By Rachel Lane
WASHINGTON, D.C. — Lessons learned on an Indiana farm are being applied to global agriculture as former farm boy Kip Tom has settled into his role as the US Ambassador to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, FAO.
Last April, Tom was confirmed by the U.S. Senate for his role. Since then, he has traveled around the world, but been able to return to his family’s farm only twice, once around the holidays and the second time shortly after he gave the keynote address at the USDA Agriculture Forum in Washington, DC.
His parents, still on the farm, asked him to please bring home the speaker poster announcing his presentation and Tom carried it around for several hours as he prepared to leave the forum.
He spoke during dinner Thursday about one of the things that surprised him most in his role — the difference between the United States and other countries in embracing new technology and innovations in agriculture.
“We’re so quick to embrace technology and innovation changes here in the United States but it’s not the same everywhere else. I think I underestimated the challenges we would face there with some of these other member states,” Tom said.
He works with different U.S. agencies in Rome: the State Department, the USDA, USTR, the Treasury, and others. As a team, he tries to make sure the U.S. position on issues is protected and that U.S. tax dollars are used appropriately. He thinks his team is up to the challenge of encouraging others to accept technology and innovation.
As a boy, he had no idea what the United Nations was. He always expected to stay on the farm and he still refers to himself as a farmer. He plans to return to the farm when he retires from his position, and rejoin his community.
“When that time comes, I’ll hope back on the tractor. When my time to retire comes along, I’ll come to the end of the field, idle it back and I’ll walk away, but right now I’ve got a job to do,” he said.
His time on the farm helps him sympathize with the small farmers around the world. He knows what it is like to worry about having enough food to feed the family for a year and the importance of moving forward with technology. When he started to take over some of the operations on the farm, he knew the family had to do something different from what the neighbors were doing, to stand out and get better yields. Not all of the choices he made worked, but he embraced different technologies as they became available.
“I knew farming wasn’t just about driving a tractor and putting seed in the ground. It was about management abilities. It was about understanding the science in what we do… the business behind what we do. It was investing in new technologies and getting the business to scale to try to bring in other family members,” he said. “I was taking risks, I was investing money. It was tripping up at times and learning from those times we faced failure.”
He transformed his seventh-generation farm into one of the largest commodity businesses in the Midwest. The business owns over 25,000 acres in the United States and in Argentina.
His parents were the primary influence on his life, teaching him the dedication and discipline needed, he says 4H and FFA played a part, too, teaching him leadership skills and what was possible.
Now, the global agriculture community is facing the same challenges around the world — how to feed more people while protecting the environment. The challenges each country faces differ, but technology can help address each issue. The same basic issue might have very different solutions based on where the problems are located.
“I’m proud of the work we do. We’ve made a great impact,” Tom said.
He said he remembers the farm, his family and his neighbors when he’s making decisions that impact the world. Traveling around Africa, he sees desperate looks on the faces of children, adults, entire families and he wants to make a difference in their lives.
The biggest obstacle he faces are other countries that don’t want to advance technology and don’t want to teach new methods to people who are desperate.
“I can look at them and I can picture what a steep curve they have to try to change their lives. I know what it’s like to go out, till a field, plant a seed, take the risk, hope and pray the weather is in your favor, that you get a crop and you have enough — in the United States — to sustain your business but in … (developing worlds), do I have enough for my family to eat for the next year,” Tom said. “I understand that. I understand that well.”
He applies his perspective to his decisions and does what he can to help the people around the world by bringing up the science to support the technologies.
Tom said if the small farmers don’t have enough to feed their families, they lose hope. If they lose hope, they migrate to places where they see a brighter future for their families.
GMO crops have been around for 25 years and been used to create about 32 trillion meals. There is no sign of a negative reaction to human health, while there are obvious benefits to the environment, nature and to humans. Tom said a Turkish company used soybeans from an EU field that didn’t use GMO herbicide. As a result, a toxic weed was mixed into the supply when it was harvested and 18 people in Uganda died as a result.
“People think because they read a paragraph on something or they hear the phrase that all the sudden it’s bad because someone says it’s bad,” he said, but 150 Nobel laureates have supported GMOs.
GMOs - or biotech, as Tom called them - allows farmers to use less chemistry, leaving a small carbon footprint.
“We know that GMO crops can lower, on an agriculture bases, carbon footprint 12-17 percent. That’s pretty substantial,” he said. Workers and the environment are exposed to fewer chemicals.
“The GMOs have really been a benefit but a lot of people don’t believe the science,” he said.
And gene-editing crops has the potential to add more benefit, if the world will accept them.
Instead, countries want farmers to use the same methods his grandfather used - and stopped using - 125 years ago.
He uses the example of medicine when talking to some other ambassadors. If they needed medical treatment for cancer or a heart problem, they wouldn’t go to a doctor using the same methods used 125 years ago.
“Let’s look at food production in the same light because we need to have those same opportunities if we’re truly going to have a positive impact on the environment, nature, and productivity,” he said.
Not believing the science is also a problem within the US, Tom said. People are challenging innovations and the science needs to feed the US population.
Farmers need to stay aware of domestic and global issues - and keep paying taxes that help fund the FAO and support the small farmers in developing countries, Tom said. To be fully funded, the FAO needs $11 billion, but they only have about $8 billion - about 20 percent of comes from the US. Someone, somewhere is probably hungry until the full needs assessment is met.
“I think it’s time for Americans, if you’re in agriculture and food, or (a different industry), to understand that … we’re very fortunate to have the things we do,” he said. “At the same time, those freedoms, those liberties are always at risk by others around the world that have a different view of how we should manage.”
American farmers can continue to innovate and work to feed the world, he said.
“Try to find solutions that contribute to a developed country, but can also, possibly contribute to a developing country,” he said.
Photo by Rachel Lane
Ambassador Kip Tom, spoke about the importance and challenges of embracing innovation in agriculture on a global scale. He works with the UN FAO and 193 other countries to try to make the world food secure. He spoke during the USDA Agriculture Forum in February, shortly before he returned to his family farm in Indiana for the second time since he accepted his position last April.