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World Food Prize winner says public, private research needed to combat global hunger

Agriculture.com Staff 02/10/2016 @ 6:56am

Three days before he will accept the $250,000 World Food Prize, Gebisa Ejeta told a crowd at the Iowa State University Memorial Union that the success of the Green Revolution and complacency helped lead to a crisis that today puts a sixth of humanity at risk of malnutrition and starvation.

"Global hunger is a moral issue, a problem too big to ignore," Ejeta said during his hour-long Norman Borlaug Lecture, an annual event named after the founder of the Food Prize. The Iowa-born Borlaug, credited with saving a billion lives for his work in developing high-yielding varieties of wheat, died September 12 at the age of 95.

Ejeta, who grew up in a thatched hut in rural Ethiopia, is now a plant breeder at Purdue University. Working at the International Crop Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics in Sudan, Ejeta developed the first hybrid sorghum varieties for Africa. His research led to some varieties that yielded up to five times as much as traditional sorghum, an important food crop in Africa. And he developed varieties that are resistant to a parasitic weed, Striga, or witchweed.

In spite of the advances of science, the plight of the poor in Africa and South Asia has not improved in recent years, Ejeta said at Iowa State.

In the past three years the number of people on the planet who are hungry has increased from 800 million to a billion, one sixth of humanity.

And, as some nations start to recover from a global recession, the poor are still hungry.

"All too often, it becomes a multigenerational condemnation of the body and soul," Ejeta said.

Getting to this point is complicated, with a lot of causes: Declining budgets in developed countries not only for food aid, but for assistance in research. And food aid dwarfs spending on research and outreach that would help Africa’s farmers produce more.

Also, agricultural research in the U.S. and developed countries has been so successful that the public has taken it for granted, he said. In a century, U.S. food productivity increased almost tenfold, driven at first by research and commercialization of hybrid seed corn under the leadership of Henry Wallace, who served as ag secretary and vice president during the Great Depression of the 1930s.

"Agricultural science has become a victim of its own success," Ejeta said.

Ejeta said that Africa could also benefit from more educational systems modeled on the U.S. land grant university system and cooperative extension service. Many research centers in Africa were set up by colonial nations to focus on export crops like tea, coffee and cotton instead of food crops grown locally.

Global food security has gotten worse for other reasons, too, he said -- climate change, oil and energy shocks and now, the global recession.

"We now recognize our world is not as food awash as we once believed," he said.

As another part of the solution to hunger, Ejeta said he supports the Global Food Security Act introduced in the U.S. Senate by Senators Richard Lugar (R-IN) and Robert Casey (D-PA).

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