THE WASHINGTON FOREIGN PRESS CENTER, WASHINGTON, D.C. (Telephonic)
MODERATOR: Good morning, and welcome to the Washington Foreign Press Center’s telephonic briefing on Global Food Security and Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine. My name is Bill Martin, and I will be the FPC moderator.
I am pleased to welcome our distinguished briefer, Assistant Secretary of State for Economic and Business Affairs Ramin Toloui. Assistant Secretary Toloui will discuss global food security in light of the Russian Federation’s unjustified and brutal invasion of Ukraine and the steps the U.S. Government is taking to address the issue.
This briefing is on the record. After we hear from the EB assistant secretary, we will begin the question-and-answer session. This briefing will end at 11 o’clock. The FPC will post a transcript of this briefing afterwards on our website, which is fpc.state.gov.
And with that, I’m going to turn this briefing over to the assistant secretary. Assistant Secretary Toloui, over to you.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY TOLOUI: Bill, thanks very much. And thank you to all of the journalists who are joining today for this very important topic. I’ll start with a few remarks on global food security and the impacts of Russia’s war in Ukraine, and then look forward to answering your questions.
The reality is that Putin’s unjustified and unprovoked war against Ukraine has put millions around the globe at risk of food insecurity. Russia and Ukraine are two of the world’s most significant exporters of agricultural commodities and fertilizer, and as a result this cold-blooded and reckless war of choice against Ukraine will be felt by the world’s most vulnerable citizens.
Because of Russia’s invasion, the farmers of Ukraine who otherwise would be planting fields that help feed the world must instead take up arms to defend their homeland. Putin’s war has destroyed Ukraine’s roads, railways, and rail stations that facilitate overland transportation, and Russia has destroyed grain silos and food storage facilities. Russia’s forces have attacked multiple ships carrying goods out of the Black Sea, including at least one that had been chartered by an agribusiness firm.
These kinds of unprovoked Russian attacks have also damaged or destroyed port facilities. Shippers and insurers have pulled back due to Russia’s attacks on ships in the Black Sea. Russia has blocked Ukraine’s ports, and ships laden with grain along with thousands of seafarers have been trapped, unable to move or deliver their cargos. Putin’s actions are threatening vulnerable people in the Middle East and Africa with food scarcity or, worse, starvation.
While Russia’s forces are disrupting the global food system, the United States is working with its allies and partners to help mitigate the harms from Russia’s destructive actions. President Biden announced that the United States is prepared to provide more than $1 billion in new funding towards humanitarian assistance for those affected by the Kremlin’s war against Ukraine and its severe impacts around the world. This is in addition to approximately $300 million in humanitarian assistance already provided to Ukraine and the region since February.
This immediate humanitarian response is on top of our long commitment to enhance global food security through our development assistance programming. For example, the United States has committed more than $11 billion over three years, subject to congressional appropriation, to tackle food security threats and malnutrition across the globe, including through key initiatives like Feed the Future, to address the root causes of poverty, hunger, and malnutrition.
Russia has sought to deflect responsibility for its actions by blaming sanctions for disruptions to the global food system. This is false. Trade in foodstuffs and fertilizer is specifically carved out of U.S. sanctions on Russia. Putin and Russia’s forces carrying out his work are responsible for disrupting the global food chain, not others.
The United States calls on all countries to help meet this global food security challenge by, first, addressing immediate disruptions in humanitarian needs, including by providing urgent funding for humanitarian organizations; second, mitigating global fertilizer shortages; third, ramping up investments in global agricultural capacity and resilience; and fourth, cushioning macroeconomic shocks and impacts on the poor and vulnerable countries.
We must also continue to have a high-level diplomatic effort to call on Russia to end its unjustified and unprovoked war that has put food security of so many people at risk.
With that, I’ll take a few of your questions. Bill.
MODERATOR: Thank you very much, Assistant Secretary Toloui, for those remarks. And now I’d like to open it up for questions, and I will start with a question that we received in advance from Niyi Fote of the Thenews2, Brazil. And she – and that question was: “What are the processes being taken to provide economic and food assistance to the displaced Ukrainians? And what obstacles, if any, are faced during this task?”
ASSISTANT SECRETARY TOLOUI: Well, thank you for this very important question. As I mentioned at the top, the United States has provided this year approximately $300 million to meet the needs of displaced Ukrainians and others in the region. That is part of about $650 million in humanitarian assistance to vulnerable countries in the region since Russia first invaded Ukraine eight years ago.
