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  • Assistant Secretary Toloui discusses what the United States is doing to bolster global food supplies, including in the Middle East and North Africa, and how countries can work together to deal with the impacts on food insecurity caused by Russia’s war in Ukraine.

MODERATOR:  Great, thank you.  Greetings to everyone from the U.S. Department of State’s Dubai Regional Media Hub.  I would like to welcome our participants dialing in from the Middle East and around the world for this on-the-record briefing with Ramin Toloui, Assistant Secretary of State for Economic and Business Affairs.  Assistant Secretary Toloui will discuss what the United States is doing to bolster global food supplies, including in the Middle East and North Africa.  He will also discuss how countries can work together to deal with the impacts on food insecurity caused by Russia’s war in Ukraine.  Assistant Secretary Toloui will deliver opening remarks and then will respond to your questions.   


I will now turn it over to Assistant Secretary Toloui for his opening remarks.  Sir, the floor is yours.   


ASSISTANT SECRETARY TOLOUI:  Well, thank you, Sam and the Dubai team, for pulling this together.  Hello to all of the journalists that are joining us today.  It’s a pleasure to speak with you all and field your questions on the global food crisis – a pressing issue for millions of people in the region.   


If we take a step back at the causes of this crisis, armed conflict, climate change, and the impact of COVID-19 made global food insecurity a crisis even before Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine.  But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has dramatically aggravated food insecurity, pushing tens of millions of additional people into the ranks of the food insecure.  We know this pain is keenly felt in the Middle East and North Africa region, where most countries import at least half of their wheat from Ukraine.  Putin’s reckless war is increasing the price of bread in the region, taking money from the pockets of the hardest-working and most vulnerable families.   


Countries in the Middle East and North Africa have seen the indiscriminate and negative effects of Russia’s military campaigns before.  In Syria and Libya, Russian military and paramilitary forces with no regard for civilians’ well-being have exploited conflicts for Moscow’s own ends, posing grave threats to regional stability and global commerce.  Of course, the Kremlin – as usual – has sought to deflect responsibility for its actions by blaming sanctions for the disruptions to the global food system, but this is patently false.  The trade in foodstuffs and fertilizer is specifically carved out of U.S. sanctions.  Just to be clear, U.S. sanctions do not apply to food and fertilizer from Russia.   


The reality is that Russia’s attacks on Ukraine’s ports, warehouses, and transportation networks as well as Russian warships’ harassment of shipping lanes in the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea have shut down Ukraine’s exports, including exports of food.  Due to Russia’s aggressive tactics, grain that was destined for the Middle East and North Africa and elsewhere is sitting and rotting in Black Sea ports.  The cause of the grain crisis is easily seen in every wheat field that Russian bombs have destroyed, every farmer killed, and every Ukrainian ship blocked in Black Sea ports by Russian forces.   


Because of Russia’s aggression, this season’s corn harvest in Ukraine is down by half from last year, and Ukrainian farmers are impaired in their ability to sow winter wheat.  Millions of tons of existing grain have been prevented from being exported from Ukraine to countries around the world, including in the Middle East and North Africa region.   


To add to the insult, credible reports indicate that Putin’s army may be transporting wheat out of Ukraine that is intended for countries in dire need of wheat imports, and moving that to Russian-controlled areas.   


Russia itself chose to stop its own exports of many sorts of grains due to the war, or export only to, quote, “friendly nations.”  This aggravates the situation further and it shows that President Putin is fully aware that his aggression threatens the world with hunger.  The decision to weaponize food is Moscow’s and Moscow’s alone.   


The solution to this immediate crisis is thus straightforward.  Russia needs to stop its brutal war against Ukraine.  Meanwhile, the United States is committed to working with the international community to help mitigate the severe damage Putin’s war aims to inflict on vulnerable populations in this region and around the world.   


The U.S. Secretary of State Blinken convened foreign, development, and agriculture ministers from a diverse set of countries for a special food security ministerial on May 18th in New York, followed by a May 19th UN Security Council meeting.  Both of these meetings focused the world on collaborative solutions to the world’s food insecurity problem.   


