Ethiopian scientist wins World Food Prize for sorghum

Dr. Gebisa Ejeta
Dr. Gebisa Ejeta
Dr. Gebisa Ejeta

By Elizabeth Weise, USA TODAY Oct. 15, 2009
An Ethiopian agronomist who developed a drought- and weed-resistant form of sorghum, one of the world’s principals grains, is the winner of this year’s $250,000 World Food Prize.

Gebisa Ejeta, now a professor of agronomy at Purdue University in West Layfayette, Ind., spent the 1980s and 1990s working in Sudan to create a form of sorghum that yields five to 10 times higher than traditionally grown sorghum.

Most Americans would know sorghum as the small, round yellow seeds commonly found in birdseed. It’s actually the second most important feed crop in the USA, mainly given to cattle and poultry and grown in Oklahoma, Texas, Nebraska and Kansas, Ejeta says.

“A lot of people who grew up it the Midwest in the ’40s and ’50s would remember the old syrup for pancakes, made of milo,” as sorghum is sometimes called there, he says.

It’s also used to make gluten-free beers for people with celiac disease. But in Africa and Asia, it’s a major grain, used in porridge and bread, in making beer and popping like popcorn.

FDA: Gluten-free beer can be labeled as such

Sorghum feeds 500 million to 700 million people worldwide, Ejeta says. “It’s a huge crop in Africa; it’s a very important crop in India. In China it’s used for making their national alcoholic beverage,” baijiu, or white liquor.

The World Food Prize, known as the “Nobel for food,” was created in 1986 by Norman Borlaug, who himself won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for his work creating high-yielding crop varieties estimated to have saved more than 1 billion lives worldwide from famine. Borlaug died Sept. 9.

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The Food Prize honors those who improve the quality, quantity or availability of food in the world.

Ejeta, born in a one-room thatched hut in west-central Ethiopia, walked 12 miles to attend a nearby school, returning home only on the weekends. After graduating from Alemaya College in eastern Ethiopia, he received a Ph.D. in plant breeding and genetics from Purdue in 1978.

His then began to work on new sorghum varieties as a researcher at the International Crop Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics in Sudan. Ejeta’s hybrid, released in 1983, had yields 150% greater than local sorghum. By 1999, 1 million acres were being harvested by Sudanese farmers, feeding millions in that country. Ejeta also developed a drought-tolerant sorghum hybrid that fit conditions in Niger, which yielded four to five times the national sorghum average for that country.

Next, Ejeta turned his focus to a hugely harmful weed called striga, commonly known as witchweed. This parasite lives off corn, rice, millet, sugar cane and sorghum in much the way that mistletoe lives off trees. The United Nations estimates that it infests up to 40% of the arable savannah land in Africa.

“There was a small area in North and South Carolina that had striga in the 1950s,” Ejeta says. “It took the USDA nearly 30 years to eradicate it.”

Working with colleagues at Purdue, Ejeta bred a sorghum variety that is resistant to witchweed. Various aid groups have distributed the seed in numerous African countries. Yields have increased as much as four times over local varieties, even in times of severe drought.

Ejeta will receive the $250,000 World Food Prize in a ceremony at the Iowa State Capitol Oct. 15.

Most and more development programs are realizing the crucial role that agriculture plays in raising the living standards of the world’s poorest people. Bill Gates, co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, will speak Thursday at the World Food Prize in Des Moines, where he is expected to announce nine grants totaling $120 million for programs aiding small farmers.

WEBCAST: Watch it Thursday a.m.

“Melinda and I believe that helping the poorest small-holder farmers grow more crops and get them to market is the world’s single most powerful lever for reducing hunger and poverty,” Gates says in a draft of his speech released by the foundation.