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Interview – Dr Gebisa Ejeta: Food security through education, research and policy advocacy

“Africa has great potential for food production. 60 per cent of new arable land that can be added to meet the growing global food demand, is available in this vast continent. The population, presently around a billion, is expected to double by 2030 and to grow to 2.5 billion in 2050. This young population will be a big help in expanding food production. Africa, thus has the potential to provide food for the world.”

This estimate was provided by Dr Gebisa Ejeta, distinguished professor in the Department of Agronomy at the Purdue University, Director of the Purdue Center for Global Food Security, the 2009 World Food Prize Laureate and Chairman of the Laureates selection Committee for the World Food Prize.
Ejeta received his Master’s and doctoral degrees in plant breeding and genetics from Purdue in 1976 and 1978 respectively. During 1979-84 Ejeta worked with the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT), Hyderabad. During this period Ejeta, a plant breeder and geneticist, focused on developing sorghum varieties in Sudan that are resistant to drought and Striga, a parasite weed that was wreaking havoc on sorghum, a major food crop for more than 500 million people in the African continent.

Ejeta grew up in a one-room hut in a village in Ethiopia and thus had been familiar with the debilitating impact of poverty and food insecurity. These experiences have been steering his research and career.

Focused research on witchweed

This native of Ethiopia was a witness to the devastating effects of drought and Striga on sorghum crops, one among the world’s five principal cereal grains, in several countries in eastern and western Africa. Five years of intense research produced his first breakthrough in introducing the commercial sorghum hybrid that helped expand yields up to 150 per cent over the traditional sorghum cultivars. His focused research was on Striga, known as witchweed, that attacked nearby sorghum plants through the plant’s root system. The microscopic Striga seeds germinate and send out rootlets that find sorghum roots and work their way into the host plant. Once inside, the parasitic weed ate the valuable nutrients. Says Jay Akridge of Purdue University: the weed seeds can remain active for up to 20 years and he estimates Striga-related losses at 40 per cent.

In a research spread over 15 years, Ejeta succeeded in dissecting the complex chemical trait into simpler components and effectively succeeded in tackling this. The drought-resistant and Striga-resistant sorghum seeds that were produced at the Purdue agricultural research farms were distributed to a dozen African countries including Ethiopia and Rwanda. The results were spectacular – a four’fold increase in productivity over traditional sorghum crops. The research also impacted on other crops like maize and sugarcane.

EMERGING CHALLENGES…

One sees the parallel of the work of the Father of Green Revolution, Dr Norman Borlaug, on wheat yields a couple of decades earlier. Initially it impacted Mexico and spread rapidly to countries across the world. Like Dr Borlaug and other leaders like C Subramaniam and Dr M S Swaminathan, Ejeta’s concerns related to global food security. He referred to the emerging challenges of climate change, rapid growth in human population, urbanisation, dietary changes and inequities in trade, income and resources. He expressed concern over world’s ability to provide healthy and environmentally sustainable diets for all its people. He pointed to the creation of the Purdue Center for Global Food Security which focuses on three essential areas – education, research, communicating the research findings and influencing policy and advocacy.

The Purdue University with its pre-eminence in educational and research programmes in agriculture, science and engineering, strives through the Center for Global Food Security to be among the leaders in advancing the global agenda on food and nutrition security. The Centre is located inside the university’s Discovery Park, a large Purdue research infrastructure for facilitating campus-wide trans-disciplinary research, education and entrepreneurial engagement.

The Sasakawa Africa Association that impressed jimmy carter…Ejeta provided an interesting instance of how these three objectives are inter-connected and utilised to achieve results: “the Sasakawa Africa Association (SAA) (with which Dr Norman Borlaug was intimately associated) had done a lot of work in Ethiopia in improving agriculture productivity and enrichment of human endeavours.

“During the visit to Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa of US President Jimmy Carter, Dr Marco Quinones, Regional Director, SAA, requested the President to witness a field demonstration. The President’s team, hard pressed for time, could not immediately agree but advised the association to make a short power point presentation. On seeing this President Carter was deeply impressed and agreed for a visit. He personally telephoned the Prime Minister of Ethiopia to join him. In an informal visit in a Land Rover vehicle, the President and the Prime Minister were deeply impressed with the work which the President described as ‘fantastic’:”can we replicate this in other regions of our counrty?’, the President queried and agreed to provide more funds for such work across the country. The Ethiopian Prime Minister got deeply involved in the effort and supported it strongly. Over the next three years the Prime Minister participated in the annual three-day surveys. The positive features of the foundation’s work were replicated in quick time,” said Ejeta.

In 1993, a joint venture between the Carter Center’s Agricultural Program and SAA helped Ethiopian farmers achieve quantum jumps in agricultural production, by 200-400 per cent higher yields. Such munificent assistance continues leading to greater success – an emerging green revolution in Ethiopia with support from several agencies including the Gates Foundation. The latest is the $ 5 million grant by the Bill-Melinda Gates Foundation to the Purdue Center for Global Food Security.

At the Discovery Park, the Center for Global Food Security researchers from different academic disciplines work to tackle global challenges and create solutions for a better world. They endeavour to meet the rising demand for food, feed, water and energy.

In I996, Dr Norman Borlaug visited Chennai, Dr M S Swaminathan invited me to present Dr Borlaug to select invitees from Chennai at the MS Swaminathan Research Foundation. After the session I drove Dr Borlaug to the residence of C Subramaniam. It was fascinating to listen and watch the two octogenarians passionately discussing the eradication of global hunger. Dr Borlaug was enthusiastically explaining the work done by the Sasakawa Foundation in Africa.
Ejeta reminisced that even in his death bed Borlaug’s chief concern was Africa’s agriculture growth.

Gebisa’s concerns are a continuation of Borlaug’s: human capacity building, strengthening institutions in developing countries, creating more job opportunities and to bridge the gap between the rich and the poor.

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