Dirt Doctor - Using Sustainability to Help End Hunger

On one of his sites in Rwanda, Dr. Weil examined the soil profile in the terrace wall and asked the farmers to describe exactly how they had constructed the terraces.

November 27, 2012

Everyone loves a good mystery. Dr. Raymond Weil is no exception. However, this detective isn’t looking for “who dunnit” but rather how it can be done better. 

Weil, a professor of soil science at the University of Maryland, is finding ways to feed the hungry internationally not by handing out relief packages but by creating an environment where food sources can thrive. 

As a young college student Weil wanted to become a doctor but decided he was better suited to help people in another way. Joining the Peace Corps where he spent time in Ethiopia, Weil found the passion to end hunger. Today he has been working to do so village by village in Africa and using soil science to accomplish his goal. “We have a goal to end extreme poverty. To do that we are putting all the things we know work and integrating them,” Weil said from his office inside H.J. Patterson. 

In 2009 Weil teamed up with Millennium Villages, a project aimed at sustainable solutions to end extreme poverty. For Weil the project provides the opportunity to use what he knows about soil science and sustainability to find better ways for communities to lead their own development. The program works at 14 sites in 10 African countries in an effort to help lift themselves out of poverty by enhancing farm productivity, health, education, business development and access to markets. Weil worked in Tanzania, Kenya, Ethiopia, Malawi, Uganda and Senegal. “I am like the dirt doctor,” Weil said. Instead of a black doctor bag, Weil carries his orange dirt doctor case filled with equipment used to test, monitor and examine soil samples. 

Weil encountered problems in each of the villages ranging from too much rainfall and too high population density to wrong fertilizer applications. “The trick is knowing it when you see it and identifying the problem in the field,” said Weil who had the help of translators as he met with village farmers to talk about their crop issues. 

In a Tanzanian village Weil worked  to increase crop yields and correct a protein deficiency in the food. A wrong mix of fertilizer was another culprit limiting crop viability. Weil and the Millennium Villages team were able to correct the problem by teaching the farmers to apply two types of fertilizers separately so the one wouldn’t counteract the other. The simple solution may save the program and the villagers about $1 million. 

“The answers to these soil mysteries are quite surprising,” Weil said of his work. Weil has twice been awarded a Fulbright Fellowship to support his work in developing countries. “Once we can show what the problem is the people can carry on to institute change. I really feel we are making an impact,” Weil said. “The trick is to keep it sustainable.” 

This Fall, Weil is scheduled to spend another six months on a research contract with Columbia University’s Earth Institute and the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) traveling to several countries with Millennium Village he hasn’t yet visited. This work will be a small part of  the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation program for Global Health. Because health is tied to nutrition and nutrition to agriculture, Weil’s job will be to help with agricultural analysis but also aid in developing Soil Science graduate programs at Sokoine University in Tanzania and other African universities to promote sustainable agriculture. 

And who better to help promote sustainable agriculture than one of the first people to promote the phrase? Weil is world-renown for his work since 1995 on the most widely read and cited textbook in the field, The Nature of Properties of Soils by Brady and Weil. The book will be translated into French so students in Francophone Africa can use it. 

Decades ago when green was just merely a color, Weil was talking about sustainability and even helped defined it for the U.S. Congress to use in the 1985 and 1990 Farm Bills. Back then, Weil lead a group that described sustainability as something that had to be economically viable, socially acceptable and environmentally beneficial. 

With the explosion of green jobs, Weil said he is seeing his role as an educator change. He is teaching students about improving soil organic matter, alternating crops to maximize soil efficiency and developing cover crops that both save costs and protect water quality. “When I used to teach I was not allowed to use the word sustainability in the course title,” he said. “Now we have a whole department that is just about sustainability.” As sustainability is the new buzzword among the trendy and hip, Weil said it only took a few decades for his work to be cool. 

“It has been rewarding. I have an optimistic view that people can make changes. Live a little and you can see them. Changes become noticeable from decade to decade,” he said.