Purdue research wins battles over sorghumWEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- There's a favorite saying among American farmers that no politician is as important to a farmer as a slow two-inch rain in July.
That saying plays in Africa, too, where a Purdue University research team has had to overcome politicians, as well as horrible droughts and bizarre parasitic plants, in an effort to fight famine.
In the early 1960s, when John Kennedy urged Americans to look to their better selves to solve the world's problems, some researchers at Purdue decided there wasn't anything they could do to stop the wars, political corruption, dictators or rampant poverty of Africa. But they decided they could do something to fight famine, which too often was the end result of these troubles. They set out to improve the genetics of some of the major food crops of the sub-Saharan regions of Africa, particularly sorghum.
Thirty-five years after the launch of the program, the fruits of their labor are literally coming to harvest in countries such as Chad, Ethiopia, Mali, Niger, Rwanda and the Sudan.
The improved crops have been so successful in Africa that some farmers there have smuggled the seeds across hostile borders, and at some sites the seeds have had to be put under armed guard.
People are willing to take such risks for the Purdue seed because sorghum is the primary food source for 300 million people in sub-Saharan Africa. Sorghum is able to withstand droughts and poor soils, and, as a crop indigenous to the region, it is widely available. According to John Axtell, Purdue's Lynn Distinguished Professor of Agronomy, the people in Africa use the grain to make an array of products, including bread; a thick porridge, which is something like oatmeal; a thin porridge or gruel; and what he euphemistically calls in grant applications "thin fermented porridge," otherwise known as beer.
But the story didn't stop with a successful program to help Africans. The sorghum breeding program has benefited American farmers, too, Axtell says, by:
For their perseverance and years of hard work, the researchers involved with the Purdue sorghum breeding program have been given the Purdue School of Agriculture's 1998 Interdisciplinary Team Award. Members of the team are Axtell; Gebisa Ejeta, professor of agronomy; John Sanders, professor of agricultural economics; Katy Ibrahim, administrative assistant, Purdue International Programs in Agriculture; Bruce Hamaker, associate professor of food science; and, posthumously, Larry Butler, professor of biochemistry.
Among the breakthroughs for the research team:
When the government of Ethiopia decided not to allow the seed into that country for political reasons, Ethiopian farmers sneaked into Sudan to get bags of the seed to bring back into their country. The next year the Ethiopian authorities agreed to allow the seed to be distributed in their country.
"If farmers in those countries determine that something offers an advantage, no politician is going to be able to stop them from using the technology," Ejeta says.
In addition to Purdue's role an international center of sorghum research, it also is a clearinghouse for the exchange of sorghum varieties by scientists and businessmen around the world. "A large amount of Sudanese raw sorghum germplasm was introduced to the United States for the benefit of public and private sorghum research programs here," Ejeta says. "In the Sudan, approximately 90 percent of the improved sorghum germplasm was introduced from the United States. When you consider that sorghum was first domesticated in Sudan and Ethiopia, this is quite an accomplishment.
"We have effectively catalyzed the movement of sorghum germplasm around the world, both to developing countries and to industry in this country."
Sources: John Axtell, (765) 494-8056; firstname.lastname@example.org;
Gebisa Ejeta, (765) 494-4320; e-mail, email@example.com;
Bruce Hamaker, (765) 494-5668; e-mail, firstname.lastname@example.org;
Writer: Steve Tally, (765) 494-9809; e-mail, email@example.com
Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096; e-mail, firstname.lastname@example.org