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Dr. Gebisa Ejeta: World Food Prize 2009 Laureate

posted on October 16, 2009 at 10:37 AM

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Each year at the Iowa capitol, the World Food Prize ceremony awards a $250,000 prize to one or more individuals who work to fight world hunger.

It's an award creators liken to the Nobel Peace Prize, only this one is specifically for achievements that alleviate hunger through science, agriculture or humanitarian efforts.   

 For 2009, the award goes to Dr. Gebisa Ejeta from Ethiopia, who now lives in the U.S.  His work to develop a variety of a cereal crop, sorghum, that could survive the harsh climate in parts of Africa, culminates decades of research.


Dr. Gebisa Ejeta is an agronomy professor at Purdue University, a plant breeder and geneticist, and a world traveler.  Throughout his more than 25 years of research on sorghum, he traveled to Africa where the cereal crop is a major food source for more than 500 million people there.  Among his work in sub-Saharan Africa, he encouraged subsistence farmers to plant his hybrid seed.  The crop was reported to out yield traditional varieties by as much as 150 percent.  With financing from the U.S. Agency for International Development, also called USAID, he launched a hybrid seed industry in Sudan, where thousands of Sudanese farmers have harvested more than a million acres of the drought-tolerant sorghum.  While the development of the drought-tolerant hybrid helped feed the country, there was still an issue with a certain parasitic weed, called striga, that continued to plague the crop.

Ejeta: By the time the striga plants emerged above ground, it had already spent weeks parasitizing the host plant, and so the damage has already been done.  Trying to control the striga, through hand-hoeing and cultivation is really an exercise in futility.

Ejeta worked with a colleague at Purdue to develop a sorghum variety resistant to striga.  The new seeds were said to yield as much as four times the yield of local varieties.  In 1994, again working with USAID and others, Ejeta and his Purdue colleague produced eight tons of striga-resistant seed for 12 African countries.  Dr. Ejeta’s success in developing a crop that can thrive in a hard-to-grow area and feed the hungry who live nearby hits close to home for him.  Ejeta himself grew up in a poverty-stricken area of west-central Ethiopia, in a one-room thatched hut with a mud floor.    

Ejeta: In my household, inasmuch as I had lots of love, because of the limited income, life was a struggle on a daily basis.  So hunger is something that I have personally experienced.    

Yeager: Receiving his award at this week's 23rd annual World Food Prize ceremony, Dr. Gebisa Ejeta joined an elite group of scientists and humanitarians from around the world.  In previous years, laureates have been named from India, Switzerland, China, Brazil and the U.S., to name just a few.   

Receiving his award at this week's 23rd annual food prize ceremony, dr. Gebisa Ejeta joined an elite group of scientists and humanitarians from around the world.  In previous years laureates have been named from India, Switzerland, china, Brazil, and the U.S., to name just a few.  Dr. Ejeta, welcome and congratulations to you.  What does winning the world food prize mean to you?

Ejeta: It's a great honor, a very humbling experience to realize that I am considered among those significant others that have been recognized, and I feel grateful and humble.

Yeager: You were aware of the award.  When you get the letter or the phone call telling you that you had won, what were some of your first reactions?

Ejeta: Well, Ambassador Quinn, president of the World Food Prize Foundation, is getting very experienced in breaking the news.  So he went around in a way that he didn't disclose it right away to me.  So he built it up eventually.  It was very humbling to realize that he was actually calling to recognize me.

Yeager: Not just a friendly hello and how are you.  What does your winning validate in your career?

Ejeta: Nothing, really.  I think it really doesn't validate my career in any way, I don't think.  I think to the extent that it is an acknowledgment of the sense of purpose and mission that I sustained in my approach to agricultural research I think is very gratifying in that regard.  But I really -- I’m honored to receive it but it doesn't validate me in any way at all.  But to the extent that it might give me a platform on which I can continue to do more towards the goal, it's a very exciting opportunity.

Yeager: So this is not an end.  This is a beginning is what you're saying.

