Dr. Pedro Sanchez
BY PIONEERING WAYS TO RESTORE fertility to some of the world’s poorest and most degraded soils, the 2002 World Food Prize Laureate, Dr. Pedro A. Sanchez, has made a major contribution to preserving our delicate ecosystem, while at the same time offering great hope to all those struggling to survive on marginal lands around the world.
Dr. Sanchez spent much of his childhood at his family’s farm outside Havana, where he was born in 1940. From his youth, he felt tied to Cuba’s agricultural tradition – his father worked with Cuban farmers to increase productivity with fertilizers, and as a boy Dr. Sanchez was fascinated by Cuba’s tropical red soil. He enrolled at Cornell University in 1958 to study agriculture. In the decade that followed, sweeping political change in his homeland sent his family to the US and left him without money for his education, yet Dr. Sanchez persevered and earned degrees in agronomy and soil science, culminating in a 1968 doctorate.
In 1968, Dr. Sanchez took a professorial position at North Carolina State University that he held until 1991. His impact on international agriculture began almost immediately: from 1968 to 1971 he led a research team in Peru that helped the nation achieve self-sufficiency in rice and produce among the highest rice yields in the world. While there, Dr. Sanchez repeatedly encountered the widespread belief that tropical soils were useless for agricultural production.
Working in Brazil with NCSU and Cornell’s Tropical Soils Program beginning in 1972, Dr. Sanchez participated in supporting the Brazilian government initiative to develop the Cerrado, a tropical area equivalent in size to Western Europe and, at that time, non-productive. After several years of collaboration, Dr. Sanchez and his colleagues found cost-effective methods for producers to apply the soil amendment and fertilizer technologies pioneered by 2006 World Food Prize Laureate Dr. Colin McClung to reduce soil acidity, eliminate toxic concentrations of aluminum, and thus bring the Cerrado to life.
In the single largest increase in arable land anywhere in the world in over 50 years, more than 30 million hectares of land came into production. Average yields increased by 60 percent, total grain harvests tripled, and Brazilian soybean production grew to match that of the United States. As leader of the Tropical Pastures Program at CIAT in Colombia, Dr. Sanchez was instrumental in developing new aluminum-tolerant pasture species that drastically increased beef production in the region. Having played a significant role in improving Cerrado agriculture, Dr. Sanchez and his colleagues destroyed the myth that tropical soils could not produce food.
At the same time, Dr. Sanchez was increasingly interested in the potential of agroforesty – integrated crop and tree cultivation – to improve productivity and long-term ecological stability. While expanding his work into Asia and Africa in the 1980s, Dr. Sanchez continued to learn about and explore agroforestry’s benefits to soils, crop yields, and incomes in poor and rural areas.
In 1991, Dr. Sanchez accepted a position in Kenya as Director General of the International Center for Research in Agroforestry (ICRAF) , where he made his most enduring contribution to ending world hunger. Sub-Saharan Africa had long seemed impervious to the promise of high-yield crop varieties or new fertilizers. Dr. Sanchez began an ICRAF research effort to develop low-cost and comprehensive soil rejuvenation programs for east and southern Africa.
Dr. Sanchez experimented with adding native rock phosphate to the soil while simultaneously planting selected nitrogen-fixing trees and bushes alongside rows of crops. The trees pulled nitrogen from the air, infusing it into the soil and, eventually, the crops; by nourishing organic matter in the soil, the process also helped in retaining moisture.
The over 400,000 farmers who have adopted this innovative approach in over 20 countries have seen yields increase by as much as 400 percent. Even in drought years, which normally obliterate crops, African farmers practicing agroforestry are able to reap a modest one ton of maize per hectare. The trees and bushes themselves yield fruits, fodder for dairy livestock, and byproducts with medicinal value. In addition, this approach captures more atmospheric carbon – the leading cause of global warming – than any other agricultural practice.
But most importantly, people using this approach no longer suffer extreme food deprivation. In 2001, the leader of western Kenya’s Luo community made Dr. Sanchez an honorary elder because, he said, for the first time in living memory the people in his village were no longer hungry at night.
As an administrator, Dr. Sanchez built up ICRAF’s funding sources, collaborative activities, and global reach. By his 2001 departure, the center had improved its research facilities, expanded its area of activity into Latin America and Asia, and become the world’s leading institution in agroforestry. Galvanized by Dr. Sanchez’s vision, ICRAF’s World Agroforestry Center aims to plant 5.5 billion trees, remove over 100 million tons of carbon dioxide from the air, and bring 20 million people out of poverty in the first decade of the new millennium.
Director of Tropical Agriculture at Columbia University’s Earth Institute since 2003, Dr. Sanchez is also an international authority and leader in the fight against hunger, having co-led the United Nation’s Millennium Project’s Task Force on Hunger with fellow World Food Prize Laureate M.S. Swaminathan. Upon receiving the World Food Prize in 2002, Dr. Sanchez and his wife, Dr. Cheryl Palm, established the Sanchez Tropical Agriculture Foundation to directly fund and support the scientists and farmers working to end hunger in the world’s poorest regions. They have also invented the concept of Millennium Villages and are working to establish such villages in hotspots all over Africa.
In October 2011, Dr. Sanchez and his wife announced a new scholarship fund for young girls throughout poor, rural parts of Africa who are hoping to attend secondary school. Sanchez invested his $250,000 cash award from the World Food Prize, and nearly a decade later, was able to dedicate $370,000 to create the Sanchez-Palm Girls Scholarship Fund, which will directly support Connect to Learn, a project aimed at getting young girls into secondary schools, and improving those schools with computers and internet connectivity.
Besides having received the World Food Prize, Dr. Sanchez has been decorated by the governments of Colombia and Peru and has received honorary doctorates from Guelph University in Canada and the Catholic University in Belgium. In 2004, he won the MacArthur Foundation’s prestigious “Genius Award” in honor of his numerous achievements in expanding food supplies and improving ecological conditions in developing countries around the world.
Dr. Sanchez was awarded a Doctor of Science Honoris Causa from The Ohio State University in December 2006, and was named ”Hero of Humanity" by Heifer International's World Ark publication in November 2006. Also in this year, Dr. Sanchez was elected as a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science under the “Agriculture, Food, and Renewable Resources” category. In Aprill 2008, Dr. Sanchez was elected as a member of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences.
He intends to make sure that the world achieves the UN’s Millennium Development Goals on hunger by 2015, after which he may become a full-time fisherman.