More broadly, the United States is the largest single-country donor of humanitarian assistance to Ukraine. And also, as I mentioned, the President announced that the United States is prepared to provide more than a billion dollars in new funding for humanitarian assistance over the coming months to assist those not only in the neighborhood but around the world that are threatened with this rise in food insecurity. Our assistance covers critical needs such as safe drinking water, shelter, winterization services, livelihoods assistance, sanitation, hygiene supplies, and critical emergency health supplies to meet the needs of hundreds of thousands of people, as well as emergency food assistance.
On the second part of your question to the obstacles that are faced in this task, the most significant obstacle is the ongoing conflict which is hindering the access of humanitarian organizations to those that are being affected in Ukraine, and also endangering the safe passage of those fleeing the – fleeing from danger. We welcome the continued efforts toward a temporary humanitarian ceasefire that would allow civilians to depart Mariupol and deliver humanitarian assistance to civilians who may remain. Humanitarian corridors are critical to evacuating civilians and providing urgently needed humanitarian aid such as food, water, and medical supplies, in addition to allowing civilians to help to escape harm’s way.
MODERATOR: Thank you for that response. AT&T Operator, could you please open the line of Mouctar Balde [Guineenews]? He has – I think he may have a question. Thank you.
OPERATOR: If you would like to ask a question, please press 1 then 0 so we could open up your line. One moment, please.
MODERATOR: Okay, Operator, if he isn’t coming on the line, he actually did provide an advance question, so I’ll just – I’ll read it for Assistant Secretary Toloui. His question was: “Early when COVID-19 appeared in the world in 2020, all scientists, analysts, consultants predicted a catastrophic outcome in Africa, but fortunately, it didn’t happen. Africa has been always the weakest link, but people survived. What makes you think that this Ukrainian wheat crisis, added to the war, is going to affect Africa more than any other region in the world?”
ASSISTANT SECRETARY TOLOUI: Well, thank you very much for this question and the context that it provides. I think the point that you mentioned speaks to the importance of putting in place actions that under – that support resilience in the face of whether it’s a pandemic or other kinds of disruptions, and that we’re very pleased that some of the early concerns about the scale of the impact of COVID on Africa were – it was possible to defuse them through action by governments and also collective action by the international community.
So we want to be prepared in a similar way for the potential displacements and negative impacts that could come about as a result of Russia’s war in Ukraine on Africa. We know that food-insecure countries in Middle East and Africa have traditionally sourced a large portion of their imports, particularly wheat, from Ukraine, and that across the Middle East and Africa the already high prices for staple commodities including wheat have risen dramatically.
We also are concerned because the World Food Program has historically sourced a large portion of its supplies from Ukraine. And so we need to acknowledge these vulnerabilities and act together – the United States with other countries, with our partners in Africa, with the international financial institutions and other multilateral agencies – to prepare for those disruptions and try to generate a situation where the impacts of this food disruptions are minimized on the people in Africa and other parts of the world.
OPERATOR: And I was able to isolate Mouctar Balde’s line if you would like me to open it up for a follow-up.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY TOLOUI: Please.
MODERATOR: Sure, thank you.
OPERATOR: All right. One moment, please. Mr. Balde, your line is open.
QUESTION: Oh, yes, that was just my question. Thank you, sir. Thank you, Mister – okay, thanks.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY TOLOUI: Thank you very much for this question.
MODERATOR: All right. And Operator, could you ensure that everyone has – knows how to raise a question if they have a question? Thank you.
OPERATOR: Absolutely. And once again, ladies and gentlemen, if you do have a question, press 1 then 0 on your touchtone phone. You’ll hear an indication that you’ve been placed into the queue. And you may remove yourself from that queue by repeating the 1 then 0 command. If you’re using a speakerphone, please pick up your handset and make certain your phone is unmuted before pressing any buttons.
MODERATOR: All right. Operator, could you please open the line of William Lowry of The National news [UAE], please?
OPERATOR: Your line is open, Mr. Lowry. Go ahead, please.
QUESTION: Thank you so much for doing this, Secretary. Obviously, the war in Ukraine is still very much ongoing and continues to rage. But do you have a sense, considering the level of damage to infrastructure in Ukraine, how long it would take the country’s agricultural sector to get back up and running to kind of full steam?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY TOLOUI: Thank you for that question. I think the reality is that it’s too early to tell when the situation may get back to normal. Unfortunately, Russia is still prosecuting its war against Ukraine. Farmers who should be planting, should be harvesting, should be getting food to the world, are faced with the choice of either fleeing or fighting invading forces.
As I mentioned, the transportation corridors out of Ukraine, including through the Black Sea, are currently being disrupted. Lloyd’s a couple of weeks ago put out a report highlighting that 300 vessels are – have been trapped in the combination of the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov, that we estimate currently that there are as many as 86 vessels that are responsible for transporting goods; as many as half of those could be transporting agricultural commodities that are unable to move, stranded with their sailors either in – either at sea or in ports in Ukraine.
