Pedro Sanchez ’68, Soil Science

Pedro Sanchez
Pedro Sanchez, courtesy of columbia.edu

Oceans cover 75 percent of the earth’s surface; only a quarter of the globe consists of dry land. And of this quarter, only 20 percent is arable land. That’s a lot of responsibility resting on a small portion of the planet. Just 13 percent of the earth’s surface has to produce enough food to sustain the entire global population.

Pedro Sanchez knows this all too well. In his decades of work with farmers in developing countries, he’s been able to help them boost poor soils, making agriculture possible in places it hadn’t been before, and improving the crop yields of areas already being farmed.

Delivering food aid to countries with starving populations is a common solution to the problem of hunger, but Sanchez prefers the “teach a man to fish” approach. “It takes $135 to grow an extra ton of maize in terms of fertilizers, seeds, and other costs,” he says. “It costs $812 to provide that same ton of maize as food aid grown in the U.S.” Economically, he says, it doesn’t make sense to invest in short-term solutions to pervasive problems.

Sanchez grew up “playing in the dirt,” he says. In a sense, it was the family business—Sanchez was raised in Cuba, but his father had studied agriculture at Cornell before returning home to run a fertilizer business. Sanchez went to study at his father’s alma mater in 1958, but political events threw him a curveball. “In two years, my dad lost everything,” he says. But he seems to have taken it in stride: “I did fine; I washed dishes and did this, that, and the other.”

With returning home to Cuba no longer an option, Sanchez stayed on at Cornell for a Ph.D. and traveled to Southeast Asia. There, he saw the effects of the so-called “Green Revolution” first-hand. This inspired him to try to reproduce its effects in other areas of the world.

Sanchez has done most of his work in Latin America and Africa, areas where the soil was either poor to begin with or had been degraded. By adding nutrients to the soil, Sanchez was able to multiply crop yields several times over. For his work, Sanchez was awarded the $250,000 World Food Prize in 2002, and a MacArthur Genius Grant in 2004.

As influential as his work has been, Sanchez realizes that the problems of global poverty and hunger need to be tackled on several fronts. He has recently been speaking out on the importance of educating girls in developing countries. Sanchez tells the story of an Ethiopian farmer he met who is supporting his daughter’s dream of becoming a nurse, rather than marrying her off as a young teen.

“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,” Sanchez says. Referencing the fact that educated people all over the world tend to have fewer children, he says, “That’s the demographic transition we need to keep the world population to only nine billion by 2050.”

Sanchez is doing his part to help the cause. He used his World Food Prize money to fund school improvements and scholarships for girls in developing countries. But for him, these issues are all related. He doesn’t intend to leave soil science behind; there’s too much work left to be done. “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?'”