MR PRICE: Thanks very much, and good afternoon, everyone. Thank you very much for joining today. We’re pleased to have an opportunity to preview the Secretary’s travel to Berlin, where he will take part, together with partners and allies, in a food security ministerial on Friday.
Just a reminder, this call is on the record, but it is embargoed until the conclusion of the call. We have on the line with us three senior State Department officials you will hear from today. We have Cary Fowler, who is our Special Envoy for Global Food Security; we have Ramin Toloui, who is our Assistant Secretary of State in the Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs; and we have Amy Radetsky, and she is the Deputy Director for Western Europe in our Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs.
I will turn it over to Cary Fowler, who will have some opening remarks, then we’ll move to Assistant Secretary Toloui, and then all three will be in a position to take your questions.
So with that, Special Envoy Fowler, over to you.
MR FOWLER: Okay. Thank you, Ned. What sets this global food crisis apart from previous similar situations is that there are multiple major causes behind it.
Obviously, everyone understands the impact that the Russian war of aggression has had on the Ukraine and how it has upended global grain markets. But beyond that, we have also been dealing with climate change, its effect on agricultural production. As you know, we have had droughts, major droughts in our own country in the United States, and in the Horn of Africa, and elsewhere. We’ve had COVID, which has dealt supply chain problems to us. And of course, conflict, not just in Ukraine but in probably 20 or so other countries that have been having ongoing conflict situations.
And I think what that means is that we have to realize that this crisis that we’re experiencing now is not one that is going to go away in the next few weeks, months. This is probably a three-year crisis to work through all of these very serious problems, all of which the United States is addressing. But we have to look at both the very immediate, short-term humanitarian issues, as well as longer-term issues, and begin to think about this as an acute crisis that will last for a couple of years, unfortunately, because of these very serious causal factors that we’ve been dealing with.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY TOLOUI: Thank you all for joining the call. This is Ramin Toloui here. And as Special Envoy Fowler said, there is a backdrop to the current food security challenge that we’re facing, due to these three Cs: climate, COVID, and conflict. So even preceding Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, the UN estimates between 2018 and 2021 the number of people living in acute food insecurity increased from 110 million to 190 million. And again, that’s preceding this war.
The Kremlin’s invasion, further invasion of Ukraine, has directly destabilized global food supply chains for both food and fertilizer. Ukraine is one of the breadbaskets of the world and a leading producer and exporter of wheat, corn, and sunflower oil. And Russian military forces have captured some of Ukraine’s most productive farm land. They have destroyed vital agricultural infrastructure. Russia’s naval blockade in the Black Sea and threat of further naval attacks are preventing Ukraine’s crops from being exported to their normal destinations. And as a result of this, millions of tons of wheat are trapped in silos and on ships.
As long as Putin continues this war in Ukraine, millions of people beyond Ukraine’s borders will suffer from increased food insecurity, with countries in the Near East and Africa experiencing an outsized share of the pain.
We must urgently and collectively respond to this emergency, and the U.S. Government has organized its efforts focusing on six lines of effort.
First of all, we are working with others to mobilize resources to meet urgent humanitarian needs and resolve immediate disruptions in the agricultural supply system. The U.S. has announced $2.8 billion in emergency food assistance since the war in – against Ukraine began. And the supplemental appropriation signed by the President in May provides an additional $4.3 billion in humanitarian aid.
Second, we’re working with other countries to mitigate the global fertilizer shortage. In the United States, President Biden has announced a $500 million investment to increase domestic fertilizer production; we’re working with other major fertilizer producers and encouraging them to take similar actions; and we’re working with multilateral agencies to help developing countries both increase fertilizer production and use fertilizer more effectively.
Third, we are making investments with our partners in agricultural capacity and resilience through our own development assistance with partners and with multilateral institutions. The U.S. Feed the Future program is the – our flagship initiative in this area, which has historically provided a billion dollars per year in funding for this effort, and the supplemental appropriation I mentioned that was passed in May provides $760 million in additional exceptional funding.
