Dhanush Dinesh worked for traditional food aid organizations for more than 10 years, but was fed up with their old-guard mentality and lack of agility to tackle the pressing threat of climate change. So he started his own organization — and is actually refusing money to scale it up.
“I tried different routes to see where I can get climate action, and failed on each,” the 36- year-old Dinesh said of his time in United Nations agencies, CGIAR research centers, foundations, and the private sector.
Wherever he turned, he was stymied by their lack of ability to galvanize real climate action for the food system. He was consistently frustrated by the playbook of doing the same thing while expecting different results.
“Finally, [I] came to a point there were no more options, so then I decided to create Clim-Eat,” he said of his “think-and-do tank” focused on food and climate to bridge science and policy. He started on his own and funded it with his own savings.
A major shortcoming of existing organizations was their inability to give policy advice, he said, because it is often not included in their mandate. Clim-Eat, in contrast, advised Germany as president of the Group of Seven leading industrial nations, as well as Egypt on its presidency of the 27th United Nations Climate Change Conference taking place this week.
 “Organizations are not responding to the [climate] crisis. They’re reacting often, and they’re not doing a good job of that.”
Traditional organizations within the CGIAR system and others like the International Fund for Agricultural Development were created to respond to specific needs at specific times in history, Dinesh told Devex. So, they may not be sufficiently agile to respond to the myriad of crushing climate calamities faced today, he said.
CGIAR, for example, was created specifically to help promote the Green Revolution after the Second World War, at a time where agricultural production needed to be massively scaled up to feed a growing population.
“We don’t have the right configuration of institutions to deliver the change we want to feed a fragile world,” he said, noting that conflict and COVID-19 continue to challenge the food system.
“Now we really need to rethink the core DNA of these institutions. I’m not criticizing, saying all these institutions should be closed, or anything like that. But it’s more like we need to rethink what are the institutions we need to solve the problems we have now.”  
Dinesh raised concerns about institutions that may see climate issues as a money-making opportunity. He said that others are stuck in their ways and are unable to act quickly when a new crisis — like the food crisis spurred by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — appears suddenly.
“When climate comes, some see it as an opportunity — there’s more money on the table. Some see it as a threat — ‘we’ve been operating like this for 50 years, why should we change?’ … Organizations are not responding to the crisis. They’re reacting often, and they’re not doing a good job of that.”
Dinesh plans to keep Clim-Eat operational until at least 2024, when his team will “have a hard look” to determine if it is delivering on its goals.
“I always say that we’re not designed for success, I think we’re designed for failure. What we want to do is we want to take those big risks which established organizations are not willing to take, and if we fail that’s fine. But something needs to change in the system,” Dinesh said.
“You have to be quite strict and stick to your values if you want to do that. If I was thinking what my next career move would be, I would probably make a different set of decisions.”
Originally from India, Dinesh currently resides in the Netherlands, where he received his doctorate degree in March from Utrecht University. His thesis focuses on how science and policy engagement must be scaled up to accelerate climate action in food systems.
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He founded Clim-Eat a year ago at Glasgow’s COP 26, and the think tank has since spent more than $2 million and hired 13 staff members. The Dutch government provided seed funding, and the organization has also gotten support from the German and U.K. governments. It also received grants from CGIAR and the Food and Agriculture Organization.
Dinesh “didn’t expect this level of funding,” and the organization already turned away at least $500,000 in its first year.
Clim-Eat is specifically structured to handle about $2 million per year, so he will continue to decline any money that takes him above that threshold, he said.
“In many of these bigger organizations, often, success is measured in how much money you bring in, so you always want to double your budget,” Dinesh said. “But we need to look at what the problem is, what the solution is, how much money you need for the solution — and it’s not just more money.”
Despite that role, he said he is “skeptical” that COPs can deliver actual change. Countries consistently make the same commitments year after year, but never achieve results on food and agriculture.
“I’ve observed many of the initiatives launched in different years and been part of some of them, and very often once an initiative is launched and you take the perfect photo, people forget,” Dinesh said.
“I’m unconvinced about the COPs as a platform that will deliver climate action. But on the other hand, that’s the biggest convening that we have for climate stakeholders.”
This means COPs can’t be ignored, he said, and it provides a “massive partnership development opportunity” for Clim-Eat to identify others that share its agenda.
The organization is still working on its “partnership strategy,” determining which other groups share its values and are poised to do more than talk, Dinesh said. The structure is likely to be a mix of large and small organizations, but he will not work with any group where he doesn’t see demonstrative change.
Dinesh was also critical of the 2021 U.N. Food Systems Summit held on the sidelines of the General Assembly in New York, which he helped organize. The process was “inclusive” and “ambitious,” but he was disappointed with the outcome because it didn’t spur more concrete change.
“I’m a person who is motivated by action, particularly climate action,” he said, adding that the food summit didn’t achieve enough. “I spent about nine months of my life working on top of a regular job trying to help make the summit a success … I wouldn’t have spent so much time if I thought at the end of the day action was not coming.”
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