SECRETARY BLINKEN: Great, thank you. Thank you very much, and really, thanks to each and every one of you for joining us today. It’s great to see so many colleagues on the screen. I especially want to thank my friend and colleague Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack for being here, helping to lead our discussion, and for everything that he and our colleagues are doing every single day to respond to what is, alas, a growing crisis.
We see the impact this is having on lives quite literally around the world. But to you, Tom; Cary, to you for everything that you’re doing every single day – our special envoy for food security – I want each and every one of you to know that we’re focused on this every day. And not just us; maybe most important from my perspective, the President, who is very, very engaged on the issue of what we can do to deal with food insecurity both in the near term but also in the long term.
Let me just say a few words to get us started, turn it over to Tom, and then we are really eager to hear from you, to listen to you. As you all know very, very well, between 2016 and 2021 – last year – the number of people living in acute food insecurity jumped from about 100 million to 160 million people, in part because of the accelerating climate crisis as well, of course, as the pandemic, COVID-19, disrupting food supply chains, causing prices to spike in many places.
Then, as Cary alluded to, Russian President Putin launched his unprovoked war of aggression on Ukraine. That’s, of course, caused terrible suffering in Ukraine itself, its people, the country; but again, as you know very well, it’s having a devastating impact on global food security because Ukraine is one of the breadbaskets of the world. It’s a leading producer of wheat, of corn, sunflower oil, among other things. And quite literally every place I go, this is what I hear.
Right now, a Russian naval blockade in the Black Sea is preventing Ukraine’s crops from being shipped to their normal destinations. There are somewhere around 20 million tons of wheat that’s trapped in silos near Odessa and in ships literally filled with grain that are stuck in the Odessa port because of this Russian blockade. Russian forces have captured some of Ukraine’s most productive farmland. They planted explosives throughout the fields. They’ve destroyed vital agricultural infrastructure. There are credible reports, including as we saw in one of our leading newspapers today, that Russia is pilfering Ukraine’s grain exporters – exports, excuse me – to sell for its own profit. Now Russia is hoarding its food exports as well.
So this is all deliberate. We know that. President Putin is stopping food from being shipped and aggressively using his propaganda machine to deflect or distort responsibility because he hopes it’ll get the world to give in to him and end the sanctions. In other words, quite simply put, it’s blackmail.
The Kremlin needs to realize that it is exporting starvation and suffering well beyond Ukraine’s borders, with countries in Africa that are experiencing an outsized share of the pain. And this is what I’m hearing directly from counterparts throughout the continent. As the chair of the African Union, President Sall of Senegal told President Putin a few days ago the countries of Africa are victims of this conflict even though they are far, far, far away from the war.
This was also driven home at the UN a few weeks ago when I convened a meeting of more than 30 foreign ministers to help confront the crisis, as well as the Security Council. But we can’t wait for President Putin to do the right thing. The rest of the world must urgently and collectively respond to the emergency.
So that brings us to today. You represent some of the world’s leading food and agriculture businesses, top foundations, NGOs. Many of your teams have been fighting hunger and strengthening global food security for years, for decades. But we now have another critical moment in this fight, and simply put, we want to make sure that we’re coordinating and collaborating with you to the greatest and most effective extent possible. This doesn’t work if we’re not working it together.
Our administration’s produced our own global action plan that focuses on five critical lines of effort that I’ll just very briefly touch on before turning it over to Tom.
First, we are providing aid to meet urgent needs, including more than $5.5 billion in food security and other humanitarian assistance since the Russian aggression. Some is going directly to countries. Some, of course, is going to international organizations like the World Food Program, like the International Fund for Agricultural Development, like the Food and Agriculture Organization.
Second, we’re working with other countries to mitigate the global fertilizer shorage. For example, President Biden announced a $500 million investment to increase domestic fertilizer production, to lower costs, increase supply.
Third: We are boosting agricultural capacity and resilience through the Feed the Future initiative. We’re partnering with countries in Asia, Central America, East, Southern, and West Africa, to take on the longer-term challenges of building productive and effective agricultural sectors to help countries move from vulnerability ultimately to self-sufficiency.
Fourth, we’re cushioning the macroeconomic shocks of this crisis – for example, by working with multilateral development banks to increase support for financial assistance programs worldwide, something that Treasury Secretary Yellen has been taking on with full force.
And fifth, we are keeping this issue high on our diplomatic agenda, and that’s going to continue for as long as the immediate crisis endures, but also as long as the underlying challenges endure. We’re doing it in our bilateral engagements with partner countries in international forums of one kind or another and in our outreach to the private sector and NGO partners, including folks on this screen.