Fourth, we’re working with the international financial institutions to cushion the macroeconomic shock of this crisis and the impact on the poor and most – poor people and most vulnerable populations. At the insistence of the United States, or I should say at the urging of the United States and the G7, the international financial institutions have prepared an action plan to address global food security.
Fifth, we’re intent on keeping this issue high on the diplomatic agenda. On May 18th, the United States hosted a Global Food Security Call to Action, a ministerial-level event that included foreign ministers, agriculture ministers, and development ministers which we hosted in New York, to rally countries and regional organizations to take steps to bolster global food supplies and increase resilience. That ministerial produced a roadmap of actions that almost 90 countries have signed onto to address the current global food security crisis. We’re supporting the German-led Global Alliance for Food Security, which was announced in May, to share information on country needs and donor responses and coordinate action to increase global food security.
And then the sixth component or sixth line of effort is efforts we’re taking to stabilize and boost domestic agricultural production for American consumers, and this includes a set of actions announced by the President to this end.
As was previewed by Ned at the top of this call, we’ll be leaving for Berlin for – I’ll be joining Secretary Blinken in Germany, where we’ll be joining other foreign ministers, agriculture ministers, development ministerials – ministers, for a Berlin ministerial conference entitled “Uniting for Global Food Security,” and that’ll take place on June 24th, Friday. And at this meeting, we’ll be looking to build upon the work that we kicked off in New York in terms of mobilizing donor countries, recipient countries, multilateral organizations in order to address and provide solutions to mitigate the food insecurity stemming from Russia’s brutal, unprovoked war against Ukraine as well as the effects of other conflicts, climate change, COVID, and supply chain challenges that are relevant to addressing this problem.
Thank you very much, and look forward to your questions.
MR PRICE: Great. We’ll now have an opportunity for questions. Operator, if you wouldn’t mind repeating the instructions to ask a question.
OPERATOR: Certainly. Ladies and gentlemen, once again, if you would like to ask a question, please press 1 then 0 on your telephone keypad. One moment, please, for the first question.
MR PRICE: Thanks very much. Just a reminder: This call is about the upcoming Berlin ministerial. We’d be happy to take those questions. We’ll start with the line of Nick Schifrin of PBS.
OPERATOR: Mr. Schifrin, your line is open.
QUESTION: Hey, guys. Thank you for doing this. Question: Has the U.S. made moves toward lifting some of the issues that companies would have in paying for Russian fertilizer? Obviously there’s no export ban on Russian fertilizer, but the UN does acknowledge that some of the sanctions are causing problems and reducing the ability to – for Russian fertilizer to get around the world.
And I wanted to ask you about Turkey, whether you believe they’ve been helpful in discussing with Russia their military role in possibly de-mining the Odessa port, and in general whether they’ve helped on this issue overall. Thanks.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY TOLOUI: Nick, thanks very much for this question. This is Ramin Toloui. First, I want to be really clear that the United States is – United States is not sanctioning exports of Russian grain, agricultural commodities, fertilizer, medicine, et cetera. The – and that’s not only true of trade restrictions but also financial sanctions. The U.S. has provided what are called general licenses, which allow agricultural commodity transactions that would otherwise be prohibited under our sanctions.
So that’s the first point that’s extremely clear – that needs to be clear. Nothing is stopping Russia from exporting its grain or fertilizer except its own policies and actions, and to that – on that point, Russia itself imposed – had self-imposed restrictions on exports of its agricultural products. Since February, Russia has implemented export restrictions, including bans, quotas, and other restrictions on products such as barley, corn, rye, soybeans, sunflower seeds and oil, and wheat.
Now, as your question suggests, there are concerns about so-called overcompliance with sanctions. And to that end, it’s important that – for me to say that the United States does not want there to be impediments to the ability of countries, companies, to purchase Russian food, Russian fertilizer, and for those goods to access international markets. If there are difficulties for completing these transactions, which are permitted, we encourage countries to contact the Treasury Department, including the Office of Foreign Asset Control, or OFAC, local U.S. embassies, so that we can work with them on these issues.
