June 13, 2009

Professor Gebisa Ejeta Wins World Food Prize 2009

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Plant breeder hopes African development takes root


* Plant breeder Gebisa Ejeta wins 2009 World Food Prize
* Grew up in "abject poverty" in Ethopia
* Bred drought- and weed-resistant sorghum for Africa
* Focus on getting results of work into hands of farmers
* Worries about funding, strategy for agricultural aid

By Roberta Rampton

WASHINGTON, June 11 (Reuters) - For Gebisa Ejeta, it was not enough that he developed new varieties of a food staple crop that resisted droughts and a devastating weed that sucked the life out of cereal crops in his native Ethiopia.
Ejeta, who was awarded the 2009 World Food Prize on Thursday, was really driven to get the seeds he and others developed into the hands and control of African farmers.
Ejeta was told early in his plant-breeding career to stick to the science, but his personal journey pushed him to take his work further, using it as a tool for development.
"Sometimes I may appear to my colleagues that I have a missionary zeal," Ejeta said in an interview with Reuters.
"I have been really single-minded about trying to do the best that I can to advance science-based development."
Ejeta, 59, once lived with the same kind of hunger faced by one in three people in sub-Saharan Africa.
"I come from just abject poverty," said Ejeta, who grew up in a one-room thatched hut in a village without a school. Encouraged by his mother, he walked 12 miles (20 km) to a nearby town to attend classes, coming home only on weekends.
He attended an agricultural high school and college created with U.S. government aid, and was the first person from his community to get an education. He went on to earn a doctorate at Indiana's Purdue University, where he is a professor.
"It was not difficult to recognize if those kinds of opportunities could be made available to more kids like me, then the community would be better," Ejeta said.
His career first took him to Sudan, where he worked on sorghum, used to make bread, porridges and beverages.
Ejeta developed the first hybrid sorghum variety tolerant to drought, which out-yielded traditional varieties by as much as 150 percent, and which has fed millions in the country.
Ejeta also worked on varieties resistant to striga, a parasitic weed that is a scourge in Africa. These new seeds yielded as much as four times the yield of local varieties.
But what he is most proud of is the work he did with small farmers to create systems and companies to produce and sell the seed, and to spread the word about how best to grow the crops.
African leaders have begun to show more commitment to agriculture, Ejeta said, but believes Africans need to lead development efforts and not just count on help from countries such as the United States. "I worry about losing momentum."
U.S. annual spending on African farming projects topped $400 million in the 1980s, but by 2006 had dwindled to just $60 million, according to the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.
The United States is the world's largest donor of emergency food aid -- mainly crops grown by American farmers -- but spends 20 times as much on food aid to Africa as it spends on programs that could boost African food production.
Ejeta said he worries that development has stalled with the lack of funding, especially for research and education.
"In my view, this general decline in the human capital base and the shrinking opportunities to replenish it through higher education is the most serious threat to the gains we have made in developing countries," he told a Senate committee in March.
But he sees hope in recent investments made by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Rockefeller Foundation, and Buffet Foundation, with which he works on development issues.
In October, Ejeta will be formally awarded the $250,000 prize, which was created by Norman Borlaug, who led the "Green Revolution" of the 1950s and 1960s that boosted food production by sharing new seed varieties and agronomic expertise with farmers in India, Pakistan and Mexico.
Ejeta said he will talk to his family about how best to use the prize, which he sees as both an honor and responsibility.
"I hope to continue to serve humanity in the best way I know, and this definitely will be a great platform from which to try to do a little more for the cause," he said.

(Reporting by Roberta Rampton; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)

Ethiopian Scientist’s Work in Agriculture Yields World Food Prize

By Supriya Sinhababu - From his childhood home, a thatched hut in rural Ethiopia, scientist and Purdue University Professor Gebisa Ejeta witnessed firsthand the devastating effects of crop failure.
Washington, D. C. - infoZine - Scripps Howard Foundation Wire - Today Ejeta's research has enhanced the food supply for hundreds of millions of sub-Saharan Africans, earning him the 2009 World Food Prize.

"I come from a very poor family background, so the concerns of peasant farming in Africa are real to me," Ejeta said in a telephone interview.

Ejeta will receive the $250,000 prize Oct. 15 at the Iowa State Capitol. He said he does not yet know what he will do with the prize money but hopes to start a charitable foundation.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack were part of the ceremony at the State Deparatment to announce Ejeta's name. He was not present.

Ejeta's more than 25 years of research on sorghum, one of the world's five main cereal grains, has yielded hardier forms of the crop that can resist a deadly parasitic weed called Striga.

"Our laureate's breeding program at Purdue produced many sorghum varieties resistant to drought and to Striga, with yields 10 times greater than local varieties," said Kenneth Quinn, president of the World Food Prize Foundation and former U.S. ambassador to Cambodia.

Clinton praised Ejeta's work, commending not only his discoveries in the lab but also his travels to Sudan. There he trained farmers in crop management and helped them obtain regular access to seeds and fertilizer.

"He reminds us that a system of agriculture that nourishes all humankind requires more than a single breakthrough, or advances in a single field," Clinton said. "It requires a sustained and comprehensive approach. We need to create a global supply chain for food."

Support from governments across the world will be critical to create incentives for farmers to take advantage of discoveries like his, Ejeta said.

"Only if the farmer is able to benefit from that technology economically will the farmer come back and invest in those technologies, and to be able to do that, policy intervention becomes extremely important," he said.

Clinton voiced the Obama administration's commitment to providing global leadership on the hunger problem, laying out a broad plan of seven strategies. She stressed the need to reach out to women.

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack praises the Dr. Gebisa Ejeta, an Ethiopian scientist and Purdue University professor who was named the World Food Prize Laureate Thursday. SHFWire photo by Supriya SinhababuClick on photo to enlarge or download: Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack praises the Dr. Gebisa Ejeta, an Ethiopian scientist and Purdue University professor who was named the World Food Prize Laureate Thursday. SHFWire photo by Supriya Sinhababu"Seventy percent of the world's farmers are women, but most programs that offer farmers credit and training target men. This is both unfair and impractical," Clinton said, to applause from foreign dignitaries and U.S. officials in the ornate Benjamin Franklin room.

Clinton concluded by saying that alleviating hunger would not be a side project, but "a central element of our foreign policy."

"The more we enhance agricultural productivity, because it's the right thing to do, we will see positive results in terms of our relations with other countries and our ability to affect extremism and violence and conflict," she said.

Vilsack emphasized the particular importance of the world hunger problem for children. He said his speech came less from the perspective of a cabinet secretary and more from that of a father of two children with great opportunities.

"I'm thinking to myself what a world this would be if every child had the same kind of opportunity, and I think it starts with making sure every child is well fed," Vilsack said.

Created in 1986 by Norman E. Borlaug, the World Food Prize honors those who have made contributions to the quantity, quality or availability of food. Borlaug, who grew up on an Iowa farm, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for his work to improve the world food supply.

Former senators Bob Dole and George McGovern won last year's prize for creating a program in several countries to help feed school children.

Ejeta plans to continue his research and to work with more international organizations on the hunger problem.

"Drought in African farming is everywhere," he said. "Farming, agriculture, and agricultural sciences are the ways to bring about change in Africa."


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