Fighting food crises with Jocelyn Brown Hall of FAO

By: Shelby Kaplan, ASU Food Systems graduate student.

Jocelyn Brown Hall is the Director of the North American Liaison Office of FAO, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, which has a focus on food security and agriculture management. The organization was formed post World War II in Canada to reduce hunger while improving food and nutrition security. Currently, there are 190 participating members, and they are present in over 130 countries across the globe. FAO has three major goals in the current food price crisis: let the market decide, don't close off borders, and start thinking about alternatives. I believe these goals are even more important with current events.

Jocelyn spoke to us about her experiences with FAO and food security around the world. Current events made their way into the conversation, as Russia and Ukraine are some of the biggest agricultural producers in the world. These powerhouses of agriculture are at war, which has an impact on harvests and planting (as well as lack of exports). Ukraine recently emerged as the largest sunflower producer (used predominantly for oil) and grows significant amounts of wheat and canola. Ukraine has some of the most fertile soil in the world, although they are major producers of these commodities. This is due to recent improvements in agriculture post the Soviet Union. Jocelyn mentioned that before the current war began, one in four Ukrainians in the southeastern part of the country were food insecure. One may see the impact continued food insecurity may have if the war continues.

This war has created a ripple effect on global supply, especially of wheat. Russia has made a point to state that sanctions placed on Russia have prevented wheat exports from leaving, while the sanctions were put on due to the invasion of Ukraine by Russia. In addition, Russia and Belarus make up about 40% of all fertilizer production across the globe, making it more difficult for conventional farmers. This also resulted in massive price increases on agricultural inputs.

FAO is not a research agency, but rather a data collection and technical expertise agency. Jocelyn spoke about soil mapping and how crucial these are to show productivity in certain soils that can produce wheat, especially with the current war in Ukraine. Right now, these are all incomplete due to several reasons. For one, soil mapping could take about 6 months to a year to complete; also, FAO lacks funding for certain data collection services.

FAO also sets international standards using Codex Alimentarius. This sets neutral standards of products (i.e., additives, pesticide residue levels) because some countries do not have the scientific capabilities to set their own standards. These standards ensure that food being imported is safe for human consumption. Although these standards are set through Codex, the US does not always accept Codex standards for specific products. When trade discussions occur, Codex is almost always mentioned. 

Jocelyn wanted us to know that food is first in the hierarchy of needs at FAO. One important distinction she made was that hunger is not the same as food insecurity. One can go hungry for one day but may not be food insecure (in the US, 8-13% of the population is food insecure, defined as food insufficiency). Jocelyn also mentioned that in the US, 60% of our diet is based on 9 crops. This is concerning because biodiversity is crucial to improve environmental and human health. FAO recognizes that the agricultural discussion is very divided, whether speaking about food insecurity and hunger (i.e., in children vs. adults) or agricultural practices (i.e., conventional vs. organic). We cannot be divisive when it comes to food security, the environment, and our health. We must see past our differences and come together for our common goal of creating a more equitable and sustainable food system.  

This blog is part of a series from the May 2022 Washington D.C. Immersive component of the Swette Center graduate programs. Students met with federal food and agriculture focused officials at USDA, the White House, and Congress alongside many other important influencers of policy in industry and non-profits.