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Plant Breeder Hopes African Development Takes Root

For Gebisa Ejeta, it was not enough that he developed new varieties of a food staple crop that resisted droughts and a devastating weed that sucked the life out of cereal crops in his native Ethiopia.

Ejeta, who was awarded the 2009 World Food Prize on Thursday, was really driven to get the seeds he and others developed into the hands and control of African farmers.

Ejeta was told early in his plant-breeding career to stick to the science, but his personal journey pushed him to take his work further, using it as a tool for development.

“Sometimes I may appear to my colleagues that I have a missionary zeal,” Ejeta said in an interview with Reuters.

“I have been really single-minded about trying to do the best that I can to advance science-based development.”

Ejeta, 59, once lived with the same kind of hunger faced by one in three people in sub-Saharan Africa.

“I come from just abject poverty,” said Ejeta, who grew up in a one-room thatched hut in a village without a school. Encouraged by his mother, he walked 12 miles (20 km) to a nearby town to attend classes, coming home only on weekends.

He attended an agricultural high school and college created with U. S. government aid, and was the first person from his community to get an education. He went on to earn a doctorate at Indiana’s Purdue University, where he is a professor.

“It was not difficult to recognize if those kinds of opportunities could be made available to more kids like me, then the community would be better,” Ejeta said.

His career first took him to Sudan, where he worked on sorghum, used to make bread, porridges and beverages.

Ejeta developed the first hybrid sorghum variety tolerant to drought, which out-yielded traditional varieties by as much as 150 per cent, and which has fed millions in the country.

Ejeta also worked on varieties resistant to striga, a parasitic weed that is a scourge in Africa. These new seeds yielded as much as four times the yield of local varieties.

But what he is most proud of is the work he did with small farmers to create systems and companies to produce and sell the seed, and to spread the word about how best to grow the crops.

African leaders have begun to show more commitment to agriculture, Ejeta said, but believes Africans need to lead development efforts and not just count on help from countries such as the United States. “I worry about losing momentum.”

U. S. annual spending on African farming projects topped $400 million in the 1980s, but by 2006 had dwindled to just $60 million, according to the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.

The United States is the world’s largest donor of emergency food aid – mainly crops grown by American farmers – but spends 20 times as much on food aid to Africa as it spends on programs that could boost African food production.

Ejeta said he worries that development has stalled with the lack of funding, especially for research and education.

“In my view, this general decline in the human capital base and the shrinking opportunities to replenish it through higher education is the most serious threat to the gains we have made in developing countries,” he told a Senate committee in March.

But he sees hope in recent investments made by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Rockefeller Foundation, and Buffet Foundation, with which he works on development issues.

In October, Ejeta will be formally awarded the $250,000 prize, which was created by Norman Borlaug, who led the “Green Revolution” of the 1950s and 1960s that boosted food production by sharing new seed varieties and agronomic expertise with farmers in India, Pakistan and Mexico.

Ejeta said he will talk to his family about how best to use the prize, which he sees as both an honour and responsibility.

“I hope to continue to serve humanity in the best way I know, and this definitely will be a great platform from which to try to do a little more for the cause,” he said.

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