Sorghum is a cattle feed and an ethanol feedstock in Kansas. But in sub-Saharan Africa it is the food supply for hundreds of millions of people.
One researcher, Dr. Gebisa Ejeta of Ethiopia, began working to improve the food staple in the 1970s and led him to the height of scientific acclaim as a distinguished professor, plant breeder and geneticist at Purdue University.
On June 11, Ejeta was announced as the 2009 winner of the $250,000 World Food Prize.
As a child, Ejeta lived in a one-room thatched hut in rural Ethiopia. While working in Sudan in the early 1980s, he developed Hageen Dura-1, the first ever commercial hybrid sorghum in Africa. The hybrid was drought tolerant and high-yielding.
He then turned his attention to Striga, a parasitic weed which was devastating farmers' crops. Working
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 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.
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.
"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," added Dr. Norman E. Borlaug, founder of the World Food Prize. "His life is as an inspiration for young scientists around the world."
The 2009 World Food Prize will be formally presented to Ejeta at a ceremony at the Iowa State Capitol on October 15, 2009. The ceremony 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." Further information about the Laureate Award Ceremony and Symposium can be found at www.worldfoodprize.org.