Moderator: Good afternoon to everyone from the U.S. Department of State’s Africa Regional Media Hub. I would like to welcome our participants from across the continent and thank all of you for taking time to take part in this discussion. Today, we are very pleased to be joined by the Special Envoy for Global Food Security, Dr. Cary Fowler, and Ambassador Jim O’Brien, Head of the Office of Sanctions Coordination.
We will begin today’s call with opening remarks from Dr. Fowler and Ambassador O’Brien, then we will turn to your questions. We will try to get to as many of them as we can during the time that we have allotted.
If you would like to join the conversation on Twitter, please use the hashtag #AFHubPress and follow us on Twitter @AfricaMediaHub.
As a reminder, today’s briefing is on the record, and with that, I will turn it over to Dr. Fowler and Ambassador O’Brien for their opening remarks.
Dr. Fowler: Thank you very much. I’m Dr. Cary Fowler. I’m the new Special Envoy for Global Food Security here at the Department of State, in Washington. I certainly look forward to fielding your questions today, but in my day-to-day job I look forward even more to working with African countries and institutions, farming organizations, to try to build food security and resilience into African food systems.
I’ll just say at the outset that we were facing difficult times before the unprovoked war of aggression of Russia into Ukraine, and that situation has greatly exacerbated the global food crisis. We’ve faced food crises before, but this one is unique in many ways because it’s multicausal. We’re dealing with climate change, we’re dealing with conflict, and we’re dealing with COVID. The situation in the Ukraine has, by all estimates, pushed – is pushing about 40 million additional people into the ranks of the food-insecure, a totally unnecessary situation.
So I look forward to talking with you about what the United States is doing, going a little bit deeper into our assessment of the situation, and, of course, hearing from my friend, Ambassador O’Brien, about – in particular about the ramifications of the situation in Ukraine.
Ambassador O’Brien: Thank you, Cary. I’ll just say a few things. Our policy is to try to deter Russia from continuing its invasion and occupation of Ukraine. It’s a grotesque violation of every norm of international law. And that’s what our sanctions aim to do.
Now, two points that I hope run through all of our conversation. One, the U.S. does not sanction Russian food and fertilizer, and we can discuss what some people are saying about this, but we do not. Our European colleagues are not restricting Russian exports to the Global South. They have some limitations on importing Russian food and fertilizer into their own territories. So the story that the sanctions are causing the problem I think is deeply misleading.
Nevertheless, the second main point I’ll make is we are working to try to fix the problems caused by this invasion. So where we hear of problems, we will address them directly. Sometimes companies are confused about what’s allowed and what’s not, and we will try to clarify so that they are able to go forward. But we are also working proactively by trying to inform companies about what they are allowed to do so that it’s clear there’s nothing stopping Russia from exporting its food and fertilizer except decisions Russia has made.
Now, I look forward to the conversation today, and I – one other theme I’ll keep returning to is that Russia has disrupted one of the most productive ways that countries received grain. Ukraine used to export 6 million or so tons of grain a month, mostly to the Global South. And now that has had to stop; in March and April, it was very small. With our European partners, we’re working very hard to get out as much grain as possible, but at best it will probably be about half what it was before, and that’s because Russia has occupied or destroyed 30-odd percent of Ukraine’s grain-producing capability. It is attacking grain storage and processing facilities. You just have to look at the attack in Mykolaiv earlier this week – it’s widely available – and you see the flames from the silos.
So we’re working to fix all that, and we’re hoping that with our – the Ukrainian partners that we can get maybe about half of what Ukraine would export in a normal year out to markets. But that takes a lot of work, and we’re doing our best to do that, but it’s all back to the fact that one of the world’s major grain producers has been invaded, and that’s the situation we’re trying to address.
So with that as context, why don’t I turn it back to you, Marissa, and we can open the conversation.
Moderator: Thank you, Dr. Fowler and Ambassador O’Brien. We will now begin the question and answer portion of today’s call. We ask that you limit yourself to one question related to the topic of today’s briefing: food security in Africa and sanctions on Russia.
Okay, our first question, we’ll go to a question that was sent in to us out of Uganda, from Mr. Nebert Rugadya from Ugandan Radio Network. His question is: “Why is it that Africa is most affected by the current food insecurity?” Over to you, Dr. Fowler.
