Raising the Quality of Life: The Ezra Taft Benson Institute


“The earth is full,” said the Lord, “and there is enough and to spare.” (D&C 104:17.) Images of hunger made familiar in the daily news form a stark contrast with this divine assessment. The World Health Organization estimates that between thirteen and eighteen million people die of starvation each year. Malnutrition and related ills claim many more, leaving countless of the survivors with mental and physical deficiencies. Hunger is a daily reality for one out of eight people on the earth.

For the well-fed, such statistics stagger and confuse the imagination. The photographs horrify. But a sense of helplessness underlies our sorrow. We may even retreat from the painful facts by ignoring them as much as possible.

But a few determined individuals and groups refuse to be overwhelmed by the challenge of feeding the world. Among them is the Ezra Taft Benson Agriculture and Food Institute. This nonprofit organization, located in Provo, Utah, has hope—and a plan—for raising the quality of life of the world’s poor and hungry.

That plan is making a difference for Humberto Cañarte of Portoviejo, Manabi province, Ecuador. Humberto and his wife support five children and two grandchildren on one hectare (just under 2.5 acres) of good farmland near the Atlantic Coast. For the Cañarte family, farming is survival. In past years, their living has been meager.

Two years ago, Humberto Cañarte was planting just corn and peanuts. Today he is also harvesting soybeans and vegetables. He still plows by hand and clears weeds with a machete. But he now plants hybrid corn, and he plants it in rows closer together. As a result, he now harvests as much as twelve thousand pounds of corn per hectare, rather than three thousand pounds. Two years ago, it took as long as a year for Humberto’s chickens to reach market size. Now, by feeding them a better balanced diet, he can raise chickens in eight weeks using only one-tenth of the feed he previously used.

Today the Cañarte family is better nourished. Not only do they eat more chicken and eggs, but they can also afford to buy rice with the money they are making on their corn. Now, too, their diet includes more vegetables from a small garden they cultivate. In fact, the Cañarte family harvest has increased threefold over past years.

What has made such a startling difference? The Benson Institute calls it small-scale agriculture. Two years ago, institute personnel farmed two plots in Portoviejo, training farmers and the local agriculture department in techniques that make small-plot farming more productive. Last year, Humberto and six other farmers who have learned those techniques tripled their yields.

Since 1976, the Benson Institute, from its home on the campus of Brigham Young University, has undertaken extensive research to discover the secrets of farming small plots of land with maximum productivity. As many as 30 percent of the world’s farmers work plots of land as small as 2 1/2 acres, so the system can have wide application. Institute director Dr. Laren R. Robison explains: “With the right mixture of farm crops and small animals, 2 1/2 acres can supply the nutritional needs for a family of seven. And under the right conditions, our system can also produce a cash income.” Besides the program in Ecuador, the system is in various stages of implementation in Mexico, Bolivia, Chile, and Guatemala.

The idea behind small-scale agriculture is that the earth’s resources are sufficient to the needs of her people, but that they are not being fully used. Most of the world’s food-producers—a billion or more—farm plots less than twelve acres in size. But a tragic cycle begins when much of that land is ruined through misuse. As a result, those who depend on the land are unable to support themselves adequately. Some flee to cities, where they must depend on others to produce their food. As the earth’s usable land-base diminishes, fewer and fewer people provide food for an increasing population.

Some people feel the answer to world hunger lies in scientific research, with the development of new strains of “super” plants and animals. Others feel that the United States and other developed countries already have the resources to raise enough food to feed the world. But the costs of transporting food around the globe are exorbitant. And often the political climate of a country prevents those with plenty from helping those with little. Relief efforts by humanitarian agencies have often ended with tons of grain rotting at the docks, never reaching those who are starving.

The people at the Benson Institute propose a solution that begins at a grass-roots level. The institute bears the name of President Ezra Taft Benson, a former United States secretary of agriculture. President Benson notes that the nations of the world who are struggling to feed their people often look to American agriculture for a pattern. “Too often,” he says, “we benevolent Americans have given them food instead of teaching them how to produce food.”

The institute points to the basic philosophy of family self-reliance. “Our ultimate goal,” says Dr. Robison, “is to teach people to become as self-sufficient as possible in their own food production.” Families who can provide their own food need not depend on the economic systems under which they live for the necessities of life.

The system pioneered by the Benson Institute uses farming principles and technology which have been widely used in developed countries, but which are not well known in underdeveloped countries. In Ecuador, the results of teaching such basics as plant spacing, seed selection, and fertilization have been so impressive that President Leon Febres Cordero has requested that the Benson system be taught throughout the country.

