Farming at the Forefront: $1.5 million Howard G. Buffett Foundation gift to fund project on conflict and development

Writer: Kathleen Phillips, Texas AgriLife CommunicationsNote: This article originally appeared in the Fall 2010 issue of Spirit Magazine, and is reposted on the College website by permission. Our thanks to our friends at the Texas A&M Foundation for this article. The complete issue is available here.After meeting halfway across the world in a country racked by war, two Americans realized they shared a dream: to help farmers patch up their land, produce better crops and
deliver them safely to hungry people.

When the U.S. military arranged for the pair to tour Afghan farms and meet with agriculture professors at an Afghan university in early 2010, they witnessed dire circumstances: Many Afghan farmers who knew how to grow food crops have been killed or fled during three decades of war. Agribusiness units of the U.S. military work to fill the void by teaching farmers in more than a dozen provinces how to improve irrigation, test soil and increase the yields of food crops ranging from potatoes to pomegranates.

Conflict-ridden countries need help
But the visiting civilians believe Afghanistan and other conflict-ridden countries need more help.

One of the Americans is Howard G. Buffett, eldest son of billionaire Warren Buffett and head of his name sake foundation that has supported global efforts in conservation and the human condition since 2000.

Passion to help people began with photography
An Illinois farmer, Howard Buffett 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. 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.

“With people just trying to survive, they must use whatever is available, he added. “You can’t expect a starving person to save a tree. I knew I had to reevaluate what we were doing.”

The other American is Dr. Ed Price, who began his career in the Peace Corps in Malaysia, later was an economist for the Federal Reserve and now oversees agricultural outreach in some 40 countries as director of the Norman Borlaug Institute for International Agriculture, a joint program within Texas A&M AgriLife. “Our whole effort keys off what Dr. Borlaug was fond of saying—that peace cannot be built on empty stomachs,” Price said of the institute and Nobel laureate for whom it is named.  The late Dr. Norman Borlaug is considered to be the father of the Green Revolution for his work to end world hunger.

Impressed by knowledge and skill of Borlaug Institute
“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.”

Shortly after returning to the United States, the men came to an agreement. The Howard G. Buffett Foundation in June 2010 gave $1.5 million to establish a teaching and research program that will explore how agriculture and natural resource management affect conflict.

Howard G. Buffett Foundation Chair in Conflict and Development
Part of the gift, made to the Texas A&M Foundation, will establish the Howard G. Buffett Foundation Chair in Conflict and Development in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and Texas AgriLife Research. The chair’s holder will lead research on the economic and social relationships at play in conflict-plagued nations. The goal is to enable countries to resolve and recover from conflict through the use of agriculture and natural resource management. The funds also will benefit programs and graduate student fellowships, with initial work in Afghanistan.

Buffett’s foundation also is building a separate agricultural facility for an Afghan university, which will then bring advanced technology to the nation’s farms.

Impact to be far beyond Afghanistan
But the impact of Buffett’s gift to Texas A&M will reach far beyond Afghanistan. According to the latest World Bank figures, 45 countries need such assistance: 34 of the world’s poorest countries and 11 middle-income countries—with a population of about 1 billion—were fragile or embroiled in conflict in October 2009.

The Borlaug Institute already works in agricultural development to alleviate hunger in many of those countries, including Iraq, Afghanistan, Southern Sudan, Rwanda, Democratic Republic of the Congo, El Salvador and Guatemala. Buffett’s foundation has supported projects in some of the same places and in many other nations in the Americas, Africa, Europe and Asia.

Price said the Buffett Foundation gift will “inform policymakers and provide tools for development professionals to assist in the quick revitalization of countries plagued by conflict or, even better, to prevent conflict.”

Encouragement of son played a key role
Price and Buffett credit Howard’s son, Howard W. Buffett, for encouraging them to pursue “the broader topic of 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.

Through his foundation, Howard G. Buffett tackles high-risk 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. 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 our foundation could be a catalyst in getting something going in agriculture.”

Having the right partner is key to gaining the confidence to invest in conflict areas, he said. “To me, Dr. Borlaug is a real hero. So the ability to link up with the Borlaug Institute is a dream come true.”

For more information about how you can support the Borlaug Institute and other College of Agriculture and Life Sciences programs, contact:

Monica Delisa
Senior Director of Development
Texas A&M Foundation
(800) 392-3310 or (979) 847-9314

Norman Borlaug Institute for International Agriculture

Howard G. Buffett Foundation (Click on HGB Foundation.)

Top: Howard G. Buffett (center) and Dr. Ed Price (right), director of the Borlaug Institute, examine peanuts during a trip to Afghanistan.

Middle: The late Dr. Norman Borlaug received a Nobel Peace Prize for his work alleviating
world hunger.

Bottom: Beau Davis ’06 of the Borlaug Institute works with military agricultu
rists from the Democratic Republic of the Congo in Central Africa.

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