Ejeta: That's right.  I think I’ve got some left in me yet, but I’m hoping that this will open up doors of opportunity, not only in agricultural research but trying to be the voice of those that need the help that we need to do in agricultural research.  So advocacy for the cause, for the cause of science, for the cause of the poor and the hungry to the extent that I can be used to do that.  If this provides an extra age of opportunity, that would be wonderful.

Yeager: Let's hear an example, then.  Let’s put you on the spot.  What are you going to do first?

Ejeta: Well, one of the things that I have started and I was given an opportunity to do this, for example, before the announcement, was that I was called upon to testify in front of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee about global food security and global hunger.  I hope my testimony made some difference to the extent that those kinds of opportunity are available, that is to put in front of policy makers and decision makers to really dissuade the concerns of the poor and so on and provide opportunities for agricultural sciences to provide some solutions to the problem.  If I can catalyze those kinds of opportunities, I think it would be very good.  And then in the agricultural research policy -- research direction, rather, I am currently serving as a member of the science council, providing advice to 15 agricultural research centers around the world.  And to the extent that this might add some voice and voice of credibility to the messages that I carry forward, I think that would be wonderful as well.  And to the extent also I can work with other research organizations and share my insights about research and to provide direction to the direction of research that they do, that's also wonderful to have.

Yeager: Well, you talk about a couple of things there that seem like those that should be leaders.  Is it the U.S. government is the leader?  Is it researchers across the world?  Is it other countries? Is it countries in the G8?  Who is supposed to lead and help you down the road to achieve the goal that you're talking about?

Ejeta: Traditionally whenever the U.S. government led, others followed.  And the U.S. had a step back and the European Union, for example, began to assert themselves as leaders in economic development of agricultural development in developing countries.  Maybe there is room for both, but I think based on the experience that the U.S. had and continuing to encourage the development of a country of leaders in public institutions working with governments, the U.S. government and so on, I think that is -- that has been the tradition, and I believe that we may have greater voice and leadership in international development as well as the concerns of the western agriculture as well.

Yeager: We'll get in a little bit to the academics in a couple of minutes, but I want to go back to your childhood.  We saw a picture of a house that basically was like yours.  You grew up with a hut that had a mud floor.  How did your life -- I know your mother was a big influence.  You talk about her influencing your life.  How is it where you grew up helped get you to where you're at today?

Ejeta: Where I grew up had no validation really to help me to get better education.  I think as you may have heard in previous write-ups about my story, the one person that was responsible for my getting education was my mother.  My mother is an illiterate woman, but she had some vision about opportunities to move away from the drudgery that we were in. and she thought one could do it through education, and her son was going to do that.  Fortunately for me I listened to her and I followed the path that she laid out for me and, fortunately, it worked out.

Yeager: But it's also a good example to spread and to share when you go back to your home country to say I made it, you can do.  Is that something as well?

Ejeta: Yes, and I got a glimpse of that.  About two months ago the World Food Prize Foundation sent me with a photographer back to Ethiopia to get some footage for the prize ceremony.  And it was remarkable that I had gone back, visited a school -- two schools, one that I went to and then another school that was built in the town -- in the village that I lived in, there was no school at the time, but they've built a school since then.  They had a gathering of students at both places and were able to talk with them and try to provide some voice of inspiration to them.

Yeager: You obviously had to be a huge inspiration, and it had to be very rewarding because you still go back.  It’s not like you haven't been going to Ethiopia.  There was a time when you weren't able to go.  But growing up as a kid, I can't imagine there are many people who grow up saying I’m going to be someone that's going to turn to sorghum to help feed the world.  What were you thinking about that you were going to be in school?  You later played basketball. Some people think they're going to be a professional athlete of some sort, not a professional scientist.  What were you thinking?

