UC Berkeley visiting professor Pedro Sanchez, the recently-announced winner of the prestigious World Food Prize, said his interest in agriculture and hunger issues began on his family’s farm in Cuba, where his father ran a soil business.
“In a way, agriculture is in my blood,” said Sanchez, 61, in a statement. “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.”
Sanchez, who came to the United States in 1958 to study at Cornell University, has spent the last three decades using natural products, instead of synthetic fertilizers, to revitalize infertile soil and increase crop yields for hundreds of thousands of small farmers in Africa, Asia and Latin America.
“He is transforming the lives of African farmers who can now feed their families and become self-sufficient because of the programs he developed,” said Kenneth Quinn, president of the World Food Prize Foundation, in a statement. “His work perfectly embodies the spirit of the World Food Prize.”
Quinn announced that Sanchez won the award Sunday at the International Horticultural Congress in Toronto.
Sanchez will receive the $250,000 prize during an Oct. 24 ceremony 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.
Sanchez, who chairs the United Nations Task Force on Hunger, said he feels an urgency in his work.
“I’m impatient to get hunger over with,” he said. “There’s no room for complacency when you see kids who are malnourished and, as a result, are more susceptible to diseases.”
Before coming to UC Berkeley in January, Sanchez spent 10 years as director general of the International Centre for Research in agroforestry, based in Kenya, now known as the World Agroforestry Centre.
There he spearheaded efforts to use natural resources like rock phosphates, rather than costly fertilizers, to increase crop yields for African farmers two to four times, according to the foundation.
Prior to his work at the agroforestry center, Sanchez was an assistant professor of soil science at North Carolina State University and worked to turn 75 million acres of acidic soil into productive farmland.
“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. “A region that had previously been dismissed as farmable land has since become a new breadbasket for Brazil.”
During his time at North Carolina State, Sanchez was also able to shine a spotlight on the destructive effects of using bulldozers to clear land in the Amazon basin.
His research eventually contributed to policy changes on land clearing in Peru, Brazil and Indonesia.
“What’s unique about Pedro is that he is more than just a great scientist,” said Zilberman. “He is skilled in developing policy and building an institutional framework that takes the research into the real world.”