Dr. Fowler: Okay, thank you. Africa started out, prior to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, in probably the weakest position of any continent. It’s also experienced a number of calamities. We’ve had four straight years of drought in the Horn of Africa, and it simply had a long way to go to reach a position of food security.
But what’s happened in the current situation is that we see really from the Russia-Ukraine war how interdependent countries are with each other. The majority of countries in the world are net food importers, and in terms of Africa, probably 70 percent of the food that’s produced in Africa stays in Africa, and those two facts tell you two things. One is you really need trade to flow, you need food to flow between countries, and that any small disturbance in the global food system can cause ripple effects, and the ripple effects are felt – I’m sorry to say – most dramatically in Africa. So we certainly need to keep that open, as Ambassador O’Brien said.
The Ukraine produces enough grain to feed about 400 million people, and that’s sitting in silos right now in Ukraine, unable to get out. And in a highly interdependent world, this is going to cause food-price spikes, food-supply availability problems, and that’s going to have an impact on Africa first and foremost.
Moderator: Thank you. We’ll go to another question sent in to us out of Ethiopia, and the question is from Mr. Henok Terecha from Ahadu Radio in Ethiopia. “What is the role of the U.S. in the case of food insecurity in Africa, specifically on the Horn of Africa?” So I understand that’s a very broad question, but I think our journalist is looking to find what is the U.S. doing and what role does the U.S. have in East Africa.
Dr. Fowler: I guess that question is for me.
Dr. Fowler: The United States has certainly, since last year, devoted, invested quite a lot of funding into the Horn of Africa for humanitarian assistance. I think about $500 million, if I’m not incorrect. And I think you can look for more to be provided in the future.
One of the things we really must do, though, going forward is to help develop more productive and resilient food systems. We have a program at the United States Agency for International Development that we call Feed the Future. We’re in the process of expanding that program. We’re supporting a great deal of research around the globe in international agricultural research centers and even in some of our own universities in the United States – for example, to develop drought-tolerant maize. We have I think about 16 million acres of U.S.-supported drought-tolerant maize in Africa right now.
So while we’re in the midst of certainly an acute crisis at this very moment, we still have to have a longer-term vision because we cannot get out of this crisis simply by providing humanitarian
aid, food assistance, et cetera. We have to develop our way out of this crisis. And part of that is through long-term development projects, like I just mentioned.
And another part of it, though more immediate, perhaps, is getting grain out of the Ukraine. We have – it strikes me, frankly, that the farmers in Ukraine, who are on the front lines of the war against hunger because Ukraine is such a breadbasket for the world and particularly for the Near East and Africa, shouldn’t have to be on the front lines of a war, defending their country from an invasion by a neighboring country. They should continue to be on the front lines of fighting hunger instead of fighting the real shooting war. That’s something that they can’t do right now, and as I mentioned, there are at least 20 million metric tons of grain sitting in the Ukraine which could be put into the world market, and historically and traditionally would be going primarily to Northern Africa – I mean the Near East and Africa.
Moderator: Thank you. Ambassador O’Brien, a lot of people don’t understand how sanctions work and see them as punitive. Could you explain why sanctions are a response to the ongoing crisis?
Ambassador O’Brien: Yeah, this – we have a variety of sanctions programs. But in broad terms, what we are saying is that Russia cannot pay for its war by taking money from the rest of the world. And that means you’re not allowed to use dollars or euros or services that our countries provide in order to buy more munitions, to make sophisticated weapons systems, and to fuel the conflict in Ukraine. So we are targeted on the defense industries and on the elites who profit from this war in Russia.
Now, what that means is then that we – some of those supply chains get disrupted. The problem, though, is that in the context of this war, Russia has taken steps that disrupt supply chains. So just back to the problem of getting grain from Ukraine. Russia issued a notice to mariners in the Black Sea that warned people not to send their ships into certain areas. That told insurance companies and shipping companies that they should not be going to the ports that historically loaded the big amounts of grain that served especially the Middle East, the Horn of Africa, Iran, all across North Africa. And so the result of that warning is that insurance prices spiked and shipping companies decided to stay away. And that was Russia’s choice. It made the choice because it is threatening to invade southern Ukraine, and southern – and the Ukrainians, of course, are defending their territory. What it has meant is that three ports in Ukraine that traditionally carried out grain are closed. Now, Russia says, well, they can reopen them, but of course it’s threatening to invade. So this is a sort of hollow offer.
