NEW YORK FOREIGN PRESS CENTER, 799 UNITED NATIONS PLAZA, 10TH FLOOR
MODERATOR: Good afternoon, everyone. Welcome to the New York Foreign Press Center’s briefing on combatting food insecurity. I’m honored to welcome USAID Deputy Administrator for Policy and Programming Isobel Coleman and Special Envoy for Global Food Security Dr. Cary Fowler. My name is Melissa Waheibi; I’ll be your moderator for today’s briefing. This briefing is on the record. We’ll post a transcript and video to our website later, which is fpc.state.gov. And if you haven’t already done so, we invite you to turn your camera on, make sure your Zoom profile and full name is there under your Zoom profile.
We’ll start by our briefers giving opening remarks, followed by a Q&A session, which I will moderate. So we’ll start with Deputy Administrator Coleman, followed by Dr. Fowler. Ma’am, the floor is yours.
MS COLEMAN: Thank you. Well, thank you so much, Melissa, for convening us today. It really is a pleasure to be able to speak with you collectively, virtually. It’s no news to anyone on this Zoom that we are facing an unprecedented confluence of events that has resulted in a – really a historic food crisis once again. The roots of this go back some years, of course. We were already in many agricultural parts of the world experiencing drought due to climate change, and then of course COVID disrupted supply chains and has really made the whole production and movement of food much more difficult than it has been and resulted in some real supply chain issues around the world. And then of course with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, into one of the world’s leading breadbaskets that supplies food to so many countries, and Russia itself, of course, being a big agricultural producer, the horrific invasion and war that is going on there has further exacerbated this food crisis.
We at USAID, we remain deeply concerned and very, very focused on making sure that we can help people access food. We’ve seen spikes in food prices, of course, that has really driven up the cost of humanitarian assistance. And it’s wonderful to see President Biden announce today in his UNGA speech an additional $2 billion worth of assistance for humanitarian response to this food crisis.
But we’re also working intently with smallholder farmers who produce some 30 percent of the world’s food, and that in and of itself is a large number; but when you think about how consumption in come countries is really, really dependent at a much higher rate on smallholder farmer contributions, our focus is really on making sure that they have access to the inputs that they need to be able to continue to produce food – seeds, fertilizer, technology that can make them more effective and more efficient. Because, of course, our concern is that next year we’ll face an even bigger crisis if smallholder farmers are not able to plant their fields because they lack access to critical inputs such as seeds and fertilizer.
So we are working very, very hard on that last-mile delivery of critical inputs. And again, it’s wonderful to see President Biden announce an additional $140 million that will really focus on helping those smallholder farmers around the world.
So this crisis, although we’ve seen some food prices ease in recent months, this crisis is not over by any means, and we remain hugely focused on what comes next and next year and making sure that the United States is leading on providing increased food security to millions and millions of people. Thank you.
MODERATOR: Thank you. Dr. Fowler.
MR FOWLER: Thank you, and thank you for convening this press conference. As Isobel mentioned, we’re in the midst of a rather dire global food crisis. This is perhaps the worst that we’ve seen in this generation. And she outlined a number of the causes behind that – chief among them climate, COVID, conflict. There are others – fertilizer prices are at an historic high; we have historically low grain stockpiles; we have export bans being placed on exports of critical grains by some countries. So there are a number of causes behind this, and I think because this food crisis is multicausal, we have to realize that solutions to the food crisis also have to be diverse. There are diverse farming systems there and diverse causes behind the food crisis, so we have to have diverse strategies and approaches to this.
It’s important to realize, though, in this situation that there are no quick fixes. There’s no silver bullet. There’s no magic solution for the food crisis. There’s no one thing that we can do to solve it completely or quickly. This is – this food crisis is going to persist for a while, and that’s why at the U.S. Government we’re looking both at short-term measures – humanitarian assistance – but we’re also looking at long-term programs and initiatives that can address some of the underlying causes of this.