So the sanctions regime, again, in its original construction was specifically designed to exclude food and fertilizer. We do not want any perceived restrictions – even though there are no actual restrictions, but perceived restrictions – from permitting the trade in those goods and getting them to the populations in the world that need them.
And then on your last – the last part of your question, on Turkey, we know that the UN is working hard to find an accommodation that will allow Ukrainian ports to reopen, including Odessa. We are fully supportive of this and want to see that play out. We’ll continue close coordination with the UN delegation and the Government of Ukraine on ways to mitigate the impacts to global food security of Putin’s war in Ukraine.
MR PRICE: We’ll go to the line of Missy Ryan.
OPERATOR: And Ms. Ryan, your line is now open.
QUESTION: Okay. Thanks so much. I really appreciate you all doing this call. I just have a clarification and then a question. My question is related to China, and sorry, my – the call dropped for me for a minute or two, so hopefully I didn’t miss this. Can you just talk a little bit about what the conversation with China has been like vis-à-vis the food crisis and its ability to help mitigate the effects of it and also given its relationship with Russia right now?
And then just following up on the question about – the answer you gave to Nick about sanctions, can you just talk – is there anything additional you could say about – in terms of a response to rebut Russia’s accusations that U.S. and allied sanctions are actually causing the food crisis? Thanks.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY TOLOUI: Well, thanks very much for that question. I mean, first – first of all, we would – we would look forward to working with any and all partners to address these global food security challenges. We believe very strongly that this is something that affects all of us, and that all countries have a role to play to addressing those. We were disappointed that China did not – chose not to attend the ministerial that Secretary Blinken convened in New York in May. That notwithstanding, we are – we stand ready to work with all countries on trying to alleviate the burden of food insecurity around the globe.
With respect to combating Russian misinformation, this is a much larger issue that goes beyond that of food security, and I’m sure Ned can speak to the broader effort. I can say from the food security point of view the best we can do is get the facts out there about the fact that our sanctions do not apply to food; to state very clearly what I did state, that to the extent that there are impediments to the trade in goods – trade in food and fertilizer, that we stand ready to help countries and companies work through those; and to acknowledge and highlight the ways in which Russia’s military actions have directly interrupted the flow of vital agricultural commodities out of the Black Sea region that especially countries in the Middle East and North Africa rely upon so heavily. And so we’ll continue to emphasize that.
The day after the food security ministerial in New York, Secretary Blinken hosted a UN Security Council meeting on May 19th that was focused on this very issue, and his remarks there documented the many ways in which Russian military actions have disrupted the ability of Ukrainian goods – food and agricultural products – to get to market.
MR PRICE: We’ll go to the line of Michelle Nichols, please.
OPERATOR: Ms. Nichols, your line is open.
QUESTION: Thank you. Thanks so much for the briefing. Just a bit of a follow-up, actually, on the previous questions on this UN attempt to broker a deal, obviously with the help of Turkey. When it comes to issuing comfort letters for Russian food and fertilizer exports, which the USUN ambassador talked about a little while ago, have you actually issued any?
And then when it comes to the Ukrainian exports of grain from the Black Sea, if this deal comes together, what is being discussed among the U.S. and allies in terms of trying to encourage and convince shipping and insurance companies to then go ahead and ship these exports out through a route that they’re being told has no mines? Thanks.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY TOLOUI: Thanks very much for that question. In terms of the mechanical issue of comfort letters, let me refer you to Treasury – the Treasury Department on that one. The – I can say that in the communication I’ve just made and in other communications, we’ve underscored this message that – both to companies, to countries, et cetera that our sanctions do not apply to food and fertilizer – and we don’t want them to apply to food and fertilizer informally – and I’ll refer you to Treasury and OFAC on the specifics.
In terms of what – I think you were asking about what additional actions we’ve discussed with our allies in the context of the discussions that are taking place in Turkey. I don’t really have anything to add on that given where those discussions are.