The UN is working very hard to find an accommodation that will allow one of those ports to reopen, or several ports within Odessa. We’re fully supportive of that, and we want to see it come out. But that’s not a sanctions issue. That’s an issue that Russia made some choices about how it was going to engage the globe, and cut itself off and cut Ukraine off from global markets.
Now, we’re going to try to fix this, but the problem lies with the choice that Russia made when it invaded and severed these supply chains.
Moderator: Thank you. Next we will go to a question in our Q&A from German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, and the question is from Claudia Broell. The question is: “The head of the African Union, Macky Sall, made the point after his meeting with Mr. Putin that Western sanctions on Russian banks are making it difficult or impossible for African countries to buy grain and fertilizer. He also referred to disruptions of the SWIFT payment system as a result of sanctions. Is Mr. Sall wrongly informed? And why are these sanctions not blocking exports?”
Okay, we can start with you, Ambassador O’Brien.
Ambassador O’Brien: Sure. I think I would love to have someone bring me an example. Yes, it is true that our sanctions have changed the way global banks work with Russian banks, but there are Russian banks that are able to receive payments, and Russia has managed to find ways to receive billions of euro a week for its energy exports. So I’m not sure that the problem is in the financial system. The offer I will make is that if someone has a specific example, encourage the government to raise it with the U.S. embassy and they will bring it back to us and we will clarify what rules are allowed and what are not. I am fully confident that there is a way to pay for this grain, even if it’s through a different mechanism than before.
So we will address the problem we caused, but again, Russia is bringing in a lot of money for the things it wants to sell, and if it’s not selling food, that’s Russia’s choice.
Moderator: Thank you. Let’s go live and get a question from Milton Maluleque of Deutsche Welle. Mr. Maluleque, you may ask your question.
Question: Yes, good afternoon. My question is: What is USA doing to change the narrative that the Ukraine war is the reason for the grain shortages, especially for Africa, knowing that the president of AU was in Russia recently and he spoke about this being the reason of – the war being the reason for Africa not getting fertilizers and grains and blaming the West for this? What do you see is going to change that narrative?
Moderator: Ambassador O’Brien, would you like to answer that, and then Dr. Fowler to jump in? Okay.
Ambassador O’Brien: I think I’ll start. I think one point is we have brought the issue to the highest international bodies we can find. Secretary Blinken, Secretary Vilsack, Secretary Yellen – all across our government. We had a meeting in the UN Security Council and a special summit in New York during our presidency of the Security Council. And at that we tried to identify the issues, and we promised to solve them. The U.S. committed I think $2.3 billion in assistance for the programs that Dr. Fowler described to increase resilience, new production, and provide for a more stable global system both for this year and for future years. So we are willing to discuss this anywhere, anytime.
I think part of – another thing we’re doing is having conversations like this, because we understand it’s a difficult issue, and a lot of governments simply want the pain to stop without trying to pick sides in who’s – of who’s responsible. What we will offer is that where there is a problem, raise it with us. We will try to anticipate problems, but we will also try to fix them where we hear of them.
And so what you can – what will change the narrative is, over time, who is good to their word? We are trying to fix problems, and what we hear is a lot of rhetoric from the other side. So you as journalists hold us to account, and then – but then give us credit when we follow through on what we promise.
I don’t know. Dr. Fowler, what do you have?
Moderator: Dr. Fowler, you’re going to have to unmute. There we go.
Dr. Fowler: Okay, sorry. I’ll just add a couple of things. One is that, as Ambassador O’Brien mentioned earlier, there’s really nothing that’s stopping Russia itself from exporting its grain to Africa. What’s stopping the Ukraine from exporting its grain to Africa is, in fact, Russia. This year is the African Union “Year of Nutrition and Food Security.” We are working quite closely with African countries and have been for years and are laying plans for even stronger engagement in the future. We haven’t seen Russia on the ground doing this same kind of work. If they’re that concerned about food security in Africa, it’s a newfound concern.