We have stepped up quite dramatically. As Isobel mentioned, President Biden made an announcement at the UN General Assembly today, and we hope in the near future to be, of course, encouraging our partners to do more and working with those partners to make sure that our own work has synergistic effects with theirs.
MODERATOR: Very good. Thank you both for those remarks. This is now time for the Q&A portion of this briefing. If you have a question, feel free to raise your digital hand. I’ll see you and call on you, and then you can turn on your microphone and your camera, if you choose, to ask your question directly of the briefers. You can also ask your question in the chat function, in which case I will ask that on your behalf. So if you have a question, please indicate now.
In the meantime, we did receive a couple advance questions. It’s posed to both of you; feel free to answer, the first one being: “Could you detail more information on the $140 million mentioned by the President this morning?”
MS COLEMAN: Okay, I’ll take a quick stab at that. Yes, it’s wonderful that the President announced this additional $140 million. Much of it will go to the things that Cary and I have already been talking about – really connecting with those smallholder farmers on that last mile, particularly around fertilizer. I believe 40 million of it alone is going to Sri Lanka to address their very critical fertilizer needs. And the rest of it is going to be appropriated across various countries to help them, and particularly smallholder farmers to be able to access the inputs that they need so that they are able to plant in this – in this coming – in the coming seasons.
One of the things that you see with the food crisis is that farmers are unable, as Cary mentioned – fertilizer prices are so high, they’re unable to purchase the fertilizer that they need. They plant less because of that, or they plant the same amount using less fertilizer and have less output and we get a downward spiral from that – less crops being produced, higher food prices as a result. So we’re really trying to step in and break that cycle. So a lot of the 140 million will be going to Africa, some to Sri Lanka, and to some other countries too. Thank you.
MR FOWLER: I’ll just add a little bit to that. As Isobel said, much of it will be going to Africa. And there in Southern Africa, you find farming systems, food systems, where maize, corn, is the main staple. And as many of our African friends and partners have told us, they’re having great difficulty because of the weather, because of climate change, with that particular crop, with finding enough seed for maize, drought-tolerant maize varieties.
So one of the things that we’re going to be working with our African partners on is providing more drought-tolerant seed for maize and other crops, rotated with legumes, which produce nitrogen, and integrated in other crops. We’re trying to look at the entire farming system and trying to help African countries bolster up those systems so that they’re more resilient and more self-replicating so that that economic engine really gets to be roaring in the – in the agricultural areas. And I think this program that we’re anticipating in Africa will be a major step forward for those countries.
MODERATOR: Thank you. I received a question in the chat. It’s from Evan Ingram from the Asahi Shimbun. “Do we have any idea how much Ukrainian grain originally exported to Turkey and Western Europe is being re-exported to the Global South?”
MS COLEMAN: Do you know those numbers? Okay.
MR FOWLER: Okay. I can go, yeah. I don’t know the exact numbers, but we have to realize two things about the grain exports out of Ukraine. First is that, of course, some of that grain has been under contract for a long time, since the beginning of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, so that was going to wherever it was under contract to go.
The second point is that grain typically will be exported out of the Ukraine and go to a particular destination – it might be Turkey, it might be other countries – where it’s then either processed or redirected to other countries. It’s not, in other words, the final destination. And I think the latest figures are that the majority of the grain coming out of Ukraine now is going to low and middle-income countries, to the places that actually need it.
MS COLEMAN: I’ll just add to that that USAID has been providing funds to the World Food Program directly to purchase grain out of the Black Sea ports and move them to those countries that need them the most. A tanker just arrived, a food tanker, with several tens of thousands of tons of food for Yemen. And there’s another 150 metric tons in the works, with some of it going to an ops center in Djibouti for the Horn of Africa. So much of it is, as Cary said, getting to those low- or middle-income countries that really need it the most.
