Gebisa Ejeta says the world will have to increase its production of food more in the next four decades than it has since the dawn of civilization.
Accomplishing that task will require concerted efforts by governments, agribusiness and farmers, says Ejeta, the winner of this year’s World Food Prize. The glue holding those parts together may be a revitalization of the land-grant university system.
With the world’s population expected to grow from current estimates of 6 billion people to more than 9 billion by 2050, the world’s agricultural leaders must figure out a way to double food production during the same timeframe.
“We can do this by revitalizing our agricultural sciences and recommitting to the time-tested, mission-oriented legacies of our land-grant university models and ideas,” said Gebisa, a native of Ethiopia who grew up in a one-room thatched hut with a mud floor but went on to earn a doctorate in plant breeding and genetics at Purdue University.
Gebisa, who is currently a distinguished professor of agronomy at Purdue, will receive the $250,000 World Food Prize during ceremonies at the Iowa State Capitol Thursday (Oct. 15). The World Food Prize was founded by Dr. Norman E. Borlaug, the universally recognized father of the Green Revolution. Borlaug, a native of Cresco, Iowa, died Sept. 12. Ejeta, whose own work on the development of higher-yielding and weed-resistant sorghum varieties is believed to have helped feed hundreds of thousands of people in Africa, paid tribute to Borlaug during the annual Norman Borlaug Lecture at Iowa State University Monday night.
“The land-grant model legislated in 19th century helped build this great nation and made 20th century American agriculture the envy of the world,” said Ejeta “It has succeeded internationally, bringing about the Asian Green Revolution championed by Norm Borlaug and furthered by many others.”
Even in the face of emerging 21st century issues like climate change and the uncertainty of global energy supplies, Ejeta said, “the land grant model can be counted upon once again to address the challenges of doubling food and feed production.”
Over the last century, the U.S. agriculture sector has become one of the most productive in the world, and citizens of this country as well as the rest of North America and Western Europe have become accustomed to a safe and relatively inexpensive supply of food.
Agricultural research and genetics, crop and animal husbandry, pest and disease control through chemical inputs and integrated pest management, post-harvest technology and value-added products have all spurred the nearly tenfold increase in commodity yields in the United States over the last 100 years.
The first agricultural revolution was brought about by the advent of corn hybrid technology which gave rise to the private seed industry and the associated complex of services and partnerships, he said, noting the role of Iowa State graduate Henry Wallace in those efforts.
“One way the success of modern agriculture is reflected is in how much we pay for food. In the 1933, according to USDA ERS, Americans spent more than 25 percent of their income on food. By 1985, that had dropped to 11.7 percent and, in 2000, below 10 percent for the first time in history.
“In contrast, the poorest nations spend 70 percent or more of their disposable income on feeding their families.”
The success of U.S. agriculture spurred the advent of the Asian Green Revolution, helping Borlaug and other scientists convert countries like India from “basket cases to bread baskets,” said Ejeta.
“In my view, the transformative changes brought about by modern agriculture sciences in his native Iowa inspired Norm Borlaug to dream about helping the poor in developing countries overcome hunger with the breakthrough he achieved in wheat genetics.”
Borlaug, he said, saw how the advent of hybrid corn in private sector initiatives in the seed industry and other agribusinesses spurred not only productivity increases on farms but also enhanced the livelihoods of rural Americans. “Fresh from the economic hardship of the great depression this must have been an easy lesson for young Norm to take to heart.”
Ejeta quoted from his testimony before the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations’ hearing on global food security last March.
“Norm Borlaug, the universally acknowledged father of the Green Revolution, is a hero to me and very many others. I personally admire his single-minded devotion to science and agriculture development and his unending empathy and service to the poor.
“As I reflect on his accomplishments and leadership, however, in my view, the genius of Norm Borlaug was not in his creation of high yield potential and input responsive wheat varieties. Not even in his early grasp of the technology but to a great extent in his relentless attempts to mobilize policy support and encourage the development of the agro-industry complex, to sustain the synergistic affects of technology, education and markets.”
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