The Roadmap for Global Food Security Call to Action issued by the United States reflects the outcomes of the May 18th food security ministerial, and the commitments that 90 countries have made to address those challenges.  Together, we will address urgent humanitarian needs and immediate disruptions.  The United States has been a leader in this regard, announcing over $2.5 billion in humanitarian food assistance since Russia’s further invasion of Ukraine that will address urgent food security around the world, including in countries in the Middle East and North Africa.   


The U.S. is working with global allies and partners to get help where it’s desperately needed.  On June 24th, the German-led food ministerial in Berlin will focus on food security and mitigating the effects of this crisis.   


The United States has also been a leader through its Feed the Future program, committing $1 billion per year to strengthen food systems in vulnerable countries.  We’re also working to cushion the macroeconomic impact of this crisis on the poor.  At the urging of the United States and the G7, the international financial institutions, like the World Bank, IMF, and regional multilateral development banks, have developed an action plan to address food insecurity.  That means more help is on the way.  


But the need is acute and it is urgent.  We’re maintaining the high-level governmental and diplomatic attention to critical food security needs and mobilizing the resources to address them.   


And with that, let me stop and turn it back over to the moderator to take your questions.   


MODERATOR:  Great, thank you so much, Assistant Secretary.  We will now begin the question and answer portion of today’s call.  For a reminder to those on the English line, to ask a question and get in the question queue, please press 1-0 on your phone.  For those on the English line asking questions, please state your name and affiliation and limit yourself to one question related to the topic of today’s briefing.  We also have a number of pre-submitted questions from our colleagues over on the Arabic translation line, and I’ll be asking some of those questions.   


And our first question will be one of those pre-submitted questions, from our colleague Mamon Abuorabialedwan from Jordan’s Ammon News, and he asks:  “Sir, in case the Russian-Ukrainian war lasts for months or years, how can the U.S. ensure that there is no shortage of food globally?”  Over to you, sir.   


ASSISTANT SECRETARY TOLOUI:  Well, thank you very much for that important question.  There are multiple things which are important to this effort.  I think the first thing is the United States is a large exporter of food, and American farmers can be part of the solution to this global food security crisis.  The Biden-Harris administration has taken a number of steps to encourage greater food production and also greater production of fertilizer.   


For example, the administration has expanded insurance for farmers to do what’s called double cropping that increases the amount of planting that is done over the course of the year.  The administration has also increased its technical assistance for technology-driven precision agriculture, and other tools to manage fertilizer and nutrient use.  And finally, the administration has doubled the funding – actually, initially announced $250 million and then expanded to $500 million of funding to increase and incentivize the production of fertilizer, which of course can help increase agricultural yield.   


So those are some of the things that the United States is doing to be part of the production solution, but as I suggested in my opening remarks, there is a lot that needs to be done in collaboration with other countries.  We are working to mobilize funding for emergency humanitarian assistance to meet urgent humanitarian needs.  We are working to mitigate the global fertilizer crisis globally by encouraging other countries to temporarily increase fertilizer production and work with multilateral agencies to achieve that, particularly in developing countries.  Third, we’re working with the other bilateral assistance organizations and the international financial institutions to invest in greater agricultural capacity and resilience.  And as I mentioned, we’re working with the international financial institutions to cushion the impact of all of this on the poor.  


And so these are all different elements of the solution.  I think that the key is that countries individually have steps that they can take, and it’s also critical that we mobilize as an international community to address these issues.   


MODERATOR:  Great, thank you, sir.  Our  next question comes from our live queue and it goes to Suzy Elgeneidy from the Al-Ahram newspaper from Egypt.  Operator, please open the line.   