Ejeta: My perspective with sorghum was it's not only me but the community in general.  I think if you had an education, you may be a clerk, you know, around the courthouse and helping people put in applications and so on.  That’s a sign of education.  You could read and write.  Or you can be a bus driver or something. You know, it's some elevation of technical skills and so on.  Beyond that, I don't think any of us had ambition in those days.  This is in the early days of African development, so we really didn't.  It’s more after we started going to school, particularly after I went to high school.  In grade school, I really didn't -- I was just following the instruction from my mother and going to school.  That was a way to stay clean and stay out of trouble.  But then once I got to high school, I knew what opportunities there were.  So I had to make a conscious decision whether to go back and help my relatives by stopping there or continuing education.

Yeager: And you've had an impact on many others, not just your family but across the world, and not just in your own country.  Talk about your education after high school.  You had a program that was through Oklahoma State University in Ethiopia.  How did that -- how did you get involved in that, and what exactly did you do?

Ejeta: Yes.  There were a selected group of maybe about four boarding schools in the country.  And so for poor kids that grew up in the kind of home environment that you described earlier, to be able to get a secondary education, it requires an extra layer of hardship that you had to go through because the story that was written up about me, I had to walk 20 kilometers just to going to grade school.  So if I were considering to go to high school on my own, I had to think about a possibility of 50, 75, 100 kilometers. That’s not possible so I had either my mother and I -- my family would have to move or had to find some way to get it done.  Whether we were able to do that or not, I don't know.  I didn't think we did.  And so I -- at the end of eighth grade, you get -- you take a national exam and your scores in that exam will decide where you end up and you'd be given choices.  So I chose an agricultural school because I had heard about this Oklahoma State University school, so I wanted to get that.  Fortunately enough, my scores were high and I interviewed there.  So I satisfied the requirement and went there.  Once I got there, as I told you, now I’m already oriented to the opportunities that there are, and I knew also there was a college of agriculture at Oklahoma State University.  So I worked very hard and got the scores and got myself ready to go to college, and that's what I did.

Yeager: Before you got to Purdue from Oklahoma State, from the program at home, is that when you got involved with sorghum? Or what got you involved specifically in sorghum and the science of it?

Ejeta: Right after finishing college -- I was a good student in college, and so the university will hire the top few number of students to get them as junior staff members and send them overseas to come back and teach.  Well, I had -- just as I graduated, an organization called IDRC, International Development Research Center of Canada, had given a substantial amount of money to strengthen the sorghum research program in the college.  So the college recruited and hired four of us that graduated with the support that they got from IDRC to strengthen the sorghum research program.  Part of the deal was we would work there for a year and then we would be sent to Canada to study plant breeding and genetics or whatever field there were.  And I didn't want to go to Canada, and I stayed there because I was committed -- by then I had already worked on the crop, and I was committed to the crop of sorghum, so I waited until I had an opportunity to come to the United States.

Yeager: But sorghum doesn't get the glamour of the press as much like a wheat would.  So why sorghum and what is it exactly that you wanted to do with the crop?

Ejeta: Sorghum -- where I come from, sorghum is a very important crop.  So getting started on sorghum, yes, it was a matter of opportunity and I got that and I did it.  And then once I started working on the crop, I saw the opportunities there were in improving the crop and making a difference in the lives of the people in Ethiopia.  What I didn't know was my life would take a totally path and I would be a more global citizen and not a citizen of Ethiopia.  And then where I -- the first part of the work that was recognized, I was working in another country, Sudan, and that I didn't know.  But I was really even going back and working in Ethiopia.  I knew there would be opportunities of working on sorghum, improving the crop, and making a difference in the lives of people.  I think the story that perhaps you were getting at is that the person who was my mentor --

Yeager: Sure.

Ejeta: -- had just graduated from the university of Minnesota and came back with a Ph.D. and he was teaching over there and he advised me.  And one of the things he told me was the opportunities there are in plant sciences and plant genetics and used norm Borlaug’s Nobel Prize as a way to motivate me towards going to that field.

Yeager: You did a lot of work -- my understanding is some of the yields just increased tremendously.  What was it that was a big breakthrough for you to help sorghum yields change and increase so much?

