WASHINGTON – From his childhood home,a thatched hut in rural Ethiopia,scientist and Purdue University Professor Gebisa Ejeta witnessed firsthand the devastating effects of crop failure. Today Ejeta's research has enhanced the food supply for hundreds of millions of sub-Saharan Africans,earning him the 2009 World Food Prize.
“I come from a very poor family background,so the concerns of peasant farming in Africa are real to me,” Ejeta said in a telephone interview.
Ejeta will receive the $250,000 prize Oct. 15 at the Iowa State Capitol. He said he does not yet know what he will do with the prize money but hopes to start a charitable foundation.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack were part of the ceremony at the State Deparatment to announce Ejeta's name. He was not present.
Ejeta's more than 25 years of research on sorghum,one of the world's five main cereal grains,has yielded hardier forms of the crop that can resist a deadly parasitic weed called Striga.
“Our laureate's breeding program at Purdue produced many sorghum varieties resistant to drought and to Striga,with yields 10 times greater than local varieties,” said Kenneth Quinn,president of the World Food Prize Foundation and former U.S. ambassador to Cambodia.
Clinton praised Ejeta's work,commending not only his discoveries in the lab but also his travels to Sudan. There he trained farmers in crop management and helped them obtain regular access to seeds and fertilizer.
“He reminds us that a system of agriculture that nourishes all humankind requires more than a single breakthrough,or advances in a single field,” Clinton said. “It requires a sustained and comprehensive approach. We need to create a global supply chain for food.”
Support from governments across the world will be critical to create incentives for farmers to take advantage of discoveries like his,Ejeta said.
“Only if the farmer is able to benefit from that technology economically will the farmer come back and invest in those technologies,and to be able to do that,policy intervention becomes extremely important,” he said.
Clinton voiced the Obama administration's commitment to providing global leadership on the hunger problem,laying out a broad plan of seven strategies. She stressed the need to reach out to women.
“Seventy percent of the world's farmers are women,but most programs that offer farmers credit and training target men. This is both unfair and impractical,” Clinton said,to applause from foreign dignitaries and U.S. officials in the ornate Benjamin Franklin room.
Clinton concluded by saying that alleviating hunger would not be a side project,but “a central element of our foreign policy.”
“The more we enhance agricultural productivity,because it's the right thing to do,we will see positive results in terms of our relations with other countries and our ability to affect extremism and violence and conflict,” she said.
Vilsack emphasized the particular importance of the world hunger problem for children. He said his speech came less from the perspective of a cabinet secretary and more from that of a father of two children with great opportunities.
“I'm thinking to myself what a world this would be if every child had the same kind of opportunity,and I think it starts with making sure every child is well fed,” Vilsack said.
Created in 1986 by Norman E. Borlaug,the World Food Prize honors those who have made contributions to the quantity,quality or availability of food. Borlaug,who grew up on an Iowa farm,won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for his work to improve the world food supply.
Former senators Bob Dole and George McGovern won last year's prize for creating a program in several countries to help feed school children.
Ejeta plans to continue his research and to work with more international organizations on the hunger problem.
“Drought in African farming is everywhere,” he said. “Farming,agriculture,and agricultural sciences are the ways to bring about change in Africa.”