At least a billion people don’t know where their next meal is coming from, according to Pedro Sanchez, an agricultural expert at Columbia University’s Earth Institute, and director of the Millennium Villages Project. The project, which is almost halfway through its 10-year run, aims to help combat hunger, starting with 80 different villages in Africa.
Pedro Sanchez: We selected the villages, making sure first they were in hunger hotspots – more than 20% underweight children under the age of 5, the definition of hunger – and spread them around Africa.
Sanchez explained that the eradication of hunger is the first goal of the UN Millennium Development Goals, a series of targeted improvements for the developing world aimed at the year 2015.
Pedro Sanchez: We have a moral obligation, as well as an economic obligation to wipe out hunger within the next 20 years. And I think we can do it.
He said that, when the Millenium Villages Project began, Earth Institute experts – soil scientists and agronomists – helped figure out which seeds and fertilizer would work best in each village. In the past five years, crop yields in the Millenium Villages have about tripled, said Sanchez. Critics of the Millennium Villages Project question whether such improvements can be sustained after the project ends. That’s why, according to the Earth Institute, the final years of the Millennium Villages Project will be devoted to strengthening small business, to help spur new investments in the local economy. Sanchez said that the first step in helping almost 500,000 African villagers was to directly ask them what they wanted.
Pedro Sanchez: Invariably, without exception, they said, we need farm inputs [like fertilizer] and a clinic.
He gave an optimistic report of agricultural progress since the beginnings of the project. Sanchez said with fertilizer, some villages had gone from producing 1 ton of crops per hectare to 5 tons. 10% of the surplus goes to a school meal program for the community’s children, and some farmers have enough to store the food and sell it when the market gives a higher price. Sanchez added that now farmers are diversifying into higher value crops like vegetables, fruits, and in some cases, dairy and cattle. He believes the Earth Institute project has helped change the lives of the villagers.
Pedro Sanchez: They look at you differently. They look you in the eye with pride. They tell you, “I couldn’t talk to people when my children were crying because they were hungry. Now I am proud to say I can feed my family.”
Sanchez believes that it is the responsibility of richer nations to help poorer nations develop the means to feed themselves.