MODERATOR: Good afternoon from the State Department’s Brussels Media Hub. I would like to welcome everyone joining us for today’s virtual press briefing. We are very honored to be joined by the Special Envoy for Global Food Security, Dr. Cary Fowler, and the Head of the State Department’s Sanctions Office, Ambassador James O’Brien.
Finally, a reminder that today’s briefing is on the record. With that, let’s get started. Special Envoy Fowler and Ambassador O’Brien, thank you so much for joining us. I’ll turn it over first to Dr. Fowler first for his opening remarks. Dr. Fowler, please.
MR FOWLER: Thank you, John, and good morning to everyone. I’ll start out by just setting the scene a little bit. Obviously, last year’s global food crisis is now this year’s global food crisis, and virtually all of the drivers of last year’s food crisis are still with us. We have more than 800 million people on Earth that are globally – that are food insecure, thereabouts. Even though we have those – that kind of number, and even though I would expect that that number is not going to decline and may well increase this year, we’ve seen actually less media coverage of this crisis.
Just to look at a couple of the drivers, climate is certainly one of them. June was the hottest June ever recorded on Earth; July was the hottest July ever recorded. We’ve had 532 consecutive months in which the global average temperature for the month exceeded the 20th century average. July 3rd was the hottest day ever recorded on Earth. July 4th broke the previous day’s record. July 5th tied that record, and July 6th set a new record, perhaps being the hottest day in the last 125,000 years. We’re now entering an El Niño period – hard to believe but we’ve been in a La Niña, which is a global cooling period, for the last couple of years. We’re now going into an El Niño period, a warming trend that typically affects tropical countries more than temperate countries. And if you look – if past is prologue, then we would expect hotter temperatures and drier conditions in Southeast Asia and Australia, many parts of Africa, certainly Southern Africa, Central America, and troubles with fisheries which we’ve
already begun to see off the coast of Peru, the largest fishery in the world. So we’re looking at perhaps disruptions and difficult situations, particularly, I would say, for the rice market in Asia and South Asia.
In other words, this is not business as usual for agriculture, and it shouldn’t be business as usual for any of us.
Turning to the – turning to the Black Sea Grain Initiative and the situation in Ukraine, I’ll just say that I was in Rome last week at the UN Food Systems Summit stocktaking meeting, and at the very moment that we were talking about food insecurity and what countries around the world were doing, Russia was bombing grain silos and ports in Ukraine.
As you know, Ukraine has historically been one of the breadbaskets of the world. It’s one of the top – was one of the top five exporters of wheat, of maize, barley, and sunflower, which is a significant player in the global oil – food oil market.
What are the impacts on the degrading of Ukrainian agriculture and export by Russia? Well, one that I’d like to mention which I think is quite poignant is that among the top 15 importers of Ukrainian grain are a number of developing countries with quite high percentages of childhood stunting. I’ll go down some of the figures: Egypt, 22 percent; Bangladesh, 28 percent; India, 36 percent; Libya, 38 percent; Kenya, 18 percent; and Indonesia, 31 percent. Obviously, taking grain out of the international markets and reducing grain going to any of those countries that are already suffering from high incidence of childhood malnutrition and childhood stunting is not a good thing.
Moreover, a majority of countries on Earth are in fact net food importers – 131 out of 196 countries are net food importers. So we do live in a global system – a global system in which all countries are really interdependent, and this type of event such as we’ve seen in Ukraine is obviously driving – is one of the drivers of food insecurity.
So with that, I think, as the – as my opening remarks, I hope I’ve set the scene for your questions and in particular for Ambassador O’Brien’s remarks. Thank you.
MODERATOR: Thanks so much, Dr. Fowler. Ambassador O’Brien, can we turn it over to you for your opening remarks?
AMBASSADOR O’BRIEN: Thanks, John, and thanks, everyone, for being here today. And I hope Cary’s remarks resonated because it’s – it sets the stage for what we are trying to address. We’re witnessing Russia attacking the global food security system, and I think we should never turn our eyes away from that. The goal is to reduce the amount of food and fertilizer available so that prices go up and Russia gets attention to some of its demands that I’ll talk about.