The problem right now, however, is that we have an acute crisis caused by high levels of interdependence among nations, and the – essentially the blockade of one of the major exporters of wheat, corn, and sunflower oil, that being Ukraine. And that – those restrictions on the exports are causing not only supply problems but are jacking up the prices of a number of different commodities, not just the three that I mentioned, all around the world, particularly in Africa.
Moderator: Thank you. Next we will go live and a question from Meredith Lee of Politico. Ms. Lee, you may ask your question.
Question: Hi there. Can you hear me?
Moderator: Yes, we can.
Question: Great. I just wanted to ask – I think probably both speakers – but I wanted to ask how the U.S. is talking with African countries in an effort to deter them from buying stolen Ukrainian grain from Russia, and if the U.S. is offering any alternate supplies or aid from the U.S. or other countries?
Moderator: Great. Dr. Fowler?
Dr. Fowler: Well, I can start with a brief answer, and I think Ambassador O’Brien will want to – will want to add. The United States has certainly stepped up substantially its contributions to the World Food Program. So we’ve made great efforts to try to, in an emergency situation, to provide more humanitarian assistance, but we’ve also announced somewhat longer-term measures. I mentioned earlier that our – one of our flagship programs at the U.S. Agency for
International Development is our Feed the Future program that involves quite a few countries around the world, but really focuses on – in a very intense way on about a dozen countries, I believe eight of which are in Africa. We expect that program to be expanded, an announcement to be made fairly soon, and I think you can anticipate that a number of the countries to be added will be African countries.
And again, we’re involved in so many other institutions that perhaps don’t carry the American flag, but are certainly supported by the U.S. Government. The Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, which is the umbrella for a number of international agricultural research centers around the globe, is – I believe we are the largest funder of that consortium. They have research centers and development centers that work in partnership with African countries. They’re headquartered in Nigeria and Ethiopia and in Kenya, Tanzania. So we’re involved in a number of different areas to try to, as I’ve been mentioning, try to improve food security.
Moderator: Thank you. Ambassador O’Brien, did you want to add to that answer?
Ambassador O’Brien: Well, I’d just say I think the question referred to stolen grain from Ukraine, and I think it’s really important for this audience to know the story. Russia, we believe, has stolen several hundred thousand tons of grain from Ukraine and then sent it out on small ships from Russian ports. Now, that grain has ended up with Russia’s friends. So it chose politically to deliver this grain to places that are friendly. It’s grain that in a normal year would have gone to Egypt, would have gone to Lebanon, would have gone maybe to Iran and to China. That’s typically where Ukraine sends this grain at this time of year. And yet Russia decided to divert it and to profiteer by selling it at high prices.
Now, the question sort of implied that maybe the grain would have been sold where it was always going to go, and I don’t think that’s the case. But it’s also – this isn’t a sustainable system; this is war profiteering and acts of politics, and when we’re talking about the fact that people need to eat. So it’s not sustainable for Russia to keep going and stealing the grain and bringing it out through inefficient routes and then shipping it just to its friends.
What we need is a system that, as Dr. Fowler described, allows the grain to flow to the places people most need it, and that’s not what’s happening right now. So that’s the reason for our concern with the theft of grain.
Moderator: Thank you. I’m going to go to two questions just related to both of your current responses. One is from Mr. Ali Laggoune of Elbilad TV in Algeria. He asks: “How do you assess the impacts of war in Ukraine and sanctions imposed on Russia in food security in North African countries, especially Algeria?” So I’m going to pause there and I’m going to ask another question because we’ve heard Northern Africa come up quite a bit, so stand by.
The next question is about China. Kate Bartlett from Voice of America in Johannesburg asks: “How might China fill a voice left by Ukraine in terms of food exports to Africa? Beijing appears to be focusing heavily at the moment on developing agricultural systems in Africa. Is this something the U.S. is competing with them on?”
So those two questions: North Africa, and can China fill a void. Dr. Fowler, why don’t you answer the first question on – about Northern Africa and where this grain could have been going, and then we’ll follow up with China.
Dr. Fowler: Well, we have a global market for grain. So what we’ve seen is a huge price spike for all manner of grain, and the impact is felt in Northern Africa as it is in many places around the globe. I’m not sure I have more specific information just focused on Northern Africa, however.
Moderator: Thank you. Let’s move to China filling this void. Ambassador O’Brien?
