SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Well, good afternoon, everyone.  We’re here today and using our presidency of the Security Council this month to focus in on the rising challenge of global food insecurity.  We’ve seen an almost perfect storm emerge in recent years, a combination of climate change, of COVID, and now particularly of conflict that is driving this food insecurity.  There are now about 260 million people around the world who are acutely food insecure.  And in turn, this food insecurity itself drives conflict; it drives forced migration.  It stunts growth, both physical growth and economic growth.  It holds countries back.  It holds people back.

The flip side of the coin is we’re also increasingly seeing food being used as a weapon of war, for leverage, for political purposes in conflict after conflict.  So, we wanted to put the focus on both of these challenges: rising food insecurity and, at the same time, the use of food as a weapon of war.  We’ve just had 91 countries commit in a joint communique to ending the use of food as a tool of war.  That, in and of itself, is a powerful statement, and we urge others to join.

Of course, the place where we’re seeing this most immediately and most acutely is in Ukraine, where, as part of Russia’s aggression, it initially blockaded Ukraine’s ports; in effect blocking the export of grains to the world that Ukraine had been a key country for providing.  Then, thanks to the good work of the United Nations secretary-general and Türkiye, an agreement was put in place that allowed grain to flow through the Black Sea, the Black Sea Grain Initiative.  While that agreement was in force, more than 30 million tons of grain were able to get out of Ukraine and to markets around the world – well over half of that to developing countries and, in fact, two-thirds of the wheat to developing countries.  It was the equivalent of 18 billion loaves of bread.

A few weeks ago, Russia tore up that agreement.  The result has been rising prices for countries around the world.  The result has been a diminution in the access to these food products, particularly for developing countries.  And as we’ve seen, Russia’s actions since then, not only in tearing up the deal but in intentionally targeting food silos in Ukraine – literally destroying food as well as the means to produce it – while holding ports and sea lanes at risk to prevent countries from shipping these products out of Ukraine and to the people who need it – I think we’ve heard from around the world a chorus of condemnation for this action and a strong desire on the part of many, many countries that this arrangement be put back in place.

And it’s very simple.  It’s on Russia to decide whether to do so.  Of course, it could end the war that it started tomorrow, and that would solve the problem definitively.  But short of that, at the very least, the world is insisting that it restore the Black Sea Grain Initiative.

The urgent assistance that we’re providing to countries around the world – not just in the context of Ukraine, but of other serious risks of famine – has been significant.  Over the last year and a half, the United States has provided an additional $14.5 billion in food assistance to countries around the world.  We are the largest contributor by far to the World Food Program – 50 percent of its budget every single year.  And today, I was able to announce another $360 million in assistance to combat food insecurity in Haiti and 11 African countries.

But for all the emergency assistance that we’re providing, and others are providing, it’s not enough.  The United Nations and particularly the World Food Program has determined that right now we need to address the food insecurity for well over 100 million people around the world – $25 million.[1]  To date, only 4.5 billion of that has been pledged by various countries.  We have to do better.  We have to do more.  We have to do it now.

Finally, as important as these urgent appeals are and as important as the work that we’re doing to address immediate needs are, we also have to take a long-term perspective, and make sure that we are acting on that as well.  By 2050, it is estimated that the population of this planet could be as many as 10 billion people.  Demand for food is likely to increase by 50 percent over what it is today, and yet yields – what’s actually being produced – are going down, not up.  We have to – and we are – addressing this challenge.

I spoke today at the council about one of the initiatives the United States is advancing that is a Vision for Adapted Crops and Soil.  And simply put, what that means is this:  We know that we have the ability to produce seeds for planting that are resilient, certainly more resilient to climate change, in all of its various manifestations – and are much more nutritious than some of the things being planted today.  We also know that the quality of soil makes all the difference in the world.  And we now have the ability to map pretty much any terrain anywhere in the world to determine the quality of its soil – where it’s good, where it’s bad, where we can improve it, and how we can improve it.

You put those two things together – seeds and soil – and you can powerfully address the challenge of producing sustainable agricultural production capacity with better yields, more nutritious crops, in a sustainable way.

We are putting $100 million to that effort.  Other countries are joining in, and we expect to see significantly more come forward in the weeks and months ahead.  This is a powerful new way to really make a difference over the long term in making sure that we have strong agricultural capacity and production around the world, and notably in Africa.

So let me stop there, and happy to take any questions.

QUESTION:  (Off-mike.)

MR PATEL:  We’ll start with Edith from the Associated Press.

QUESTION:  Thank you very much, Mr. Secretary.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Nice to see you.

QUESTION:  Edith Lederer from the Associated Press.  On the Black Sea Grain Initiative, we understand that the Russians have made some indication that they might want to revive talks.  They say that, despite there being no sanctions, there are still issues with banking, financing, insurance, shipping, et cetera.  What is the United States prepared to do to try and help overcome those issues, if and when talks resume?

And on Niger, the ECOWAS, the regional organization, gave a week for the military leaders to restore the president to power.  That expires Sunday.  They have threatened to use force if that doesn’t happen.  What is the U.S. position?  Thank you.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Edith, thank you very much.  First, with regard to Russia and grain, to be very clear, the sanctions imposed by us and others for Russia’s aggression in Ukraine have, from day one, exempted its own food products.  And that includes not just the food products, but the means to ship them and insure them.  And in fact, just now, if you look at where Russian exports are, its exports of food exceed what they were before its aggression against Ukraine.

