Candidates from China, France and Georgia are vying to head the UN's food agency, as the fight to eradicate world hunger takes a blow from global warming and wars.
The election of the new chief of the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) will be held Sunday at the headquarters in Rome during the agency's 41st conference, which brings together 194 member countries.
Global hunger has risen for the past three years due to the combined effects of extreme and erratic weather, economic slowdowns, and conflicts, particularly in Africa and the Middle East.
FAO has sounded the alarm over rising food insecurity and high levels of malnutrition, and the new head will have to ramp up support for small-holder farms and fisheries to combat the ills of intensive farming, food waste and poverty.
Whoever takes over the four-year posting from Brazil's Jose Graziano da Silva will have to put policies in place now in preparation for feeding a world population expected to increase from 7.7 billion people to 9.7 billion in 2050.
The UN agency tackles issues that are "important for both advanced and developing countries," Manuel Lafont Rapnouil, from the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), told AFP.
They include "food security, (and) agricultural development, but also agro-business, trade, biotechnology and, increasingly, climate and environment", he said.
- Epidemic, trade war -
The candidates -- who for the first time include a woman -- each boast extensive experience in the sector.
China has nominated its agricultural deputy minister, 55-year-old Qu Dongyu, who many analysts see as the frontrunner.
"Beijing has made a big push to get more senior jobs at the UN in the last few years," Richard Gowan, an analyst at the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, told AFP.
The country is currently grappling with a swine fever epidemic that is decimating its livestock, as well as a trade war with the United States that is forcing it to go elsewhere for cereals and soya.
The crises have pushed the food sector to the top of the government's priorities, Beijing said in its bid letter, seen by AFP.
Qu, a biologist by training, has 30 years experience, from developing digital technologies in agriculture, to introducing micro-credit in rural areas.
- 'Know hunger personally' -
Georgia's candidate, Davit Kirvalidze, is a former minister of agriculture who believes the private sector has a key role to play in eliminating global hunger, he said in a telephone interview.
It is vital that small family farmers have market access, with FAO acting as a "broker" of change to launch "public-private" partnerships to that end, he said.
"I know hunger personally, and it drew me to farm. Eventually I was able to feed my family, my community, and this is what led me here today," he added.
In an apparent nod to criticisms of the UN agency over management practices in recent years, Kirvalidze said his tenure would be "one marked by unprecedented transparency".
French candidate Catherine Geslain-Laneelle, former head of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), has spent her entire career in the agricultural and agri-food sectors at the highest level in France.
She says FAO should help "develop value chains around agriculture, fisheries and forestry", a reference to the storage, processing and distribution of food.
As well as tackling the red-button issue of food waste, such chains would also help combat poverty by creating jobs for young people, in particular in rural areas and developing countries, she added.
Brazil's Jose Graziano da Silva is handing over after his four-year term at a time when the FAO has been sounding the alarm over rising food insecurity and high levels of malnutrition
Candidate Catherine Geslain-Laneelle (left), former head of the European Food Safety Authority, wants the FAO to help "develop value chains around agriculture, fisheries and forestry", as well as tackle the issue of food waste