Emmy Simmons, independent consultant on international development issues focusing on food, agriculture, and Africa, is speaking at the third annual D.C. Food Tank Summit, Let’s Build a Better Food Policy, which will be hosted in partnership with George Washington University and the World Resources Institute on February 2, 2017.
Currently, Emmy Simmons is the co-chair of AGree, an initiative bringing together diverse groups of interests to transform U.S. food and agriculture policy to meet the challenges of the future. She is also a non-resident senior advisor to the CSIS Global Food Security Project, a member of the Global Panel on Agriculture and Food Systems for Nutrition, and serves on the boards of countless international agricultural and global development organizations. Previously, Ms. Simmons worked with the U.S. Agency for International Development for 30 years and served as the Assistant Administrator for Economic Growth, Agriculture, and Trade.
Food Tank had the chance to speak with Emmy about the importance of international food security, and her work improving agricultural development and sustainability in African communities.
Food Tank (FT): What originally inspired you to get involved in your work?
Emmy Simmons (ES): Rural upbringing in northern Wisconsin, Peace Corps experience in peri-urban communities in the Philippines, the opportunity to study agricultural economics at Cornell University, and seven years in West Africa focusing on household food issues.
FT: What makes you continue to want to be involved in this kind of work?
ES: Food security is a key driver of human actions and decisions. Every day, every single person on this earth makes choices with regard to his/her food security. We might not consciously think about this drive if we are currently well-fed—or even over-fed—but if we just stop eating for a week…
Over the last decades, we have seen a reduction in the estimated number of people who are hungry. Incomes are rising, food consumption patterns are changing, and the variety of foods available continues to increase. However, today we are also seeing the devastating effects that violent conflict is imposing upon the food security of millions of people. And, we are seeing a future in which too many people are overweight, obese, and in poor health because of it. The challenges are real.
FT: Who inspired you as a kid?
ES: My grandmother. For several years, she lived very close to the elementary school I attended. My sister, I, and three girl-cousins showed up at grandma’s house for lunch every day. She made a main course, salad, and dessert—which we consumed at record speed. We never did the dishes—just said, “Thanks, Grandma,” and raced back to the school playground for the rest of the lunch hour. Looking back, I see how much I learned about kindness from her and the importance of food for social connectivity as well as good health.
FT: What do you see as the biggest opportunity to fix the food system?
ES: The global food system? Increasing the availability and diversity of safe, nutritious, and affordable foods for poor households in the burgeoning cities of sub-Saharan Africa.
FT: Can you share a story about a food hero who inspired you?
ES: Kristin Duncanson-Weeks. I met her through AGree, an initiative that brings together a diverse group of interests to transform U.S. food and agriculture policy to meet the challenges of the future. She is a Minnesota farmer—and so much more. She knows the food and agriculture issues from both a policy and regulatory perspective; she knows how to organize and excite colleagues to join her in impossible tasks; and she is providing leadership in her community, state, and nation, while actually advancing solutions to key challenges of sustainable agriculture.
FT: What’s the most pressing issue in food and agriculture that you’d like to see solved?
ES: Policymakers’ appreciation of the nutritional contributions of non-staple food commodities—that is, fruits, vegetables, pulses, animal-source foods—and modifications of public policy to make those foods more available, affordable, and safe. In some countries, this means expanding public investments in transport and storage infrastructure to reduce waste, loss, and costs. In others, it means more public education and information that encourages the consumption of high-quality diets. In others, it means promoting approaches that better link healthcare and support for the dietary interventions needed for better health.
FT: What is one small change every person can make in their daily lives to make a big difference?
ES: Highly diverse populations mean there are an infinite number of changes that could lead to better food habits, better nutrition, and health. I can’t pick just one.
FT: What advice can you give to President Trump and the U.S. Congress on food and agriculture?
ES: Prioritize food and agriculture as issues important to Americans and to people around the world. More attention to food and agriculture policy and programs will increase the pleasures of daily food consumption, generate more income for billions of people, and improve health and wellbeing for all. The global food system is amazing in its reach and scope, but it is not invincible. Policymakers need to help reduce risks. Disruptions of food and agricultural trade can leave millions without sufficient access to food. Extreme weather conditions can result in loss of food production and excessive food price volatility—again posing risks to people and businesses. Human health can be compromised by contaminated foods and the transmission of diseases from animals being raised for food to people. The world population is growing and the stock of additional land and water that can be brought into cultivation is limited. We need to make sure that our global food systems are sustainable.