Having said that, to the extent that there have been any problems with things like shipping and insurance, we have, throughout the process of the Black Sea Grain Initiative, taken steps to work through them and to address them – including, for example:  writing comfort letters to banks to assure them that it was fine to process these transactions, and that they wouldn’t run afoul of our sanctions.

So, in the event of a return to the agreement, of course we’ll continue to do whatever is necessary to make sure that everyone can export their food and food products freely and safely, to include Russia.  We want to see that food on world markets.  We want everyone to benefit from the lower prices.

With regard to Niger, we strongly support the very strong leadership of ECOWAS on Niger.  I don’t want to get ahead of where things are, but what ECOWAS has done in terms of stating very clearly that there’s an expectation for a return to the constitutional order and a continuation of the democratic process, and putting pressure on those responsible for interrupting the democratic order and constitutional order in Niger – we stand very much behind that.  We will work closely with ECOWAS, with other concerned countries.  I don’t want to get ahead of where things are right now, but we believe that the work that ECOWAS is doing and the statements it’s made are important, strong, and have our support.

MR PATEL:  Will Mauldin, in the back.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Hey, Will.

QUESTION:  Thank you so much.  Just to clarify on Edie’s question, so the U.S. has not taken a position of supporting military force by ECOWAS, by the African group, within Niger – just so I understand what you’re saying?  But would the U.S. provide logistical or other support to such an intervention in the country?

And then on the grain issue, I wanted to ask you:  Borrowing – sorry, barring a return to the grain initiative, are there other ways to get Ukrainian grain onto the high seas?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Thanks, Will.  Again, on ECOWAS, we support what they’ve said.  We are working closely with ECOWAS, with other – with concerned countries.  I don’t want to get ahead of where we are now.  We’ll see how the coming days play out.  But as I said, we believe it is vitally important that what ECOWAS has called for actually take effect, and that is the freeing of President Bazoum and a restoration of the constitutional order in Niger.  And we support the efforts that ECOWAS is making, including the pressure that it’s exerting, in order to achieve that result.

Short of returning to the Black Sea Grain Initiative, of course we’re looking at every option to maximize the export of grains from Ukraine, including by land routes – which are already in effect – potentially by sea and river routes, rail, et cetera.  Having said that, as I see it right now, even maximizing those other routes, it will be very difficult to make up what we were doing, what Ukraine was able to do with the Black Sea Grain Initiative.  In other words, the volumes I think will be hard to match.  And even if, for example, there was an effective and safe way to move things by sea from the south, the fact that Russia is targeting the ports, targeting the production facilities, the storage facilities, the grain itself – as long as that continues, it’s going to be incredibly difficult.

So, I think that’s what we really have to be looking at is what does Russia do.  And as I said earlier in the Council, it’s not about what we’re saying, (inaudible) it’s quite literally what virtually everyone in that Council is saying and so many members of this of this body, of the United Nations.  The Kenyan foreign ministry called what Russia did in tearing up the grain deal “a stab [in] the back,” and that is reflective of what many countries around the world feel.  Russia has to address that.

QUESTION:  Follow-up?  Come back to me after this?

MR PATEL:  Michelle Williams from Reuters.

QUESTION:  Thank you, Mr. Secretary.  Michelle Nichols from Reuters.  A follow-up on Niger.  Have any ECOWAS countries notified the U.S. of their plans for potential military action once this deadline expires on Sunday?  And on China, you’ve invited Foreign Minister Wang Yi to come and visit in D.C.  Has he formally accepted that invitation, and when might that visit take place?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Thank you.  On ECOWAS, I’d really invite you to address questions to them about their planning, their timelines, et cetera.  But as I said before, we’re in close contact with them, with a number of other countries.  I’ve also been in direct contact with President Bazoum multiple times, including as recently as yesterday, other actors on the ground on Niger.  And I just don’t want to get into hypotheticals now.  We’re playing – we’re playing this out one day at a time, and we are looking for the restoration of the constitutional order in Niger.

With regard to China, as you know, when I was in China I invited the then-foreign minister, Qin Gang, to come to the United States at a mutually convenient time.  We were looking at the fall.  I have in fact extended that invitation to Wang Yi, who is now serving as foreign minister.  We don’t have a response yet, but we just extended that invitation.  And I would expect we’ll have an opportunity to see each other and to continue the important conversations that that I had in Beijing, that a number of my colleagues in the Cabinet had, including Secretary Yellen, John Kerry.  Others will be going, and we fully expect Chinese counterparts to come to the United States.

As you’ve heard me say, I think there’s an obligation that both the United States and China responsibly manage this relationship.  That starts with talking, including dealing directly with our very serious differences, as well as seeing if we can find areas for cooperation that would benefit our own people and benefit many people around the world.  And again, all of that starts with engaging, with talking, with being very clear and direct with one another.  That’s why it would be beneficial to continue these conversations, and I’ll look forward one way or another to seeing the foreign minister.  As you know, I saw him on the margins of the meetings recently in Indonesia, in Jakarta, and I would look forward to seeing him in the United States.  Thank you.

QUESTION:  (Off-mike.)

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Thanks, everyone.


[1] $25 billion

U.S. Department of State

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