Global Agriculture

World Food Prize Foundation Pays Tribute to Minister Alysson Paolinelli

22 August 2023, Brazil: On behalf of all of the World Food Prize Laureates and our Council of Advisors, the World Food Prize Foundation extends its deepest condolences to the family, friends and colleagues of Minister Alysson Paolinelli, 2006 World Food Prize Laureate, who passed away on June 29, 2023.

Ambassador Terry Branstad, President of the World Food Prize Foundation, said, “Brazil and the world have lost a great leader in the global effort to end hunger. The work of Minister Alysson Paolinelli made the Cerrado bloom and created the policies and programs that paved the way for Brazil’s agricultural successes. Throughout his entire life, he kept his focus on how best to help the farmer.”

Minister Paolinelli was honored as the 2006 World Food Prize Laureate, with co-Laureates Colin McClung and Edson Lobato, for providing critical leadership in transforming Brazil’s vast, once infertile Cerrado region into highly productive farmland. As Brazil’s Minister of Agriculture, he developed policies and established research institutions and infrastructure that facilitated the efforts of farmers to open the Cerrado to crop production.

“More than any World Food Prize Laureate before him, Brazilian Agriculture Minister Alysson Paolinelli demonstrated the absolutely essential role that government leadership and enhanced infrastructure plays in impacting large regions and uplifting farmers out of poverty,” said Ambassador Kenneth Quinn, President Emeritus,World Food Prize Foundation. “The achievement of Minister Paolinelli and his two fellow Laureates in transforming the Cerrado region not only benefited the people of Brazil, but also represented a model that could be emulated in other developing countries, and thus a prime example of ‘south-south’ collaboration.”

From only 200,000 hectares of arable land in 1955, the Cerrado had well over 40 million hectares in cultivation by the year 2005. The phenomenal achievement of transforming the infertile Cerrado region into highly productive land over a span of fifty years, the world’s single largest increase in farmland since the settlement of the U.S. Midwest, has been hailed as a far-reaching milestone in agricultural science.

Dr. Norman E. Borlaug, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and World Food Prize Foundation founder, called the development of the Cerrado “one of the great achievements of agricultural science in the 20th century, which has transformed a wasteland into one of the most productive agricultural areas in the world.”

Paolinelli received his degree in Agronomy in 1959 at the agriculture college of the Superior School of Lavras in the state of Minas Gerais in Brazil. He began teaching there in the 1960s and served as dean from 1967 to 1971, in which role he was a catalyst of the school’s efforts to expand and improve its curriculum and faculty, secure funding, and bring the school into the national system of agricultural colleges as the Federal University of Lavras.

In 1971, Paolinelli was appointed Secretary of Agriculture of Minas Gerais and served in that capacity until 1974. During this period, he began to realize his long-held conviction of Brazil’s great potential for food production – specifically in the Cerrado region – as he created policies, institutions and infrastructure to encourage significant development.

Paolinelli’s top priority was to dramatically increase support of agricultural research and training in the state. He created an agency to integrate all the agricultural teaching and research entities in Minas Gerais, and he encouraged universities to collaborate with farmers to improve agricultural practices. He cooperated with Brazilian and international credit agencies to hire more than 1,000 new technical researchers over three years.

Paolinelli also created a new model for rural credit to support integrated agricultural operations. Loans were made available at very low interest, with a grace period extended beyond one crop season and with payments allowing farmers to keep and reinvest a share of their profits. With this support for expanded research and agricultural production, he led Minas Gerais to become the top coffee producer in Brazil.

His success in Minas Gerais caught the attention of Brazil’s then-president Ernesto Geisel, who appointed Paolinelli Brazil’s Minister of Agriculture. As Minister from 1974 to 1979, Paolinelli oversaw the establishment and implementation of the Brazilian Corporation of Agricultural Research (EMBRAPA) as a model research and extension institution that improved and diffused technologies for advancing modern agriculture throughout the country. He also formed the Cerrado Center within EMBRAPA, which focused considerable resources on agricultural development in that region. With his ongoing support of research to improve and enhance agriculture, “He was the leader that farmers consistently turned to solve their problems and assist them in advancing agricultural and rural development,” said Eliseu Roberto de Andrade Alves, former president of EMBRAPA.

In 1974, Paolinelli initiated the Polocentro program to finance and develop agricultural production and rural communities on three million hectares across the entire Cerrado region. Within three years, that goal had been surpassed. To sustain further growth, Paolinelli attracted public, private and foreign investments to complement the federal government’s funds for developing the Cerrado. In 1978, he negotiated an agreement between Brazil and Japan to bring together financial resources to invest in research, extension and entrepreneurship enterprises to further the opening and settlement of the Cerrado.

“Eventually, the Cerrado technology, or one similar to it, will move into the llanos in Colombia and Venezuela and hopefully, into central and southern Africa where similar soil problems are found,” said Dr. Borlaug on the announcement of the 2006 World Food Prize Laureates. “This will bring tens of millions of additional acres, previously marginal for agriculture, into high-yield agriculture. Hundreds of millions of people will benefit from this work.”

Prior to Paolinelli’s efforts, Brazil had to import most of its food. But in the decades after his agricultural production plan for the Cerrado region was developed, the increased production of a variety of crops and livestock made food more available and more affordable in Brazil. At the same time, the standard of living for many rural communities was enhanced, with life-quality indicators rising 47 percent from 1970 through the 1990s.

Paolinelli’s management was a watershed which enabled unprecedented growth and allowed Brazil, in the following decades, to reach a prominent place among the largest producers and exporters of agricultural products in the world. He is known by many as the founder and patron of modern Brazilian agriculture.

Said Antonio Herminio Pinazza, Executive Director, Association of Brazilian Agribusinesses, “As an agronomic engineer, farmer, rural leader, public official, and consultant in agribusiness, Minister Paolinelli has demonstrated visionary leadership, exceptional ability, and has justly earned the nation’s gratitude.”

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