INTERVIEW: US committed to doing its part, working with others, to ensure global food availability

Suzy Elgeneidy , Saturday 25 Jun 2022

Ramin Toloui, the US assistant secretary of state for economic and business affairs, spoke to Ahram Online, answering questions about the best way to address the high food and energy prices resulting from the Russia-Ukraine war.

Ramin Toloui
Ramin Toloui, the US assistant secretary of state for economic and business affairs. Photo courtesy of US State Department website.


Toloui made his comments during a phone briefing on Wednesday attended by a small number of reporters from Arab and North African countries.

He opened by saying "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,” he added, saying “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 by thousands of miles away from people who are far away from the warzone in the form of these higher prices for food and energy.”

Toloui went on to answer a question from Ahram Online about the opinion of some specialists who say that a boycott of Russsia could make the war continue for years, and whether it would be better to pursue negotiations to mitigate the economic harms, especially on non-OPEC countries like Egypt, especially when it comes to food shortages.

In response, Toloui said "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."

He also said that climate change is to blame for the global food crisis but the war in Ukraine and the COVID-19 pandemic have made it worse, adding that the US government is working with global and regional partners to tackle the effects of the crisis, especially shortages resulting from the conflict in Ukraine.

While acknowledging that the food crisis was already a concern before the war began, Toloui said the conflict has "exacerbated the problem and is having a particularly significant effect on countries in the Middle East and North Africa because they import about half of their grain from Ukraine.”

“Through its Feed the Future Initiative, the US is working with countries around the world to increase food production and develop crops and seeds that are more resilient to climate change," he added

“The US is committing $1 billion a year for the program,” he said, adding that Washington has also encouraged countries around the world to increase production of fertilisers, supplies of which have been disrupted by the conflict in Ukraine.

In addition, Toloui said, the US has pledged $2.5 billion in global humanitarian aid to address food insecurity, and committed $11 billion as it spearheads efforts to help US farmers and global producers cope with the effects of climate change on food production.

In the Middle East, he added, the US is working with local partners, including Saudi Arabia, to address the effects of the food crisis, help alleviate shortages, in particular in countries such as Yemen that are facing other crises and challenges, and provide assistance to Syrian refugees. He also noted that Washington is working with international financial institutions to help reduce the effects of the food crisis on the poor.

All countries in the Middle East have a role to play in efforts to resolve the food crisis, and in collaborating with the international community to achieve sustainable production and supply of food, Toloui said.

On the specific issue of the current inability of Ukraine to export its grain crops to global markets because of the war with Russia, Toloui said the US government is working with Ukrainian officials to help reopen sea ports so that shipping can resume.

“The US will continue to advocate a rapid end to the conflict,” he added.

Toloui added " 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. The war is increasing the price of bread in the region, taking money from the pockets of the hardest-working and most vulnerable families.”

“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 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 countries in the Middle East and North Africa.”

“The US is working with global allies and partners to get help where it is desperately needed.”

“The United States has also been a leader through its Feed the Future programme, committing $1 billion per year to strengthen food systems in vulnerable countries.  We are 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 are maintaining the high-level governmental and diplomatic attention to critical food security needs and mobilising the resources to address them.”

Ahram Online also asked a question concerning the implications of whether the US would be able to ensure that there would be no food shortages globally if the Russia-Ukraine war lasts for months or even years.

In response, Toloui said: “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 fertiliser.”

“For example, the administration has expanded insurance for farmers to do what is 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 fertiliser 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 incentivise the production of fertiliser, 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 mobilise funding for emergency humanitarian assistance to meet urgent humanitarian needs. We are working to mitigate the global fertiliser crisis globally by encouraging other countries to temporarily increase fertiliser production and work with multilateral agencies to achieve that, particularly in developing countries. We are working with the other bilateral assistance organisations 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 is also critical that we mobilise as an international community to address these issues.”

“Since February, the US 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.”

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