeta won the $250,000 World Food Prize for his monumental contributions in the production of sorghum, one of the world's five principal cereal grains, which have dramatically enhanced the food supply of hundreds of millions of people in sub-Saharan Africa.
Winner has a compelling personal story
Ejeta's personal journey would lead him from a childhood in a one-room thatched hut in rural Ethiopia to the height of scientific recognition as a distinguished professor, plant breeder and geneticist at Purdue University. His 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 hybrid variety was tolerant to drought and out-yielded traditional varieties by up to 150%.
Sorghum a crop that is as important to Africa as corn and soybeans are to the United States.
Increased sorghum yields four-fold
Ejeta next turned his attention to battle the scourge of Striga, a deadly parasitic weed which devastates farmers' crops and severely limits food availability. 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, eight 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.
"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," says Vilsack. "The Obama administration is inspired by the tireless efforts 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."
Working to foster economic growth in Africa
Ejeta's scientific breakthroughs in breeding drought-tolerant and Striga-resistant sorghum have been combined with his persistent efforts to foster economic development and the employment of subsistence farmers through the creation of ag enterprises in rural Africa. He has led colleagues in working with national and local authorities and nongovernmental agencies so that smallholder farmers and rural entrepreneurs can catalyze efforts to improve crop productivity, strengthen nutritional security, increase the value of ag products, and boost the profitability of agricultural enterprises—thus fostering profound impacts on lives and livelihoods on a broad scale across the African continent.
"Dr. Ejeta's accomplishments in improving sorghum illustrate what can be done when cutting-edge technology and international cooperation in agriculture are used to uplift and empower the world's most vulnerable people," says Dr. Norman Borlaug, founder of the World Food Prize. "His life is an inspiration for young scientists around the world."
The 2009 World Food Prize will be formally presented to Ejeta at a ceremony at the Iowa State Capitol on October 15, 2009. The ceremony will be held as part of the World Food Prize's 2009 Borlaug Dialogue, a symposium which focuses on "Food, Agriculture and National Security in a Globalized World." Approximately 500 scientists, policy makers, economists and others interested in food and agriculture issues from all over the world attend the annual symposium, which is held each October in Des Moines, Iowa.
Further information about the Laureate Award Ceremony and Symposium can be found at www.worldfoodprize.org. The World Food Prize Foundation is headquartered in Des Moines, Iowa.