Kip Tom has seen the aftermath of a gigantic explosion of a fertilizer ingredient warehouse in Lebanon and held a child dying from starvation in east central Africa.
He's met and negotiated with ambassadors and prime ministers. A close colleague won a recent Nobel Peace Prize. And he's traveled to countries around Africa – Tanzania, Sudan, South Sudan. Zimbabwe, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda and South Africa among them.
It's all because of an appointed government role with the driest of names: Ambassador and United States Permanent Representative to the United Nations Agencies for Food and Agriculture.
Since 2019, after being nominated by former President Donald Trump and confirmed by the U.S. Senate, the Republican partner in the family farm in Leesburg has been based in Rome. He returned from the post last week as a routine part of the change in administrations.
In an interview last week, just days after his return, Tom shared some of his experiences pursuing a well-developed passion for defeating food insecurity on the world stage.
Having a secure food supply is “such a pillar” of peace, he said. Without it, people are left vulnerable to more than poor health and potential starvation and death.
Armed conflicts, uncontrolled migration, teeming and perpetual camps of refugees, gangs and crime, the growth of terrorist organizations and human trafficking – all “are a result of food insecurity,” he said.
And a global pandemic of an invisible, ravaging virus doesn't help.
Tom said he was in Sudan south of the capital Khartoum, where he met a man who told him an unnerving truth.
“I would rather die of COVID,” the man said, “than starvation.”
Tom said about 380 million people around the world are food insecure because the pandemic-caused unemployment. And many countries that have traditionally offered aid are strained because of falling income and taxes caused by the pandemic.
The United States, he said, is continuing to offer assistance – for example, feeding 12.5 million people a year right now, just in Yemen. That's about half the population of a country called the world's largest humanitarian crisis because of prolonged armed conflict.
The United States is spending $4.7 billion annually, double what it was spending four years ago, Tom said. The six international United Nations agencies with which he regularly interacted, including the World Food Organization, directly or indirectly feed about 100 million people around the world, “although we estimate it's closer to 135 million people” who are chronically malnourished, he said.
Many of those people stand on the edge of famine.
But solving food insecurity will take more than emergency shipments of food or more money, he believes.
“It seems like we continue to do the same things over and over again and measure how successful we are by how much money we spend, not what the outcomes are,” Tom said.
He proposes instead ways to secure a better supply chain for things such as fertilizer and farm machinery. He thinks developing-world countries could ship some products after adding value instead of in raw form.
And farmers could be assisted in embracing and applying technology such as soil analytics to increase production efficiency so more people will be able to advance economically.
He said the private sector in the United States needs to step up and begin to work with governments and international organizations on food insecurity issues.
Tom Farms is a multigenerational family farm that taken on assisting in research and development of new production technologies. The farms in several northern Indiana counties grow corn and seed corn and soybeans and are among the largest farming operations in the state.
Globally, Tom was appointed agriculture representative to the United Nations and worked with the Food and Agriculture Organization, the International Fund for Agricultural Development and the World Food Program in his most recent post.
In 2016, he ran in the Republican primary for the northern Indiana seat in the U.S. House of Representatives now held by Jim Banks. Tom is also believed to have been considered for secretary of the Department of Agriculture in the Trump administration.
Tom also has served on the board of the Indiana Economic Development Corp. and the Indiana Chamber of Commerce advisory board of the Indiana Department of Agriculture.
All in all, Tom said his time abroad was an indelible experience.
Americans should be proud of their farmers' and their government's role in international food policy and relief, he said, as it is a stabilizing influence.
Tom said he plans to stay involved in international food issues through nongovernmental organizations, including a trip this week to Abu Dhabi with David Beasley, executive director of the U.N.'s World Food Program and Nobel Peace Prize winner.
Tom said he'd even go back to being ambassador again. At 65, he still has “a lot of runway left,” he said.
“I've held a child in my hands who had a week to live – there's nothing more emotional than that,” Tom said.
“People have to have hope,” he added. “I can't imagine people, children, growing up without any idea how to improve their life.
“We don't know how lucky we are to live where we do and be born where we are.”