- The US State Department has named Dr Gebisa Ejeta of Ethiopia as the winner of the $250,000 World Food Prize for his monumental contributions in the production of sorghum, one of the world’s five principal cereal grains, which have dramatically enhanced the food supply of hundreds of millions of people in sub-Saharan Africa.
According to a press statement released by the US state department today, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was the featured speaker as Dr Ejeta was announced as the 2009 Laureate at a ceremony today, that also featured Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, World Food Prize President Ambassador Kenneth M. Quinn, and World Food Prize Chairman John Ruan III, among others.
A short biography of Dr Ejeta’s personal journey for the nomination, graphed him from a childhood in a one-room thatched hut in rural Ethiopia to the height of scientific acclaim as a distinguished professor, plant breeder, and geneticist at Purdue University.
His work with sorghum, which is a staple in the diet of 500 million people living in sub-Saharan Africa, began in Ethiopia in the 1970s. Working in Sudan in the early 1980s, he developed Hageen Dura-1, the first ever commercial hybrid sorghum in Africa. This hybrid variety was tolerant to drought and out-yielded traditional varieties by up to 150 percent.
Dr Ejeta next turned his attention to battling the scourge of Striga, a deadly parasitic weed which devastates farmers’ crops and severely limits food availability. Working with a colleague at Purdue University, he discovered the biochemical basis of Striga’s relationship with sorghum, and was able to produce many sorghum varieties resistant to both drought and Striga. In 1994, eight tons of Dr Ejeta’s drought and Striga-resistant sorghum seeds were distributed to Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Mali, Mozambique, Niger, Rwanda, Senegal, Somalia, Sudan, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe. Yield increases were as much as four times the yield of local varieties, even in severe drought areas, the state department reported.
“By ridding Africa of the greatest biological impediment to food production, Dr Ejeta has put himself in the company of some of the greatest researchers and scientists recognised by this award over the past 23 years,” said Mr Vilsack. “The Obama Administration is inspired by the tireless efforts of Dr. Ejeta has demonstrated in the battle to eliminate food insecurity and is committed to employing a comprehensive approach to tackle the scourge of world hunger,” he added.
Dr. Ejeta’s scientific breakthroughs in breeding drought-tolerant and Striga-resistant sorghum have been combined with his persistent efforts to foster economic development and the empowerment of subsistence farmers through the creation of agricultural enterprises in rural Africa. He has led his colleagues in working with national and local authorities and nongovernmental agencies so that smallholder farmers and rural entrepreneurs can catalyze efforts to improve crop productivity, strengthen nutritional security, increase the value of agricultural products, and boost the profitability of agricultural enterprise - thus fostering profound impacts on lives and livelihoods on broader scale across the African continent.
“Even while he was making breakthroughs in the lab, Dr Ejeta took his work to the field,” said Mrs Clinton, adding, “He knew that for his improved seeds to make a difference in people’s lives, farmers would have to use them – which meant they would need access to a seed market and the credit to buy supplies.”
Adding to the commends, the founder of the World Food Prize, Dr Norman E. Borlaug, stated: “Dr Ejeta’s accomplishments in improving sorghum 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,” he said, adding his life is an inspiration for young scientists around the world.
The 2009 World Food Prize will be formally presented to Dr Ejeta at a ceremony at the Iowa State Capitol on 15 October this year at a ceremony that will be held as part of the World Food Prize’s 2009 Borlaug Dialogue, which focuses on “Food, Agriculture and National Security in a Globalized World.”
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