The Food and Agriculture Organization logo. Photo by: Giulio Napolitano / FAO

BRUSSELS — No matter who is elected director-general of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization this Sunday in Rome, there will be an element of novelty for the 74-year-old agency.

Catherine Geslain-Lanéelle, an agronomy engineer and former executive director of the European Food Safety Authority, backed by France and the European Union, would be the first woman to hold the position. Qu Dongyu, China’s vice minister of agriculture and rural affairs, would be the first from the world’s most populous country. And Davit Kirvalidze, from Georgia, the first from eastern Europe.

“It would be naive to think that the winner will be selected on merit alone.”

— journal of science Nature

Five candidates began the race to replace José Graziano da Silva, who is finishing his second and final four-year term. However, India sent a letter withdrawing its candidate, Ramesh Chand, on June 13, while Médi Moungui from Cameroon pulled out in March.

Established in 1945, FAO aims to spread knowledge about best practice in agronomy, forests, fisheries, livestock, and nutrition, as well as working with the World Food Programme and other humanitarian agencies to tackle hunger.

Kip Tom, the United States’ ambassador to FAO, wrote this week that the next director-general must sustain the agency’s “reputation as the world knowledge center on agricultural development,” must work with various partners, including the private sector, must “be a strong administrator, dedicated to transparency, accountability, women’s empowerment, and neutrality between members,” and must “not use this position to further the interests of his or her own national government.” 

Kip encouraged member states to study each candidate’s presentation to members in April, saying he hoped those voting “will pay particular attention to the issue of independence.”

In an editorial this week, the journal Nature said all three candidates are well qualified but that “it would be naive to think that the winner will be selected on merit alone.”

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It singled out China, saying it is “reported to be unabashedly leveraging its influence and its investments in its massive Belt and Road Initiative, to get votes for its candidate,” and lamented that “behind-the-scenes bargaining means that there is little incentive for the candidates to publicly discuss and debate their visions for the agency in any depth.”

In April, Qu told members he would quit his current position as China’s vice minister of agriculture and rural affairs, should he be elected. Asked by the U.S. how members could be sure that he would make decisions independently of the Chinese government, Qu replied: “I am not a typical Chinese official, you know that, yeah? ... I am a scientist, I always do express my own judgement.”

He outlined his intention to focus on zero hunger and poverty eradication, tropical agriculture, drought land farming, digital rural development, and better land design through transformation of agricultural production.

Geslain-Lanéelle made gender diversity part of her pitch, telling members: “Only a quarter, I think, of the managers in this organization are women ... We can do better. We shall do better. It should be half.”

She explained her two overarching objectives: Tackling climate change through productive food systems that protect natural resources and reduce waste, and poverty eradication. “By developing the processing of agriculture and fisheries product[s], retail and services, including digitalization we can create jobs and a future for young people and the women and men who live in rural areas,” she said. 

She also registered her support for biotechnologies, including GMO and gene editing. “We will need to provide farmers with seeds which are more resistant to drought, more resistant to certain plant pests which are more nutritious so we might also wish to use these techniques and technologies,” she said.

Kirvalidze, a former agriculture minister in Georgia and now adviser to the country’s prime minister on similar issues, promised an array of new initiatives should he win: A management review of FAO’s structure, a call to staff and partners to propose “new policies, programs and paths,” an annual investment summit with leading businesses and venture capitalists, and a new focus on e-commerce at FAO, to make “the online economy more accessible to power the development in rural areas.”

He said FAO’s comparative advantage among all those organizations fighting climate change is to be “a powerhouse of knowledge.”

“Every farmer, fisherman and forester [needs to know], what does it mean, how are they going to implement the better agricultural practices and better environmental practices with responsible use of the natural resources to cope with this tremendous challenge?” he said.

The three candidates will address the FAO conference Saturday at 2 p.m. local time, which will be live-streamed, ahead of the vote by secret ballot at 10 a.m. Sunday. The victor requires a simple majority and will take up their position on August 1.

About the author

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    Vince Chadwick

    Vince Chadwick is the Brussels Correspondent for Devex. He covers the EU institutions, member states, and European civil society. A law graduate from Melbourne, Australia, he was social affairs reporter for The Age newspaper, before moving to Europe in 2013. He covered breaking news, the arts and public policy across the continent, including as a reporter and editor at POLITICO Europe.