Ejeta: Well, for one thing the yield levels were low in the country, and there hasn't been a lot of improvement in sorghum in Africa and certainly not in Sudan.  And secondly, I opted not to improve the sorghum just using open pollinated varieties, but I wanted to introduce hybrid crops. Hybrid crops have superior performance compared to open pollinated varieties.  And so when you have that improvement and then this power of hybrid vigor that you get with hybrid crops, the performance was just extraordinary compared to what the farmers had.

Yeager: And the environment of warmer African country also helped thrive, right, because sorghum doesn't grow in as cool of a climate as some of the places of the United States, but it does grow well in a warm climate.

Ejeta: Yes, sorghum grows in warm climate, but sorghum is a crop.  So there's a relative amount of drought that any crop can tolerate.  So what we did was, even though it was a relatively better drought tolerant crop, we wanted to select for higher level of drought tolerance in addition to its productivity.

Yeager: Are there new traits that you want to see or that are working on that further improvements, whether it is for yield or if it is for resistance to certain weeds or conditions, I guess?

Ejeta: Yes.  Even though the part of my work that was recognized was the work of drought tolerance and parasitic weed resistance, my sorghum research program is fairly comprehensive.  And I work on nutritional quality, on drought tolerance, cold tolerance as it relates to spreading sorghum in the United States and giving it cold tolerance in early -- in the spring.  And we work on biofuels.  We work on disease resistance and those kinds of things.  So there are opportunities to improve the crop further, and I think that we would continue to do that.

Yeager: So you're not just in the door but you're continuing to build on that.  I mean you've already been building and already been at a crossroads.  So how do you get students involved in this type of work? Is it easy to do at Purdue?

Ejeta: Yes, it's very easy because we're a very established program. Purdue sorghum research is very well recognized around the world. So making connections for collaboration with international agricultural research centers, with national programs, laboratories around the world is very easy.  And students are lining up in large numbers to want to come to work with us.  The problem is we don't have enough resources to have them all come.

Yeager: That's a good problem to have, don't you think?

Ejeta: I’m not sure.  I think the resources are very crucial, and research support for agricultural research has been going down.

Yeager: Well, how do you change -- reverse course on that?

Ejeta: Well, I think already some momentum is building up, because as a society and world leaders and donor agencies are realized that we've been too complacent for too long.  And I think we need to provide support for both domestic agriculture as well as international agriculture.  And there have been some commitments of resource funding, pledges that have been made from the G8 summit this summer.  And if that materializes, at least international development seems to have taken shape.

Yeager: And that comes in the form of government, but also do you find that there needs to be responsibility by larger companies that may be involved in plant research, whether it is a certain company?  Or who needs to help also join --

Ejeta: Companies -- it's difficult to ask companies to support public research, but the private sector is doing a lot to build their own research program.  So in this country, there are certain things that private sectors will now be doing, and the basic research that needs to be done, upon which the private sector will build.  So this public/private partnership is really getting to be more and more a necessary partnership that needs to be developed.  But in developing countries, one of the missing links is there isn't any evidence of a private sector investment because the markets have not been established and the research and technology generation have not started.

Yeager: I’ll give you thirty seconds for the final question here.  It’s hard to believe we're almost done.  What are you going to do with the $250,000 that comes with winning -- being the World Food Prize Laureate?  What do you get to do with -- what do you think you're going to do with that money?

Ejeta: Well, what I’d like to do, and whether or not I’ll be able to do that, I don't know.  My family decided long before I had this prize that we were going to find a way to give back to where I came from.  My children are getting into good jobs and they're making more money than I, so we're thinking of -- we were thinking of establishing a foundation.  My family -- as a family we've decided to establish a foundation to support primarily African education, starting with Ethiopia.  And we have greater opportunity and commit to more economic development situations there.

Yeager: All right, very good.  I appreciate it.  I’d love to continue to hear but we are done and out of time. Congratulations, Dr. Gebisa Ejeta, the 2009 World Food Prize Laureate.  Thank you very much.  That’s Dr. Gebisa Ejeta, the 2009 World Food Prize laureate.  

Tags: Africa agriculture crops food hunger Iowa sorghum World Food Prize