Iowa Public Television


World Food Prize Honors 2009 Laureate

posted on November 24, 2009

The holiday season officially began this week with the annual sales blitz of Black Friday. But for those less commercially inclined, the holidays are all about friends, family, and uh, food... And for millions of consumers, the only thing growing faster than the credit card balance is the waistline. But that's not the case in most of the world.

The United Nations reported last month that declining aid and investment in agriculture caused a steady increase in world hunger over the past decade. The dearth of investment coupled with a worldwide recession pushed global hunger to a record 1 billion people in 2009.

Unless the trend is reversed, the U.N. says the international goal of cutting the ranks of the hungry in half by 2015 will not be met.

More than twenty years ago, a handful of individuals decided it was time to escalate the fight against world hunger. The result of their efforts is the World Food Prize. John Nichols explains.

According to the United Nations more than 1 billion people lack adequate food supplies and 24,000 people die every day due to hunger. Tragically, most of the victims are children, and one child succumbs to hunger every six seconds.

While wars and natural disasters create food shortages and starvation, poverty remains the chief cause of hunger -- and the cruel irony is that the world is full of food. For decades, planet Earth has provided enough food to sustain every man, woman and child.

Dr. Norman Borlaug, Founder, World Food Prize: "You know, when people become very elite, they think differently. They've never seen hunger. They've never seen children starving..."

For generations, scientists like Dr. Norman Borlaug dreamed of ending world hunger. In the 1940s and 50s, Borlaug developed wheat hybrids enabling impoverished farmers to harvest more grain from fewer acres. This "high-yield" agriculture, as it came to be known, is credited with keeping starvation at bay for millions of people in Third World countries. And Borlaug came to be known as the "Father of the Green Revolution" -- the period with the greatest food production increase in history.

Borlaug was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970, and to this day, remains the only winner from the agricultural community.

Dr. Norman Borlaug: "There can be no permanent progress in the battle against hunger until the agencies that fight for increased food production and those that fight for population control unite in a common effort."

Borlaug passed away last month at the age of 95. But he never gave up his fight against hunger or his passion to honor those who sharing his conviction. The former Iowa farm boy appealed to the Nobel Foundation to establish a recurring prize for agriculture – a request the Foundation respectfully declined.

Ultimately, his vision to honor individuals making significant contributions to food security issues gave birth to the World Food Prize... an annual award honoring exceptional individual achievements in increasing the quantity, quality and availability of food.

Aside from the coveted award, the 3-day World Food Prize Conference is very much a strategy session in the fight against hunger. And it features some of the world's best and brightest in a series of discussions appropriately dubbed, "the Borlaug Dialogue."

Bill Gates, Co-Chair, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation: Now some people insist on an ideal vision of the environment which is divorced from the people and their circumstances. They've tried to restrict the use of biotechnology in sub-Saharan Africa without regard to how much hunger and poverty might be reduced by it... or what the farmers themselves might want.

The pivotal role of technology was a recurring theme of this year's Borlaug Dialog.

Jeff Simmons, President, Elanco Animal Health: These are the three numbers I think we need to remember. We've talked about 50 years and we're 10 years into that, so we have 40 years left. We need 100 percent more food. Seventy percent, that third nuumber we don't talk about much. Seventy percent has to come from technology.

Founded in 1986, the World Food Prize is the top international award for global hunger efforts. An endowment provided by Iowa businessman and philanthropist John Ruan, enables the organization to award a $250,000 prize annually to the World Prize Laureate. This year's winner is Dr. Gebisa Ejeta of Ethiopia.

Dr. Gebisa Ejeta, 2009 World Food Prize Laureate: I am honored and absolutely humbled to receive this award, created by my hero and icon -- the greatest humanitarian that ever lived, Norman Borlaug, and to be included with past laureates, shose work I have long admired.

Ejeta was chosen as the 2009 World Food Prize Laureate for his leadership in developing sorghum hybrids that are resistant to drought and the devastating Striga weed. Sorghum is one of the world's five principal grains, and the hybrids have dramatically increased production and the food supply for millions in sub-Saharan Africa.

Dr. Gebisa Ejeta, 2009 World Food Prize Laureate: In as much as I had lots of love, because of the limited income life was a struggle on a daily basis, so hunger is something I've experienced personally.

Born in 1950, Ejeta grew up in a one-room thatched hut with a mud floor, in a rural village in west-central Ethiopia. Undaunted by weekly 25-mile round trip walks to school in a neighboring town, Ejeta found education offered a means to escape poverty.

Dr. Gebisa Ejeta, 2009 World Food Prize Laureate: ...the last five miles was really a killer road, because it was uphill all the rest of the way to school....

Shortly after receiving his bachelor's degree in plant science in 1973, he entered graduate school at Purdue University. Due to political instability in Ethiopia, the decision prevented Ejeta from returning to his homeland for nearly 25 years.

Dr. Gebisa Ejeta, 2009 World Food Prize Laureate: There was civil war in the country in several directions and I was advised not to return to the country.

Ultimately, Ejeta earned his Ph.D. in plant breeding and genetics. He later became a faculty member at Purdue, where he now holds a distinguished professorship.

By 1999, one million acres of Ejeta's Hageen Dura-1 hybrid had been harvested by hundreds of thousands of Sudanese farmers to feeding millions in the Sudan.

Ejeta also developed over 70 parental lines for the U.S. seed industry's use in commercial sorghum hybrids in both their domestic and international markets.

But Ejeta's commitment to the planets most impoverished hasn't wavered. And his greatest reward is moving his discoveries beyond the lab -- to the farmers who need them the most.

Dr. Gebisa Ejeta, 2009 World Food Prize Laureate: May the indomitable spirit of Norm Borlaug continue to serve as a beacon of home and guide all of us -- generations of agricultural scientists and humanitarians -- to steadfastly work towards his eventual dream and goal of eradicating hunger from the face of the earth.

For Market to Market, I'm John Nichols.


Tags: agriculture crops Energy/Environment food hunger Iowa news Norman Borlaug sorghum World Food Prize