Patricia O'Brien

Irish diplomat: Global supply and 'skyrocketing' fertiliser costs a key driver of world hunger

Ambassador Patricia O’Brien has been based in the Italian capital since December, 2021.

THE GLOBAL SUPPLY and “skyrocketing” cost of fertiliser is one of the key contributing factors to world hunger, Ireland’s leading diplomat in Italy has said. 

Ambassador Patricia O’Brien who is based in Rome and said that Ireland is playing a key role in the scientific studies of nutrition and advocacy at the World Food Programme based in the Italian capital. 

On a recent visit to the Italian capital, The Journal sat down with O’Brien to discuss her work and that of her team in the shifting diplomacy of European politics.

Their mission is a busy one – covering relations with Italy, trade, cultural, domestic Italian politics and relations with Libya and San Marino.

The Irish embassy, in Villa Spada, is located high on the famed Gianicolo Hill overlooking the majestic city. The building where O’Brien and her team of diplomats are based is dripping in history. 

Built in the 1600s it has been at the centre of historic events more than once but it was in 1849 as the Italian hero Giuseppe Garibaldi fought to prevent the French military from taking Rome that the building played its biggest role as a field hospital. 

O’Brien’s background is in the law but it is in diplomacy where she has used that legal background to be at the centre of current historic moments. 

She was Legal Counsel Under-Secretary-General at the United Nations – the first woman to hold the post.

She also led the United Nations Office of Legal Affairs having been appointed by then UN Secretary-General Ban-Ki moon.

Following a stint as the Irish ambassador in Paris she moved to Rome where part of her multilateral work involves engaging with the UN agencies based in the city – including the World Food Programme.  

5baa3c50-399f-4ee2-9705-b00d5a8da53b Ambassador Patricia O'Brien in Italy. Niall O'Connor / The Journal. Niall O'Connor / The Journal. / The Journal.

The ambassador’s work moves between multilateral engagement with various agencies but also bilateral engagement, such as in trade discussions with the Italian authorities and European affairs.  

O’Brien’s previous work within the multilateral world of the United Nations has her feeling at home in Italy. 

“As a former official within the United Nations system, I have found that in a sense, I’m back home, as it were, in that I’m now back in the heart of multilateralism.

“[Especially] in the area of global food security because it is now at the heart of global concerns in terms of the way forward in so many different spheres,” she said. 

Russia and Ukraine

O’Brien believes that the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the conflicts and climate crisis difficulties faced by countries in Africa has brought food security front and centre for her team.   

She has also identified the threat to “the bread basket of the world” in Ukraine but also the blow that the after effects of the Covid pandemic has struck against food security.  

“[It] has caused, for a considerable period of time, real stresses on global food security, adding to already very significant concerns in relation to feeding people in various vulnerable parts of the world,” she said. 

loading-a-wfp-helicopter-with-food-retra-pakistan Loading a World Food Programme helicopter in Pakistan. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

O’Brien highlighted that there is one key area being examined in Rome by the World Food Programme and Ireland’s diplomatic corps – the issue of fertiliser availability for growing crops. 

She believes that the opening of the Black Sea ports has helped greatly in the supply concerns around grain.

“But the issue tends to get lost in a lot of the narrative around global food security is the hugely important question of the vulnerability of fertiliser.

“Now, I’m talking about that, because we Irish understand the importance of this issue, but the significance of it for global food security is enormous.

“The skyrocketing fertiliser costs around the world is caused, not least by the war in Ukraine. 

“But also the effect of the supply of fertiliser, the supply of the ingredients for fertiliser, ammonium, phosphate, sulfur, all of these challenges have meant that fertiliser suppliers around the world have been so negatively affected that crops for example, rice crops in southern Asia, the crops in Africa are being day-by-day, significantly affected by this terrible circumstance around fertilizer supply to production,” she said.

Ireland is in a key position in the world response to the issue with the country about to take up a seat on the World Food Programme’s executive board. O’Brien said that she is very proud of the work being carried out by the Irish diplomatic team. 

There are 52 Irish people working in the World Food Programme, 39 in the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and six in the International Fund for Agricultural Development. 

“Ireland will focus our attention here in Rome on various elements, but particularly on the nutrition aspects of the World Food Programme’s work. 

“When I say nutrition, I mean, how does the supply of nutrition reach famine areas and to areas of extreme poverty, where feeding programmes and food are the most significant, most important issue.

“It’s not simply a question of just supplying rice or wheat. It’s the nutrition that needs to be added to products in order for children, particularly children and mothers to survive,” she added. 

Targeted funding

The Ambassador said targeted funding was required with Ireland delivering that funding to agencies directly involved in a “global action plan” led by Samantha Power, the administrator of USAID.

O’Brien said one key approach in terms of Irish funding is that it is not earmarked for particular projects which she said is essential to enable WFP to allot the money to the best projects. 

“So they have the funds to be able to monitor and determine in advance of crises, where to deploy those funds,” she explained. 

The Ambassador hosts regular meetings at the embassy with agriculture experts from around the world which tie into their partnerships with the WFP.

“We don’t say it’s the Irish perspective. We all share common values, which is essential to try to address these terrible crises that are happening around the world to try to help the developing world to develop but also to survive, if you like, the terrible crisis, famine and on these climate events that are occurring.

“So Ireland’s perspective we don’t come to the table to say, we know the right way, we come to the table with suggestions with our ideas, we share our experience,” she added. 

vitali-orlov-walks-inside-his-destroyed-grain-silos-amid-russias-attack-on-ukraine-in-the-village-of-nova-husarivka-recently-liberated-by-ukrainian-armed-forces-in-kharkiv-region-ukraine-septemb Vitali Orlov walks inside his destroyed grain silos, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, in the village of Nova Husarivka, recently liberated by Ukrainian Armed Forces, in Kharkiv region, Ukraine. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

On a recent visit to Dublin to an international potato conference, Dr Qu Dongyu, the head of the FAO, met President Michael D Higgins and discussed Ireland’s famine history.  

“He talked a lot about how Ireland’s historical experience intersects with our current understanding, and how that can influence and help. It’s soft power, but it’s also very, very active engagement,” O’Brien added. 

Irish diplomats have scored a major international victory in their efforts to secure aid for 4.1 million displaced people by the Syrian Civil War.

On Tuesday 5 July, the Security Council adopted a resolution extending the mandate for the UN’s cross border humanitarian operation between Turkey and North-West Syria. This operation provides vital support for the millions of displaced people in North-West Syria.

The Bab al-Hawa crossing at the Turkish/Syrian border is the only location where aid can cross and the resolution dealt with the rights of UN aid to enter Syria by road at that location.

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