Ambassador O’Brien: Yeah, I think our – we would love to see China act like the large power it is in helping to address the problem in the global food market. So we are concerned that China is building up its domestic stocks and continuing to purchase grain on the global market at a time when we would love to see it be able to help those who are in need.
I actually am not the person to address China’s long-term investments in agriculture in Africa, so I won’t touch that part of the question. But maybe we can get back to that reporter with an answer.
Moderator: Thank you. Next we’ll go live to Simon Ateba of Today News Africa. Mr. Ateba, you may ask your question.
Question: Thank you for taking my question. This is Simon Ateba with Today News Africa in Washington, D.C. Certainly, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and a lot of instability in Europe has – have exacerbated food crises around the world and in Africa, especially the shipping disruption on the Black Sea and the limited supply of wheat from Ukraine. But is it not false to claim that the food crisis in Africa is mainly caused by Russia’s war in Ukraine, especially because of other crises and shocks, including the driest season in the Horn of Africa which kills one person every 48 seconds according to Oxford, instability in West Africa, the Sahel region, lack of fertilizers, climate change, and even lack of other tools?
So my question to you is, I know there is the narrative that you have been pushing from London to Washington that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last February is responsible for the food crisis in Africa, but you know that’s false, right?
Moderator: Dr. Fowler?
Dr. Fowler: Well, yeah, thank you very much for that question. I don’t think anyone in the United States with the U.S. Government is pushing a narrative that the food crisis in Africa is predominantly, mainly, exclusively caused by the war in Ukraine. There certainly is a narrative coming out of Russia that this problem could be solved if only the Ukraine would export its grain, if only the United States would drop its sanctions, and that’s certainly false.
We know that the causes of food crisis in Africa are multidimensional. You mentioned climate. Yes, we’re – we’ve had more than 400 consecutive months where the global average temperature for a particular month exceeded the 20th century average. You can simply look at the climate data from Africa and tell that we’re in the midst of climate change in Africa and we’re headed towards climates mid-century that have never before been experienced by agriculture, by our crops. Obviously, this is presenting a huge challenge not just for the future – right now. We also have water challenges because we’re drawing out – agriculture takes in Africa 80 percent of freshwater supplies already, so we’re not talking about a great deal of leeway in terms of adding more water into agricultural systems.
But what we could be doing and what the United States is working with African countries to do is to make water use more efficient; to breed and disseminate drought-tolerant varieties of the different major agricultural crops; and to begin to integrate into those vegetables and legumes to make a more resilient, robust, stronger food system in Africa.
So the questioner is right. This is not all to be laid on the situation in the Ukraine. It was a complex situation with, by the way, fairly low grain stocks when we went – on February 24th, when Russia invaded Ukraine. But given the nature of the interdependence of countries, people, markets in the food space, what we see is that while you can’t solve a food crisis overnight, you can certainly cause one. And that’s what President Putin has done, and exacerbated the situation all around the globe. You’re feeling it in Africa; people are feeling it all across the world.
Moderator: Thank you. Next we’ll go live to Pamela Mawanda out of Uganda. Pamela, you may ask your question. Pamela, you may ask your question. Okay, it looks like we lost Pamela.
So we will go to a question that was typed into our Q&A from Katarina Hoije. Katarina is from Bloomberg out of Dakar, Senegal. Her question is: “For Ambassador O’Brien, who said that you are hoping to get about half of what Ukraine normally exports in grain out of working with partners. When do you expect to be able to relaunch exports, and can you be more specific on how much of the 20 million tons will go towards African countries?”
Ambassador O’Brien: It’s a good question. So – and maybe this reflects a little on the previous discussion. So what caused the problem? So Ukraine typically exports 6 million tons a month. In March it exported, we think, about 200,000 tons; in April about 600,000. So all of a sudden you have close to, what is what, 9 million tons that did not reach the global markets, with some very strenuous efforts mostly by Ukrainians and their neighbors in Romania. They – we think in May that Ukraine has been able to export about 1.7 million tons. And the European Union has put enormous effort into what it calls solidarity lanes, where it will open a number of other border crossings and European ports so that the grain from Ukraine can flow out.
Now, one problem is that Ukraine itself will have about half the amount of wheat to export that it normally would. So maybe we will get 3 million tons of grain a month out, on average, over the next months, but it’s going to take us a couple of months to even reach that level, if we can. So we are looking at a substantial shortfall.
