|Addressing World Food Demand|
Renowned plant breeder promotes tech and innovation at AU lecture
Dr. Gebisa Ejeta, renowned plant breeder and distinguished Purdue University professor, delivered the fall 2011 E.T. York Distinguished Lecture at Auburn University Nov. 3. Ejeta improved the food security of millions in his home country of Africa and secured the 2009 World Food Prize with his development of a sorghum hybrid which is drought-tolerant and resistant to Striga, a destructive weed.
"Our speaker tonight has spent a lifetime developing a breakthrough technology with sorghum," said Dr. William Batchelor, Dean of Auburn University’s College of Agriculture. "He’s distributed this technology throughout different African nations and is a great example of the kind of efforts going to be required for us to double our food production in the next 39 years."
Batchelor, one of the speakers who introduced Ejeta, outlined some of the challenges in feeding a growing population.
Batchelor has seen the world population grow exponentially since he was a college undergraduate.
When he was a college student in 1982, the world population reached 4.6 billion.
During that time, new technology allowed the U.S. to produce more food than the world needed. Farmers went out of business, and there was a surplus of cereals in the U.S, Batchelor said.
Recently, he picked up a newspaper and, to his amazement, the headline screamed the world population hit 7 billion.
Currently, 70 percent of the poorest people in the world are farmers, he stated.
About half of the world population lives on about $2.50 a day, and half of those individuals are farmers, Batchelor continued.
He stipulated about 1 billion middle-class citizens in the world compete everyday for gas, food and resources.
By 2050, the middle-class population will triple and still have the same buying power, he said.
In the next 39 years, the world will have to double the food supply to meet the growing demand, he emphasized.
Several Auburn faculty members are working on ways to double the food supply.
Auburn’s College of Agriculture is examining incremental changes that can be made in technology and the development of breakthrough technologies as ways to increase field production, he said.
Dr. Paul Patterson, Associate Dean of the College of Agriculture, also introduced Ejeta.
"As chair of the York Committee I know firsthand that we strive to bring some of the brightest, best and most progressive scientists and thinkers to the Auburn campus as our York lecturers," Patterson said. "Tonight is a prime example of the quality of those presenters."
In his lecture, "Meeting Global Food Demands: Research and Education Needs," Ejeta addressed problems facing world food production.
"However, as imminent as these dangers are, the solutions lie in education and science and technology and innovation; not in panic and abandonment," Ejeta said. "I believe we can still rise to the challenges and meet them head on, provided there is a political will that would galvanize the great opportunity that our collective vision, our creativity and our sciences can offer to address the issues of food agriculture and natural resource conservation and manage it in a more holistic way."
For the last century, the U.S. agricultural sector has been one of the most productive in the world, he said.
Factors like education, research, the Extension service system and the land grant university system have played a major role in the strength of agricultural production in the U.S., Ejeta explained.
Agricultural research along with the development of technologies and value-added products spurred a nearly 10 fold increase in commodity yields in the U.S. over the past 100 years, he stated.
The establishment of the U.S. land grant university system model enhanced colleges of agriculture and the study of agricultural science within the U.S. and abroad is a factor for the success of agricultural revolution, he stipulated.
As a result of such factors, farming became profitable in the developed world, he continued.
Breakthroughs in the science of agriculture dramatically changed production practices for the better, increased farming efficiency, drew investments from rural and urban businesses, and increased farm yield levels, he said.
Also, income increased while prices remained low, he added. Then society began to take agriculture for granted.
As a result, funding for agricultural sciences became scarce. Only a narrow niche of agriculture existed and was held by a heavy private sector. New technologies, farming techniques and seed varieties that could increase yields and cope with changing climate conditions, battle new pests and diseases, and make food more nutritious faced sharp cutbacks, he emphasized.
Ejeta said, after a decade of floods and complacency, agricultural world leaders are now reawakened to the need for economic growth and political stability in the developing world. World leaders have also come to a new realization of the necessity for science and technology to sustain progress in agriculture.
"I believe, if we re-engage with the same sense of purpose and the same ingenuity and drive upon which our earlier successes were set, this country would continue to provide the global leadership and the example a self-assured, super-power nation can provide," he said. "As citizens of the world collectively, we have the scientific and resource base with which we can feed the growing human population and still live behind a more endowed natural resource base for future generations, but we need to get started soon."
Katie Jackson of the College of Agriculture said it was an honor to have Ejeta as a guest on campus.
"His work has a profound impact on communities across the globe as he strives to help feed the world," Jackson said. "Having him here in our community also had profound effects. His lecture and his visits with students, faculty, staff and members of our local community were extremely educational, but also deeply moving and no doubt planted seeds of ideas for ways we, too, can all combat hunger and poverty. Dr. Ejeta’s passion and commitment for making the world a better place were so evident in each interaction here at Auburn. He embodies the spirit of the York Lecturer program."
Jade Currid is a freelance writer from Auburn.