Food scientist Gebisa Ejeta couldn’t stand idly by while people suffer from hunger. Born in a remote village in Ethiopia more than 70 years ago, Ejeta would walk more than 12 miles to school in a nearby town to learn. His mother later encouraged him, with help from an Oklahoma State University program in Ethiopia, to attend an agricultural and technical secondary school.
“I come from just abject poverty,” Ejeta told Reuters in a 2009 interview. “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.”
That investment into his education would be the beginning of one of the most ambitious and impactful projects in food technology: fortifying sorghum to be resistant to striga, disease, and environmental stressors like drought and cold by breeding new varieties of the crop.
Striga — or witchweed — may be beautiful to look at, with its delicate, colorful flowers. But its parasitic roots siphon water and nutrients from host plants, devastating them. When striga comes into contact with sorghum, the fifth most produced cereal crop in the world, it leaves very little edible food in its wake.
More than 300 million people in Africa rely on sorghum as a steady and delicious source of nutrition. (Bump that to 500 million if you include Asia.) Yet striga can cause anywhere from 20 to 100 percent crop losses in an infested field, effectively starving broad swaths of people.
In 2009, Ejeta won the World Food Prize for developing the first high-yield hybrid sorghum plants, resistant to both drought and attack from striga. Since then, he’s created several other resilient varieties — one current variety in development is a white sorghum that can grow in lowlands. And in October, 14 years later, he was awarded the prestigious National Medal of Science, the highest scientific honor in the US.
“By developing sorghum strains that withstand droughts and parasites, he has improved food security for millions,” President Joe Biden said at a ceremony honoring Ejeta and other recipients at the White House. “His advocacy for science, policy, and institutions as key to economic development has lifted the fortunes of farmers and strengthened the souls of nations.”
Ejeta, who is also the executive director at Purdue University’s Center for Global Food Security, has a long and storied career as a policy adviser on possible solutions to world hunger. From working with the US Agency for International Development and the US State Department to serving on former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s scientific advisory board, Ejeta has advocated for using science to boost Africa’s food production — just as the Green Revolution had done. Many humanitarian groups and governments will give emergency food aid to African countries, which doesn’t get to the root of the problem. Ejeta’s work, and others like it, will.
“Sometimes I may appear to my colleagues that I have a missionary zeal,” Ejeta told Reuters. “I have been really single-minded about trying to do the best that I can to advance science-based development.”