Pedro Sanchez, soil scientist

Fixing nutrient-poor soils can lift African countries out of poverty and gender inequality, says this Green Revolution pioneer. Interview by Keith Rozendal

March 28, 2011

Pedro Sanchez (left) with Earth Institute colleague Awash Teklehaimanot in western Kenya.

Photo courtesy of Pedro Sanchez

Pedro Sanchez sold eggs in Cuba to buy his first car, a Volkswagen bug. In the early 1960s, he put himself through Cornell University as a dishwasher. Today, perhaps 15 million people no longer feel hungry thanks to Sanchez's work—urging governments and private foundations to provide fertilizer and hybrid seeds to small-scale farmers. His data show these simple supports cost far less than emergency food aid and produce many positive collateral effects.

For four decades, Sanchez has helped to produce incredible flowerings in poorly producing tropical soils, which tend to either be highly acidic, nutrient poor, or both. His work is a part of the ongoing Green Revolution, a worldwide scientific effort beginning in the 1940s to address global hunger by boosting farm yields in poor countries through new plant, fertilizer, and farming technologies.

Sanchez helped end Peru's reliance on rice imports with just three years of work at the end of the 1960s. Then, he led Brazil to transform its barren cerrado region into a breadbasket rivaling the American midwest. Sanchez now directs the Millenium Villages Project, which may quadruple yields for farmers in sub-Saharan Africa. At the same time, the project aims to boost public health and education in these seriously impoverished communities.

Norman Bourlag, father of the Green Revolution, bestowed the World Food Prize on Sanchez in 2002. In 2004, the MacArthur Foundation tapped Sanchez for a “genius grant.” He's currently senior research scholar and director of the Tropical Agriculture and Rural Environment Program of the Earth Institute at Columbia University.

Sanchez's speech at the February 2011 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington, D.C., focused on his work as a scientific diplomat. Beforehand, he told SciCom's Keith Rozendal about his life as a scientist in the trenches of international public policy.

You were born in Cuba. How did you end up at Cornell studying soil sciences?

My dad went to Cornell. He studied poultry science during the Great Depression, and he came back to Cuba to start a fertilizer business. My plan was to go to Cornell, get my bachelor's there, and come back and work in my dad's business. Then the Castro revolution took over, and in two years my dad lost everything. He told me, “I can't send any more money; you're on your own.” That was my sophomore year. I did fine; I washed dishes and did this, that, and the other.

Tell us about the Green Revolution of the 1960s and 70s. What was your participation in it?

Once I realized I wouldn't go back to Cuba, I had to look for something else. At that time, a lot of people from Cornell were saying that India—with only 200 million people then—was starving, and the world needed to increase food production. So I told my professors I wanted to get involved in tropical soils. Just send me to the tropics to do my Ph.D. They sent me to the Philippines, where I basically was a foot soldier in the Asian Green Revolution.

I worked at the International Rice Institute at the University of the Philippines. I think the important thing was to be exposed to the dynamics of the Green Revolution, which were in full blast. The “miracle” rice was just being developed then, and I actually used some of that in my plots. They were just short-statured varieties, instead of the tall ones that would tumble over. The director general of the IRI, Robert Chandler, would pound his desk and yell, “I want a short-statured, nitrogen-responsive, high-yielding rice variety!” Bang, bang, bang, and he kept banging until he got it. I was really impressed; I wanted a job like that someday.

There were similar efforts in India, then Latin America, then the Middle East. Crop yields were raised from one to three tons per hectare in those areas, so food production kept ahead of population growth in all the developing regions—except for Africa. There would not have been the emerging strong nations like India, China, Brazil and others if that transformation hadn't taken place. It permitted people to get out of farming, into agribusiness or services, and so on. It was not intentional, but it was a precursor to tremendous economic growth in Asia, Latin America, and elsewhere.

So why was there unevenness in the benefits of the Green Revolution? Why did it skip Africa?

It skipped Africa for a very simple reason—soil fertility depletion. You can have the best varieties in the world, but if you don't have nutrients like nitrogen or phosphorous, forget it. There are different ways to fix it, with mineral fertilizers, organic chemicals, and so on. You just can't do without them; it's a biological imperative. So I started screaming and yelling about it.

"There's nothing more exciting than to see a proud farmer who says, 'Pedro, our house is no longer hungry. What's next?'"