So the first priority has to be to end this war so that the process of re-establishing Ukraine’s connections to the global food system can take place.
MODERATOR: Okay. Thank you. And Alan, could you please now open the line of Alex Raufoglu of Turan News Agency, Azerbaijan?
MODERATOR: Mr. Raufoglu, your line is open.
QUESTION: Thank you so much, Bill, for doing this, and Assistant Secretary, thank you so much for being here today.
Just to understand the scope of the problem caused by the closing of the Port of Odessa, are you in a position to provide us with a short list of affected products and also perhaps a short list of the countries at risk, (inaudible) countries in that list? And as you know, I represent Azerbaijan.
And a second question separately: International the influence of international assistance, the ugly truth is that the world’s track record on funding is abysmal. Will throwing money at the problem – will that work in your opinion? Thank you so much again.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY TOLOUI: Thank you very much for this question. To the first point about the type of products that are being disrupted, I think the most significant agricultural products that are being disrupted include corn, wheat, sunflower products, and also fertilizers. The Black Sea is a key outlet for these sorts of products reaching global markets. And as I mentioned, some of the most affected countries are those that are in the Middle East and in Africa. And so it’s particularly important for those countries to – and for the international community to play a role in helping those countries adapt to the new circumstances in the face of these disruptions.
I also agree with the second part of your question, that this is not just about throwing money at the problem; it’s about trying to overcome the problem of food that is, in some places, not getting to the food where it’s needed. And so there is a logistical problem. That’s one reason I emphasized the importance of ending the war, because that will facilitate the movement of foodstuffs out of the Black Sea region to the rest of the world. It’s also a matter of supporting the work of the World Food Program with financial donations and with in-kind donations. They are experts in reaching populations that are at risk of food insecurity through their humanitarian architecture.
In the longer term, it’s very important that our food security efforts support initiatives to help vulnerable countries grow their own food, support their own agricultural systems, particularly small farmers, and that’s what this United States Feed the Future program is intended to target, so that in the future countries are more resilient in the face of shocks like this. Of course, we hope that there are not shocks like this, but the sad reality of our world of the last few years is to demonstrate that we have to be prepared.
Thank you again for that question.
MODERATOR: Thank you, Assistant Secretary Toloui. And now, Alan, if you could please open the line of Simon Ateba of Today’s News Africa from Nigeria. Thank you.
OPERATOR: Mr. Ateba, your line is open.
QUESTION: Thank you for taking my question and thank you for doing this. This is Simon Ateba with Today News Africa in Washington, D.C. U.S.A. announced yesterday that it was providing more than $311 million in additional humanitarian assistance to support people in Lake Chad and the Sahel region. Can you please tell us a bit more about how the money will be used? And how does the U.S. choose which country gets the food assistance?
And also on this, Sunday – you’re trying to blame Russia for the food crisis in Africa right now. But as someone who grew up in Africa, I can say that there has always been food crisis in Africa that has been ignored by the international community. How is this one different? And are you trying to use this food crisis to rally Africans against Russia? Thank you.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY TOLOUI: Thank you for the – for this question. It has a number of dimensions, so let me address them in turn.
The first part of it, in terms of the identifying the needs and the countries that we can work with to assist, is a process that is constantly ongoing. One of the first things that we did after the disruptions to the global food system became apparent was to have our diplomatic posts reach out all over the world to their host governments to seek information about how the conflict was affecting their ability to feed their citizens. And with that information, we at the State Department, working in collaboration with USAID, the U.S. development agency, have begun the process of working with countries to help them meet those needs. And some of that is through supporting ongoing country efforts; others are – is providing new assistance that is specifically targeted to the current disruptions.
As you point out, the issue of food security is not a new one. In fact, in the wake of the increase in food prices in the 2008 period and the threats to food security that accompanied that, one of the initiatives of the Obama administration was to launch this Feed the Future program that was designed to try to make the local food systems more resilient. As you suggest, this is – that is a work in progress, but it demonstrates the commitment of the United States to help address this problem.
With respect to the political dimension of this, I think that the humanitarian crisis that Russia’s war has caused in Ukraine and the images of the atrocities that we’ve seen in recent days – those – that alone has been sufficient to rally the world in opposition to Russia’s war. I would point out the General Assembly vote last month to condemn the actions that have precipitated this humanitarian crisis in Ukraine, with 141 votes of the membership of the General Assembly in support of that resolution.