So just to set a little bit of context, at the start of this war, Ukraine provided about 10 percent of certain kinds of grains of the global market. It was often more than 40 percent, even half, of what the World Food Program provided for the poorest countries of the world. All that
stopped when Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24th, 2022. It’s even worse because Russia, itself another of the top five providers of grains, imposed an embargo on its own exports for a time, and global markets have been recovering from that moment over the last year and a half.
Now, things have gotten worse recently because Russia has decided that it will attempt to stop Ukraine from sending any grain to market. So the result of that is that over the last six to eight months, Ukraine exported nearly 60 – or it’s been a little – now I’ve forgot the number, but about 55 million tons of grain altogether, maybe closer to 60. Thirty-two million tons of that went through the UN-brokered Black Sea Grain Initiative, where large ships could move from Odesa out to the global markets.
This was a critical pathway, especially for the Global South, because that’s a very efficient, low-cost way to send grain to global markets. More than 19 million tons of those 32 went to lower-income countries, by the UN measurements, and about two-thirds of the wheat that was shipped went directly to the poorest of countries. So it was an – and it also lowered prices substantially. We saw prices come down over the last year due to multiple factors, but each time there was a threat to the BSGI, the prices would jump by more than 6 percent; each time the BSGI came back online, prices would drop by about that amount. So it tells you it was a substantial contributor directly to the Global South.
The remainder of Ukrainian exports went by way of land and river routes into the European Union, where they contributed to local markets but also to lowering prices on the global markets.
So that was the situation when Russia decided to do two things: it terminated the Black Sea Grain Initiative, announced a blockade of shipping out of the Ukrainian ports, said that it would regard any ship going in and out of Ukraine as a subject of military action, and it also began to bombard the food storage facilities. So it’s destroyed, as of yesterday, 220,000 tons of grain that was sitting waiting to be shipped – and again, most of that to the poorest countries in the world.
So that’s what Russia is doing, and a consequence is not just the reduction in quantity of food but prices have jumped substantially. You can check what the rate is today, but it’s been running in the high teens since Russia started on this campaign against the global food supply.
So what happens next as we go forward? I think there are several things that need to happen. The first is people need to keep isolating Russia, and I think it’s remarkable how strongly the Global South itself has been speaking directly to President Putin and saying that it’s important to revive this initiative. We saw that with the African leaders who are in Moscow. There have been a number of other communications to the Russians about the importance of the Ukrainian exports for global food security. And I think that display of solidarity around this issue is a particularly important statement about what the globe wants to see around – from Russia in the context of this conflict.
Now, what will happen next? Türkiye and the United Nations are the other two parties to the Black Sea Grain Initiative. Each of them has made clear that they’re prepared to engage with Russia. President Erdogan spoke with President Putin earlier this week, and they’ve indicated an intention of speaking further. I’ll leave it to the Turks to describe when that will happen and where, but that channel is one worth watching.
What is the solution to this? I think a few things. The first point is that Russia needs to be clear what it is asking for. It has put forth a number of different demands, all of them having to do with various Russian institutions not getting services from the private sector. And we have made clear that we’re prepared to help on any of these matters, but it’s not clear what Russia regards as success. And here is the problem they face: Russia is exporting record amounts of grain. This past year, the Russian grain association said that the exports had reached 61.8 million tons of grain, which I believe is 10 to 15 percent higher than any year before. So if the measurement is food for the globe, then the process we are undertaking with the UN and with Türkiye to help Russia export is working, and Russia’s complaints amount to minor allegations about a system that is working very well. So getting clarity about that will help, and my suggestion is we should always measure our success by how much food and fertilizer is reaching the people who need it, and by that mark things are going reasonably well.
Now, Russia makes comments about sanctions. I have to emphasize the U.S. has no sanctions on Russian food and fertilizer. The Russian complaints are about specific commercial entities in Russia that are having some difficulties with their private sector providers. That’s not always related to our policy. We are happy to engage whenever we hear of these things. We devote a great deal of effort to resolving issues as we hear of them. But I think it’s on Russia to explain how it intends to provide more food and to whom, especially among the developing countries, if it’s going to move forward.
