Thursday, June 11, 2009

An Ethiopian Scientist: Gebisa Ejeta, a plant breeder and genticist wins the World Food Prize

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June 11, 2009

Purdue sorghum researcher wins World Food Prize
WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. - Gebisa Ejeta

Gebisa Ejeta, Distinguished Professor of Agronomy at Purdue University, on Thursday (June 11) was named the recipient of 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. Borlaug, 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 and that he is deserving of the World Food Prize.

"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," he said.

Sorghum is among the world's five principal 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," Ejeta 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

Writer: Steve Leer, 765-494-8415,

Sources: Gebisa Ejeta, 765-463-4245 (June 11), 765-494-4320 (after June 11),

Justin Cremer, World Food Prize Foundation, 515-779-4028, 515-245-3794,

Craig Beyrouty, head of the Purdue Department of Agronomy, (contact Steve Leer at 765-494-8415, for contact information)

Ag Communications: (765) 494-8415;
Steve Leer,
Agriculture News Page

Note to Journalists: Broadcast-quality video can be downloaded at in a folder called World Food Prize 2009. For more information, contact Jim Schenke, Purdue Marketing and Media, at 765-494-6262,

Ethiopian scientist named
2009 World Food Prize Laureate
Gebisa Ejeta of Purdue University developed drought- and weed-resitant sorghum, enhancing food supply in sub-Saharan Africa


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Gebisa Ejeta
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World Food Prize
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Video B-Roll of
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Gebisa Ejeta will receive the $250,000 World Food Prize on October 15 at the Iowa State Capitol

The 2009 World Food Prize will be awarded to Dr. Gebisa Ejeta of Ethiopia, whose sorghum hybrids resistant to drought and the devastating Striga weed have dramatically increased the production and availability of one of the world’s five principal grains and enhanced the food supply of hundreds of millions of people in sub-Saharan Africa.


Ejeta as a grad student at Purdue in 1974 Born in 1950, Gebisa Ejeta grew up in a one-room thatched hut with a mud floor, in a rural village in west-central Ethiopia.

His mother’s deep belief in education and her struggle to provide her son with access to local teachers and schools provided the young Ejeta with the means to rise out of poverty and hardship.

His mother made arrangements for him to attend school in a neighboring town. Walking 20 kilometers every Sunday night to attend school during the week and then back home on Friday, he rapidly ascended through eight grades and passed the national exam qualifying him to enter high school.

Ejeta’s high academic standing earned him financial assistance and entrance to the secondary-level Jimma Agricultural and Technical School, which had been established by Oklahoma State University under the U.S. government’s Point Four Program. After graduating with distinction, Ejeta entered Alemaya College (also established by OSU and supported by the U.S. Agency for International Development) in eastern Ethiopia. He received his bachelor’s degree in plant science in 1973.

In 1973, his college mentor introduced Ejeta to a renowned sorghum researcher, Dr. John Axtell of Purdue University, who invited him to assist in collecting sorghum species from around the country. Dr. Axtell was so impressed with Ejeta that he invited him to become his graduate student at Purdue University. This invitation came at a time when Ethiopia was about to enter a long period of political instability which would keep Ejeta from returning to his home country for nearly 25 years.

Ejeta entered Purdue in 1974, earning his Ph.D. in plant breeding and genetics. He later became a faculty member at Purdue, where today he holds a distinguished professorship.

Developing Drought-Tolerant Crops for Africa

Gebisa Ejeta conducting sorghum research
(click photo to enlarge)
Upon completing his graduate degree, Dr. Ejeta accepted a position as a sorghum researcher at the International Crop Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) office in Sudan. During his time at ICRISAT, Dr. Ejeta developed the first hybrid sorghum varieties for Africa, which were drought-tolerant and high-yielding.

With the local importance of sorghum in the human diet (made into breads, porridges, and beverages), and the vast potential of dryland agriculture in Sudan, Dr. Ejeta’s drought-tolerant hybrids brought dramatic gains in crop productivity and also catalyzed the initiation of a commercial sorghum seed industry in Sudan.

