The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization has existed at the periphery of UN agencies and been a focus of critics almost since its founding in 1945, as the vehicle for ending hunger and achieving food security.
Based in Rome, the FAO has 194 member nations and many projects designed to raise the standards of agriculture and meet the needs of millions of malnourished people. But it remains a niche specialized agency that often works with larger UN entities, such as the World Health Organization.
The FAO has been criticized from both the left and right — from the Slow Food movement to US officialdom — for its policies, performance and integrity of leadership.
China sees an opening.
On or around June 23, FAO member nations will elect a new director-general, and the Chinese candidate appears to be in the lead. The organization is a major player in the fate of Sustainable Development Goal 2, which calls for “zero hunger” by 2030. China’s motivations in pushing for the director-general job are mixed.
Diplomats from industrial nations have said in the past that China wants a significant role in the global food trade not only as a seller of commodities and technology but also as an importer of foodstuffs from reliable sources for its huge, more affluent population. The Chinese have established agricultural projects around the developing world, many in Africa, with this role in mind. They have occasionally met local resentment and protests because of their exclusionary behavior toward local people.
With the United States retreating from international leadership under the Trump administration, beginning in 2017, China has not been short of opportunities to move into more positions but stronger ones as well at the UN to serve its national interests. It seeks more positions in the UN Secretariat hierarchy, plays a bigger role in peacekeeping and most recently has emerged as a power in the UN Human Rights Council, from which the US has withdrawn.
Human Rights Watch has followed the growing influence of the Chinese in the UN.
“In 2017, Human Rights Watch exposed Beijing’s efforts to silence U.N. human rights experts and staff, to prevent critical voices from China from participating in U.N. processes, and to manipulate rules and procedures to ensure more favorable reviews,” the human-rights group said in a report. “The net effect: weaker United Nations scrutiny, not just of China but of other abusive governments.”
Three final candidates remain in the race for director-general of the FAO, after the recent withdrawal of a nominee from India. They are the Chinese candidate, Qu Dongyu, vice minister of agriculture and rural affairs; Catherine Geslain-Lanéelle, former director of the French ministry of agriculture and food and the European Union’s candidate; and Davit Kirvalidze, a former minister of agriculture in Georgia and now adviser to the country’s prime minister on agriculture and rural development. Kirvalidze is regarded as the American candidate; he was a Fulbright scholar at the University of Maryland, where he studied farming and rural development in transition economies.
The new director-general will succeed José Graziano da Silva of Brazil. His seven predecessors in the position were, chronologically, a Briton, two Americans and one each from India, the Netherlands, Lebanon and Senegal.
The US only recently confirmed an ambassador to its mission in Rome to work with Rome-based international organizations, including the UN’s FAO, the World Food Program and the International Fund for Agricultural Development.
The new ambassador, Kip Tom, who has had scant time to involve himself in the succession issue at FAO, is neither a negotiator nor a diplomat. Nevertheless, he was confirmed an ambassador by the US Senate on April 11. He is a farmer from Indiana, the home state of Vice President Mike Pence.
The State Department describes Ambassador Tom as “an agribusiness leader who transformed a seventh-generation farm into one of the largest commodity businesses in the Midwestern United States, while launching international operations and deploying new technologies.”
Tom, who grew up on a family farm, turned it into an agribusiness of 25,000 acres in the US and Argentina, the State Department said in announcing his confirmation. He is also a philanthropist, but there were no details about those activities in the announcement.
The confirmation had the appearance of a hastily arranged event perhaps because the Trump administration didn’t know — or didn’t care — that it was in danger of seeing its favored candidate in the FAO election, the Georgian, lose to China while the US did not have an ambassador in Rome to track the election. This would be the first Communist country to hold the FAO director-general’s chair.
Newspapers in Indiana had been wondering what happened to Tom’s appointment, which was announced in August 2018 but not sent for a confirmation hearing until April.
“It was 9 months ago when President Trump tapped him for the position,” an article in Hoosier Ag Today commented when Tom was finally confirmed in April. Tom’s vision, as reported by the publication, was more about American food security and the Trump-Pence America First message than about hungry people in poor countries.
“My goal in serving as ambassador will be to improve our missions’ outcomes to serve the interests of the American people,” Tom was quoted as saying. “If you confirm me, I will bring all my knowledge, work ethic and skills to bear to ensure that this becomes a reality. I will do it in ways that I hope brings honor to our country, our values, and our national interests. . . . I cannot imagine a better honor than to serve in a leadership capacity and be a small part in advancing U.S. global food security efforts to create a more stable, food-secure world.”
Qu, the Chinese candidate for FAO, has a string of qualifications from agricultural development work in the UN and countries around the world. He has been more circumspect than Tom but direct about his goals. In a conversation at an FAO meeting in April with Kevin Moley, the US assistant secretary of state for international organization affairs, Qu rejected the charge that he would be beholden to instructions from Beijing.
He vowed that China would follow “FAO regulations and rules.” He defended his credentials, then segued into his own national priorities, according to people at FAO who heard the exchange.
“I am a scientist,” Qu said. “I always do things based on my own judgment, even [if] I am a vice minister. That is why I push the digital farming in China. I think it is good for Chinese people, it is good for Chinese farmers. . . . You have to believe my professionalism because I got [my] education from Europe, America and China.”
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Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.
Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”
Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.