Question:  Yeah, hi and thank you for this opportunity.  My question is, do you – some specialists think that the boycott policy could make the war continue for years, and it’s better to go to negotiations, especially that this war is affecting the economic situation, especially in the non-OPEC countries like Egypt and North Africa, countries increasing the food shortage and being pressured – these countries like Egypt and other countries in North Africa being pressured by both Russia and United States to take their sides.  So we are in the middle here, so how can we solve this problem if the war is not going to stop soon?  Thank you.   


ASSISTANT SECRETARY TOLOUI:  Well, thank you very much for that question.  I couldn’t agree more that the best way to end the crisis and pain that the globe is experiencing with respect to high prices for food and high prices for energy is to end this war.  And President Putin of Russia has the power to end this war.  He was the instigator of it and the source of this aggression and the source of all of these disruptions that are causing pain around the world.   


In the lead-up to this conflict, the United States made an extraordinary effort to try to prevent this war from happening, to find off-ramps and diplomatic solutions to address the stated concerns that Russia had.  At the same time, we warned that Russia was intent on prosecuting this war, and regrettably that was the decision that Putin made, and not only are the Ukrainians feeling the pain of that decision but also the tragedy is being felt thousands of miles away from people who are far away from the warzone in the form of these higher prices for food and energy.  


So the United States will continue to advocate for a rapid end to this conflict, both for the sake of the people of Ukraine but also for the sake of all of the innocent people around the world that are being affected by Russia’s aggression.   


MODERATOR:  Great, thank you, sir.  Our next question is a pre-submitted question from one of our colleagues on the Arabic line, and it’s from Samira Frimeche from Kuwait’s Alnahar newspaper.  And Samira asks:  “What role is the U.S. playing in any international initiatives or plans to deal with the current food security crisis?”  Over to you, sir.   


ASSISTANT SECRETARY TOLOUI:  Well, thank you, Samira, for that question.  The United States has played a leadership role in multiple respects with respect to global food security.  I should note that before this crisis, last year, the United States committed $11 billion at the UN Food Systems Summit to – and that $11 billion was both to strengthen food systems domestically in the United States and global food systems – out of a recognition that climate change, the effect of COVID, were already endangering global food security.   


The latest UN report shows that the number of acutely food insecure people increased from about 110 million in 2018 to about 190 million by the end of 2021, before this conflict.  And so the United States already was identifying this as a challenge for vulnerable people around the world, and devoting financial resources to address this conflict – not this conflict, this crisis.   


With the invasion of Ukraine, those issues of – Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – these issues have become even more urgent.  And so, as I mentioned, since the invasion of Ukraine, the United States has committed $2.5 billion to the urgent humanitarian needs.  The United States convened the global community in New York under Secretary Blinken’s leadership to discuss what the global community needs to do together to address this crisis.  And as I enumerated before, there are these multiple lines of effort that we have advocated for.  And so the question of what role the United States is playing, we are using our diplomatic convening role to try to bring countries together to encourage multilateral agencies to focus on solutions to these problems and to use our financial resources to help other countries navigate these incredibly difficult – this incredibly difficult period of time.    


MODERATOR:  Great, thank you, sir.  Our next question will go to the live queue, and it goes to Michel Ghandour from the Middle East Broadcasting Network and Al-Hurra.  Operator, please open the line.   


Question:  Hi, thank you for doing this call.  I have two questions.  There are talks between Russia and Turkey to find a solution for Ukrainian grains’ export.  Do you expect any solution soon?  And second, is the U.S. able to provide the Middle East and North Africa countries with the wheat and the grains and oil that they used to import from Ukraine?   


ASSISTANT SECRETARY TOLOUI:  Well, thank you very much for this question.  The UN is – and including the talks involving Turkey – is working very hard to find an accommodation that will allow one of these ports to reopen, or several ports within Odessa.  And we are in the U.S. Government fully supportive of that, and we want to see that grain and those and other products that are coming out of those ports be able to get to global markets.  That is incredibly important for countries in the Middle East and North Africa, and also in the rest of the continent of Africa.  And we’ll continue to have close coordination with the UN delegation and the Government of Ukraine on ways to mitigate the impacts of the global food security – on global food security of Russia’s war.  


