WEST LAFAYETTE, Indiana — Purdue University scientist Gebisa Ejeta is known in agriculture for enhancing sorghum crops in Africa. The 2009 World Food Prize Laureate is on a quest to help the world better understand the causes of global food insecurity as the world population increases.
Gebisa Ejeta’s air conditioned office at Purdue University is a world away from the one-room thatched hut with mud floors where he grew up in Ethiopia.
“There wasn’t any school in the community where I grew up, said the World Food Prize laureate. "And when my parents particularly my mother decided to send me to school, the only school was about 20 kilometers, about 12 miles from home.”
Even though his village - Wollonkomi - is not on most maps, it was a place that reinforced the importance of agriculture for Ejeta.
“Because that’s the primary way of life," he said. "There isn’t any other alternative. But agriculture is also important globally because it’s the most fundamental need of humanity.”
That fundamental need is increasing as the growing world population demands a more varied diet, something Ejeta learned after he left his village to study agriculture.
He came to the U.S. where he earned a doctorate in plant studies at Purdue University, which he put to use in his first project in the field - developing a sorghum grain hybrid in sub-Saharan Africa.
“That hybrid was highly productive and drought tolerant, and made a huge difference in the lives of people there,” said Ejeta.
The hybrid led to a crop that farmers could depend on, and earned Ejeta the World Food Prize, which aided his quest to change perceptions about food.
That quest led to the creation last year of Purdue University’s Global Food Security Center, which Ejeta heads. The center helps universities and organizations around the world better understand agricultural production.
“It’s an enormous challenge," said Gary Burniske, managing direct of the center.
Burniske says the biggest challenge is securing funding. “Over the past 20 years, there’s been a substantial decline in investment in agriculture and issues that relate to agricultural and livestock production. And so what we have come to realize particularly with the 2006-2008 food crisis that we need to seriously address food security issues now in order to guarantee food security in 10, 20, or 30 years,” he said.
Ejeta says he hopes students who learn through programs coordinated by the center will fight against hunger.
“Resources of water, resources of land are getting to be more and more of a problem, so we want to develop education so that our students - the next generations of Americans - understand the complexities of global food security,” he said.
That security is threatened as fertilizer and fuel costs soar, and more people try to grow food on less land with restricted access to water.