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Gebisa Ejeta, Distinguished Professor of Agronomy at Purdue University, was awarded the World Food Prize for research leading to the increased production and availability of sorghum in his native Africa.
Ejeta, a plant breeder and geneticist, developed sorghum varieties resistant to drought and Striga, a parasitic weed. Sorghum is a major food crop for more than 500 million people on the African continent.
The World Food Prize is considered the Nobel Prize of agriculture. It is awarded each year by the World Food Prize Foundation to individuals who have advanced human development by improving the quality, quantity or availability of food worldwide. Norman E. Bourlaug, winner of the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize, established the World Food Prize in 1986.
The award announcement was made at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C., by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and World Food Prize Foundation President Kenneth Quinn.
Ejeta will receive his $250,000 award at an Oct. 15 ceremony in Des Moines, Iowa.
Ejeta is the second Purdue professor to receive the World Food Prize in three years. Philip Nelson, the Scholle Chair Professor in Food Processing and former head of Purdue's Department of Food Science, won the award in 2007 for developing aseptic bulk storage and distribution, a technology for transporting processed fruits and vegetables without product spoilage.
"I'm pleased that the selection committee found my work significant enough to choose me as the 2009 World Food Prize winner," Ejeta said. "It is a great honor."
Purdue President France A. Córdova said Ejeta's research is making a difference in the world. He's deserving of the World Food Prize, she said.
"We're very proud of Dr. Ejeta and the work that he has done and are thrilled that he is receiving the 2009 World Food Prize," Córdova said. "This is a sterling example of Purdue's commitment to helping resolve the global challenges of world hunger."
Jay Akridge, the Glenn W. Sample Dean of Agriculture at Purdue, agreed.
"Dr. Ejeta's work on the development of new sorghum varieties is a powerful demonstration of the difference agricultural research can make in creating a more secure and consistent food supply for millions of people," Akridge said.
Sorghum is among the world's five principle cereal grains. The crop is as important to Africa as corn and soybeans are to the United States.
A native of Ethiopia, Ejeta witnessed the devastating effects of drought and Striga on sorghum crops in his own country and several others in eastern and western Africa.
"I focused my research on sorghum because I'm originally from Africa, and I've known about the importance of the crop to the people there," Etejta said. "So I wanted to work on improving sorghum."
Five years of research in rain-starved northern Sudan produced his first breakthrough in sorghum research in the early 1980s, when Ejeta developed the drought-tolerant cultivar Hageen Dura-1, the first commercial sorghum hybrid in Africa. Hageen Dura-1 produced yields up to 150 percent higher than traditional sorghum cultivars. About 1 million acres of the drought-tolerant sorghum is grown in Sudan annually.
Ejeta then focused on Striga. Commonly known as witchweed, the insidious weed attacks nearby sorghum through the plant's root system. The almost microscopic Striga seeds germinate and then send out rootlets, which find sorghum roots and work their way into the host plant. Once inside, the parasitic weed removes valuable nutrients.
Striga is especially troublesome because the weed's seeds can remain viable for up to 20 years. Striga-related losses of 40 percent are possible in non-resistant sorghum crops.
Working with late Purdue colleague Larry Butler, Ejeta identified the exudate - chemical signal - from sorghum that is picked up by Striga rootlets. From there, he was able to develop a biological mechanism for interrupting the exudation process.
The parasitic weed work took nearly 15 years to come to fruition," Ejeta said. "The novel approach that we developed was a totally new paradigm on how to dissect this complex trait into simpler components. After that, we didn't need to go to Africa to do Striga research. We were able to do this work in a laboratory at Purdue University."
In 1994 eight tons of Ejeta's drought-tolerant and Striga-resistant sorghum seeds produced at a Purdue agricultural research farm were distributed to Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Mali, Mozambique, Niger, Rwanda, Senegal, Somalia, Sudan, Tanzania and Zimbabwe. Farmers reported yields of as much as four times larger than traditional sorghum crops.
Ejeta is not finished with sorghum genetics or international development work.
"The need out there is great, so there is more to do," he said. "We need to extend the results of our work to more programs and more nations. We need to build stronger human and institutional capacity in African nations to help people feed themselves. We need to encourage the development of similar advances in maize, millets and other crops of Africa."
Ejeta received his master's and doctoral degrees in plant breeding and genetics from Purdue in 1976 and 1978, respectively. He joined the Purdue faculty in 1984.
More information about the World Food Prize Foundation and Prize is available at http://www.worldfoodprize.org.