15 Minutes With... Kip Tom, U.S. Permanent Rep to the United Nations Agencies for Food and Ag

By Michelle Pelletier Marshall, Women in Ag Media, August 18, 2020

(NOTE: This story originally ran in our sister publication, GAI News)


It is no surprise that Kip Tom, formerly chairman of Tom Farms LLC and chairman of CereServ Inc., a 2.2 million bushel grain facility, both located in Leesburg, Indiana, USA, was confirmed as the United States’ permanent representative to the United Nations Agencies for Food and Agriculture in Rome, with the rank of ambassador in April 2019. Ambassador Tom is responsible for the oversight of six different humanitarian and development agencies and international organizations, with the World Food Program (WFP), the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), and the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) all focusing on food and agriculture.

In this position, Ambassador Tom has used his experience as an agribusiness leader who worked tirelessly in transforming his family’s seventh-generation farm into one of the largest commodity businesses in the U.S. Midwest by focusing on what he calls “the single most important advantage for any farm business… its ability to ‘learn fast’.” He has shared this perspective not only in UN agriculture and food security oversight, but also with farmers throughout the world.


And he is not without serving his community, having been a member of the board of the Indiana Economic Development Corporation, a trustee of the National 4-H Foundation, and a member of the National Future Farmers of America Foundation Board of Directors, in addition to other board positions.


GAI News talked with Ambassador Tom to get more details about his first year as Ambassador.


1). Please tell us a bit more about your role as Ambassador and how your decades of experience in agriculture informs your decisions abroad?

I am the U.S. Ambassador to the UN Rome-based agencies and we have six different international organizations here. The first one, and the largest one by far, is the World Food Program (WFP). It is the UN organization that is responsible for delivering food aid to those around the world who are either in the midst of a natural disaster or in the midst of conflict, or some other kind of issue that has limited their accessibility to food. That’s probably the one that people are most familiar with. The next is the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). It is the organization with the mandate to create resiliency and capacity in agriculture and food systems throughout the world.


There are a number of other organizations: IFAD – International Fund for Agriculture Development, which provides loans to smallholder farmers, as well as some commercial lending, mainly in developing countries. We also have the IDLO, International Development Law Organization, which strengthens public law and helps nations, whether in Africa or the Middle East, instill good governance practices. Then we have the UNIDROIT (International Institute for the Unification of Private Law), which harmonizes private and commercial law around the world. And lastly, we have ICCROM (International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property), which is involved in cultural preservation around the world.


Right now our agencies feed nearly 100 million people around the world, though we estimate it’s closer to 135 million people that are chronically malnourished, most on the edge of famine. The demand for us is global and it is very extensive.


As far as my own expertise, which helps drive my goals and hopefully success as Ambassador, I have 45 years of agriculture experience, having helped farmers around the world develop farming and food systems to improve their livelihoods. I’m a practitioner, but yet I know at the end of the day to be successful here in Rome – to have an impact on food security and the effectiveness and efficiency of these organizations, as well as to achieve global peace and security, because they are all interdependent upon each other, it comes down to this: it’s a people business. It’s about being diplomatic and working with people around the world to bridge the difference of opinions and find resolutions so we can have an impact on many lives and livelihoods.


2). How does your know-how with employing innovative strategies and the best available technology transfer to some of the regions, such as in Africa or the EU, and challenges – locust swarms and COVID-19 disruptions – that you are faced with your work with the UN?


It helps to look back over time at the main levers that have been pulled to increase productivity in a lot of the developing world. We go back to 1900 when nearly 50 percent of the U.S. population was involved in the production of agriculture products. Then we had the mechanical/industrial revolution where people moved off farms and got other professional careers, then we had hybrid genetics and the green revolution, followed by a focus on crop care products. Now we have the digital revolution that is taking place where we can use analytics to really improve those cognitive decisions to increase productivity. We need to usher the developing countries through all of these phases to be successful.


I think the next big revolution – the lever to be pulled if you will – will be that of technology and data, and digital science and analytics. This will be the next big change that will improve productivity, not just in the U.S., but in Africa and all over the world. We’re seeing now a regenerative action taking place in young people who now have an interest in being involved in agriculture and food systems. But they don’t want to do it like their parents did – it’s backbreaking work, there’s not much reward, they live subsistence lives, and oftentimes go without – and the digitalization of agriculture can advance all of this and empower change, especially across developing countries.