Will that grain go directly to Africa? As Dr. Fowler has said, there’s a global grain market. Ukraine’s customers typically are – it supplies an enormous amount of the Northern Africa and Middle East region. So if the grain reaches the market to Ukraine’s normal customers, I would expect a fair bit of it would flow at least into Northern Africa. But we don’t know because that’s a matter for the commercial traders, and that’s something we will have to look at.
And I’d just close – so there are 20 million tons of grain sitting in Ukraine right now waiting to get out. And again, in a normal year, all of that would already be on the market, and it’s not, and there’s one reason. Now, there are many reasons that there is a global – that food security is weakened, and Dr. Fowler has indicated that the U.S. is engaging with all of them. But it’s 20 million tons, which could feed 200 to 400 million people that’s just waiting on Russia’s decision.
Moderator: Thank you. We have time for one last question, and this question will go to a question in our Q&A from Wael Badran from Alittihad out of the United Arab Emirates. The question is: “The Kremlin said on Wednesday that Western sanctions against Moscow must be lifted before Russian grain could be delivered to international markets, so what do you think about this? And is there a way to prevent the world food crisis, i.e. global starvation?”
So if we could get an answer on the political and the sanctions side from Ambassador O’Brien, and avoiding a world food crisis from Dr. Fowler.
Ambassador O’Brien: There are no U.S. sanctions on Russian food and fertilizer. The Ukrainian situation is that because Russia has destroyed half of Ukraine’s grain-producing capability, Ukraine may be able to export half as much as normal, and the U.S. and with our European partners really in the lead hopes that we will get that half all to market over the course of this year. And that’s who’s addressing the global food shortage. A blackmail threat from Russia, I think that speaks for itself.
Moderator: Dr. Fowler, you are muted. There you go.
Dr. Fowler: Sorry. Yes, just a couple of extra points. Historically, most of the grain has flowed out of Ukraine from the Port of Odessa, and that is totally off the charts right now. Grain is not flowing out of Odessa at all. In fact, one of the ships that was there to load up grain and to ship it out was bombed I think on the second or third day of the war.
So what’s happening now is that Ukrainians are trying as best they can to get that grain out into international markets through overland routes. But you can imagine when you’re thinking about – when you’re dealing with 20 million metric tons of grain that have to go through an infrastructure system that is itself under attack and is not the normal way to export grain, that this poses quite a few challenges. Moreover, farmers have planted the next crop, and in the fall and in September they’ll be – they’ll start to harvest corn, raising issues about where that corn is going to be stored if the grain sitting there now that ought to go into international markets is still in storage in the Ukraine because it can’t get out because of the Russian actions.
So can we solve, can we avert a global food crisis? Well, frankly, we’re in a global food crisis. And the – what’s making it worse, immeasurably, is this war in Ukraine. What we can do and what we are doing is to provide more and more humanitarian assistance and to engage more seriously in the long-term efforts that will boost food production in developing countries, and particularly in Africa. But until we can get the situation in Ukraine resolved, we will be facing higher prices for food, for fertilizer, et cetera. And I’d just underscore – and if you hear the frustration in my voice, it’s there – that this is an unnecessary situation that we’re in simply because of a very unprovoked, immoral, and illegal invasion of a sovereign country by Russia.
Moderator: That is all the time that we have today. Dr. Fowler, Ambassador O’Brien, do you have any final words? Dr. Fowler?
Dr. Fowler: Yeah, sorry. I’ll simply say that I hope these kind of discussions continue, and I hope that the media keeps its focus on this issue. We need the general public around the world to understand the complexities of the causes around the global food crisis and to be supportive of the kinds of efforts that we’re engaged in to overcome those challenges.
Moderator: Ambassador O’Brien?
Ambassador O’Brien: No, just to say thank you very much for the conversation, and keep bringing the issues to our attention.
Moderator: That concludes today’s briefing. I would like to thank Special Envoy for Global Food Security Dr. Cary Fowler and Ambassador Jim O’Brien, Head of the Office of Sanctions Coordination for the State Department, for speaking to us today, and all of the journalists for their participation. If you have any questions about today’s briefing, you may contact the Africa Regional Media Hub at AFMediaHub@state.gov. Thank you.