Des Moines Register
By Philip Brasher
June 12, 2009
Washington, D.C. – A scientist who grew up in a thatch hut in Ethiopia and later learned how to conquer a weed that plagues African agriculture is this year’s winner of the World Food Prize.
Gebisa Ejeta, an agronomist at Purdue University, developed a variety of sorghum resistant to Striga, or witchweed, a parasitic plant that often destroys the vital food crop. Earlier, Ejeta came up with a high-yielding, drought-resistant version of sorghum.
Combining the resistance to drought and the weed allowed Ejeta’s sorghum to yield up to four times as much grain as traditional varieties.
Ejeta’s breakthroughs "illustrate what can be achieved when cutting-edge technology and international cooperation in agriculture are used to uplift and empower the world’s most vulnerable people," said Norman Borlaug, the Nobel Peace Prize winner who founded the World Food Prize.
Colleagues at Purdue say Ejeta has been mentoring a new generation of African scientists while at the university in addition to pursuing his own research.
Ejeta, 59, said in an interview he would likely use the $250,000 award to promote education of poor children in his homeland. He said he wants to use the recognition that comes with the prize to emulate Borlaug and promote the value of science in alleviating Africa’s deep poverty.
In Africa, farming is being practiced the same way it has "since the start of civilization," he said. "Science has not begun to affect people’s lives in a general way."
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who was the keynote speaker at a State Department ceremony where the prize winner was formally announced, pledged that addressing global hunger through agricultural development would be a top priority of the Obama administration’s foreign policy.
Clinton cited Ejeta’s work on sorghum, together with his efforts to increase local seed supplies in Africa, as an example of what needs to be done make Africans less reliant on outside aid.
"We do have the resources to give every person in the world the tools they need to feed themselves and their children," she said. "The question is not whether we can end hunger. It’s whether we will."
The World Food Prize will be given to Ejeta at a ceremony on Oct. 15 at the Iowa Capitol.
Ejeta’s work is well known among academics in Ethiopia but not among the general population, said Samuel Assefa, Ethiopia’s ambassador to the United States. Now, Ejeta will be a national hero, and that could inspire more young people to go into agricultural research, Assefa said.
"Ethiopia is often mentioned with the problem of food security. Today, we’re honored in being part of the solution to food security," he said.
The chairman of Purdue’s agronomy department, Craig Beyrouty, said he did not fully appreciate Ejeta’s accomplishments until a 2003 trip to Ethiopia to view the sorghum fields and talk to researchers and farmers there.
The traditional sorghum plants were stunted and spindly, overwhelmed by the weed that robs the crop of nutrients. The fields of hybrid sorghum were thriving.
"It’s almost as if they’ve used chemicals, but they haven’t," said Beyrouty. "The fields are very, very clean, and consequently the sorghum can survive."
Ejeta fell into a career in agricultural science almost by accident. His illiterate mother was determined to see that he received an education, and he wound up qualifying for a local secondary school founded by Oklahoma State University.
He went on to study at an agricultural college, also a product of Oklahoma State. A mentor introduced Ejeta to a Purdue professor who in turn steered him toward graduate studies at the Indiana school, where Ejeta earned a doctorate in agronomy.
Political upheaval kept him from returning to his home country, but he would find his professional passion in improving sorghum and African agriculture.
In the 1990s, Ejeta teamed with a Purdue colleague and used funding from the Rockefeller Foundation and the U.S. government to unravel the biochemical means that Striga interacted with sorghum and choked its growth.
Chemicals from the sorghum plant trigger germination of the Striga seeds. The weed then sucks nutrients from the roots of the host. "In high infestations only the weed survives and the host plant is barely there," Ejeta said.
The scientists identified genes for Striga resistance and transferred them into local sorghum varieties. The genes created three different pathways of resistance into the new sorghum variety, enhancing its ability to ward off the weed, he said.