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Josette Sheeran (Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail)
Josette Sheeran (Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail)

The Lunch

Josette Sheeran wages the ultimate food fight Add to ...

Josette Sheeran is in her element at media events. The executive director of the United Nations World Food Program (WFP), a former journalist, plays to the audience expertly, delivering succinct, powerful messages she knows will be quoted.

I watched her in action a couple of years ago at a press conference in Rome, the hometown of the WFP and two other UN food agencies. Global food markets were on the verge of chaos and riots had broken out in dozens of poverty-stricken countries. The UN officials on the podium struggled to define the crisis in simple terms.

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Then came Ms. Sheeran, as cool and precise as ever. People who are hungry, she said, do one of three things: "They revolt, they migrate or they die."

The seven words graphically summed up the potential horror, and there was an ulterior motive behind the message - money. The doubling of food prices during the crisis had halved the WFP's emergency food-buying power on the markets. Unless the shortfall was replaced in a hurry, millions who count on the WFP, the world's biggest humanitarian food agency, faced starvation. The organization, which was formed by the United Nations in 1961, feeds about 90 million people who arechronically malnourished or in danger of starving in 70 countries around the world.

The extra funding arrived and Canada was at the forefront of the effort to keep the pallets of grain and nutrition bars rolling out of the cargo doors of WFP trucks and aircraft from Burkina Faso to Mozambique. "It was the biggest humanitarian ramp-up in our history," Ms. Sheeran says. "Canada doubled their support to us. The King of Saudi Arabia wrote us two $250-million (U.S.) cheques. The crisis stretched the WFP to its absolute limit but the world stood together to prevent this from becoming a full-blown disaster." In 2007, total government donations came to $2.7-billion. The next year, they exceeded $5-billion. (Canada's contribution has climbed to $285-million from $161-million in 2007.)

The food crisis may be over, but WFP is not declaring victory. Food commodities are back to record or near-record highs, thanks to a variety of factors, among them extreme weather events, rising demand and the diversion of agricultural land to biofuels. And as the world's population grows, a spike in global food prices in the past year - wheat is up almost 40 per cent while corn has shot up 87 per cent - continues to fuel unrest in North Africa and the Middle East.

If all this were not worrisome enough, horrendous price volatility is making a mess of the agency's budgets. "Prices are spiking and falling and you can't budget," she says. "That volatility is very hard for us to manage. We have no buffer. Every 10 per cent rise in food prices costs us another $200-million."

For that reason, the WFP wants to do something it has never done in its 50 years: It will become perhaps the world's biggest commodities hedger - a program that is part of Ms. Sheeran's effort to take lessons from the business world to make the agency more efficient and effective. The WFP, which buys more than $1-billion worth of grains a year, currently buys all of its food commodities on the spot market, whose volatility is hard to manage. If prices spike, it loses buying power, meaning millions of hungry people may not receive the emergency food supplies they need. For the first time, WFP is exploring ways to protect its buying power through hedging programs. The World Bank is its adviser on this effort.

Bred to serve

We are having dinner in the heart of historic Rome, at one of Ms. Sheeran's favourite places. It's called Renato e Luisa, a former tavern that serves traditional Roman fare with a creative twist.

Tonight there is no food crisis. We start with a crisp white Zuani wine, from the Fruili region northeast of Venice. Ms. Sheeran orders a spinach salad and a hearty Roman staple called cacio e pepe, a fresh pasta topped with gooey pecorino (ewe's milk) cheese and pepper. I start with anchovies bathed in olive oil, followed by the tenderloin with a side of cicoria, a variety of dandelion common to the Italian cuisine. It's all exquisite.

Ms. Sheeran has just completed her third year of her four-year term at the WFP. The 57-year-old divorced mother of three was born in New Jersey and is the daughter of James Sheeran, the Second World War hero and paratrooper who was caught by the Germans after the D-Day landings, escaped and fought with the French resistance (his book, No Surrender, was just posthumously published).

Ms. Sheeran comes by her food career honestly. After the war, her father organized a drive to feed the hard-hit towns he had helped to liberate. That example of public service has stuck with her ever since, though she spent the early years of her career as a leading member of the Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church, better known as "the Moonies." She rose to become managing editor of The Washington Times, the conservative daily launched by the church and, in 1992, became the first and only American journalist to interview North Korean dictator Kim Il-Sung.

She left the Unification empire in 1997 and has spent most of her time in public service since then. Her last job in Washington was undersecretary for economic, energy and agricultural affairs at the State Department, where she worked on Bush-era projects such as reconstruction in Afghanistan and aid to Lebanon after the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah.

Favoured by the Republicans for her can-do attitude, she was heavily promoted by the White House in 2007 for the WFP directorship and beat several high-profile candidates, including Canadian diplomat Robert Fowler. Within a year of landing in Rome, she was on the front lines of a hunger crisis.