MR FOWLER: Well, let me add one more thing to that that I think helps people visualize this. The first ship that left Ukraine with grain that was purchased by the World Food Program, with funding from USAID, was a ship named Brave Commander, and it contained 23,300 metric tons of wheat. Just to put that in perspective, we calculate that that’s the equivalent of more than 60 million loaves of bread. So when we talk about, for example, the Russian invasion of Ukraine having bottled up about 20 million metric tons of grain in Ukraine, and you realize that 23,000 metric tons is the equivalent of about 60 million loaves of bread, you get some idea of the impact that the war has had, and also the impact that we’re now achieving by helping to get the grain out.
MODERATOR: Next question. Can you tell us what’s your hopeful impact of the Feed the Future expansion?
MS COLEMAN: Well, I’ll start with that. So Feed the Future is a longstanding program, and I will say while we’re in bad shape today, I hate to think where we would be had we not had Feed the Future in place. Feed the Future has really significantly, in the areas that it has worked, reduced food insecurity. It has increased agricultural sales by almost $22 billion. It has increased access to financing for smallholder farmers by 5 billion. I mean, these are the resiliency measures that Cary was talking about earlier that have really helped strengthen and make more resilient many of the countries that are on the front lines of this food crisis today. It’s of course not sufficient, it’s not a silver bullet, but it has ameliorated, I think, what could have been an even worse crisis without it.
We are expanding Feed the Future, adding eight new countries to our priority 20 countries. And again, the focus on Feed the Future is really those smallholder farmers and providing them with better access to the inputs that they critically need: seeds, fertilizer, technology. And much of the – the eight new countries are all in sub-Saharan Africa, so the focus remains very much on Africa.
And just as an example, Cary was talking earlier about the need for different kinds of seeds so that farmers can be more resilient and adapt to the crises that we’re facing today. In Zambia, we’re working with farmers to provide them with seeds that – for legumes that require less fertilizer. In Malawi, we’re working with farmers to provide them with seeds that have a shorter growing cycle so that they can actually plant more in a given year and produce more food. So these are the types of things that we’re doing through that Feed the Future Initiative.
MR FOWLER: Well, I’ll just say this, that I think the most tragic and the most heartbreaking effect of the global food crisis really has to be the impact on children. One of the things that’s impressed me the most about the Feed the Future program has been its use of the – of decreasing childhood stunting and wasting as a metric for judging the success of that program. And in many of the Feed the Future target countries, you see a quite a dramatic decrease in the incidence of childhood stunting and wasting.
These are conditions that children, through no fault of their own, obviously, are affected with in food-insecure countries. These conditions will persist and affect them for the rest of their lives. It’ll affect the development outcomes of the country itself. And if you’re a parent or – then you have to be able to empathize with the situation that people face where children are facing these kind of conditions. That’s why I think it’s so important that we’ve expanded the program of Feed the Future and focusing on really what is the – USAID’s flagship program that has had so much success in the past.
MODERATOR: Additional comments? Are you – we’re good? Okay. I’m going to give it another moment if anyone has any last-minute questions. If not, I will conclude this briefing.
MS COLEMAN: I – since I have another moment, I’m just going to pick up on what Cary was saying —
MS COLEMAN: — about wasting and stunting. And we have an announcement that we’ll be making this afternoon on a historic commitment that USAID is making to RTUF, ready-to-use food. And in partnership with foundations and the private sector, we are significantly increasing the amount of access that we will provide to children who are really the most severely – experiencing the most severe acute malnourishment, as a way of bringing them back from the brink in a very cost-effective and efficient way.
But this is a moment that really demands a bigger response, with that intervention and others, as Cary has talked about, to address severe acute malnutrition, particularly as 20 million people right now in the Horn of Africa are on the brink of famine. So it’s a very, very important initiative there. Thank you.
MODERATOR: Well, thank you both for being here today. It’s really an honor to have you. This concludes our briefing. The transcript of this event will be posted on our website later today. And I want to thank you all for participating, and thank you very much for being here.