Pedro Sanchez Wins World Food Prize

August 12, 2002
Pedro A. Sanchez, a pioneer in the field of tropical soils and agroforestry at the University of California, Berkeley, is the 2002 winner of the World Food Prize. The award, announced Sunday (Aug. 11) by the World Food Prize Foundation, is the highest international honor bestowed upon an individual for achievements in improving the world's food supply and reducing hunger.

Sanchez, 61, a visiting professor of tropical resources at UC Berkeley's College of Natural Resources, has led seminal work over the past three decades that turned once infertile soil into productive farmland. His methods for restoring soil fertility using naturally available resources have dramatically increased crop yields for hundreds of thousands of small farmers from Brazil to Africa.

"He is doing more than increasing crop yields, he is transforming the lives of African farmers who can now feed their families and become self-sufficient because of the programs he has developed," said Kenneth Quinn, former U.S. ambassador to Cambodia and president of the World Food Prize Foundation."His work perfectly embodies the spirit of the World Food Prize."

Sanchez will receive $250,000 as part of the award in a ceremony scheduled for Oct. 24 in Des Moines, Iowa, where the foundation is based. The prize was established in 1986 by Norman Borlaug, winner of the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize for his work in world agriculture.

In addition to his position as visiting professor, Sanchez is a senior research fellow at UC Berkeley's Center for Sustainable Resource Development and chair of the United Nations Task Force on Hunger. Before coming to UC Berkeley in January, Sanchez spent 10 years as director general of the International Centre for Research in Agroforestry, now known as the World Agroforestry Centre.

While at the Kenya-based center, Sanchez spearheaded innovative programs that helped small farmers utilize inexpensive, natural resources instead of very costly fertilizers to return nutrients to depleted soil. By planting native leguminous trees with the crops or mixing rock phosphates into the soil, nearly 150,000 farmers in Africa were able to increase crop yields two to four times over.

In 1968, Sanchez joined the faculty of North Carolina State University as assistant professor of soil science. Several years later, he began leading efforts to turn the acidic, tropical soils of the Cerrado region of Brazil into 75 million acres of productive farmland as head of the university's Tropical Soils Research Program.

Through his work in Brazil, Sanchez disproved the long-held assumption that the region's red soil was unsuitable for agriculture. Working with a team of scientists from Embrapa, the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation, North Carolina State University and Cornell University, Sanchez led research into groundbreaking techniques to ameliorate subsoil acidity. The research created soil that was both drought-resistant and fertile for crops such as corn, rice, soybeans and wheat.

"It was a paradigm shift in how people viewed tropical soils," said David Zilberman, co-director of UC Berkeley's Center for Sustainable Resource Development and professor in the campus's Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics. "A region that had previously been dismissed as farmable land has since become a new breadbasket for Brazil."

During his 23 years at North Carolina State, Sanchez's work also brought him to the Philippines, Colombia and Peru. In Peru, he shined a spotlight on the destructive effects of using bulldozers to clear land in the Amazon basin. Much of his research helped lead to policy changes in Peru, Brazil and Indonesia that ended government support for the use of bulldozers to clear land.

"What's unique about Pedro is that he is more than just a great scientist, he is skilled in developing policy and building an institutional framework that takes the research into the real world," said Zilberman. "He combines the best qualities of a scientist, a policy maker and a leader."

The effects of the programs Sanchez began go beyond the fields to protection of the environment and improvements in economic security. For example, many farmers have become able to grow enough excess food to make a profit.

A native of Cuba, Sanchez grew up with a love of agriculture. His father owned a farm and a fertilizer business. "In a way, agriculture is in my blood," he said.

Sanchez came to the United States in 1958 to study at Cornell, where he earned a bachelor's degree in agronomy four years later. He stayed on at Cornell to earn his PhD in soil science in 1968. He became a naturalized U.S. citizen that year.

"My father's love for the soil played a large role in my decision to devote my efforts to solving the world's food problems," said Sanchez. Over the decades through his research, he has seen the devastating effects of hunger in developing nations.

"I'm impatient to get hunger over with," said Sanchez. "There's no room for complacency when you see kids who are malnourished and, as a result, are more susceptible to diseases."

In 1991, Sanchez left North Carolina State, where he is now professor emeritus, to join the International Centre for Research in Agroforestry. Now at UC Berkeley, Sanchez is working with other faculty members to develop a program in tropical resource ecology.

"We are most fortunate to have Pedro Sanchez based at Berkeley and the College of Natural Resources," said Paul Ludden, incoming dean of the college. "He is a passionate advocate for the use of science to address the problem of hunger in the world and has dedicated his whole career to this effort."

A widely published scientific author, Sanchez holds numerous honors that include recipient of the International Soil Science Award by the Soil Science Society of America and the International Service in Agronomy Award by the American Society of Agronomy. He also has an honorary doctorate from the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium. One of the honors he treasures most is being named a Luo Elder in 2001 by the Luo community of Western Kenya in recognition of his work eliminating hunger from many villages in the region.

His work has earned him the admiration of his peers at UC Berkeley. "All the people who have won the World Food Prize are people who made a difference," said Zilberman. "It's a select group, and Pedro belongs among them."

Sanchez is the second recipient from UC Berkeley to win the award. The late Ray Smith, professor emeritus in the Division of Insect Biology at the College of Natural Resources, was co-winner of the World Food Prize in 1997 for his work in the field of integrated pest management.

The World Food Prize is sponsored by businessman and philanthropist John Ruan, chairman and chief executive officer of the Ruan Companies and chairman of the World Food Prize Foundation.