3). What are the top three priorities in global food and agriculture in your role as Ambassador?

There’s so much that needs to be done that it’s hard to limit it to three. But since the day I arrived here, I’ve always wanted to hold the UN organizations accountable, and make sure that they are effective and efficient so they can deliver on the mandate of their organizations. We also feel that by doing that we are going to see these economies grow, and people’s lives change. Most importantly, the opportunity for peace and security around the world is much more likely if people are well fed and are growing their economies.


So accountability, efficiency, and effectiveness. I can tell you we have a strong team here at USUN Rome that strives for that each and every day, making sure that whether that taxpayer dollar is coming from the U.S., or Germany, or wherever, that it’s being used in a manner that is really improving the livelihoods of people.


4). What are the top three global disruptions/solutions, or trends you see in the global ag sector in the near term?


I think that one thing that will be very important is access to energy to enable telecommunication systems and access to broadband. Once you open that door up, you can start to educate people with agronomic knowledge and skills, and provide marketing and support information. Energy is really critical. We see solar power being very effective in many areas and easier to institute than electricity due to distance from the grid. Access to energy is one of those baseline disruptors that is really going to make a difference.


The other thing is basic innovations. We take these for granted in the U.S. – our access to fertilizer, crop care products, and mechanization – but when you get into these remote villages, there is none of that. Take the difference between India and Africa. India began using fertilizer back in the ‘50s. Africa had the potential to do the same thing, but they chose not to. Today, India is pretty food secure – they’ve done a good job in feeding their own nation. But when you look across Africa, it still struggles. It’s important that they have access to the basic fundamental tools of crop production, whether it’s fertilizer, crop care products, or GMO or CRISPR-Cas seeds, because they can really make a difference.


Recently I was in Zimbabwe and we were asked to visit a local museum as part of our trip to an FAO village. Depicted inside the museum was a wax figure of a farmer from the 800 BC and there he was bent over with a wood hoe tending to his crop. Within an hour we were at an FAO village and they were still using the same tool! The only thing that was different – 2,800 years later – is that now a woman was doing the work. It’s heartbreaking to see that they don’t have basic mechanization.

And of course, the digitization of agriculture will be a game-changer throughout global farms.


5). You have said “data doesn’t need to be dormant”. Could you please explain this further and how this philosophy has contributed to your success in agriculture, and also address the implications of agtech on the sector as a whole?

We continue to encourage the use of data to make better decisions. For example, the FAO is now dealing with the African desert locust, formulating a response for these pests that are traveling up the Horn of Africa to the Middle East into Pakistan and India, and they are now in Nepal and moving into China. As we see this path, which is not anything new as the locusts come every seven years or so, we continue to advocate for FAO folks to build a database with past data to help build skills and inform future solutions in treating this pest. The current ask for fighting this locust is up to about $310 million, but we know if it’s not successful, the consequences could be up to $2 to $2.5 billion in humanitarian aid needed. The FAO is working with private partners, such as Microsoft and Penn State University, and has developed a platform called eLocust3m. They also are using NOAA and NASA data to understand soil types to see where this locust might lay its eggs so that tracking can be accomplished on the ground and the GPS coordinates shared via the platform. Then a plane can be sent to the area to treat the emerging hoppers before they become a bigger problem.


We need to continue using data to understand how to respond, prepare, and react in order to have effective control. The more information we collect, the more we can rely on it to make cognitive decisions that improve outcomes.


6). In your role as Ambassador, you are focused on helping people feed themselves and ‘create resilience and capacity building at FAO’. How has COVID-19 impacted these efforts, and what solutions are being instituted?


COVID-19 hasn’t had as much impact in the developing countries where we work, as far as people getting the virus. But what has been affected is accessibility to food and the affordability of food. Borders have been shut down. The ability to trade food has been very, very limited and the controls at the borders have been very restrictive – for instance, we were told that there was a nearly 50 kilometer back-up in both directions at the Kenyan/Ugandan border with trucks trying to get food across. Add to that a higher unemployment rate and the lowering of prices for natural resources like oil and other mining activities – which the countries’ governments are so dependent on – and quickly their own ability to fund their food security needs has been diminished.

