COLLEGE STATION – In the most foreign of countries, following a misunderstood industry, and in the middle of war, two Americans met recently and realized they shared a dream: Helping farmers patch up their land, produce better crops and deliver them safely to hungry people.
Individually, they had come to see how agriculture was faring in Afghanistan. But when the U.S. military arranged for them to tour Afghan farms together, the pair began to see how they could join forces to help people in conflict-ridden countries.
One was Howard G. Buffett, eldest son of billionaire Warren Buffett and head of the foundation bearing his name, which since 2000 has been supporting global efforts in conservation and improving the human condition. A self-made farmer from Illinois, Howard, as he asks to be called, developed his passion to help people through his interest in photography.
“I started taking pictures of sunsets, moonrises and other parts of nature on our farm,” he recalls. “And then as I traveled to check on conservation projects our foundation was supporting around the world, the pictures I took helped me realize that one of the biggest factors in the success of an effort was the condition of people in that area. When people are living from week to week, they are surviving on the natural resources and using whatever is available. You can’t expect a starving person to save a tree. I knew I had to re-evaluate what we were doing.”
The other American was Dr. Ed Price, who began his career in the Peace Corps in Malaysia, later was an economist for the Federal Reserve and now oversees international agricultural outreach in some 40 countries as director of the Norman Borlaug Institute for International Agriculture, a part of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Texas A&M University.
“Our whole effort keys off of what Dr. Borlaug was fond of saying — that peace can not be built on empty stomachs,” Price said of the institute and Nobel laureate for whom it is named.
The two made fast friends while visiting with Afghan farmers, agriculture professors at Afghan universities and members of the military attempting to help stabilize the region.
“When I listened to Ed, I was amazed by the breadth of knowledge and skill available through the Borlaug Institute,” Buffett said. “When I see people who’ve actually had their hands in the dirt, I know that’s how the answers will come, not by politicians and bureaucrats who’ve never been involved in agriculture.”
What both of them realized is that little has been done to help foster conflict resolution so that a nation’s agriculture industry can produce food and fiber for its people and thus grow a healthy population and economy.
Shortly after returning to the U.S., the two came to an agreement. The Howard G. Buffett Foundation has given $1.5 million to Texas AgriLife Research and the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Texas A&M University to establish a teaching and research program to explore how conflict is affected by agriculture and natural resource management.
The gift, made to the Texas A&M Foundation, will establish the Howard G. Buffett Foundation Chair in Conflict and Development.
“This gift helps us achieve our goal of international outreach,” said Dr. Mark Hussey, vice chancellor and dean of agriculture and life sciences for Texas A&M AgriLife. “The world will learn much to benefit impoverished and hungry people in the areas of conflict as a result of this effort.”
“This new effort will promote scholarship and understanding of how conflict is affected by the development of resources such as agriculture,” said Price.
That’s important because 34 of the world’s poorest countries and 11 middle-income countries were affected by fragility and conflict as of October 2009, according to the World Bank, which also estimated that 1 billion people live in those places.
The Borlaug Institute works in international development in many of those countries such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Southern Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, El Salvador and Guatemala. Buffett’s foundation also has supported projects in such places.
“Through this donation, we hope to inform policy makers and provide tools for development professionals to assist in the quick revitalization of countries plagued by conflict or, even better, to prevent conflict from starting,” Price added. He calls the new effort a landmark research area.
“The area of conflict and development is something we’ve been interested in for a long time,” he said.
The funds will be used toward programs and graduate student fellowships with initial efforts in Afghanistan. Buffet’s foundation is also building a separate agricultural facility for an Afghan university.
“Our effort is not merely to improve the university there but the technology on the farms,” Price said. “The university is an instrument to that end.”
Both Price and Buffett credit his son, Howard W. Buffett, with encouraging the two to pursue “the broader topic about conflict rather than strictly agricultural production.”
“He said we need to learn from this project about how agricultural development is necessary for resolving conflict,” Price said of the younger Buffett, who previously worked at the U.S. Department of Agriculture and now is at the White House.
Howard G. Buffett credits his father, Warren, for teaching him to take risks.
“Don’t just go for safe projects. You can bat 1,000 in this game if you want to do nothing important; or you’ll bat something less than that if you take on the really tough problems,” Buffett said. “I personally, and the foundation, take risks. It’s hard to get investment money for Afghanistan because of security, so I’m willing to try. After Ed and I talked, I thought the foundation could be a catalyst in getting something going in agriculture.”
Buffett said having the right partner is key to gaining the confidence to invest in conflict areas.
“To me, Dr. Borlaug is a real hero. He is a symbol of how important it is to realize how agriculture is necessary to help poor people,” Buffett said. “So the ability to link up with the Borlaug Institute is a dream come true.”
For more information about the institute, see http://borlaug.tamu.edu. To learn about the Howard G. Buffett Foundation, see http://www.fragilethehumancondition.com/index.php/hgb-foundation/.