Above: Rhiley Allbee, 10th Class Leland Fellow.
I grew up in a small rural community surrounded by the Manistee National Forest in Michigan. It was here that I first developed my love for the natural environment, and also here that I was first exposed to food insecurity. Although we were surrounded by forests and fertile agricultural fields, access to healthy foods was limited and often inaccessible to the less socioeconomically advantaged of the community. I had friends whose only consistent access to food was through the school lunch program and consuming a meal of processed foods purchased from the gas station was a common occurrence. Growing up in this environment, food insecurity was a normal backdrop to life. It was not until later when I had moved away and was able to look back on it from an outside perspective that I realized that large portions of the community I had grown up in were food insecure.
I went on to serve as a Peace Corps Volunteer and promoted agroforestry technologies as a method of combating food insecurity in rural Senegal as an Agroforestry Extension Agent. This included designing and managing a regional cashew training, co-hosting and designing the curriculum for a youth environmental club, as well as training individuals throughout seven villages in agroforestry technologies that led to the planting of over 25,000 trees. My Peace Corps experience brought food security down to a basic level and put personal faces on it. My entire community was food insecure, and this time I did not need the perspective of time and distance to recognize it. We lived through hunger seasons; where the millet and peanuts from the previous harvest ran out and we prayed that the next harvest would come before the money to buy food ran out. My most memorable experiences came from observing how small activities could make real impacts on the lives of the people that I had built relationships with, such as my work partner harvesting the Cajanus cajan we had planted the previous year to feed to his kids a high protein meal, or my neighbor using the leaves of the Moringa oleifera we planted to cook a leaf sauce and increase the nutrient intake of her family. Those were the moments that mattered.
Now, my work with food security is at the opposite end of the spectrum. My work with Global Green Growth Institute (GGGI) through the Mickey Leland International Hunger Fellowship combats food insecurity through securing climate financing and influencing national level climate commitments. I have supported work that has mobilized resources in four countries across the globe that will lead to sustainable land management practices and increased food security as a secondary outcome. I have had the opportunity to influence climate commitments that have subsequently integrated agroforestry into Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) and Long-Term Low Emission Development Strategies (LT-LEDS). The work is fast paced and constantly in need of new research, new inputs, and new ideas. A far cry from my previous experiences with food security.
The challenging, and rewarding, part about working for GGGI is that the projects we are working on are designed to be focused on long-term investment. This means that not only are issues such as deforestation, food security, land degradation, water security, and climatic vulnerabilities addressed, but there is also a focus on designing financial mechanisms that will continue funding the outcomes of the project long after its completion. This can include payments for ecosystem services, debt-for-nature swaps, green bonds, and the development of national environmental funds. An example is our work near the Narmada River in India. A payment for ecosystem services mechanism is being designed so that a downstream water treatment facility will make payments to upstream farmers implementing organic agriculture techniques that lead increased yields and decreased agricultural runoff.
Some days I feel as if the work I am doing day-to-day is not related to food security at all; it is not until you zoom out and gain a perspective of the larger impact of the work that the effect on food security comes into focus. I no longer live in a community caught in the grips of food insecurity or intimately know the faces of the individuals that my work is impacting; instead I remotely assess investment readiness, mobilize resources, and influence national climate commitments. The impact of my work has never been more widespread or affected as many lives as it does now.