January 20, 2021

ActionAid USA explains why the New U.S. Ambassador to the UN Food and Agriculture Agencies in Rome must be prepared to defend and expand human rights and democratic participation in order to end hunger and protect the world’s food systems.

As the world grapples with the COVID-19 pandemic, increasing poverty, and the growing threat of climate change, the United Nations (UN) is more important than ever. The injustices inherent in the global food system have been exacerbated by the pandemic, and the UN is the only democratic forum where global coordination and cooperation can take place to ensure world food security while preserving the ecosystems, and the environment and the climate.

The UN Committee on World Food Security (CFS) brings together the three UN food agencies (the Food and Agriculture Organization, the World Food Programme, and the International Fund for Agricultural Development) and all the relevant actors on food security, including civil society, all at the same table. The CFS is a vital forum for a number of reasons. It takes on some of the most challenging and important issues and develops policies for governments to adopt. Currently, the CFS is finalizing important policy recommendations for governments on how they can begin to transition their food systems to agroecology.

The U.S. liaison to the Rome-based UN food agencies is an Ambassador-level position. President Biden must nominate an Ambassador to these agencies who is open to dialogue and ready to understand that we must transition away from the unsustainable industrial food and agriculture system and toward agroecology.

We need an Ambassador who believes in, defends, and expands human rights and the democratic participation of civil society organizations and social movements at the UN, going beyond narrow U.S. economic and political interests.

For too long, the U.S. has acted like a rogue state when it comes to the UN. The U.S. remains one of the few countries in the world that has not ratified key human rights agreements that are accepted around the world and that doesn’t recognize the human right to food. Moreover, over the last four years, the U.S. delegation all too often showed arrogance and obstructed consensus-based UN policy processes. The outgoing Ambassador to the UN Agencies for Food and Agriculture, Kip Tom, took unprecedented steps to oppose policies that every other government had agreed to at least discuss.

Ambassador Tom also made inflammatory comments against agroecology and the UN itself in speeches and articles, saying that agroecology was against “progress” and therefore against “American values” and fear-mongering that agroecology would lead to massive global hunger at a speech to the USDA in February 2020. He even suggested that the only reason the governments around the world and the UN itself were supportive of agroecology was that there was a vast, global conspiracy of NGOs and European governments to demonize GMOs.

Given the political violence we have witnessed in the U.S. as a result of conspiracy theories promoted by the Trump Administration, the Ambassador’s comments set an incredibly dangerous precedent. Ambassador Tom outraged many diplomats in Rome. His comments even spurred over 50 U.S. farmer and food organizations to sign a letter calling on him to let the agroecology process at the CFS proceed and reminding him that farmers and workers in the U.S. want agroecology too.

Through a new Ambassador, President Biden has an opportunity to reset U.S. relations with the rest of the world and the UN, showing that the U.S. can play by the same rules as everyone else and put the global common good above all else. The main objectives for the new Ambassador should be to protect the integrity of the CFS and to prioritize civil society participation, particularly the participation of civil society organizations from impacted communities in the U.S.

President Biden must recognize the importance of getting this appointment right. In the past, Ambassadors such as Kip Tom have come from agri-food corporations, large charities, and agribusiness. The next Ambassador must be a vehicle for the demands of the “essential workers” putting their lives at risk to put food on our tables while being underpaid and mistreated. We need an Ambassador who will represent the families struggling to eat because their government does not recognize their right to food, even in a once-in-a-century pandemic.

President Biden must nominate an Ambassador who will stand with and for the tens of millions of people who work in the food system and the families for whom the right to food means life and death. The new Ambassador should understand food systems as a whole, have a problem-solving record, and understand the importance of consensus building in addressing global problems through international cooperation and solidarity.

In the U.S., we have paid too little attention to food and agriculture and have treated the UN like an afterthought. We need transformative change to protect our food systems from the climate crisis and ensure an end to hunger, and we must support the UN system as the only hope for global coordination. President Biden must step up to this moment.