Frank Sesno: Impressions from the Committee on World Food Security conference

We heard inspiring words of invention and hope. Vital partnerships bringing together communities, governments, humanitarian organizations, educators, local leaders, and businesses. Entrepreneurs adapting new tools and techniques to support smallholder farmers so they can grow their food and thrive. Courageous people, emerging as 21st century leaders, advocating for their communities, women and girls, indigenous populations, and rights to the land.

Sadly, we also heard figures that batter the soul: 820 million people around the world who are hungry. Two billion who live on the edge amid “food insecurity.” War, political instability, drought, climate change, corruption, economic collapse that deprive too many of their right to sustenance and security. The crises have multiplied in the past few years as instability has grown.

We heard debate and controversy, too. The urgency to innovate and modernize. The contribution the rich, developed world should make. The role of science and technology. The potential for GMO and biotech to revolutionize productivity. 

On one thing everyone agreed: If the world is to achieve the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goal to eliminate hunger by 2030, there is massive work to be done. 

Student reflections

Hear reflections on the experience from our student travelers: 

Rohan Agrawal

Lindsay Eberhart

Matilda Kreider

Marisa Umeh

The 46th Committee on World Food Security Conference in Rome, hosted by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the U.N., with 111 countries in attendance was a crash course in food diplomacy for Planet Forward and four amazing students who had written winning stories to join us. The students, who were sponsored by the FAO Liaison Office of North America, came from universities across the United States: Matilda Kreider from the George Washington University, the home of Planet Forward; Marisa Umeh from UC-Berkeley; Rohan Agrawal from the University of Mississippi; and Lindsay Eberhart from SUNY’s College of Environmental Science and Forestry. 

Each student brought a different major and a distinct life experience to Rome. All have dedicated themselves to the future, wanting to find answers to hunger, climate change, inequality. Each wants to leverage that commitment through storytelling to engage others and catalyze informed, solution-oriented action to move the planet forward.

The students attended plenary sessions and side-events. They listened and they interviewed. They had access to global diplomats and local activists. They heard David Beasley, executive director of the World Food Program, the biggest humanitarian organization on the planet, call on countries to end hunger by ending war, embracing education and technology, and empowering women. 

“We understand the impact on the world when women get the same access to credit and finance as men,” he said. “That can lift 150 million people out of poverty." 

They heard Aishatu Ali from Cameroon, a country on central Africa’s west coast, talk about her work as an advocate for women, girls, and land rights. An advocate and a stirring role model, she is the Agenda and Women Promotion Program Coordinator for the Mbororo Social Cultural Development Association. In her pastoral community, women do not own cattle and have little access to capital. Ali’s mother never even went to school. But Ali did, and she told us eloquently that things are starting to change. Women still don’t own cows, but they’re starting to own sheep. And they’re asserting their rights 

The students met with Ambassador Kip Tom, a seventh-generation American farmer who is now the United States Permanent Representative to the United Nations Agencies for Food and Agriculture in Rome. He said it’s unlikely hunger will be eliminated by 2030. But there can be dramatic progress. He’s worked the land and he knows how dramatically agriculture has changed. He says farmers should have access to seeds that resist pests, be able to grow where drought is increasingly common, take advantage of productivity on farms large and small. He calls for a greater acceptance of science, biotechnology, and the farming know-how that can bring life-saving productivity to farmers from Southern Asia to sub-Saharan Africa where heat and drought, worsened by climate change, climate threaten entire communities.

For all of us, this was a sobering trip. But a hopeful one, too, because we heard about solutions and breakthroughs. We met incredible, committed people — a lot of them — who have dedicated their lives to helping others grow nutritious food, protect their land, drink their water, assert their rights. We met inventors and investors, leaders from business and nonprofits, activists and advocates, and brave pioneers of change.

It is my belief that the students who traveled with us to Rome will be motivated, now and throughout their lives, to add to stories that educate, inform, and inspire change. Watch for their stories. Watch what they will do. They are part of a generation that must rise to unprecedented challenge to move the planet forward.

    How do you move the Planet Forward? Tweet us @planet_forward or contribute to the conversation with your own story.