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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 ...

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."




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


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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Follow on Twitter: @ereguly



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