Purdue plant breeder, geneticist receives World Food Prize

October 14, 2009 Steve Leer

Gebisa Ejeta, at right, is congratulated by friends in the Iowa State Capitol rotunda on Thursday (Oct. 15) after receiving the World Food Prize. (Purdue University photo/Tom Campbell)

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WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. - Gebisa Ejeta didn't set out to receive worldwide acclaim for his agricultural research. The Purdue University Distinguished Professor of Agronomy's sole focus was on helping fellow Africans - especially those in his native Ethiopia - grow enough food to feed themselves.

"When people tell you that your work has saved lives and that people begin to refer to it as a symbol of goodness for the cause of science or the cause of the poor, that's a lot more than I had a perception of out there," Ejeta said. "That's overwhelming and humbling."

On Thursday (Oct. 15), the plant breeder and geneticist received the World Food Prize for his work in developing sorghum varieties resistant to drought and Striga, a parasitic weed common on the African continent. Because of Ejeta's efforts, sorghum yields are significantly higher in many African nations.

The World Food Prize, considered the Nobel Prize of agriculture, was presented to Ejeta during a ceremony in the Iowa State Capitol building in Des Moines.

The World Food Prize Foundation awards the $250,000 prize annually to individuals who have advanced human development by improving the quality, quantity or availability of food worldwide. The late Norman E. Borlaug, winner of the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize, established the World Food Prize in 1986.

Ejeta is Purdue's second World Food Prize winner in three years. Philip Nelson, Purdue's Scholle Chair Professor in Food Processing and former head of the university's Department of Food Science, won the 2007 award for developing aseptic bulk storage and distribution.

Since learning in June he had been selected as the 2009 World Food Prize winner, Ejeta said his research has received a "second momentum."

"For so many Africans, this award projects so much hope to a continent that has so much negative news," Ejeta said. "This is a shining moment for a continent.

"The journey has been so far to where I am now, but I am so driven. Serving humanity means so much to me."

Purdue President France A. Córdova praised Ejeta's work and determination.

"Dr. Ejeta is proof that one person can make a big difference in the world and in helping solve its grand challenges," Córdova said. "His efforts to meet the challenge of world hunger represent the best in Purdue research. He is a most deserving winner of the World Food Prize."

Jay Akridge, Purdue's Glenn W. Sample Dean of Agriculture, agreed.

"Dr. Ejeta's research has improved the food supply for more than half a billion people in several African countries," Akridge said. "His work is a powerful demonstration of the difference agricultural research can make in creating a more secure and consistent food supply for millions of people. We're obviously very proud of Gebisa and are thrilled that he was selected to receive the 2009 World Food Prize."

Sorghum is an important cereal grain to Africa, but arid conditions and the deadly Striga make growing the crop difficult for farmers. Ejeta began researching genetic answers as a graduate student at Purdue in the mid-1970s. His work took him to rain-starved northern Sudan after he received a doctoral degree in plant breeding and genetics from Purdue in 1978.

Five years later, Ejeta developed the drought-tolerant Hageen Dura- 1, a sorghum cultivar that produces yields up to 150 percent higher than traditional varieties. About 1 million acres of the drought-tolerant sorghum is grown in Sudan each year.

Ejeta then turned his attention to Striga - an insidious weed that can cause crop losses of 40 percent in sorghum fields. After 15 years of research, Ejeta and late Purdue colleague Larry Butler identified a chemical signal in sorghum plants that attracts Striga rootlets, which work their way into sorghum plants and remove valuable nutrients. That discovery led Ejeta to develop a biological mechanism for interrupting that chemical signal.

In 1994 eight tons of Ejeta's drought-tolerant and Striga-resistant sorghum seeds were distributed to the African nations of Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Mali, Mozambique, Niger, Rwanda, Senegal, Somalia, Sudan, Tanzania and Zimbabwe. Farmers in those countries reported yields of as much as four times larger than traditional sorghum crops.

Read more about Ejeta's life and research in the fall issue of Connections, Purdue's agricultural alumni publication. The publication is available online at http://www.agriculture.purdue.edu/connections/fall2009/index.shtml. More information about the World Food Prize Foundation and Prize is available at http://www.worldfoodprize.org

Ejeta will be honored at Purdue's West Lafayette campus during Gebisa Ejeta Day on Oct. 22. The daylong celebration will include a 2 p.m. lecture by Ejeta in Stewart Center's Fowler Hall, a public reception in the Purdue Memorial Union South Ballroom and student activities intended to raise awareness of world hunger.

Writer: Steve Leer, 765-494-8415, sleer@purdue.edu

Sources: Gebisa Ejeta, 765-494-4320, gejeta@purdue.edu

                Jay Akridge, 765-494-8391, akridge@purdue.edu

                Justin Cremer, World Food Prize Foundation, 515-245-3794, jcremer@worldfoodprize.org

 Ag Communications: (765) 494-8415
Steve Leer, sleer@purdue.ed
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