When the Benson Institute begins a project in any country, it looks first at the overall situation, with an eye to underlying problems. “It isn’t enough to teach people how to feed themselves better if their water supply is contaminated,” observes Ted Fairchild of the BYU Food Science and Nutrition Department, who helped develop a diagnostic tool for the Benson Institute. So the institute does a thorough diagnostic evaluation of the current quality of life: What is the general level of health of the people? How many are malnourished? Is the local diet well balanced? Is drinking water clean and plentiful? What are the sanitation problems? Is parasite infestation a problem?

It was this diagnostic process that helped reduce infant mortality in Retalhuleu, Guatemala. When nutritionists discovered that open stoves sitting on the ground were not cooking at temperatures high enough to kill bacteria in food, they taught the people to build higher stoves. Within months, infant mortality caused by dysentery had decreased significantly.

Once this assessment is completed, the second phase of intervention begins. Institute experts study the plants and animals already in the local diet, plan a well-balanced diet based on those foods, and calculate how to produce the necessary nutrients in the available space. Ordinarily, all the components of a nutritionally balanced diet are already in the diet, although some may be in short supply. Only occasionally does an unfamiliar grain or protein source need to be introduced in an area.

In phase three, all the basics of the small-scale agriculture system are put into operation. First, farmers learn exactly how much of each crop to plant, and how many small animals to raise for a balanced diet.

When this system is applied to a small farm situation, 30 percent of the farm is planted in grain—corn, wheat, rice, etc.—to provide the calorie base for animals and humans. A storable vegetable protein for humans comes from dry beans, lentils, or other pulse crops, which occupy 10 percent of the land. Most vitamins and minerals come from 2 percent of the land planted in vegetable crops. About 40 percent is allocated for animal feed crops—soybeans or cowpeas, 10 percent for roughage for animals—alfalfa or clover, and 8 percent for the cash crop.

The most efficient small animals for the locale are chosen. A good combination might include two dairy goats, twelve broilers slaughtered monthly, and twelve laying hens. The goats will give 400 gallons of milk per year, with their offspring providing 80 pounds of meat. The hens will lay about 2,800 eggs per year, with older hens providing 25 pounds of meat. If desired, the broiler chickens will provide over 400 pounds of meat per year. If desired, doe rabbits and one buck can replace the broilers and will produce 430 pounds of meat. And their droppings make an excellent natural fertilizer. Dr. Paul Johnston leads the team from the BYU Animal Science Department that developed the animal component of the system.

In other parts of the world, other plants and animals can be used. On the shores of Lake Titicaca, Bolivia, for example, farmers might raise fish to provide fish meal for chicken feed. In another place, guinea pigs or rabbits could be substituted for chickens. In Portoviejo, Ecuador, laying hens, broiler chickens, and goats produce meat and milk.

Farmers must also learn how to space plants properly and balance their animals’ diets for maximum yield. No new plants, animals, or machines are introduced in the first year of operation.

In phase four the focus turns to preserving and using the harvest wisely. A simple cardboard box food dryer developed by the institute costs only about $9.00, but it saves many dollars in money wasted through food spoilage. At $10.00, a solar oven is a real bargain. Using the sun’s energy to cook food enables the farmer to avoid spending precious time gathering wood for cooking. Both devices—the Benson Institute solar oven and dryer—are currently in use in Ethiopia and Ghana. Just twenty-five dollars will purchase the materials needed to make a grain grinder from old bicycle parts. Another grinder is powered by connecting a bike to a grinding mechanism.

During the second year on the system, farmers can use money from the first year’s cash crop to build a variety of simple tools designed and tested by the Benson Institute. A miniature tractor, with its own equipment line, can make for a more efficient farming operation. And wind-generated irrigation and electricity are other inexpensive innovations that could dramatically increase productivity. The institute has even developed a can reflanger, which allows tin cans to be reused, soon to be available for less than $25.00.

“The program is now in place,” says Richard Brimhall, associate director of the institute. “We know it could revolutionize the lives of about a billion people who live or die according to how well they do in small-scale agriculture.”

It is a humane revolution, a revolution designed to improve the lives of people. How is it being spread? Today the institute consists of two full-time directors and two secretaries. But the institute also has fifteen hundred associates—volunteers from all parts of the world. They are agricultural scientists, nutritionists, ranchers, farmers, doctors, lawyers, even actors and filmmakers, all who have offered time and resources to the institute.

