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The 2009 World Food Prize has been awarded to Gebisa Ejeta, an Ethiopian-born plant scientist at Purdue University. The private, $250,000 award -- presented at ceremonies in Des Moines, Iowa, October 15th -- is given annually to people who have helped address the world's food needs. This year's prize honors Ejeta's life-long work to improve the production of sorghum, one of the world's most important grain crops. It also honors his efforts to take his discoveries beyond the lab -- to the farmers who need them the most.
Desire to help others rooted in his own childhood poverty
Ejeta is one of those success stories that show the difference an education -- and a motivated mother -- can make. Ejeta grew up in a one-room thatched hut in rural Ethiopia. But he says his mother had other plans for him.
"She didn't care much for the lifestyle in the community that we lived in," Ejita recalls. "And for some strange reason, this woman was able to see that through education one can get out of this drudgery and get to a better life."
So she found opportunities for Ejeta to study, and a place to stay, in a neighboring town, a 20-kilometer walk away. Ejeta studied. He excelled. And now he is being honored for his life's work helping others rise out of poverty.
Lowell Hardin is an emeritus professor at Purdue University who has known Ejeta for 25 years. "Because he grew up in very, very modest circumstances -- a single mother in a remote village in Ethiopia -- he knew poverty," Hardin says. "He knew hunger. And when he was fortunate enough to get an education thanks to his mother's pushing, he decided he was going to apply his talents in this direction."
Research efforts focused on threats to African food crops
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Ejeta applied his talents to fighting a weed called Striga, or witchweed, which threatens crops that feed more than 100 million people across sub-Saharan Africa. Ejeta says the parasitic weed can ruin fields of sorghum, a major staple in hot, dry regions of Africa.
"If you grow a crop that is susceptible to infection by the parasite," he says, "you just basically don't have any chance for growing a crop if your soil is contaminated. And most of these soils are getting contaminated."
Before Ejeta took up the challenge, researchers hadn't had much success controlling the weed. Its seeds can lie dormant in the soil for decades. But Ejeta and his team at Purdue University discovered the chemical signals produced by the sorghum plant that tell the Striga seeds to wake up -- that a victim is available. They then found sorghum varieties that didn't produce the signals, and bred a line of Striga-resistant plants that thrived in a broad range of African growing conditions. These new varieties produced up to four times more grain than local types, even in drought-plagued areas.
Making sure African farmers benefit directly from his research
But Ejeta knew the research breakthrough was just the beginning. Once the new variety was developed in 1994, he worked with non-profit groups to distribute eight tons of seed to farmers in twelve African nations.
That's typical of Gebisa Ejeta, according to his colleague at Purdue, Mitch Tuinstra.
"One of the most important things about Gebisa's work is that he always carries it to the next level," Tuinstra says. "Which is, 'How do I translate the products of this research into technologies that empower and strengthen farmers in Africa?'"
Ejeta has always understood the importance of getting technology into the hands of African farmers. Just out of graduate school, Ejeta bred a high-yielding, drought-tolerant variety of sorghum. When the new hybrid variety was introduced in 1983, Ejeta says farmers were thrilled to find it yielded more than double what traditional varieties produced.
"They thought it was fantastic that they were getting this kind of performance with this hybrid," he says. "And so, the initial response was, 'How can we get seed?'"
That is a critical question: Who will produce and deliver high-yielding seeds to farmers who need them, when there is no viable seed industry?
Ejeta was able to work with Sudanese farmers' cooperatives to scale up production of his drought-resistant sorghum.
But much of Africa still lacks a seed industry to get improved varieties to farmers. And farmers often don't have access to markets to sell the products of their improved harvests. So today, Ejeta is working to develop the market from the ground up. For example, along with local partners he connects brewers, bakers, and flour millers with farmers growing the improved sorghum. By working along the entire chain, from farmers' seeds to consumers' plates, his work is helping to lift people out of poverty - and providing a powerful weapon in the war on hunger.