James and the Giant Corn Genetics: Studying the Source Code of Nature

November 17, 2009

Dr. Gebisa Ejeta on Investing in Agriculture

I mentioned Doctor Gebisa Ejeta before when he won the world food prize for his work developing striga resistant sorghum breeds. This is a man who began life… well his own words can say it better than I can paraphrase:

I was born of illiterate parents with little means and raised in a small village without schools in west-central Ethiopia. An only child, I was nurtured with with lots of love, but on a diet less than adequate even for body maintenance, let alone for growth and intellectual development. … I was rescued by a godsend from the United State of America…

I took that quote from his testimony before the Senate Committee on Foreign relations this past spring. It was a moving call to renew the international investments in agricultural research, and the training of plant scientists around the world, something the United State and the international community as a whole have let slide for the past two decades. The whole testimony is an excellent read (h/t to mary for pointing it out on the biofortified forums). If you have a few minutes, please take the time to read the whole thing here [pdf]. If you don’t, you surely have the time to read this single paragraph:

Unfortunately, the level of support for these long term multi-generational changes[1] has declined over the last two decades, stalling the progress of our early efforts. A drop in external funding and political neglect of agriculture by national policy makes in developing countries have resulted in an increasing decline in the human capital base. Reduced funding for agriculture and agricultural research has eroded the capability of U.S. institutions to educate and conduct research in vital areas, particularly in the applied sciences including plant and animal breeding, genetics, crop physiology, and plant pathology.

Back in September, Science published a paper analyzing the effects of that drop in investment (my initial coverage of that paper is here).

I can attest to the truth of that last bit. Biology was the biggest major at the school I did my undergrad at, yet those of us studying plants in my year could probably fit around a kitchen table,* and my kind of plant biology (more basic research, less direct applications) is in much better shape than the kind we really need in the short term: applied plant biology. Right now we aren’t training nearly enough plant breeders in this country to meet even domestic needs (mostly the USDA, university extension programs, and seed companies), let alone the sort of outreach we did for the world in decades past.

Random fact I couldn’t work in anywhere else: I can proudly say I received the same training in “Genetic Improvement of Crop Plants” as plant breeders studying at the University of Ghana. Our class was video taped as part of a distance learning program, and rather than actually attend classes, most of the time I watched those video feeds. Got a good grade in the class too!

[1] Doctor Ejeta specifically mentioned the Point Four program, government funded breeding of sorghum with improved nutrition, the International Corp Research Institute for Semi-Arid Tropics, USAID, CGIAR (the parent organization of ICRISAT, as well as many other research centers), and NARS(an organization of public research organizations within different African states).

*In fairness there were more people in plant specific majors in the Ag school.


  1. He was testifying on S. 384 in this case, and the foodie community was actively trying to squash this Global Food Security bill because it included the word “biotechnology” despite all of the other components of the bill. (And they were lying about the nature of the bill, of course.)

    I was very pleased to read this statement. It’s so clear that there are many aspects to the problems of food security in Africa, and it pisses me off that this view didn’t get out because of the polarizing activists.

    Comment by Mary — November 17, 2009 @ 3:39 pm

  2. It’s hard to believe how uninvolved I was just last spring (I didn’t even realize this was going on). Activists managed to keep the Green Revolution mostly out of Africa and look at the difference between what agriculture in Asia (with a green revolution) and Africa (without one) over the past forty years.

    And somehow the same ideology is still respected in the debates about the same policy area.

    Comment by James — November 17, 2009 @ 9:06 pm

  3. I didn’t realize what was going on at the time either. Too wrapped up in my own little world, I guess.

    But the Act is back! Apparently it’s going to be up for discussion soon, so I did my part to help dispel the misinformation about it at Biofortified.

    Comment by Anastasia — April 23, 2010 @ 2:33 pm

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