On the broader question of assistance to – ways in which the United States can assist the countries of the Middle East, the most – one of the most visible ways in which the United States has done that in recent weeks is through our commitments to meeting some of the most urgent humanitarian needs.  Since February, the U.S. has committed almost $900 million in emergency food assistance to countries in the Middle East and North Africa, and that includes about $470 million for Yemen, about $450 million for the Syrian regional crisis – a good portion of that is for deployment within Syria, but also some of that is for Egypt and also for Syrian refugees that are in Jordan and in Turkey – and about $60 million is for Lebanon, of that assistance is for Lebanon, including for Syrian refugees in Lebanon.   


And so we are committed to through not only emergency humanitarian assistance, but the engagement of our agricultural experts throughout the region in our embassies, to engaging with countries to identify solutions to the unique problems that they are having because of this disruption in supplies from Russia’s war, and finding alternative sources to replace the lost imports from Ukraine and from Russia.   


MODERATOR:  Great, thank you, sir.  Our next question is a pre-submitted question from one of our colleagues on the Arabic line, and it’s a question related to something you mentioned in your opening remarks, sir, and it’s from Diana Rahima from the Enab Baladi news outlet.  And she says:  “According to news reports, Russia is stealing Ukrainian goods through the Black Sea.  Are there possibilities for the U.S. to control maritime transportation to prevent this theft and prevent smuggling of Ukrainian goods and grains by sea?”  Over to you, sir.  


ASSISTANT SECRETARY TOLOUI:  Well, as I mentioned, we’ve seen the reports of Russia seizing Ukrainian supplies, including the records of the maritime automatic identification system that indicate that Russian commercial cargo vessels are departing from near Ukraine with their cargo holds full of grain, and we find those reports to be credible.  Ukraine’s ministry of foreign affairs made an official announcement strongly condemning the Russian Federation’s action in diverting and selling grain seized by Ukrainian farmers, and the Ukrainians’ ministry of foreign affairs reported that Russia seized at least four hundred to five hundred thousand dollar – thousand tons of grain worth over $100 million.   


The Ukraine ministry of foreign affairs also has collected numerous testimonies from Ukrainian farmers and documentary evidence showing Russia’s seizure of Ukrainian grain.  And Ukraine has also urged the international community to strengthen sanctions against Russia to stop its aggression against Ukraine and try to stop this kind of Russian behavior.  


So we are very concerned about these reports.  These are another aspect of how Russia’s invasion has imposed pain on populations that are thousands of miles away from this conflict.  Instead of being stolen by Russian forces, that grain should be in ports in the Middle East and North Africa going to feed the populations that need the food, foodstuffs, the grain and other agricultural commodities that are on those ships.   


MODERATOR:  Great, thank you, sir.  Our next question comes from the live queue, and it comes from Sarah El Safety, who is a Reuters journalist based in Egypt.  Operator, please open the line.  


Question:  Hello.  Thank you so much for the call.  So the U.S. is a big producer and exporter of wheat.  Are there any talks with countries like Egypt on maybe a government-to-government wheat purchase deal, perhaps at affordable prices?  Just wanted to know if that option is on the table.  Thank you.   


ASSISTANT SECRETARY TOLOUI:  Well, as you suggest, the American farmers have an important role to play as part of the solution to this crisis.  Because of the high agricultural productivity in the United States, the historical role that the U.S. has played as an exporter, it puts the U.S. in a position to be a supplier of key foodstuffs around the world.  And as I mentioned earlier, the Biden administration is also taking additional steps to increase agricultural production both of – both to increase production of foodstuffs, to use fertilizer more effectively, and to produce more fertilizer.  And all of these steps are going to increase the supply of food and fertilizer on global markets, and then there’ll be different modalities by different countries in terms of how those commodities find their ways to different populations around the world to make sure that vulnerable populations get the supplies that they need. 


So the answers will differ by different countries.  Our first step is to make sure that we are in the United States and with our partners elsewhere producing as much as possible to try to overcome the disruption of supply that has happened as a result of Russia’s war against Ukraine.   