And so we view this – the disruptions and the importance of addressing the disruptions in food security – in humanitarian terms. We want to minimize the suffering outside of the conflict region that is being caused by Russia’s reckless actions, and that’s quite apart from the condemnation that the global community – our interest in doing that is quite apart from the condemnation of the global community of Russia’s actions.
I should also say, though, that the quickest way to end the pressure on the global food system is for this war to end, and I think that there’s also a strong agreement within the international community on that.
MODERATOR: Okay. Thank you, Assistant Secretary Toloui. And we have one other question from Pearl Matibe of Power FM 98.7 in South Africa. Pearl.
QUESTION: Yes. Thank you so much, Assistant Secretary. I appreciate your availability today. My question is – I’m going to try to keep you on the continent, with an eye on South Africa in particular, and perhaps other countries that may have stronger economies, given the work that you are doing in your bureau.
So let’s talk about supply chain disruptions that you have now mentioned that you suggest are as a result of the war in Ukraine. In the planning and in the discussions and in your diplomatic engagements, as well as in your own research internally within your bureau, have you been having any inter-bureau discussions with the Bureau for African Affairs in the State Department, and in preparation for these sanctions as well reaching out to the countries to help in assessing how they feel? Were they included in your assessments before sanctions were put on Russia? I understand the U.S.’s view on putting these sanctions, but they obviously have this dramatic effect as well on African countries and countries like, for example, South Africa. So it’s not just the supply chain issue, but it’s also these – this issue of sanctions where African countries may have been doing trade, and this cross-border transnational trade route coming through Ukraine.
So could you speak a little bit about what internally, inter-bureau, within the State Department and within other agencies – you mentioned USAID – have you guys been doing in preparing or discussing with African countries to help them prepare for these supply chain disruptions?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY TOLOUI: Thank you for that question. And I’m – I’m pleased to report that we in our work in the Economic and Business Affairs Bureau are in close coordination with our regional bureaus at the State Department on multiple dimensions. One, to understand the impacts that this conflict is having in their respective countries, and also to communicate clearly with host governments through our diplomatic posts on U.S. policies, U.S. views, and ways in which we can work together to confront the disruptions that are being caused by this conflict.
As you point out, there – supply chain disruptions are not something that is new as a result of this conflict. That had occurred and started prior to this because of the challenges of the global pandemic, COVID-19. But this conflict has made them substantially worse, particularly in the area of trade in agricultural goods and the flow of food out of this critical Black Sea region. As the UN Secretary General mentioned, “Russia is bombing one of the breadbaskets of the world.”
You mentioned the issue of sanctions, and here it’s incredibly important that I need to emphasize again that food, fertilizer, medical products – all of these are exempted from U.S. sanctions on Russia. Food and medicine are basic needs, and we want companies to understand, and we want countries to understand that U.S. sanctions do not apply to them. And there is a – what’s called a general license that specifically authorizes this kind of trade, and we’ll continue to be very clear that these activities and transactions are ones that should continue. And that’s something that we have communicated through our diplomatic posts, it’s something that we’ve communicated when we have incoming inquiries, and it’s something that we’re going to continue to communicate, that the trade in foodstuffs and in fertilizer is not subject to U.S. sanctions on Russia.
MODERATOR: Okay. Thank you, Assistant Secretary Toloui. I think we have time for just one last question. I don’t see any in the queue, so I’m going to pose one we received in advance from Patricia Vasconcellos, SBT Brazil. She asks: “Uninterrupted and atypical storms in Latin America, such as had happened recently in Brazil, hampered the harvest of many products, especially grains. Now as Latin countries enter in a new planting season, is there interest on the part of the United States and allies to seek food supplies, especially grains, from Latin America to alleviate the global food supply threat aggravated by the Russian invasion of Ukraine?”
ASSISTANT SECRETARY TOLOUI: Thank you for that question and thank you for bringing Latin America into the discussion, because Latin America is also affected in the ways that you described. It’s also affected because of, for example, agricultural – the importance of agricultural production – in countries in Latin America like Brazil, the disruptions to global fertilizer supply are also very significant.
So as with other regions of the world, we are in touch with – our diplomatic posts are in close touch with their host governments. Our USAID staff are in close touch with other countries in the region to understand the dimensions of the challenges that they’re facing. And we’re committed to continuing to work with our partners in the region and with the relevant international financial institutions and multilateral agencies in order to help the disruptions both in food and fertilizer in this hemisphere, in addition to other parts of the world that we’ve discussed.
MODERATOR: All right. Thank you very much, Assistant Secretary Toloui. I believe that ends our time. I will turn it back over to our AT&T moderator to close out the teleconference.