We need your expertise. We need your resources, your human resources. We need your networks. We need your best ideas to try to deal with the challenge we have before us. And we really want to know and learn from you about your assessment of the current situation; and then, looking ahead, what long-term food security problems you see looming on the horizon, not because of this war but also because of other dynamics that are in play.
We know that governments cannot solve this crisis without partners like you. We’re grateful for all that you’re doing. We’re grateful for being in the fight with you, some of you for many, many years now. So I’m looking forward to hearing from folks, but let me turn it back to Cary and/or turn it over to Tom.
SECRETARY VILSACK: Mr. Secretary, thanks very much. I appreciate the opportunity to be with all of you today, and I think it’s fair to say that we all know how complicated and how sophisticated global food systems are. And as Secretary Blinken indicated, it certainly under normal circumstances requires cooperation and coordination. But with COVID shutdowns, supply chain disruptions, and the war in Ukraine, we now have deep concern about how we will get the food and fertilizer flowing efficiently, ensuring that our producers and those around the world have the necessary tools and continue to keep food on the dinner tables of people across the world. This is a monumental challenge.
We’re joining here today, Secretary Blinken and I and Cary, because we really want to know what you know, and we also want you to know what the Biden administration is doing to addressing these problems through an all-of-government approach.
Now, Secretary Blinken, who has been a tremendous advocate for focusing on food security, alerted you to the fact that we have made a $500 million or – and will be making a $500 million investment in modernizing fertilizer production and development, of more efficient use of fertilizers by farmers here in the U.S. We have also made a $2 billion investment based on the President’s direction on our domestic food supply system to ensure greater resiliency in that system and to ensure that American consumers and producers are benefiting from fair prices and abundant supplies. We also drew down at the USDA the full $282 million from the Bill Emerson Humanitarian Trust, which is hopefully going to send U.S. commodities to countries in Africa and the Middle East that are feeling directly the effects of Putin’s war in Ukraine and the subsequent disruptions.
I’ve been engaging as well with my counterparts around the world. Just last month I traveled to Germany for the G7 agricultural ministerial, which I followed up with a trip to Poland, where we discussed very similar topics to what we’re delving into today. We’re encouraging our allies and partners to come together to keep trade open, not to enact export bans, and to share best practices for sustainably increasing production to ensure that we’re able to get food to those who most need it.
The knowledge of how to make those systems work most efficiently and at home are lessons that can be disseminated all around the world. Some of the organizations on this call helped to build the global trading system that has fed a global population by grew by 5 billion people since World War II by encouraging food to flow from surplus regions to food-deficient regions. It was built on the idea by removing trade barriers we could effectively and efficiently integrate our economies, generate innovation, grow and prosper together.
During these times of stress, many countries consider becoming insular and to place less emphasis on partners and neighbors and allies. This is exactly the response that Putin was hoping we would get and he would have, but he didn’t anticipate the solidarity that the international community has shown in large part because of the leadership of President Biden. He didn’t think that the support would come and that countries would bind together to help, and he probably hoped that the tension would strain our relationships with one another. But in fact, he was wrong. We continue to prove him wrong by keeping the lines of trade open, by avoiding export restrictions, by sharing resources, and by working together through these difficult times.
Now, as Secretary Blinken well knows as he’s been so heavily and personally involved, we’re conducting extensive diplomatic engagement to encourage all countries to refrain from these trade-restrictive measures like export bans and excessive stockpiling, which can exacerbate supply chain challenges and price inflation.
I’ve been encouraging countries to take this time to examine barriers to trade, including rules and standards that may be outdated. Now is not the time to fight on to uphold these barriers. We’ve got to work together to remove them so that we can ensure a seamless trading system, the kind of cooperation via global agricultural markets that were so important to global food security.
As I listen to you today, I hope we hear from you some of the logistical challenges that we may face in trying to move that Ukrainian grain if ports are open or if an overland access route is established, in terms of the ability to access the trucks, the rail cars, and the loading equipment necessary to move that grain efficiently. I hope we’re able to meet the testing and inspection equipment needs that were conveyed to me by the Ukrainian agricultural minister. I hope we learn how we can continue to contribute to the World Food Program so we can meet the challenges of eve-increasing global food insecurity. And I hope that if and when we’re able to figure out ways in which fertilizer can be made available, that we do so in a way that enables all of us to be able to produce the food necessary to feed ever-increasing world populations.
So I look forward to the conversation. I appreciate Tony’s inclusion of the Department of Agriculture in this important conversation, and I look forward to learning from all of you today.