In some ways, Ms. Sheeran's job is easier than her predecessors' because she has more tools to keep the hungry from starving. Not so many years ago, the WFP relied entirely on donations in the form of sacks of grain - "tied aid" whose undisguised goal was to prop up farmers in rich countries like the United States. For the most part, the agency is now getting money (Canada was one of the first donors to "untie" its aid, that is, to provide cash instead of commodities).

Cash donations have transformed WFP from an agency that once moved surplus food around the world to one that can support agricultural development and allow hungry people to buy food in local markets. One such effort is P4P - Purchase for Progress - in which farmers in poor countries are nudged into the food supply chain.

It allows the farmers to contract directly with the WFP and has several novel features, including a warehouse that acts as a bank. They deposit their crops in the warehouse and receive receipts for 60 per cent of their value, which can be exchanged for cash. The balance is paid once the commodities are sold.

Cash also allows the WFP to fund what Ms. Sheeran calls "digital food" programs, using coded cards that look like credit cards. They are designed for regions where food is not scarce, but unaffordable. "In the food crisis, there was often food on the shelves but no money to buy it," she says. "You could see starvation in the face of food."

She whips out a blue card with "bon appetit" written in Arabic on it. The cards, ubiquitous in the Palestinian lands, are used in 25 countries. The credits can be used to buy food items in local shops, supporting businesses. "This card is credited with increasing the dairy industry by 20 per cent in the areas where it's used in Palestine," she says.

Yet another program involves partnerships with Big Food to make and distribute nutrition bars, biscuits and "mush" packs - sealed, climate-proof packages typically containing a blend of chick peas, dried milk and vitamins. Developed in partnership with Unilever and other food giants, millions of these packages and bars have been given to children to help them avoid "stunting" - reduced brain and body development due to chronic malnutrition.

The fortified food packs and bars are not without their critics. Some think they act as a disincentive to local production and give children a taste for manufactured food. "They may be fine in emergencies, but they are no way to prevent micro-nutrient deficiencies in the future," says Jeannie Marshall, the Rome-based author whose book, In the Mouths of Babes, about Big Food moving into the children's diet market, is to be published in Canada next year.

She also thinks it's naive to think Big Food is helping the WFP out of sheer altruism. "These companies are not humanitarian organizations," she says. "They need to make a profit. Ultimately it's all about building markets for them."

Dinner for nine billion

With a year to go in her WFP term, and possibly five if her appointment is renewed in 2012, Ms. Sheeran has a lot of work and worry to contend with.

On the work front, she seems to have convinced her board of directors that the WFP should get out of the spot commodities market. "We're very concerned about this and we're looking at ways to manage the volatility, including financial instruments such as forward contracts," she says.

While she is optimistic that the planet will ultimately be able to feed nine billion people (the current population is just under seven billion) because of the vast untapped potential of African farming, she knows that food crises could return. Food demand, she notes, is rising faster than production, natural disasters such as droughts and floods are have increased tenfold since the 1980s and biofuels are chewing up farm land.

"We are seeing food being turned into fuel all over the world," she says. "We have seen a convergence of food and fuel markets for the first time in history. When more hectares are planted, will it go for food or will it go for fuel?"

As we wind down dinner, Ms. Sheeran admits she finds her job enormously rewarding, in spite of WFP's endless high-wire acts, where errors can cause deaths. She won't say whether she wants her contract renewed, but I suspect she does because her eyes light up when she tells me stories about her exploits and adventures, some tinged with humour.

Take the Haiti earthquake. "I was is in a tent and all night long the earth was moving because of the aftershocks. I finally fell asleep at 4:30 in the morning and this rooster starts crowing, and I was so annoyed, I did my first public Twitter, which went something like: 'Port-au-Prince Haiti. The ground moves all night, the rooster crows. Doesn't he know what happened here?' Apparently it was something close to pure haiku."

______

CURRICULUM VITAE

Beginnings:

1954: Born in New Jersey, daughter of Second World War paratrooper and war hero James Sheeran

1976: Graduates with a BA from University of Colorado at Boulder; joins New York News World as a journalist

Personal:

Divorced, with three children

Raised Roman Catholic; joined Unification Church in 1975; became Episcopalian in 1996

Career in journalism

1982: Joins Washington Times newspaper

1992: Becomes first American journalist to interview North Korean dictator Kim Il-Sung

1997: Leaves as managing editor of Washington Times; named one of the 100 most powerful women in Washington by Washingtonian magazine

Career highlights

2001: Becomes an associate U.S. trade representative

2005: Named undersecretary for economic, energy and agricultural affairs at U.S. State Department

2007 Appointed executive director of UN World Food Program, Rome

2008: Doubles program's government financing to $5-billion (U.S.) during the food crisis, which she calls "the silent tsunami"

In quotes:

"They revolt, they migrate or they die."

- on the effects of hunger on people

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