Outside Influences

Jockeying for a Key UN Agriculture Post

A regional race is on to run the Food and Agriculture Organization.

French Agriculture Ministry official Catherine Geslain-Lanéelle
AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia
Feb. 6, 2019, 8 p.m.

Trade negotiations aside, the next big international agricultural question that the Trump administration faces is what country’s candidate it will back to become the director general of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, an agency based in Rome.

The FAO is not one of the most prominent United Nations agencies, but it is influential in improving agriculture in developing countries and has deep roots in the United States. The FAO’s origins go back to the ideas of David Lubin, a 19th-century California fruit and wheat farmer who came to believe that an international organization was needed to address questions of agricultural production and disease. Lubin convinced the king of Italy to set up the FAO’s predecessor in 1904. The FAO was established out of meetings held in the United States in the last years of World War II. As a U.N. agency, the FAO was located in Washington until 1951, when it moved to Rome.

An election for a director general is scheduled in late June ahead of the expiration of a second four-year term for the current director general, José Graziano da Silva, a Brazilian. Countries nominate candidates, and each of the 194 member nations has a vote in the election. Regional alliances usually determine the outcome.

No American has headed the FAO since 1956, and the United States is not expected to put forward a candidate this year because former South Carolina Gov. David Beasley heads the World Food Programme, FAO’s sister agency, also based in Rome, which distributes food aid in places that face weather and humanitarian crises. The United States is its biggest food donor.

That means the Trump administration has to decide which candidate from another country it will support. The filing deadline for candidacies is not until February, so the full list is not known. There have been announcements from the governments of India, Georgia, and France, whose candidate has won the support of the backing of all 28 European Union states.

China is widely expected to nominate a candidate and to make a big push to get the job. China skeptics worry that a Chinese director general would be one more ace in that country's attempt to expand its worldwide influence. But regional politics play a big role in campaigns for U.N. posts, and China is expected to appeal to other Asian nations because no Asian has held the post other than an Indian who had it from 1956 to 1967. One of the reasons Graziano da Silva was elected is that no Latin American had ever headed the agency.

FAO campaigns are usually so behind-the-scenes that it is hard at this stage to figure out what the candidates stand for, but their histories do show what policies they are likely to prioritize. Graziano da Silva headed Brazil’s Zero Hunger program under former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. At the FAO, Graziano da Silva has emphasized ending hunger, but has also defended genetically engineered seeds, which Brazilian farmers use.

Catherine Geslain-Lanéelle, the European candidate, was in Washington last week to meet U.S. officials at the State Department, the Agriculture Department, and on Capitol Hill.

In an interview, she made the case that the election should be an open debate rather than just about assembling enough votes to win.

Geslain-Lanéelle, a French Agriculture Ministry official who headed the European Food Safety Agency from 2006 to 2013, noted that the number of hungry people is again rising; she said she would use her management background to direct FAO to coordinate with both the public and private sectors to increase food production in poor countries.

That’s not a very exciting position, but Geslain-Lanéelle made another statement that would be very reassuring to American farmers and ranchers as they face meat critics.

“You will never hear me saying we should stop eating meat,” she said, explaining she thinks anti-meat campaigns are not “evidence- and science-based.”

Children, in particular, need the nutrients from meat and dairy products, she said.

While meat consumption in developed countries may be so high it leads to health problems, she noted that “for many poor farmers, livestock is essential. It provides the family with milk and meat, with high-quality proteins.”

Meat critics say livestock production damages the environment, but Geslain-Lanéelle pointed out that maintaining pasture keeps carbon in the soil.

Whoever the Trump administration decides to support is expected to influence other countries. Unfortunately, the Trump administration is at a disadvantage for monitoring the campaigns because the Senate has yet to confirm Kip Tom, the Indiana farmer who is Trump’s nominee for U.S. ambassador to the food agencies in Rome.

The full range of candidates and their positions should become clear over the coming months. The Senate should vote on Tom so that the United States has the best information to decide who to support.

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