By Jay Akridge
Last week, one of the highest honors in agriculture was bestowed on Dr. Gebisa Ejeta, this year’s winner of the World Food Prize. Ejeta, a Purdue University Distinguished Professor of Agronomy and native of Ethiopia, knows all too well the reasons why this honor was established.
Ejeta’s homeland in sub-Saharan Africa is among the places in the world where growth in the number of food-insecure people is highest. His research on breeding improved varieties of sorghum has helped to alleviate some of that suffering by dramatically increasing the production and availability of that food staple in the region.
Ejeta’s story is a remarkable one. And his accomplishments reflect the very best of U.S. land-grant university involvement in international development.
Born in a small remote village, Ejeta’s single mother managed to find a way for him to learn to read and write. He studied on his own and earned a scholarship to a boarding school. From there he went on to an African university, Alemaya College, which was launched as a partnership with Oklahoma State University, a U.S. land grant institution.
After a chance meeting with Purdue professor John Axtell, Ejeta decided to attend Purdue and work on a U.S. government-funded project to improve the nutritional quality of sorghum. Although he left Africa, it didn’t leave him. Ejeta earned his doctorate at Purdue and eventually joined the Department of Agronomy faculty, spending his career breeding improved sorghum, “the staff of life,” for millions on the African continent.
With the passing last month of World Food Prize founder and Nobel Laureate Norman Borlaug, we remember how important agricultural research is in changing the world. Borlaug –also a product of the land-grant system—is credited with saving “more lives than any other person who has ever lived." Still, some 25,000 people die each day from malnutrition and more than one billion people—nearly one-sixth of the world’s population—suffer from chronic hunger.
Food security for people in 70 developing countries is projected to deteriorate over the next decade, according to the U. S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service. In these nations, the number of people who don’t have enough to eat is estimated to rise to 833 million in 2009, an almost 2percent increase in one year.
The increasing number of the world’s hungry is not just a problem overseas. In 2007, the USDA estimated that more than 10 percent of Americans had trouble at times attaining adequate amounts of food for a healthy lifestyle. In the current economy, that figure is very likely to be growing.
Like many other land-grant researchers, both Ejeta’s and Borlaug’s contributions to feeding the world were funded by a mix of private, government and university investments. As Dean of Agriculture of a land-grant university, I understand how important it is to maintain adequate funding for research that both increases and makes safer the worlds’ food supply.
Global hunger is a moral issue and a fundamental problem too big to ignore. We cannot take the food we eat for granted while millions of people, most of them children, starve or are severely under nourished. We all benefit when people globally are better fed. It’s not only the right thing to do, but well-fed people are less likely to turn to violence or terrorism for survival. And as these nations prosper, they may well become allies and trading partners with the United States.
Agricultural research conducted by Purdue and other land grant universities built our nation and made 20th century American agriculture the envy of the world. Today agriculture is called upon to do even more – producing both food and fuel with declining water and land resources. However, I believe that in 21st century, our land grant research can be counted upon once again to surmount the challenge of feeding a hungry world.