This last year has presented the world with two of the gravest health and humanitarian crises in a generation. In each case, the UN organization specifically tasked to prevent, prepare for and mitigate these disasters has not only failed to respond effectively, but has significantly contributed to the toll in human suffering.
The catastrophic role of World Health Organization in the critical early days of the COVID-19 outbreak is well known. In a series of decisions that prioritized politics over human health, WHO leadership ignored urgent warnings from Taiwan, provided mixed messages on whether the virus was transmissible among humans, opposed international travel restrictions when they were most needed, and failed to push Chinese leaders for the kind of access and transparency that would have ameliorated the crisis. The WHO’s refusal to address these concerns or even acknowledge the need for reform, let alone institute reforms, convinced President Trump to pull U.S. funding and look for more effective and trustworthy ways to promote global health.
Less well known is the story behind the UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s insufficient and potentially catastrophic initial response under former Director General Graziano to the locust plague now spreading across major portions of Africa, the Middle East and India. Locust swarms as large as cities, comprised of billions of ravenous, grasshopper-like insects, blanket the countryside. These insects can travel 90 miles a day through the air, and they strip the ground bare of vegetation wherever they land.
Last winter, Kenyan authorities described it as the worst locust invasion in 75 years. But wet weather has provided ideal breeding conditions, and experts believe that new swarms may be 500 times bigger and could spread even further across Africa.
The UN warns that in East Africa alone, 22 million people will be facing “acute food insecurity” by the end of this year. Many of these regions are already beset by chronic undernourishment, terrorism, and ongoing military conflict. Add in COVID-19, and we cannot assume food aid will be sufficient to stem widespread social collapse and massive loss of life.
The FAO has been aware of the developing crisis since as early as June 2019, when locust swarms crossed from Yemen into Somalia and fanned out to neighboring countries. Yet many months later few control activities had been launched: Kenya had only four planes equipped for aerial spraying of pesticides, the only effective way to combat the swarms. The FAO did put out an appeal for funding. Only about half of the money has been raised.
Like viral pandemics, locusts are an ever-present threat. Containment requires early and rapid intervention, ideally spraying the locusts before they swarm. The FAO closely monitors locust sightings for exactly this reason. Nevertheless, it failed to get the necessary pesticides and equipment to the field in time, and belated efforts to do so have been tragically hampered by COVID-19.
The problem runs deeper than bureaucratic inertia. Under the previous Director General, Graziano da Silva (2012-2019), the FAO became increasingly politicized, transforming from a science-based development organization into a champion of agrarian “peasant” movements supported by well-funded NGOs that condemn trade as neo-colonialism and equate property rights with oppression.
Advanced under the banner of “agroecology,” this new approach rejects the 20th century agricultural technologies -- including advanced biotech seed varieties, modern pesticides and fertilizer -- that undergird food security in every developed and successfully developing nation. In their place, the FAO’s agroecologists and their allies promote practices that are deemed more “culturally sensitive” and hold up “subsistence farming” as an ideal. But this endless cycle of back-breaking labor and low yield production keeps so much of the world mired in underdevelopment.
One reason Africa wasn’t prepared for the locusts is that the FAO spent the seven years of Graziano’s reign actively campaigning alongside agroecology activists to convince government leaders to ban pesticides and use “natural,” organic methods instead. Even as swarms landed in Kenya last June, government ministers at a conference in Nairobi were being told at the launching of a FAO “Scaling up Agroecology” initiative that GMOs cause cancer, pesticides make men infertile, and other debunked claims widely propagated by fringe groups promoting themselves as environmentalists.
Soon after, allied activists were using the conference presentation materials to lobby elected Kenyan officials to ban GMOs and pesticides -- including the very pesticides so desperately needed to fight the locust plague. This was no aberration. Numerous such conferences have been held around the world as part of a ten-year FAO initiative. Before COVID, one was scheduled for this August in Kenya.
The current Director General, Qu Dongyu, elected last June, has promised reforms. There are others in leadership who fully appreciate the need to embrace innovation and stop demonizing the private sector, but the ideologues are firmly entrenched in the FAO bureaucracy and fiercely resist change. Unfortunately, the European Union and many EU governments have fully embraced agroecology -- for Africans, if not yet for themselves -- and many of their FAO ambassadors vote to perpetuate Graziano’s legacy.
As with the WHO, the United States has been the largest individual donor to the FAO since its founding in 1945. In those years, the organization helped lead the Green Revolution that saved billions of people from starvation and lifted billions more out of poverty. Now FAO agroecologists appear dedicated to undoing that great work. The locust plague is a wakeup call. FAO must shed this radical ideology and return to its core mission that began 75 years ago.
Kip Tom is the United States Ambassador and Permanent Representative, United Nations Rome Based Agencies. The views expressed are the author's own.