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$150 Million Grant Powers Africa's Green Revolution

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation, two of America's largest philanthropic institutions, have announced a $150 million, 5-year initiative designed to revolutionize food production and reduce hunger and poverty for millions of people in Africa.

The foundations' so-called "Alliance for a Green Revolution" is modeled on the "Green Revolution" in agriculture first promoted by the Rockefeller Foundation in the 1950s and credited with transforming farming methods and production in much of the world.

Over the last 50 years, farmers in Asia, Latin America and the Middle East have been able to triple their food production, while prices for staples like wheat, rice and corn have dropped by 76 percent. The gains have spared the world any widespread famine.

But the Green Revolution never took hold in Africa. Pedro Sanchez, winner of the 2002 World Food Prize, recently discussed with Rosanne Skirble why and what the Gates/Rockefeller charities hope to do about it. Mr. Sanchez is a world-renowned soil scientist who directs the Tropical Agriculture Program and the Millennium Villages Project at Columbia University in New York. A transcript of that conversation, which was broadcast on VOA's weekly science program Our World follows. You can listen to the interview here (link to audio) or read the text of Rosanne Skirble's conversation with Pedro Sanchez.

RS: "I'd like to begin by asking you why a green revolution didn't take place in Africa."

PS: "I think that there is a technological reason and a policy reason. In African small farms, the soil is depleted of nutrients - nitrogen and phosphorus -- and there is very poor water management. And, those conditions did not happen in Asia and in Latin America. The soils there were okay in terms of nutrients. Fertilizers were heavily subsidized by the governments and the aid agencies like U.S.A.I.D, and most of these areas had good irrigation. The mistake the development community did in Africa for the last fifty years [was] to ignore this obvious problem and think that by only having improved varieties of wheat and corn and sorghum and all the other [staples] that would do the trick. But none of these varieties, none of these improved crops can grow in soils without enough nitrogen or phosphorus. That is a biophysical impossibility. We need nitrogen for proteins in plants and for muscles in our bodies when we eat those plants, and we need phosphorus for photosynthesis in plants and we need phosphorus for making bones in our bodies. That was ignored. So the impact of high yielding varieties during the last 40 years in Sub-Saharan Africa has only been about a 28 percent increase as opposed to something in the order of 70 to 90 percent in Asia, Latin America and the Middle East.

RS: How does the Gates/Rockefeller initiative differ? How is it going to get the job done?

PS: "The Gates [Rockefeller] initiative follows a change that was basically initiated by the United Nations Millennium Project Hunger Task Force and it called for a different African green revolution by U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan in 2004. What we in the Millennium Project and what the secretary general said is that you [must] pay attention to soils and water as well as improved [crop] varieties, improved nutrition of the children, make markets work for the poor, and you have to do all this in an environmentally sound way."

RS: "How does this initiative fit into other on-going food, agriculture and health initiatives."

PS: "I think it fits beautifully, encouraging everybody to do things that would meet the U.N. Millennium goals, not only getting rid of hunger, but reversing the path of HIV-AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis and having access to essential medicines. It is very complementary to the health initiatives that Gates [and others] have done. And, it [recognizes] a paradox: What is the point of having people healthy and free of malaria if they are going to die of malnutrition? You obviously need increased food production, increased nutrition and [better] health and they go together and the synergy is beautiful."

RS: "How do non-profit organizations go about doing their business sidestepping what might be considered political corruption. In other words, how do you get the tools into the hands of the farmers that need them?"

PS: "Okay, first, there are no cash transfers. You transfer things like bags of fertilizers and hybrid seeds. Those are a lot more difficult to run around and sell to somebody else. That is one very clear way of doing it. You deal with the actors - whether they are the farmers, the agro-dealers or the financial institutions directly and not through the governments. Unfortunately, there is more of a chance of corruption if it goes through the governments."

RS: "Finally, what are your expectations [for the Gates/Rockefeller initiative] and is $150 million dollars enough?"

PS: "No, no, it is certainly not enough, but it is a great step. It is a tremendous step. Other organizations such as 'Millennium Promise' have raised 130 million dollars in the last six months for the same purposes. So, things are beginning to happen. I think the prestige of Rockefeller … Rockefeller has done it before. It can do it again. The prestige of [Bill and Melina] Gates [Foundation] as the largest philanthropic institution in the world … Now they are getting into agriculture. God bless them! That is a tremendous step forward and I think that we are all thrilled."

RS: "Thank you for your time."

PS: My pleasure.

RS: "Pedro Sanchez is the 2002 World Food Prize laureate, and director of the Tropical Agriculture Program and the Millennium Villages Project at Columbia University in New York."