From basket case to breadbasket – that’s the journey sub-Saharan Africa must complete if we’re to meet the food challenges of the 21st century.

One of the path-breaking pioneers of this historic effort is Gebisa Ejeta, a native son of the region who has been named the recipient of the 2009 World Food Prize. The 59-year-old Ethiopian began his life in a thatch hut and wound up traveling to the United States, where he became a brilliant agronomist. His legacy: hardy strains of sorghum, a tropical grain that is a food staple in much of the developing world.

Ejeta’s sorghum varieties resist drought and produce high yields. They also fend off attacks from a parasitic plant with a grimly appropriate name: witchweed.

These scientific feats “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, which has become a kind of Nobel Prize for accomplishments in the area of food production. It carries a purse of $250,000 and will be formally presented to Ejeta on October 15 – World Food Day – in Des Moines, Iowa.

The news of Ejeta’s award comes on the heels of a distressing report from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, which says that the world’s population of chronically hungry people has grown by about four million per week since the start of this year—and that their total now numbers more than 1 billion.

Water scarcity and possibly climate change will only compound this problem in the years to come. We may have entered a period of “perpetual food crisis,” as the current issue of National Geographic calls it.

The immediate concern is whether these unfortunate have-nots will survive. Their fates will affect us all, as Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton made clear last week: “The effects of chronic hunger cannot be overstated. Hunger is not only a physical condition, it is a drain on economic development, a threat to global security, a barrier to health and education, and a trap for the millions of people worldwide who work from sunup to sundown every single day but can barely produce enough food to sustain their lives and the lives of their families.”

One of the obvious responses to the problem of chronic hunger is to increase shipments of aid from rich countries to poor ones. The financial crisis has put enormous strains on everyone. The G8 nations may not even meet the aid goals they have set for themselves, to say nothing of the goals that relief workers are trying to set for them.

Handouts are no long-term solution. They may relieve hunger, but they won’t cure it. Instead, we must focus on improving conditions in the most afflicted countries.

Many of the problems are political. A generation ago, Zimbabwe was one of the world’s great food-producing nations. Today, it is essentially a failed country. Its collapse—combined with political disruptions in the neighboring nations of sub-Saharan Africa—have had profound consequences on our planet’s ability to feed itself.

The problems are also scientific. As world population grows, we simply must produce more food. And if we’re truly devoted to environmentally sustainable agriculture, we must do it on existing farmland. In other words, the solution isn’t to cut down rainforests or plow steep hillsides and turn them into crop fields, but rather to grow more crops on the fields we already cultivate.

Success like Ejeta’s will be necessary. So will investment in biotechnology, which has boosted corn, soybean, canola and cotton yields. Last month, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development estimated that by 2015, half of the world’s major food and feed crops will come from plant varieties that have benefited from biotech enhancements.

In the years ahead, we’ll want to make sure that these benefits accrue to farmers in the developing world. They deserve access to the same technologies as farmers in advanced nations. Over time, they’ll get it—if we encourage the work of innovators such as Ejeta.

We must not minimize the challenges before us, but fundamentally it all comes down to what Secretary Clinton said last week: “The question is not whether we can end hunger, it’s whether we will.”

Dean Kleckner, an Iowa farmer, chairs Truth About Trade & Technology. Mr. Kleckner is a member Emeritus of the World Food Prize Council of Advisors.

Dean Kleckner

Dean Kleckner

Deceased (1932-2015)

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