His Hageen Dura-1, as the hybrid was named, was released in 1983 following field trials in which the hybrids out-yielded traditional sorghum varieties by 50 to 100 percent. Its superior grain qualities contributed to its rapid spread and wide acceptance by farmers, who found that yields increased to more than 150 percent greater than local sorghum, far surpassing the percentage gain in the trials.

Dr. Ejeta’s dedication to helping poor farmers feed themselves and their families and rise out of poverty propelled his work in leveraging the gains of his hybrid breeding breakthrough. He urged the establishment of structures to monitor production, processing, certification, and marketing of hybrid seed—and farmer-education programs in the use of fertilizers, soil and water conservation, and other supportive crop management practices.

By 1999, one million acres of Hageen Dura-1 had been harvested by hundreds of thousands of Sudanese farmers, and millions of Sudanese had been fed with grain produced by Hageen Dura-1.

Another drought-tolerant sorghum hybrid, NAD-1, was developed for conditions in Niger by Dr. Ejeta and one of his graduate students at Purdue University in 1992. This cultivar has had yields 4 or 5 times the national sorghum average.

Using some of the drought-tolerant germplasm from the hybrids in Niger and Sudan, Dr. Ejeta also developed elite sorghum inbred lines for the U.S. sorghum hybrid industry. He has released over 70 parental lines for the U.S. seed industry’s use in commercial sorghum hybrids in both their domestic and international markets.

Defeating the Scourge of Striga

Ejeta with Striga-stricken sorghum in Niger
(click photo to enlarge)
Dr. Ejeta’s next breakthrough came in the 1990s, the culmination of his research to conquer the greatest biological impediment to food production in Africa – the deadly parasitic weed Striga, known commonly as witchweed, which devastates yields of crops including maize, rice, pearl millet, sugarcane, and sorghum, thus severely limiting food availability. A 2009 UN Environmental Programme report estimated that Striga plagues 40% of arable savannah land and over 100 million people in Africa.

Previous attempts by African sorghum farmers to control the deadly weed, including crop management techniques and application of herbicides, had failed until Dr. Ejeta and his Purdue colleague Dr. Larry Butler formulated a novel research paradigm for genetic control of this scourge. With financial support from the Rockefeller Foundation and USAID, they developed an approach integrating genetics, agronomy, and biochemistry that focused on unraveling the intricate relationships between the parasitic Striga and the host sorghum plant. Eventually, they identified genes for Striga resistance and transferred them into locally adapted sorghum varieties and improved sorghum cultivars. The new sorghum also possessed broad adaptation to different African ecological conditions and farming systems.

The dissemination of the new sorghum varieties in Striga-endemic African countries was initially facilitated in 1994 by Dr. Ejeta, working closely with World Vision International and Sasakawa2000. Those organizations coordinated a pilot program, with USAID funding, that distributed eight tons of seed to Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Mali, Mozambique, Niger, Rwanda, Senegal, Somalia, Sudan, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe. The yield increases from the improved Striga-resistant cultivars have been as much as four times the yield of local varieties, even in the severe drought areas.

In 2002-2003, Dr. Ejeta introduced an integrated Striga management (ISM) package, again through a pilot program funded by USAID, to deploy in Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Tanzania along with the Striga-resistant sorghum varieties he and his colleagues had developed at Purdue. This ISM package achieved further increased crop productivity through a synergistic combination of weed resistance in the host plant, soil-fertility enhancement, and water conservation.

Empowering Farmers, Inspiring Young Scientists

Ejeta working with students at Purdue University
(click photo to enlarge)
By partnering with leaders and farmers across sub-Saharan Africa and educational institutions in the U.S. and abroad, Dr. Ejeta has personally trained and inspired a new generation of African agricultural scientists that is carrying forth his work.

Dr. 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.

Gebisa Ejeta will receive the $250,000 World Food Prize on October 15 at the Iowa State Capitol

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