A final point on this is that I’m optimistic that Ukrainian grain will reach global markets. It will take us some time. It’s going to involve some costs, but we cannot allow Russia to have a stranglehold over the Black Sea. This is an effort Russia’s undertaken under many governments for a long time. They are attempting to do it again. They will not succeed in this case. So I am confident Ukrainian grain eventually will get out and we will see the food reach the people it needs. The difficulty is that Russia is raising costs for Ukrainian farmers and for all of the commercial operators who are critical to providing global food security. That’s Russia’s choice, and I hope it can clarify what food it intends to send to where, and then we will make sure we help with that, and that gives us a way forward.
So, John, with that, back over to you.
MODERATOR: Thanks so much, Ambassador. We will now turn to the question-and-answer portion of today’s briefing. We have a number of questions that have already been submitted, and so we’ll start with a question from Julian Borger from The Guardian in the UK. He asks, “What are the options for the international community in terms of expanding grain export routes from Ukraine as alternatives to Odesa and Mykolaiv? Is there any movement to establishing or empowering a single international body to oversee this effort?”
Ambassador, I think that is probably a question —
AMBASSADOR O’BRIEN: Okay. And Cary, if you have things to add. As I just said, Julian, I believe that there will be alternatives. The geography is clear: You look at the land routes out through the EU, including ones that reach ports up in the north, in particular the routes that run to the south. One way of tracking the routes is to see where Russia is attempting to destroy infrastructure. I don’t think Russia will be able to succeed in that effort, and I suspect we will get the food out.
I don’t believe a single entity is the answer to this. I think one of the items that works in the global food system is that we have thousands of smaller actors, each pursuing a way to move grain around. But I don’t – maybe at some point if you’re working on an article about that, I’m happy to hear the idea, but I’m not sure that this is a matter for a czar. I think this is a matter for a – making the markets work efficiently at a price that delivers food to people who need it.
MODERATOR: Thank you, sir. Next question is from Florian Hassel from Süddeutsche Zeitung in Germany. Florian asks, “Will the U.S. finally agree to assure the safety of grain-carrying ships through the Black Sea with U.S. warships, as proposed by Admiral – former Admiral James Stavridis? Why isn’t this option on the table yet?”:
MR FOWLER: Jim?
AMBASSADOR O’BRIEN: Look, we are studying all options. The best option is that Russia not attack food that’s going to poor people. That’s where it should start and end. So that’s where I keep the focus, not on the range of alternative responses.
MODERATOR: Thank you, sir. Next question is from Joel Gehrke, based in the U.S. As you – he asks, “As you explore Russia’s definition of success, are there any demands they’re making that you consider off limits for this conversation? And given the leverage they have over the grain supply, what is to stop them from compelling concessions across the expanding range of issues?” Joel is from The Washington Examiner.
AMBASSADOR O’BRIEN: I think Russia’s leverage is always something that it’ll be tested and I think will decline. So I’m – but I believe if we keep focused on how we get the grain out and create the alternatives, then I don’t think we’re going to face an endless range of hypotheticals about concessions and other ways.
MODERATOR: Thank you, Ambassador. I think this might – the next question might be for Dr. Fowler as well. It comes from Ali Younes. Ali asks, “How are Middle Eastern nations being affected by the rise of food costs and the possibility or the continued possibility of cutting off grain supplies from the Black Sea?”
MR FOWLER: Well, I’ll jump in quickly and say that Middle Eastern countries are some of the main recipients of Ukrainian grain, and earlier in this conversation I cited the statistic that 22 percent of children in Egypt are stunted. We also know that food prices in local currency terms
have gone up quite dramatically in the Near East, and obviously part of that is a result of the situation in Ukraine.
Jim, you want to add to that?
AMBASSADOR O’BRIEN: No.
