The Volunteer Who Had a Professional Career of Leadership in Agriculture and Economic Development

A Profile in Citizenship

Emmy Simmons (Philippines 1962-64)

by Jeremiah Norris (Colombia 1963-65)


Emmy Simmons

Emmy Simmons grew up in a farming community of northern Wisconsin before serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Philippines, 1962-64. There, it was just her luck to be assigned as an education Volunteer to a farming community near the “summer capital” of Baguio where the population grew rice for food and pineapples for cash. She found herself drawn to the issues of agriculture and economic development in a context different from that of northern Wisconsin. After Peace Corps, she earned a M. S. in Agricultural Economics from Cornell University.

Emmy was able to build a career in food and agriculture in the following decades, from participating in a rural development research program at Ahmadu Bello University in Nigeria where she focused on families’ nutrition and women’s microenterprises to serving as the Assistant Administrator of the Bureau for Economic Growth, Agriculture and Trade in the U. S. Agency for International Development.

Although she retired from that last position in 2005, she has continued to work on issues of food, agriculture, and economic growth. By serving on various advisory committees and on the Boards of various international organizations, her personal and professional focus has been maintained by a growing interest in the food systems that link farmers and consumers in a close relationship. Food systems function at a global level as well as in the retail outlets in communities and towns where consumers get their food. While large scale multinational corporations dominate the global food system, disruption of these markets due to conflicts or other crisis have a major impact. For instance, when Ukraine couldn’t export its surplus wheat harvest as a result of conflict there in 2022, people in Egypt suddenly were unable to buy their bread at an affordable price.

What analysts have learned in the last decade, however, is that the global food system that delivers our Cheerios is not resulting in good nutrition and it is degrading the environment on which future food supplies depend. One area of environmental impact is in the loss of biodiversity. This can be seen in a decrease in the varieties of plants that are grown or live in wild spaces, the diversity of animals that farmers tend, and a reduction in the kinds of trees that produce food or other environmental services (shade), protection of soil, holding of underground water, etc.

The Global Crop Diversity Trust, or “Crop Trust,” was established in 2004 to address the challenges of biodiversity loss through the provision of more stable financing for seed banks containing important food crops. Emmy joined the Crop Trust Board in 2017. The Crop Trust is committed to the conservation of plant diversity for food crops — including wheat, rice, corn, beans, cassava, bananas and potatoes. Using funds that have been contributed by public and private donors, the Crop Trust works with international agriculture research centers around the world to conserve the seeds, aka, the ‘genetic assets’, that are important to ensuring the future of food.

Scientists at the international centers have had major successes in breeding of new varieties of crops that are more resistant to pests, have higher yields, and have attractive properties for people and animals to eat. But changing conditions mean that the development of new varieties will always benefit from the use of genetic information in the seed banks. Scientists will continue to search for ways to make crops that are more resistant to pests, have higher yields, and have attractive properties for people and animals to eat.

But not all seed banks are adequately funded, follow strict protocols to protect plant health, and make seeds available globally for use. The Crop Trust aims to finance the “essential operations,” of these global seed banks in perpetuity — ensuring that scientists will have permanent access to a well-stocked “library” of seed varieties that will enable future food production.

One such bank is located in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway. The Svalbard facility provides a “face” to the challenge of conserving the global diversity of food crops. The facility is built into the permafrost near the Arctic Circle where it serves as a back-up for both international and national collections and acts as a global bank for crop biodiversity.

After completing a career of almost 30 years with the U. S. Agency for International Development, Emmy Simmons has continued to focus on food, agriculture, Africa, and sustainability issues. In addition to her service on the Crop Trust Board, she is currently a member of the Global Panel on Agriculture and Food Systems for Nutrition and a non-resident senior adviser for the Food Security Program at CSIS (Center for Strategic and International Studies). She has served on the Independent Steering Committee for the CGIAR Research Program on Agriculture for Nutrition and Health. Over the years, Emmy has also served as the co-chair of AGree, a US-based initiative to reform food and agriculture policy; as a Member of the Roundtable on Science and Technology for Sustainable at the National Academies of Science; and a Member of the boards of the International Livestock Research Institute; the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture; and the World Vegetable Center.

While many Americans associate “foreign assistance” with the provision of food aid to people suffering from disasters, there are many organizations that contribute to providing the knowledge, training, and financial support for initiatives that are needed to enable hard-working people around the world to improve their incomes, health, and nutrition. Emmy Simmons has been able to participate in several of these organizations, including the Global Crop Diversity Trust, and to lend her professional skills and leadership to resolving many of the issues that affect our future. Emmy’s commitment to conserving biodiversity has most assuredly earned her a Profile in Citizenship.

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