When Ethiopia native Gebisa Ejeta first joined the Purdue University faculty as an assistant professor in 1984, he immediately knew that he was in a place where the opportunities to make global agricultural impact were endless.
World Food Prize recipient Gebisa Ejeta developed drought- and Striga-resistant sorghum hybrids, conducting many field trials at a Purdue agricultural research farm.
"The climate for research here is right. There are no walls or boundaries, and we"re encouraged to work with our colleagues across the college and around the world with no limits," says Ejeta, now a Purdue distinguished professor of agronomy.
Ejeta, whose homeland has faced a number of agricultural problems, such as yield-reducing droughts and parasitic plants, dedicated his career to finding ways to overcome these challenges. "There is a need for agricultural research in developing countries because the food supply is limited. The needs of these countries are changing over time, and meeting those needs requires research and cooperation," he says.
The researcher"s passion for agriculture and his desire to make a difference led him to a search for sorghum varieties that could survive severe droughts and resist Striga, a species of deadly parasitic weed. Sorghum is a major source of both nutrition and income in Africa.
After many years of testing in the lab and trials in the field, Ejeta successfully developed sorghum hybrids that are both drought- and Striga-resistant. Not only did people in Africa hail this great achievement, so did the rest of the world. In June, Ejeta was named the 2009 World Food Prize Laureate—Purdue Agriculture"s second such recipient in three years. Food scientist Philip Nelson was the 2007 laureate. The World Food Prize, often referred to as the "Nobel Prize of Agriculture," is awarded annually to an individual who has improved the quality, quantity or availability of food in the world. (See coverage of the award ceremony on the inside back cover.)
"I think Purdue's two World Food Prize awards cause the world to take pause and ponder how a university in the Midwest earns this sort of recognition for addressing production and distribution problems of the global food supply," the humble Ejeta reflects. "It draws an international light to our mission and research, shows that determined focus is needed to succeed in agricultural research, and proves that overseas partnerships are of significant mutual benefit."
A mission for global service
In addition to Ejeta’s much-lauded work in Africa, Purdue Agriculture is involved in activities in more than 60 countries.
"International work fits with our land-grant mission and our strategic plan for global impact," says Jess Lowenberg-DeBoer, director of International Programs in Agriculture and associate dean of Purdue Agriculture. "We have opportunities to make a difference worldwide. There are donors and agencies who are looking for good ideas, and we have the capacity to facilitate those."
According to Lowenberg-DeBoer, some of the biggest global challenges are to provide a growing world population with affordable food and renewable energy. "Some of the newer issues we’re facing include balancing adequate energy supplies with renewable resources," he says. "For example, how do we create both biofuels and ethanol while leaving enough resources for food supply?"