It is putting much more stress on the World Food Program in trying to meet that need. They have ramped up services and since May they have flown 1,444 flights to move food, people, and personal protective gear around the world. We are trying to be prepared for the acute hunger crisis that will come on the heels of the pandemic. There are some very dramatic numbers that are being painted out there. In fact, the executive director of the WFP has made this very clear: If we don't raise the funds we need, and we don’t get access to the people we need to provide the food aid to, their modeling suggests a loss of nearly 300,000 lives a day over three months. The impact is substantial.


The food agencies here in Rome have been working tirelessly to ensure that those numbers don’t become a reality. It’s the humanitarian practices that the United States lives up to. I can tell you that the United States continues to be the largest and the most philanthropic country in the world, providing more food aid on a per capita basis than another other nation. That’s something as an American that I am proud of. Even though our own economy is going to be hurt [by this pandemic], the reality is that Americans continue to give and make sure we have an impact on these lives so thank you to the United States of America for supporting us in these initiatives.


7). Related to trying to feed the world, there is a lot of focus on food waste. Are there many opportunities for your organizations to “reclaim” food to feed people?


There’s no question – we all agree that food waste is a significant issue as nearly one-third of the global food produced goes to waste.


There are a number of elements here – not only do we need to make sure we don’t waste food, we need to make sure we have an impact on controlling the crops that we do produce such that none of it is wasted in the field because of pests or environmental issues or storage issues.

But in these developing countries, there’s very little wasted. Most of the food we are providing in-kind – whether it be sorghum, wheat, or corn – are not wasted. There is an extreme effort by all to ‘take no more than you need’.


8). What is the role of private capital in increasing the proficiency, profitability, and long-term success of your efforts?


It depends in what context or region of the world you are looking at, but there are nearly 500,000 million smallholder farmers around the world. More and more are getting access to a phone and broadband. That’s a big base that could really be influential if people [investors] seek out tools to help them increase productivity.

To the people of Global AgInvesting, I would say don’t overlook Africa. The land resources are massive and there are many areas that have reliable sources of water. Obviously it is going to take a lot of work, as many places are void of any roads, basic infrastructure, or supply chains, but there are opportunities across the continent of Africa – probably more than any other place in the world – to create resilient food systems. So it starts out small, but I think it will evolve into something much broader. It’s going to take a significant amount of capital but the resources are there. What they need is the knowledge, infrastructure, and new technologies to make it work.


I would encourage investors to continue to look at Africa because the private sector is going to be critical to their emergence as a developed country. And while it takes courage to go into countries where there is conflict and political strife, the right investment could be very productive.


I would also tell anyone involved in agriculture to pay attention to the outcome of the first UN Food Systems Summit, which will take place in 2021. This summit may set the tone for the way we trade, the way we allow innovations, and the way we feed people around the world through our global $8 trillion food supply chain.


9). You have been in your role as ambassador since April 2019. Have there been any game-changing projects during this time? What are you most proud of?


We are really driving change at the Food and Agriculture Organization. We’ve seen the budget in the past four years at the World Food Program grow from about $3.7 billion to a little over $8 billion, and next year the target is $10 billion. We have a responsibility at the FAO to ensure that we create that capacity and resilience through innovation.

I want to make sure farmers, no matter what country they are in, have access to all innovations, whether it’s a practice of agrology or more commercial practices, like biotech or CRISPR or digital tools. Additionally, we are focused on lowering the cost of food, improving the nutrition of it, and making sure people have access to it, all of which will help grow their economy.


It’s something that comes from my heart and as a farmer, a father, a U.S. citizen, there is nothing more disheartening than to travel across a continent and see people are hungry because they have been denied access to innovation and the tools to try and improve their lives. But we are making headway. I feel confident about that. We have a great team here and we are making an impact and are proud of the work we do. We are going to make sure we improve lives and livelihoods across the developing world.

~ Michelle Pelletier Marshall is managing editor for HighQuest Group's Global AgInvesting's GAI Gazette magazine and its WIA Today blog, as well as a contributor to GAI News and the Oilseed & Grain News. She can be reached at mmarshall@highquestgroup.com.

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