MODERATOR: Thank you both. We’ll go to the next question, this time from Jan Balliauw from VRT in Belgium. Jan states, “The ports on the Danube are very close to the border with a NATO member, Romania. These Danube ports are a lifeline for the export of Ukrainian grain at the moment. Is it conceivable that the U.S. and/or NATO would give a security guarantee for the Danube River, half of which lies in Romania?”
And then there’s a second question: “The Russian economy is predicted to grow by more than 2 percent this year. Sanctioned goods are being exported to Russia by third countries. A great deal of Russian – the Russian population doesn’t feel the sanctions. Have sanctions failed in trying to convince Russia to change its policy towards Ukraine?”
Ambassador, I think it’s directed at you.
AMBASSADOR O’BRIEN: (Laughter.) Good guess, John. The – a couple of thoughts. So, as I said earlier, the key point is that Russia should stop threatening food and destroying food supplies. We will do everything we can to make sure the food gets out. How that happens is something we’ll just keep working at with our partners over time.
I think the attacks near the Romanian border need to be viewed as part of Russia’s overall strategy. What we’ve seen recently is Russia shift to lobbing missiles at residential facilities, commercial facilities in Odesa but also in the center of Ukraine around Vinnytsia and occasionally out west as well.
Now, why is Russia doing this? It’s trying to say that it can strangle Ukraine’s economy as a whole. Agriculture is particularly important these days for the Ukrainian economy, so the attacks have been concentrated, but it’s all part of one strategy.
Now, why is Russia attacking these soft targets? It’s in part because it’s unable to compete with the air defense that Ukraine has developed with help from partners like the U.S. and other NATO and European allies and G7 partners. The – so Russia is looking for soft targets because it lacks the ability to create enough modern weaponry to defeat the defenses that Ukraine has in place.
So that’s a piece of my answer to the second question on the effectiveness of sanctions. And I’d say we measure our effectiveness in two ways. One is by reducing Russia’s effectiveness on the battlefield. We see Russia fighting with older equipment, poor communications equipment, incapable of fighting a war of mobility and precision targeting. You hear anecdotal reports of that all the time. One simple measurement is when they fire on areas where air defense is in
place, how many things get through? It’s not very many, and that tells you an impact of sanctions.
The second marker is that Russia has less money to rebuild its military and to carry out a long-term war. This, I think, is a critical point. What we see is that Russia’s reserves are lower despite 2022 being a record year for Russia’s export revenues, and what it’s earning this year is much lower than what it had earned in previous years.
I think it’s a mistake to just pick random measurements, whether it’s employment, GDP, even the strength of the ruble – which is collapsing, by the way – because this is a wartime economy. So the Russian state is propping up the Russian economy in an effort to rebuild Russian military for the long term. It’s not doing that well.
And so I think part of what we’re seeing with this intensification of Russia’s attack on soft civilian targets is a Russian recognition that time is not on its side, and the more Russian propagandists try to say that time is on Russia side, I think that’s just a case of projection, that what we’re seeing here is the anxious effort by Russia to try to accelerate some change in the position because its position is deteriorating. And both sanctions and the support for Ukraine on the security side are critical reasons why. It all comes down, ultimately, to the courage and tenacity of the Ukrainians defending their own country, and that’s why we’re proud to support them.
Back to you, John.
MODERATOR: Thank you, Ambassador. I think we have time for one more question. We have a question from Jan van Benthem from Dagblad in the Netherlands. He asks, “Special Envoy Fowler and Ambassador O’Brien represent to a certain extent the opposite sides in the food security discussion, as seen from African nations and some other countries who believe that sanctions on Russia are damaging food and fertilizers deliveries. Also, Europe is accused of withholding grain deliveries, as Putin claimed during the Russia-Africa Summit in St. Petersburg. How can the U.S. and the EU effectively and by example counter this narrative?”
AMBASSADOR O’BRIEN: Cary, why don’t I go first and —
MR FOWLER: Yeah. Sure.
AMBASSADOR O’BRIEN: — you can finish, because you have the, I think, more important broader points. And you all, you should ask more questions of Cary. He’s legitimately, like, a global expert on the long-term trends. I know I’ve got the headlines.