I should say that the focus that we’re going to have in Berlin on Friday is much broader. It’s, of course, very important to this line of effort – to get Ukrainian grain to global markets is an incredibly important line of effort, but it’s only one of those, one of the things that we’ll be discussing in Berlin. We’ll also be discussing other steps to get grain that’s elsewhere in the world to vulnerable populations through our joint humanitarian assistance, how to increase supplies of fertilizer and increase the efficiency with which they are deployed, to make investments in agricultural resilience and capacity to address the issues that Special Envoy Fowler mentioned at the very top about how climate is affecting global food security.
And so the purpose of the Berlin meetings is really this broad-based agenda and bringing together not only countries that are providing money, donating money, growing food, but also those countries that are in need, to give them the opportunity to articulate those needs and to be part of designing the solutions to this incredibly important problem.
MR PRICE: Time for a final question or two. Jennifer Hansler, CNN.
OPERATOR: And Ms. Hansler, your line is open.
QUESTION: Hi, thanks for doing the call. A couple questions. Are the countries in the Gulf or in parts of Africa that are going to most acutely feel this crisis going to be involved in these conversations in Berlin? And since the Secretary convened this meeting at the UN, has there been any progress at all on finding a viable route to get this grain out or any options that have been completely ruled out?
And then, if I could, President Biden mentioned building silos in Poland, for example, to house some of this grain. What is the status of those? Thank you.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY TOLOUI: Thanks for that question. In terms of the final list of invitees, I’ll refer you to Germany on the list of countries that were – that are involved. The – I should note that in the ministerial that Secretary Blinken hosted in New York, there were multiple countries from the Middle East, North Africa, in addition to Sub-Saharan Africa in attendance, because those are some of the most affected countries. And so that was very much a part of the group that we – and the discussions that we held in New York in May.
With respect to additional ways of getting Ukrainian grain to global markets, that’s been something that the United States has been working on very closely with the European Union in terms of expanding access to overland routes to getting Ukrainian grain out. And as has already been discussed, there’s this initiative of the United Nations to get grain out through Odessa.
And more broadly, I should say, we’re looking at multiple ways to assist Ukraine, Ukrainian – the other logistical impediments to getting Ukraine – Ukrainian grain out. For example, USDA is working very closely with the Ukrainians to make sure that equipment that is relevant to certifying, weighing, and other kinds of regulatory requirements on – for Ukrainian products, that they have the equipment that they need.
And I don’t have any more details to share for the moment on any specific projects, including food storage facilities, but we’re – we continue to work with European partners to find ways to get Ukrainian grain out to those who need it.
MR PRICE: We’ll take a final question from Teresa Welsh.
OPERATOR: And Ms. Welsh, your line is open.
QUESTION: Hi, there. Thanks so much for taking the question. You mentioned that the goal of the meeting on Friday is to mobilize additional action from governments and international organizations. Could you talk a little bit more about what you mean by that? Are you looking for financial commitments? Are you looking for scheduling additional meetings, or perhaps a pledging conference? Thank you.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY TOLOUI: I think it’s a combination of things. We’ll be looking and encouraging additional financial contributions, whether they materialize at that meeting or in the weeks following, to meet the needs of humanitarian organizations like the World Food Program, and to also mobilize the resources of bilateral donors and international financial institutions and their development assistance programs.
And then we’ll also be looking to discuss mechanisms to ensure a follow-through on those commitments, and more generally to be providing political oversight of the ongoing efforts to make sure that the problem is well defined and that the various steps in addressing the problem are being implemented.
And I’ll see if my – if anyone else at the table has anything to add to that, but that’s the purpose of these Berlin meetings is to go from the call to action in New York to try to shape up now more specifically the contours of this response, and establish some mechanisms for ensuring its implementation going forward.
MR PRICE: Well, thank you very much to our speakers. Thank you very much to everyone for dialing in, and we’ll have an opportunity to speak to you all in the coming days. Thanks very much.