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By Paola Colombo
Paola is the 2013-2014 European Union Fellow at the UNC Center for European Studies. EU Fellows are EU officials based at universities across the United States for up to one year. 

What exactly is she doing here?

I can almost hear this question fluttering in the head of those who peek through the door of my office on the 4th floor of the FedEx building, so let’s start with a bit of explanation. Every year, the European Commission – the EU Institution for which I have been proudly working since 1995 – supports up to 10 fellowships for officials with outstanding project proposals on a broad range of European and/or international issues. In addition, fellows undertake outreach work, thus acting as “ambassadors” for the Institutions.

So here I am, as one of the lucky 2013-14 EU Fellows, at the UNC Center for European Studies, where I landed last September, and where I have been very happy since.

I am passionate about food matters, and throughout my studies, and a good part of my professional life, my primary interest and specialization has been on legal and technical issues related to the agri-food sector. In more recent years, I have moved to different positions within the European Commission and worked in various political areas in horizontal services like the Secretary General and the Bureau of European Policy Advisers, and in the private office of a Commissioner.

While this diversification has been extremely gratifying and rewarding, the fellowship came at an ideal moment in my career. It has offered me the opportunity to refocus on my original areas of expertise and professional interest, something I was sorely missing, and to renew my knowledge in the academic context and familiarize myself with recent analytical and technical work in global food security governance policies.

Following the food price crisis of 2007-08, Global Food Security – the subject of my research – has been high on the international agenda and very topical in policy circles world-wide and in policy-making environments. The main goal of my study is to deepen the understanding of the role different types of technologies and practices can play in food security, and the role of policy-makers in fostering their development.

Of the various possibilities, UNC was my first choice because of its comprehensive educational and research offering, its close cooperation with relevant companies and associations, and its strategic location in a high-tech development area.

Life at UNC …..

And I was not wrong.

While my ‘official’ location is the Center for European Studies, I have quickly learned the importance of taking advantage of the unique and genuine multidisciplinary environment of UNC. This has proved very beneficial for my research as aspects of food security, agriculture, research, social and economic objectives increasingly need to be combined.

Shortly after my arrival, I was kindly “adopted” by Peter Coclanis, director of the Global Research Institute, one of the driving forces for the Water in Our World initiative. This is a pan-campus initiative for 2012-15 which currently focuses on the theme “Making Scarce Water Work for All.” Because of the intimate relation between food and water, I have become an eager participant in the numerous seminars and workshops organized by the GRI fellows, including the “Nexus 2014: Water, Food, Climate and Energy” conference, which brought together scientists and practitioners working in government, civil society, business, and other stakeholders to address the relationship between water and climate, food and energy, and the impacts of those relationships on security, sustainability and development.

I have also been extensively ‘squatting’ into various UNC departments, attending events on the most diverse topics, and always coming back with food for thought and new friends.

At the Department of Anthropology, I learned from Colin West about the Zai system, an ingenuous and sustainable water harvesting system in Burkina Faso. I listened to Noer Fauzi Rachman giving a passionate presentation on agrarian conflicts in Indonesia at the Geography Department. And what a surprise it was to assist at a fascinating talk about advanced technology in animal breeding at the Department of Genetics  of the UNC School of Medicine given by Daniel Pomp.

Now to the research—I very much enjoy working with students at the university.  Lecturing has always given me great pleasure and I have accepted without hesitation any invitation to participate in the university circle in my role as EU fellow and to share what the EU does in my area of interest and beyond.

Engaging with the students of the TransAtlantic Masters Program on European integration issues has been interesting and challenging. I am looking forward to meet again the talented students of EATS 101, the Honors Seminar in Food, Agriculture, and Sustainable Development, led by Jim Ferguson with the precious assistance of Samantha Buckner where food, a subject so central to human existence, is debated across food science, agriculture, gastronomy, history, and social science.

…… and beyond

There is life outside the UNC. So, off I went to explore the research triangle, the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at the NC State University, and the Research Triangle Park, home of more than 170 companies, including four of the largest agribusiness companies in the world involved in in the forefront of biotechnology research.

I could not miss the opportunity of meeting the colleagues of the Veterinary Division of NC Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services, and to share experiences with them.

And there’s more to come. I still have four full months to go, in which I am sure I will discover much more to interest me. I am looking forward to interacting with the Carolina Population Center a community of scholars and professionals collaborating on interdisciplinary research and methods that advance understanding of population issues, conducting inter alia research on nutritional issues, notably obesity, and where I hope to meet the legendary Professor  Barry M. Popkin a world authority in the field of nutrition and obesity.

My visits to the US have never disappointed me.

The US has always very relevant to my areas of work and interest of agri-food policies, innovation, trade and transatlantic dialogue. Earlier in my career, I was a member of the EC delegation negotiating the trade agreement with the US in the area of food and feed safety. I was also fortunate to have been invited to join the US Visitor Program which allowed me to get in touch with major important agri-food US businesses and policy makers.

Some 15 years later, I am quite surprised by a swing in attitudes to food in the US. Size still matters over here, but at the retail level ‘natural’ and ‘organic’ have now become the magic marketing words.

Perhaps another sign that the transatlantic divide is increasingly narrowing.

And finally, my scores on life at UNC:

  • UNC Campus: 10 cum laude! The Perfect Postcard American Campus! Not too big, green, with secular plants and tons of hyperactive squirrels, (real) historical buildings, and students either running or sitting motionless on the lawn staring at their PCs.
  • The Daily Tar Heel: 8 I did not expect to find a wide selection of European or international newspapers, but I was not expecting to find nearly none at all. So, the university newspaper satisfies my primary need to turn the pages of a printed newspaper every day. It is also witty and informative at the same time, covering university gossip, but also hot topics such as fracking in NC.
  • University Dress Code: 6 Smart-casual is great, but sports shorts and flip-flops? A bit too far for me.
  • FedEx Cafeteria: Service: 10 Always smiling and ready to debate with me about the peculiarity of US food. Coffee: N.C. This is a global mystery: why is it so difficult for non-Italians to learn how to make a decent cappuccino? Size of cookies: 3 In medio stat virtus, meditate!
  • Davis Library: 9 I challenged them with impossible books to find, and they never let me down.
  • Food choice at campus: 5 Sometimes in life you would like to eat some simple fresh food, like a plain green salad or a peach, but this remains a dream unless you take a bus or drive to the nearest supermarket which is 5 miles from the campus.

And last but not least ……

GEC no tomar

  • The Warning Sign in the GEC restrooms: 10 for the great sense of humour and common sense. Go Tar Heels, Go!
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