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Global Food Security Center Hires Manager, Receives Grants

The recently created Center for Global Food Security at Purdue University has hired a managing director and received grants totaling $10 million for work to improve crops in Africa and train the next generation of global food security experts.

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WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – The recently created Center for Global Food Security at Purdue University has hired a managing director and received grants totaling $10 million for work to improve crops in Africa and train the next generation of global food security experts.

Gary Burniske, who had been director of Mercy Corps operations in Bogotá, Colombia, since 2006, will run daily operations of the center at Discovery Park, a complex of organizations leading large-scale collaborative research on campus engaging faculty, students and industry in state, national and global partnerships and entrepreneurial education.

"I envision the center being a catalyst for dramatic improvements in food security by sharing the tremendous wealth of knowledge and innovation generated at Purdue University," said Burniske, who started his new position Feb. 1. "I look forward to working with the Discovery Park team to achieve Purdue's vision as a global leader for solutions to social, economic and environmental challenges we face."

Burniske's appointment comes at a time when the center, established in 2011, will begin work on two major projects that have received significant funding and align with two of the center's core mission areas - research and education:

  • A four-year, multidisciplinary research and development program on the control of the parasitic Striga weed, which infests sorghum and other crops in Africa, damaging or destroying them. The center received a $5 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to further research and establish programs for a sustainable Striga control and institutional development effort in the African nations of Tanzania and Ethiopia.
  • A five-year effort to train U.S. graduate students in food security and global development in the fields of agriculture and natural resources. The U.S. Borlaug Fellows in Global Food Security program is funded by a $5 million grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Both projects align with the center's objectives to advance global food security and develop leaders with the skills to help solve the world's hunger problems amid a growing population, said university President France A. Córdova.

"Forging such large-scale partnerships goes to the core of Purdue's commitment to provide innovative, research-based solutions to problems facing our global society," Córdova said. "Purdue's Center for Global Food Security is rising to that challenge."

The Striga research will build on the work of Gebisa Ejeta, the center's director and distinguished professor of agronomy who received the World Food Prize in 2009 for developing sorghum varieties resistant to drought and Striga in his native Africa, where sorghum is a major crop.

The new effort will focus on furthering knowledge of biological interactions between Striga and sorghum through research in chemistry, molecular genetics and crop improvement.

"In the previous research, we focused on controlling Striga through manipulation of resistance genes in the host plant," Ejeta said. "Now we will expand the research to explore the role of virulence genes in the pathogen to avoid catastrophic breakdown of resistance."

Shorter-term solutions will involve establishing sustainable Striga control programs by adapting previously piloted Striga management technologies to the variety of environments and livelihoods of small-scale farmers in highly infested regions of Ethiopia and Tanzania.

Ejeta will direct the project, which will include Tesfaye Mengiste, a Purdue professor of botany and plant pathology, and Harro Bouwmeester, who heads the Laboratory of Plant Physiology at Wageningen University in the Netherlands. They will collaborate with the agriculture ministries in Ethiopia and Tanzania.

The Borlaug fellowship program will consist of:

  • A two-week Summer Institute on Global Food Security for 20-30 beginning graduate students. The training will provide an understanding of the array of issues involving food security. It will be conducted annually on the Purdue campus.
  • A dissertation research opportunity for U.S. graduate students to work in developing countries for 6-24 months, laying foundations for new and long-term collaborative research in food and natural resource systems between African nations and the United States.

"Aptly named, the program is an ambitious effort to produce the next generation's Norman Borlaugs for the fight against hunger and to advance global development," said Ejeta, referring to the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize-winning plant scientist and humanitarian.

The Borlaug program will be administered by Ejeta, Burniske and Rose Filley, managing director of Purdue's Global Sustainability Initiative.