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'Ambassador' Tom Returns Home

by Steve Grinczel

Published: Friday, April 2, 2021

Local Farmer Helped Feed the World

As the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Agencies for Food and Agriculture, Kip Tom faced many of the worst aspects of humanity on a daily basis and frequently visited some of the world's most difficult places to survive, let alone raise a family and prosper.

Hunger, war, drought, corruption, mass migration and death weren't somebody else's problem—they were his.

Somehow, Tom managed to avoid being overwhelmed by the suffering he encountered on a spreadsheet filled with horrifying statistics or while visiting a conflict-ravaged village in some third-world country.

What's even more remarkable is that Tom emerged from the experience, which ended with January's change in presidential administrations, with unshakable, characteristic hope.

"I'm optimistic," Tom said during a conversation with The Farmer's Exchange in his Leesburg home last Thursday. "But I'm a farmer, too, and if we lost our optimism, we would just give up altogether.

"The world has enough good people in it that I really believe we're going to change the outcomes, and it will be sooner rather than later."

Former President Donald Trump nominated the chairman of Kosciusko County-based Tom Farms, a global leader in crop production, sales and service, in June 2018. The following May, a month after being confirmed by the Senate, Tom reported to his embassy post in Rome, alongside U.S. Ambassador to Italy Lewis Eisenberg and U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican Callista Gingrich.

In the weeks and months that followed, Tom met Pope Francis, prime ministers and ruthless dictators and was personally involved in major events that made international headlines. The experience was as transforming as it was rewarding.

"Yeah, I'd say it changed me," Tom said. "I've always been glad to be an American and able to live the American dream. I grew up with five of us kids and Mom and Dad on a 200-acre farm. We worked hard and had the ability to take risks, and invest, and work within the U.S. system, and we built an even larger operation and something we're even more proud of.

"But one of those changes would be to try to communicate to others to get involved. We need to understand, whether it's farm policy that's being discussed in Europe or anywhere around the world, it affects U.S. farmers. So I really believe in being engaged to make sure we not only protect the interests of the United Sates and our strong agricultural food system, we need to make sure we use the lessons we've learned in improving food systems to help others around the world."

While afforded the same status of all U.S. ambassadors, it soon became abundantly clear to Tom that he wouldn't be nurturing relations with Monaco while dining on the French Riviera. Feeding the world's population is a monumental undertaking, and how that's done—or not done from Tom's perspective—is fraught with major ramifications for international economies and relations, global peace and America's national security.

The reasons the U.S. provides billions in foreign aid is often misunderstood by many Americans. However, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo explained to Tom at the outset that his top priority was peace and security, and food security is the "main pillar" to establish that while doing what is right.

"From day one on we were busy because the mission had been without an ambassador for nearly two-and-a-half years," Tom said. "From our mission, my embassy, we actually operate the second-largest budget in the United States government in international organizations next to NATO.

"So you can understand the scope of what we were doing. I would work with 194 countries on food and ag policies and humanitarian issues. It's much different than an ambassador working with one country."

In Rome, Tom worked intimately with the World Food Program, the food-assistance branch of the U.N. and the world's largest humanitarian organization.

The U.S. funds more than 40 percent of the WFP's budget, which is used to provide immediate humanitarian aid to those who don't have the ability to feed themselves. The budget was $8.5 billion in 2020 and will probably increase to nearly $11 billion this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, Tom has identified a fundamental flaw with the process employed to keep the most vulnerable members of the international community, in some 85 countries, fed.

"I say 'immediate need' but honestly, there's places we've been in for four generations," he said. "To me, that's a sign of failure—we haven't figured out an exit plan of how to help people feed themselves. I would expect that sometime this year we'll be feeding upwards of 270 million people around the world."

The situation became considerably more dire during Tom's only calendar year on the job, which coincided with the COVID outbreak. In March 2020, nearly 350 million Africans lost their jobs.

In subsequent months, Tom said, nations that fund the WFP turned inwardly to pay for stimulus packages and other measures to take care of their own citizens.

"So we face a really big challenge," Tom said. "The executive director of the World Food Program basically has to raise a million dollars an hour, seven days a week, in order to have enough food to keep the World Food Program going."

It's important to note that hunger and conflict go hand in hand. It used to be, the WFP stepped in to provide aid to countries hit with natural disasters such as hurricanes and earthquakes.

Today, nearly 70 percent of the countries WFP helps "is in the midst of man-made civil conflict, and that's what's sad," Tom said. "So you have to ask yourself, which came first, the man-made conflict or did the hunger set the scene for the man-made conflict?"

And while much of this strife is happening in what appear to be remote areas of the world, American allies and interests are never really far away. Hungry masses put undue pressure on the United States' role as a peacekeeper while keeping military planners awake at night anticipating escalations that could require American intervention.

"What you learn is," Tom said, "when people are hungry and give up hope, they typically migrate three times within their own country, trying to find a place where they can seek shelter and produce food or have access to food. When they don't find that place, they'll migrate beyond their borders, and when they migrate, many get caught up in human trafficking, which is one of the saddest things in the world I've ever seen.

"Nearly 20 million people a year are involved in human trafficking and a lot of it's either slavery or the sex trade. Some get involved in terrorist activities or join extremist groups. Then, all of the sudden, you start to create this atmosphere where it continues to get worse and it's really hard to have the ability to produce food, and have peace and security."