I think what we are seeing from the Global South now is a clear – clarion-clear emphasis on Russia’s responsibility for removing tens of millions of tons of grain from the global food supply. There’s a longstanding concern that sanctions – or affect international economics that the Global South doesn’t affect, and so they dislike that. There’s a recognition there, though, that we do not sanction Russian food and fertilizer. What has happened is Russia has chosen in its
exports to export a large amount in state-to-state agreements through to China, but Egypt, Algeria, and other states, but not to ask – not to seek to export to the Global South in the way that Ukraine did. And again, if Russia said, “We want to export more to Africa and we want the assistance to make sure that the private sector can do that,” then I think that’s a conversation we’d be willing to have. But we don’t have any restrictions.
Over the last year, we’ve spent a great deal of time speaking with representatives of the Global South. We have offered to resolve any specific concerns that arise with regard to our sanctions, and what we’re told is: no, we understand how the markets work, we know how to go to the market when we need to. And what we’re hearing today is that the problem is that Russia has unilaterally decided to withdraw tens of millions of tons of grain from global markets. And as we look at the estimates of how much Ukraine would be exporting over the next six or so months – it’s 40, 50-odd million tons of grain – that’s what Russia is trying to keep from people. That’s the problem, and the leaders of the Global South understand that.
MR FOWLER: Thanks. I’ll just add that when we talk about sanctions, we should also acknowledge that Russia has had its own export quotas on fertilizer in the past, though, which is an interesting – interesting thing to do when you’re complaining about sanctions on exports of fertilizer.
But we’ve spent a lot of time today talking about what Russia is doing. Let me just spend a minute talking about what Russia is not doing. Despite the fact that it’s clear that last year’s invasion of Ukraine caused many millions of people to be pushed into food insecurity because of rising prices and lessened availability of food, they are not active on the humanitarian front. Their contributions to the World Food Program are minuscule, even below – financially below many developing countries. And if you look at the recent statements coming out of the Kremlin that they are willing to provide a certain amount of grain to some African countries, even for free, first of all, that grain hasn’t shipped – we’re not sure it will – and second, it’s a drop in the bucket in terms of need and it’s a drop in the bucket in comparison with what they have taken off of the market that would have gone to those countries if they had not invaded Ukraine.
Moreover, if you look at the bigger picture, countries in the Global South really need our help in terms of developing their agricultural food systems. They need strengthened food security. I’ve been in this field for a number of decades, and I will have to say that I have never in my life seen an agricultural development project in a developing country funded by or overseen by Russia. They’re simply absent. They’re not on the playing field in that regard.
We have been working – we have a process underway right now, which we’re calling a Vision for Adapted Crops and Soils, co-sponsored by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN and the African Union, where we’re working with African governments to identify the traditional and indigenous crops that are – have the most potential for adding to nutrition in those – in Africa. We are assessing how they are likely to perform in a climate-changed Africa,
which we can see already. And this will provide the basis for our working with African countries in crop improvement programs for those crops.
So we’re taking a long view. We’re taking a view of trying to address the food insecurity problems in Africa, and specifically address the issues that I highlighted at the top of this program on childhood stunting in Africa. These are the kind of things that really need to happen. We do not need to be taking grain and food off of markets; we need to be helping countries strengthen their food security. And if we want to – and as I mentioned, we spent – I think justifiably so – a lot of time talking about what Russia is doing, but I think we ought to also acknowledge what they are not doing.
MODERATOR: Excellent point. Thank you, Dr. Fowler. And actually, that brings us to the end of today’s briefing. We’re unfortunately out of time. Thank you all for your questions and thanks very much to Dr. Fowler and to Ambassador O’Brien for joining us.
Shortly we will send an audio recording of the briefing to all the participating journalists and provide a transcript as soon as it is available. We’d also love to hear your feedback, and you can contact us at any time at TheBrusselsHub – that’s one word – @state.gov. Thanks again for your participation and we hope you can all join us again for another press briefing in the future. This ends today’s briefing.
AMBASSADOR O’BRIEN: Thanks.
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