Five Questions with Ann Tutwiler, Director General of Bioversity International

From foodtank.com, by Emma Marks
Five Questions with Ann Tutwiler, Director General of Bioversity International

With nearly 30 years of experience in both the private and public sectors working in agricultural policy and development, Ann Tutwiler serves as Director General of Bioversity International, a research-for-development organization. The agency focuses their work in low-income countries with the overarching goal of attaining food and nutrition security as well as protecting biodiversity. Food Tank recently had the opportunity to speak with Ann about her background in the field.

Food Tank (FT):  What inspired you to get involved in food and agriculture?

Ann Tutwiler (AT): My mother had an aunt and uncle who had a vegetable farm outside of Atlanta, Georgia. We would visit them often in the summer to pick and eat fresh vegetables. While I didn’t always appreciate squash casserole at the time, I've always remembered the experience of connecting living things with the food on your plate. As a teenager, I became very interested in the alchemy of cooking. A number of experiences that shaped my decision to pursue a career in food and agriculture came later. First, during a study abroad program in Spain in the years after Franco, I noticed the sharp contrast between the poverty in the rural areas and the vibrancy of the cities. The second experience was when I worked as a headmistress in a remote village in Western Kenya and understood the role agriculture played in people’s lives there. Third was when I worked on international monetary policy and became acquainted with a group of committed academics working on agricultural trade.

FT: What innovations in agriculture and the food system are you most excited about?

AT: I'm excited about the increasing recognition that the paths the agricultural and food systems are on (both in developed and developing countries) are unsustainable. People realize that they do not address key global challenges such as malnutrition, resilience, climate adaptation, and conservation. These factors are crucial in order to begin changing how these systems will look in the future.

FT: Can you share a story about a food hero that inspired you?

AT: I have to say it was not a person, but a group of individuals: the founders of the International Agricultural Trade Research Consortium. In 1980, six academics foresaw the future of a globally connected agricultural and food system; they created a global institution to bring together the best and the brightest people working on agricultural trade and development and build a strong professional network of more than 200 experts from 31 countries that still exists to this day. They were a group of highly dedicated academics and policymakers whose work has changed the way we think about agriculture in the world.

FT: What’s the first, most pressing issue you’d like to see solved within the food system?

AT: For me, the most pressing issue is how to manage the transition from the food and agricultural systems we have (in both developed and developing countries) in ways that continue to improve productivity, but at the same time incorporate the additional goals of nutrition, resilience, climate adaptation, and conservation of biodiversity. In some cases, we don’t know how to do this. In other cases, stakeholders have a lot of financial, economic, and political capital in maintaining the current system. So—it’s a technical and political challenge.

FT: What is one small change every person can make in their daily lives to make a big difference?  

AT: For those of us living in a world of plentiful food, we can respect the food we are eating by paying attention to what we eat, when we eat, and how much we eat. For those living in developing countries, don’t automatically strive for the stereotypical Western diet as a symbol of success. Create your own vision of your country’s diet that supplies adequate calories and nutrition and respects your country’s traditions.

Register here to hear Ann speak on Wednesday, October 5, for Food Tank’s webinar series.

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