Committee on World Food Security

Making a difference in food security and nutrition

Journalist on a mission to fix “unhappy marriage” between agriculture and climate

07 Nov 2022

Thin Lei Win is an award-winning multimedia journalist covering food and climate issues. A fellow journalist recently described her as the superstar of food journalism. A description Thin says is too lofty.

Born and raised in Myanmar, she has written extensively on food, agriculture and climate. Starting out with the Thomson Reuters Foundation in South East Asia and later in Rome, she recently branched out to run her own digital publication that she aptly named Thin Ink. She writes for a number of outlets including Lighthouse Reports and The New Humanitarian and moderates discussions on food and climate.

Waiganjo Njoroge, our Head of Communications, spoke with her during the 50th Plenary Session of the UN Committee on World Food Security (CFS) held in Rome, Italy, in mid-October 2022.

Let’s start from the beginning. How did you end up as a journalist?

I have always loved writing. However, born and raised in Myanmar, which was then a dictatorship, journalism was considered dangerous especially for women.

So, I enrolled for an engineering degree. This was no escape though as the Engineering University was a hotbed of political activism. After the military shut down the university to stop political protests - I’d already lost a year in high school through closures -, my parents sent me to Singapore for a business management diploma. I majored in communications which saw me intern at a publishing house which was the start of my life in journalism.

After graduating, I struggled to find a job as a journalist. I sent my CV to every possible publication and knocked on doors until a trade publication gave hired me to write about IT. Although I didn’t know much about the subject, I interviewed lots of experts and became quite good at it.

I went back to school to get an MA in journalism in the UK, freelanced a bit in Vietnam, then moved to Bangko, Thailand to join the Thomson Reuters Foundation for their humanitarian news website, AlertNet, as it was called then. This was my break as I always wanted to work for a wire service. I worked with them for 12 and a half years during which I went home to set up, launch and manage Myanmar Now, an award-winning bilingual news agency. While there, I also co-founded The Kite Tales, a non-profit storytelling project that chronicles the lives and histories of ordinary people across Myanmar.

In 2017, I moved to Rome, the food capital of the world, to cover food security issues until last January when I struck out on my own.

That’s an impressive journey. How did you transition from writing humanitarian stories to covering food, agriculture and climate change?

First, I am a foodie. I have always had an interest in food because of its fundamental role to our wellbeing. It is literally the difference between life and death. Second, climate change and food (or lack of it), are the greatest issues of our time. Coming from Myanmar, which is an agrarian country, it was easy to grasp the concept of hunger and malnutrition, and the role of climate change in it.

Back in 2017 when I had just moved to Rome, I interviewed a scientist who described the relationship between climate and agriculture as an “unhappy marriage”. “They are absolutely intertwined and completely connected to each other but actually pretty antagonistic,” he said, pointing to how crops are battered by climate extremes while farming emissions exacerbate global warming.

Are you on a mission to fix the “unhappy marriage”?

Yes, in a sense. That description by the scientist crystallised for me the connection between food and climate change. It made me realise the need to cover food differently.

It was around this time when agriculture started featuring prominently in climate change discussions. The narrative started changing from that of hunger as something that only happens in poor countries to one on climate change that will affect everybody.

Today, over 800 million people are hungry and close to 3.1 billion cannot afford healthy diets. Is the marriage getting unhappier?

The situation is dire. We need to do a lot more, faster. Truth is, the food crisis we are facing now should not surprise anyone. It is not for lack of solutions. We know what works. We know what can stop it. What we lack is political will.

And there is too much entrenched interests both in climate and food arenas to keep things the way they are, because it works for some people; the people with political and financial power.

On the other hand, the rest of us have an overwhelming feeling that the system is broken and there is nothing we can do about it. Everybody seems scared to dismantle the system that we have come to know even though it’s not working because we do not know what's going to be the alternative.

Are those fears justifiable? Can we fix the broken system?  

Yes we can. Inaction is not an option. Even if you just sit out, you're still impacted by hunger and malnutrition alongside all the compounding effects of climate change. We now have a duty to make people know that they can make a difference. To believe that they have the power to change by taking action both individually and collectively. From the choice of what we eat or the kind of energy mix we have, every action counts, no matter how small it may appear.

Is media the voice of conscience that is going to rouse our collective and individual sense to act?

I think you're giving the media too much credit. While mainstream media plays an important role, it has limited reach, particularly because it's so fragmented now. People can just pick and choose what they want to hear and listen. In addition, mainstream media is still stuck on covering the “he said, she said”. Media is no longer the gatekeeper. Its reach, power and influence is a bit different from what it used to be.

And I think this is a good thing. I come from a country that has a long history of dictatorship. If there is just a single authority, whether it’s a journalist or activist or world leader, I tend to distrust it.

What we are seeing, and need to continue nurturing, is to have a big groundswell of content creators, influencers, media and political leaders, activists, businessmen, civil society and all kinds of individuals and groups that are committed to making a difference.

This plurality of outlets shining a light on what's going on, giving people voices and platforms to read, get better informed, and energised to become part of the solution, is what we need.

Is the groundswell of voices and influencers taking shape?

It is happening. Besides individual influencers, there are now smaller media outlets that are more nimble, more radical, a lot more creative, and doing some really interesting coverage of critical issues.

Interestingly, a lot of them are non-profit - either crowdfunded or funded by philanthropic foundations or sources that are committed to addressing the pressing issues of our time. These outlets are digging into stories in the way that some of the mainstream media don't have the time to do or are not interested in doing.

Alright, sounds like media, whether mainstream or not, still has a place in shaping our food and climate future. If you were to write a headline to jolt people into action, what would it be?

Oh, gosh, you know, I have never been good at headlines. So, I can't give you the exact headline, but I could tell you what I would consider when I'm crafting one. For the younger generation, I would use active verbs, action words that make them think about the need to act. Words that make them feel they can make a change.

For the business people and policy makers, I would go for a headline that focuses on what they could lose. Missed opportunities for inaction.

The other key thing is to not just talk about how bad things are, or how bad things can be. We should also talk about the good things that are happening. Otherwise people just switch off or feel powerless.

I consider the job I do in cooperate communications as the other side of your coin. Are those of us managing communications for food and agriculture institutions helpful?

Journalists often depend on people like you to know about new research or projects that are worth looking into. However, for us to cover your story, it has to be interesting and different with real impact. Also, instead of just sending a press release to an entire mailing list, it’s best to do your homework, know which journalist is likely to run your story and then target them. I know we all have full plates but this approach is more effective than a blanket press release. Last, it helps if you make the content you are sharing understandable. Crunch the numbers and scientific jargon into language that makes sense.

Last question, Thin. Given the many stories you have written, number of people you have spoken with and conversations you have been part of, are you hopeful or despondent given the current state of affairs?

I am hopeful. While the present looks challenging, we have to envision a better future which is only possible if we remain optimistic. There is a lot of good and interesting things going on - from ongoing shifts to renewable energy, attitude changes around climate, and the emergence of the food systems transformation movement.

We should not be naïve though. There are lots of entrenched interests that want to maintain status quo because it suits them. I’d like to think that the resistance we face are the last gasps of the system that does not want to let go of its power, so if we stop fighting, we let the broken system win. We can't let that happen!

TurnTables is an interview-based feature that tells the story through the eyes of journalists who bring stories of the world to us. They have interviewed farmers, teachers, scientists, Heads of State, business captains and many people in-between. It’s time to hear what they think.