The World Food Prize Foundation

2002: Sanchez

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Dr. Pedro Sanchez


Pedro A. Sanchez, a native of Cuba, pioneered scientific approaches to increase productivity of tropical soils, which had been long thought to be unsuitable for agriculture. His research helped open millions of hectares of land in Latin America to farming production, and his innovations in agroforestry dramatically improved productivity and ecological sustainability in Africa. By pioneering ways to restore fertility to some of the world's poorest and most degraded soils, 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.  

Full Biography

Pedro Sanchez spent much of his childhood at his family’s farm outside Havana, Cuba, 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, Sanchez was fascinated by Cuba’s tropical red soil.

He enrolled at Cornell University in the United States in 1958 to study agriculture. In the decade that followed, sweeping political change in his homeland sent his family to the United States and left him without funding for his education. Yet he persevered, earning degrees in agronomy and soil science culminating in a 1968 doctorate from Cornell University.

That same year, 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 produced among the highest rice yields in the world and helped the nation achieve self-sufficiency in rice. While there, Sanchez repeatedly encountered the widespread belief that tropical soils were useless for agricultural production.

Working in Brazil with North Carolina State and Cornell’s collaborative Tropical Soils Program beginning in 1972, Sanchez participated in supporting the Brazilian government initiative to develop the Cerrado, a vast tropical area equivalent in size to Western Europe, which at that time was not under agricultural production. After several years of collaboration, Sanchez and colleagues found cost-effective methods for farm producers to apply the soil treatment and fertilizer technologies (pioneered by Colin McClung, one of the 2006 World Food Prize Laureates) to reduce soil acidity, eliminate toxic concentrations of aluminum, and thus bring the Cerrado to life. The result was the single largest increase in arable land anywhere in the world in over 50 years, with more than 30 million hectares of land coming 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 the International Center for Tropical Agriculture in Cali, Colombia, Sanchez was instrumental in developing new aluminum-tolerant pasture species that dramatically increased beef production in the region. Having played a significant role in improving agriculture in the Brazilian Cerrado, Sanchez and his colleagues eradicated the myth that tropical soils could not produce food.

At the same time, 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, Sanchez continued to learn about and explore agroforestry’s benefits to soils, crop yields, and incomes in poor and rural areas.

In 1991, 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. Sanchez began an ICRAF research effort to develop low-cost and comprehensive soil rejuvenation programs for east and southern Africa.

He 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, this process also helped in retaining moisture.

The over 400,000 farmers who adopted this innovative approach in more than 20 countries saw 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 and sequesters more atmospheric carbon – the leading cause of global warming – than any other agricultural practice.

Most importantly, farmers and their families using this approach no longer suffered extreme food deprivation. In 2001, the leader of western Kenya’s Luo community made Sanchez an honorary elder because for the first time in living memory the people in his village were no longer hungry at night.

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 Sanchez’s vision, ICRAF’s World Agroforestry Center worked toward the goal of planting 5.5 billion trees, removing over 100 million tons of carbon dioxide from the air, and bringing 20 million people out of poverty in the first decade of the new millennium.

Sanchez became Director of Tropical Agriculture at Columbia University’s Earth Institute in 2003. He is an international authority and leader in the fight against hunger, having co-led the United Nation’s Millennium Project Task Force on Hunger with fellow World Food Prize Laureate M.S. Swaminathan (1987). Upon receiving The World Food Prize in 2002, Sanchez and his wife, agricultural scientist 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 established such villages in food-insecure hotspots all over Africa.

Besides having received The World Food Prize, 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 prestigious “Genius Award” in honor of his numerous achievements in expanding food supplies and improving ecological conditions in developing countries around the world.

In 2006, Sanchez was awarded a Doctor of Science Honoris Causa from The Ohio State University and was named ”Hero of Humanity” by Heifer International’s World Ark publication. In the same year, he was elected a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science under the “Agriculture, Food, and Renewable Resources” category. In April 2008, Sanchez was elected a member of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences.

Additional Links 

2002 Laureate Luncheon Lecture Transcript

Sanchez at 2006 Borlaug Dialogue: The African Green Revolution Takes Off: A Progress Report

Sanchez moderates 2014 Borlaug Dialogue 

2002 Laureate Sanchez Elected to National Academy of Sciences

2002 Laureate Sanchez Elected as AAAS Fellow

American Academy of Arts & Sciences

Return to Laureates Main Page



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