Two BYU graduate students are training Humberto Cañarte and the other six families in Portoviejo how to farm more productively, Malaquias Flores is a master’s degree candidate from Chihuahua, Mexico. He and Neils Tidwell, an animal science major from Idaho, with their wives and children, live in Portoviejo. “We saw how these families lived before,” they say. “We feel good being able to help them have a better way of life.” They feel confident that the seven families are fully capable of carrying on the program after Benson Institute personnel leave Portoviejo.

But the institute is not satisfied with merely exporting experts to various countries. Director Robison’s goal is to make the institute an international training center. Already farmers and scientists have come from Bolivia, Guatemala, Liberia, Mexico, and other countries to learn the small-scale agriculture system. But the institute needs resources to train many, many more. “The ideal way to spread the system is for us to train those who can in turn teach their own people,” says Brother Brimhall.

The institute also spreads its influence through a graduate scholarship program. Hector Solorio was one of Mexico’s top agronomy graduates in 1983. After receiving his bachelor’s degree, he gave up a graduate school scholarship to serve a mission. Since completing his mission, he is attending graduate school at BYU under a Benson Institute and Agricultural Economics scholarship. “These young people will return to their countries to become leaders in government and leaders in agriculture,” predicts Brother Brimhall. “We would like to sponsor hundreds more such students.”

So far, the institute has operated mostly with grants from governments, businesses, and individuals. As a result, the institute has been able to help only where funding is available. But the LDS Foundation has embarked on an ambitious fund-raising campaign for the institute this year. Money is also needed to produce a how-to manual in small-scale agriculture. If the institute can become more independent, says Brother Brimhall, it can better respond to requests for help from Church leaders and others in underdeveloped countries.

Like all those who labor for a cause greater than themselves, the men and women at the Benson Institute convey an attitude of great dedication and some urgency. But they also exude a sense of cheerfulness and joy in their work. And well they should, for this practical business of raising the quality of life is not peripheral to the work of the Master.

“We have seen the hand of the Lord in our work at every turn,” reflects Brother Brimhall. “Our work is not to proselyte, but we feel a great sense of mission in helping people improve their quality of life. When people learn how to take care of themselves, they are happier and more teachable. There is greater stability in their homes, in their communities, and in their nations.”

Self-Sufficiency: A Challenge to All

Imagine walking into your neighborhood grocery store to find most of your favorite foods out of stock and others priced beyond your means. In the United States and other developed nations, large-scale agriculture has been so successful that most of us feel comfortable relying on people thousands of miles away to provide our food. Only now and then does a trucker’s strike or a drought challenge our sense of security.

But the message of the Benson Institute is the same for the family in Columbus, Ohio, as for the family in Portoviejo, Ecuador. It is that every person—apartment dweller and weekend gardener alike—should be as self-sufficient as possible. And the very same principles that Humberto Cañarte uses to produce food for his family can be used on any small plot.

The institute’s pamphlet Getting Along with Your Garden offers practical help. Another institute pamphlet, Having Your Food Storage and Eating It, Too, is an easy-to-use guide to storing and using food. You can get these pamphlets by writing to the Benson Institute, B–49, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah, 84602.

The Benson Institute has other work in addition to its research in small-scale agriculture. A quality-control laboratory at BYU tests sample products from the entire Church cannery system. The laboratory also creates new recipes for the Church’s Deseret brand. In the area of food preservation, one institute project is investigating the use of plastic bags to replace aluminum cans.

The work of the Benson Institute is diverse, and volunteers with a diversity of skills are needed. To find out about becoming an institute associate, write to the Benson Institute, B–49, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah, 84602.

[photos] (Opposite page) Some of the Benson Institute personnel with tools and animals suited for use in small scale agriculture. Left to right: Dale Oberg with a miniature tractor; Richard Brimhall and Dr. Laren Robison with a solar oven; Luis Espinoza with a bicycle-powered grain grinder; Vicente Espinoza (kneeling) with a can reflanger; and Dr. Paul Johnston with guinea pigs. (Photography by Marty Mayo.) (Above) Enrique Tola and his mother harvest potatoes from a terraced hillside garden in Challoma, Bolivia. (Photo courtesy of the Benson Institute.)

[photo] Alberto Tola was brought from Bolivia to be trained at the Benson Institute. Here he checks the growth of his potatoes using techniques learned at the institute. (Photo courtesy of the Benson Institute.)