A familiar slogan during the Cold War was “Peace through Strength.” Today in Ukraine, as Russia continues its unwarranted aggression, we’re declaring a new refrain: “Peace through Agriculture.”
We have an incredible partner in Heidi Kuhn, an anti-landmine activist who was announced last week as the 2023 recipient of the World Food Prize. She’s the founder and CEO of Roots for Peace, a nonprofit group that for more than 25 years has sought to turn minefields into farmland.
As brave Ukrainians struggle to push an invading army out of our country, farmers like me are trying to grow the food that our nation and the world needs. For too many, the fields they work are polluted with landmines—and as you can see from the pictures above this article, my fellow farmers have come up with some clever solutions.
Yet the problem is huge, and we need help. Thankfully, we are not alone. We have the sympathy of people around the world as they support our broad efforts to defend our nation from would-be conquerors. Many of them understand and appreciate the particular work of farmers who try to plant, grow, and harvest in a war zone.
Kuhn sees the whole picture, and last year she responded to the plight of Ukraine by collaborating with the Rotary E-Club of Ukraine and starting to raise money for a project to remove landmines from the winemaking region of Mykolaiv, near the Black Sea.
“May we turn mines to vines and replace the scourge of landmines with bountiful vineyards in Ukraine,” said Kuhn when she launched the project in December. “This is a call to action.”
In an interview with Food & Wine magazine, she called it “getting ready to do battle for peace.”
This new cause rests on a quarter-century legacy of practicing “Peace through Agriculture.” Kuhn started her group in the basement of her home in California, in response to the wars surrounding the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s. In Croatia, she helped remove landmines from 500,000 square meters of land.
She also came to understand the vast dimensions of a global menace. Today, more than 50 countries suffer from the contamination of landmines. These remnants of war kill or injure more than 5,000 people per year, half of them innocent children who often have merely wandered into fields.
The murderous devices also have wrought economic devastation, taking untold acres of land out of productive use. Nobody knows how many unexploded mines are out there, but one estimate claims that as many as 100 million of them could lay hidden, ready to deal death.
Mines are so numerous because they are cheap to make and expensive to remove—about $3 to produce and $1,000 to eliminate safely.
Farmers have been essential in the effort to restore these blighted lands to productivity. My colleague in the Global Farmer Network, Motlatsi Musi of South Africa, once described what it’s like to drive a tractor through a minefield.
Yet farmers can’t do it alone. We need help from people like Kuhn. “Roots for Peace serves no flag; we serve the farmer,” she has said.
Her group has worked longest and hardest in Afghanistan, and claims that its various programs have created 20,000 jobs and generated nearly $500 million in export revenue. Roots for Peace also has stories from Angola, Guatemala, and Vietnam. On the day when the news broke that Kuhn would receive the World Food Prize, she was in Azerbaijan, helping to detonate six anti-tank mines in former vineyards.
“The blast of the landmine was an act of peace,” she wrote in an email to a friend.
Kuhn will formally receive the World Food Prize this fall in Iowa, along with its purse of $250,000. Kuhn said that “she plans to use the award’s cash prize, often referred to as the Nobel Prize of agriculture, to challenge Google, Facebook, and other Silicon Valley tech leaders to donate to remove mines in embattled Ukraine.”
As she is recognized for this important work, I and my fellow farmers in Ukraine hope to be harvesting wheat in a war-torn land and ready to welcome whatever help she can provide in her mission to deliver “Peace through Agriculture.”