The U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization is in charge of fostering farming systems that increase capacity and are resilient in all sorts of climatic events, but that isn't going nearly as well as it could.

"I know you heard a lot of people in the Republican administration that didn't want to talk about climate change, but I will talk about it," Tom said. "I'm not going to say it's always man-made, but the climate is changing. I've seen it first-hand in Africa, and you witness some of the extreme weather events we have here now.

"They need to have the capacity to produce in those environments. If you expect the population of Africa, as they predict right now, to double by the year 2050, and if they can't feed themselves today, and peace and security is at risk now, what do you think it's going to be like in 2050? We have to do what we can to improve agricultural systems in Africa."

As ambassador, Tom made inroads into potentially solving some those of problems by advocating American agricultural advancements, innovations and ingenuity. The U.S. is countering the European Union's pervasive Green Deal farm-to-fork strategy that includes dire warnings it will only accept organically grown African exports, and that GMOs and crop care products will poison the continent's land and people.

"When you get in Africa, if you want resilient food systems, you need to make sure you're using the latest technologies," Tom said, calling what the European agricultural system is doing by demeaning practices that could revolutionize third-world farming, "a crime against humanity."

The U.S. is also adopting a more aggressive stance against China, which typically brokers exploitative trade deals that give it access to Africa's bountiful natural resources.

"There's a lot of good quality farmland in Africa, and they've got a lot of bad agreements that favor the Chinese," Tom said.

Although Tom's tenure spanned just 18 months, he's proud of the work that was done by his team.

"No. 1 would be we turned the food and agricultural organization around to focus on engaging with the private sector and making sure that all options are on the table in food systems to be utilized around the world to improve food security," he said. "I really feel confident about that. If you want to grow organic and people can afford it, fine, but commercial agriculture has to be an option.

"A more immediate impact was our ability to respond to the COVID pandemic early on. We worked tirelessly around the clock sometimes, to make sure we were getting things done to provide the humanitarian relief we needed to in different places."

U.S. agriculture has a big role to play both when it comes to help developing countries feed themselves while opening up new export markets.

"Everybody thinks, 'Well, if you go to Africa and improve their productivity, that's going to take away from U.S. agriculture, (but) it's just the opposite," Tom said. "It will drive economic opportunity for U.S. agriculture because we know (that with economic prosperity) the demand for protein goes up, and a lot of that protein is going to come from the United States."

American agriculture, humanitarian and foreign aid can play a major role in stopping mass migration.

"If we're really going to help these people, we've got to help them learn how to produce it themselves because it's that economic opportunity that lifts lives up," Tom said. "I can't imagine what it would be like if we weren't there in terms of the loss of lives and the threat to our own peace and security.

"When I look at what's going on at our southern border right now , giving people a reason to stay home is what's needed. Do you really think they want to leave? No. But when they don't have any choice, they're going to, and they're going to come to our borders. I don't mind migration, but do it legally."

Much of what Tom did, the numerous countries he visited and all that he saw with his own eyes could serve as the backdrop for a compelling spy novel. He traveled in armored vehicles and was protected around the clock by six, well-armed bodyguards. Once, while momentarily separated by his detail on a jungle trail, he encountered a 10- or 12-year boy wielding an AK-47 assault weapon.

Tom mourned the death of his friend Luca Attanasio, the Italian ambassador to Congo who was killed by friendly fire when his two-vehicle convoy, en route to a WFP school feeding project, was confronted by an armed group.

The turmoil was relentless.

"We were going to the tough places where we may fly into a major airport and then we get on a little food program plane and fly to a remote location," Tom recalled. "And then we'd get on a helicopter and go on in, because where a lot of these internally displaced people camps are located, there are no roads.

"There is no electricity. There's no phone. Nothing. Just 100,000 people in the middle of a swamp, and we're hauling food in and just dropping it off."

Within 24-30 hours of the massive fertilizer plant explosion that killed more than 150 people in Beirut, Lebanon, Tom was on the ground to help coordinate relief efforts.

Tom said the experience he gained developing Tom Farms, with 20,000 acres, into Indiana's largest landowning operation, while expanding its reach into Brazil, Argentina and Chile, prepared him to be America's ag ambassador

"I understood the demand, the need and the consequences if things aren't right," Tom said. "At the same time, I know when, how do I say it? -- A lot of this stuff is just common sense when you look at how can you help repair some of these countries so they can feed themselves."

Inspired to affect even more change around the world, Tom will continue to work in an advisory role with the WFP and several governments. His goal is to get the private sector more involved in creating sustainable ag systems in developing countries. A trip with a dozen or so ag and food company execs to Sudan is in the works and he's had several conversations with new U.S. Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack, who he hopes will continue to stand up to the E.U.'s Green Deal.

"Even though I'm not in a role serving as an ambassador today, there's still ways to have an impact," Tom said.

In the meantime, he plans to stay close to Leesburg, look into some value-add opportunities and expand acreage.

"I'll probably do a little farming this spring," Tom said. "I'll be out in the fields; it will be therapy for me."

Just don't feel like you have to address him as "Ambassador" if your paths cross, even though he retains the title for as long as he lives.

"Often times, when I would be asked talk in Rome I would be introduced as ambassador," Tom said. "And I would say, 'I've been a farmer for 45 years and always will be.'"

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