MODERATOR:  Great, thank you, sir.  I think we have time for just a couple more questions.  So let’s go to our next question again in the live queue, from our colleague Maria Maalouf from Sky News Arabia.  Operator, please open the line.   


Question:  Yes, hello.  Thank you for the opportunity.  I’m actually from Sky News Arabia website.  So my question is so simple and specific about is there any cooperation between United States and the United Arab Emirates to help solving this food crisis caused by the Russian invasion to Ukraine?  Thank you.   


ASSISTANT SECRETARY TOLOUI:  Well, thank you very much for the question.  We’ve had discussions with a number of our partners in the Middle East and in the Gulf, and I think that there are – that all countries in the region, and including the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and others, have a really important role to play during this period of time.  We are active in mobilizing resources to meet some of these urgent humanitarian needs not only in the region, but around the world.  And we look forward to partnering with the countries in the region to help meet those needs, and this is something which is of direct interest to the countries in the region because of the severity of the global food security problem in neighboring countries, whether it’s Yemen or Syria, et cetera.  And so we look forward to continuing that cooperation and bringing all of the key members of the international community in to be part of the solution.   


MODERATOR:  Great, thank you, sir.  We have time for one final question, and we’ll go again to the live queue, to Soran Khateri from Voice of America, I believe based in Iraq.  Operator, please open the line.   


Question:  Hello, thank you very much for this opportunity.  My question is that, as you mentioned – you mentioned Syria, countries like Syria, Yemen.  In these countries, except the war that these countries are facing, there is also severe drought and climate change effects.  Is there any special plan for these countries like Iraq, Syria, Yemen, that there is war and drought, to help – to help people to get more, like, of those foods that are really in need?   


ASSISTANT SECRETARY TOLOUI:  Well, thank you for that question.  Your question highlights the fact that even before this conflict, there were incredibly serious challenges to global food security, and climate is one of the biggest challenges.  If we look at the average temperatures around the world and the projections for where things are going in the future, it’s clear that we’re going to need different types of seeds, different types of crops, different strategies for making these crops more resilient in an environment where temperatures will be hotter and where there’ll be more variation, there can be a lot of variation.  And I should say that this is something we’re experiencing ourselves in the United States, including in 2022. 


And so part of our plan is not only to try to address the immediate challenges through humanitarian support, through trying to boost fertilizer production, through trying to get foodstuffs that are being produced to the places where they are most needed, but also making investments to increase the resilience and capacity of agriculture around the world in the face of these very serious problems presented from climate change.  And I should say that we’re very fortunate at the State Department to have a new special envoy for global food security.  His name is Cary Fowler, and he brings an enormous amount of experience in the science of agriculture and also work in the international system on agriculture issues, and in particular, he is sometimes referred to as the father or the founder of the Global Seed Bank.  And so he thinks a lot about these issues of how do we plan for more resilient food systems in the future against challenges such as, and most prominently, climate change.   


So thank you for this incredibly important question.  It will be a challenge not only in the near term but in the long term.   


MODERATOR:  Great, thank you, sir.  And now, Assistant Secretary Toloui, if you have any closing remarks, I’ll turn it back over to you.   


ASSISTANT SECRETARY TOLOUI:  I’d just like to say a word of thanks for the interest in this session, the interest in this topic, which is – couldn’t be more important because of the direct impact it has on the welfare of millions of people not only in the Middle East and North Africa region, but around the world.  And I welcome the thoughtful questions and very topical questions that our journalists asked today.  So thank you for taking the time for this session.   


MODERATOR:  Great, thank you, sir.  That concludes today’s call.  I would like to thank Assistant Secretary Ramin Toloui for joining us and thank all of our callers for participating.  If you have any questions about today’s call, you can contact the Dubai Regional Media Hub of the U.S. Department of State at  Information on how to access the English recording of this call will be provided shortly by AT&T.  Thank you and have a great day.   


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