Nobody really listened until a few years later, after I had joined the Earth Institute at Columbia University, headed by Jeffrey Sachs [former Harvard economist and advisor to the United Nations and governments in Latin America, Eastern Europe, and the former Soviet Union]. UN Secretary General Kofi Annan asked us to make a practical plan to implement the commitment that all nations made in meeting the Millennium Development Goals by 2015. I co-led the Hunger Task Force, which had a tremendous impact. We had the ear of the world.

Tell me about the Millennium Villages project.

After we finished the UN Millennium Project in January 2005, it occurred to me: Why don't we put the recommendations into practice at the village level? Jeffrey Sachs loved the idea, and he immediately got funding for it from the private sector.

First we asked the villagers what they needed. They needed a health clinic. They also wanted agricultural inputs, fertilizers and good seeds. So we said okay, we'll subsidize fertilizer for you, but you have to pay it back by putting part of your food into your schools, so your children can have a meal in school. Then you get just about 100 percent attendance at school. The children stay—especially the girls—who had been working in the fields instead. Their grades improve, and they've got energy to play sports. These are all very simple things. None of this is rocket science.

So the villages are also meeting some of the other Millennium Development Goals, like universal education and public health. How about the goal of gender equality?

Oh, I think this is the deciding game, to get the girls in school. This is anecdotal, but last year in Ethiopia I talked to a 12-year-old girl who said she wants to be a nurse. She had high ambitions. Her dad said, “She's of marriageable age. My friends are making dowry offers, but I'm going to let her do what she wants to do.” I was just stunned that he felt like that. This man probably had become food secure because of the response of his crops to fertilizers. Now he can afford the luxury of allowing his girl to go her own way. Eventually she'll get married, but being an educated person she'll probably only have two or three kids. That's the demographic transition we need to keep world population to only 9 billion people by 2050. If it goes much beyond that, I don't see how we'll do it [feed everyone].

So the Millennium Villages look positive right now, five years into it. We figure that 15 to 20 million people in rural Africa are no longer hungry; they definitely were in 2005.

But that's maybe 5 to 10 percent of the problem.

Exactly. We're not even close, so there's a lot of work to do. By 2015 we'll probably achieve all of the development goals except the poverty one. The poverty goal requires another transformation: going from mono-cropping of corn and beans—basic food crops—into high-value crops, into agriculture, then into agribusiness, then export trade, and so on. The United States was 85 percent farmers 200 years ago, and now it's less than 2 percent. You want to get people out of agriculture, and you can only do that with very successful agriculture.

What national and international issues stand in the way of implementing these policies on a wider scale?

Well, the main one is political will. The political will started in, of all places, Malawi. It's extremely poor, it doesn't have access to the sea, it has all sorts of corruption, poor roads, what have you. In 2005, the new president, Bingu wa Mutharika, says to us: “I didn't come to be president to play with a beggar bowl.” Forty-five percent of their people were on food aid. We told him to subsidize fertilizer and hybrid maize [corn] seed. And he turned around to his minister of finance and said, “do it.”

Bingu had the political will to put 7% of his own budget to it, an enormous proportion. He gave every farmer in Malawi a voucher for two bags of fertilizer and enough seed for one acre at 37% of the market price. The year before this program, Malawi imported almost half the maize they required. The year after, they had a surplus. The next year, Malawi began to export food and became a food aid donor to its neighbors.

Do you ever see those accomplishments cited in debates in legislatures around the world?

Usually no, because governments do not cite the way academics do. What you want to do for a policy maker, as a diplomat, is to let them think that your idea is their own idea. There's nothing better than that. You don't need recognition.

But we've had influence because we've had data. Nobody had the data before. We found that it takes $135 to grow an extra ton of maize, in terms of fertilizer, seeds, and other costs. It costs $812 to provide that same ton of maize as food aid grown in the U.S. We published the data in Nature. Maybe it did work, maybe it didn't. That's one of the things about policy: You don't know when you've hit a home run. Or is it just a hit, and then there will be a couple more outs and you're out.

What keeps you going with all of your activities?

What started me going, and kept me going, is that there are a lot of hungry, very poor people in the world still. There's nothing more exciting than to see a proud farmer who says, “Pedro, our house is no longer hungry. What's next?”

Keith Rozendal, a 2011 graduate of the Science Communication Program at UC Santa Cruz, earned his bachelor's degree in psychology from Rice University and his Ph.D. in social psychology from UC Santa Barbara. He taught psychology and statistics at California State University, Channel Islands. He has worked as a reporting intern at the Santa Cruz Sentinel, the SETI Institute's "Big Picture Sciences" radio program, and the Stanford University Medical Center (multimedia). He is now studying documentary filmmaking at the University of British Columbia.

© 2011 Keith Rozendal