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. Today, we are very honored to be joined by Ambassador Cindy McCain, the U.S. Permanent Representative to the UN Food Agencies in Rome.
With that, let’s get started. Ambassador McCain, thank you so much for joining us today. I’ll turn it over to you for your opening remarks.
Ambassador McCain: Well, thank you so much for having me, and I’m very pleased to be here to talk to all of you. I’d like to start by thanking the Brussels Media Hub for organizing this incredibly important discussion and Justin Higgins for moderating for us.
When I joined the U.S. Mission to the UN food agencies as Ambassador in January, it was very clear to me that food security – making sure people around the world have access to basic food they need – is the central issue that we all must grapple with. It is the link between all the other great global challenges we face, from climate change to the pandemic, to the numerous conflicts around the world. I was worried about the terrible needs in Yemen and South Sudan, in Ethiopia and Madagascar – countries that are already on the brink of famine.
Then Putin unleashed his unprovoked and unjustified war on Ukraine – the fifth-largest exporter of wheat and the second-largest exporter of sunflower oil – triggering an even greater and far-reaching humanitarian crisis. Putin has upended spring planting, blocked ports, mined fields, destroyed infrastructure, and ultimately thrown our global food systems into chaos.
And it’s the world’s most vulnerable people who once again will pay the heaviest price. I was recently in Kenya and Madagascar and saw firsthand some communities on the brink that will suffer even more because of soaring food and fertilizer prices, limited staple food supplies, and forced cuts to humanitarian rations.
We are facing the most serious food crisis in over 70 years – the worst since World War II. We have to act now.
This is why the United States has called for the “Days of Action” on May 18th and May 19th – to rally the world to take steps to bolster food supply chains and strengthen food resilience.
Secretary Blinken will chair a “Global Food Security Call to Action” on May 18th with foreign ministers from dozens of regionally diverse countries to review the urgent humanitarian needs and identify steps to build resilience for the future.
On the next day, acting in the U.S. capacity as President of the UN Security Council for the month of May, Secretary Blinken will chair a meeting of the UNSC focused on the link between food security and conflict.
The UN organizations I work with in Rome – the UN Food and Agriculture Organization and World Food Program – are already playing a vital role in preventing a worsening crisis. They are ramping up operations, delivering critical lifesaving assistance, and protecting livelihoods. At the same time, the U.S. has been pouring resources into immediate humanitarian assistance and broader strategies to bolster food security.
The upcoming ministerial is an excellent opportunity to mobilize support for the UN’s humanitarian and food organizations as they respond to the crisis at hand. But we must also use this opportunity to invest in medium and long-term strategies for reducing poverty, improving nutrition, and strengthening resilience to the shocks that we are sure are going to come.
We need to invest long-term in food security because the fact is, everything else depends on it. You can’t have a discussion about climate change or sustainable development or war and not talk about the many millions of people around the world who don’t know where their next meal will come from. Who don’t know if their fields will ever yield enough. Who don’t know if the next conflict or the next drought will push them over the brink.
We must invest in a long-lasting foundation for the future of food security. Now is the time for the world to step up.
Thank you again, Justin, for having me. I look forward to continuing the conversation with the journalists online.
Moderator: Thank you very much, Ambassador. We will now turn to the question and answer portion of today’s briefing. Our first question was put into the chat by Catalina Manoiu with Realitatea PLUS in Romania, and her question is: “Is there a strategy to cope with food crisis in the context of war?”
Ambassador McCain: Well, one thing we know is that conflict is the main driver for hunger all over the world, and we are prepared for this. The Ukraine crisis, though, has shown us that – has shown us that the UN is doing exactly what it does best. World Food is managing the humanitarian response and FAO is collecting vital data, along with other organizations stepping in with expertise and refugees, et cetera – with refugees, et cetera. USAID and the EU have stepped up; they’re doing an incredible job.
But clearly, this crisis is unprecedented and we must rally more support along the way – contributions of money and food stocks to humanitarian organizations; let’s ease disruptions in food and fertilizer markets. We cannot allow nor should we ever allow food hoarding, which is a real danger right now. And we need to work to protect what stock we do have. And so I continue to think that in the long run, building resilience is an important part of this upcoming U.S. ministry that I – ministerial that I chatted about earlier.
Moderator: Great, thank you very much. Let’s see, we have a question here from Adriano Milovan with Una TV News Portal in Croatia, and his question is: “What countries are the most affected by the hunger that was produced by the Russian invasion of Ukraine?”
Ambassador McCain: Well, clearly, the first country is Ukraine. I mean, that goes without saying. But what was going – what was already ongoing were many, many, many other countries – and I can name a few of them around the world – that had been affected by climate change, also affected by instability, et cetera. So countries like Kenya and Madagascar, countries like Yemen and Ethiopia, and certainly our Central American friends have. They were already affected by severe drought and also already affected by disruptions, and we had already in some cases – the World Food Program, I mean – has had to cut rations. And it’s a hard thing, and I did this – it’s a hard thing to look into the eyes of a mother and tell her that there’s not going to be the same amount of food next month that we had this month for them.
So this is – we are all facing this together. And once again, if Russia would do what it should be doing, and that is pull out, stop this crazy war and allow us to get back to planting, to harvesting and to feeding the world – that’s what we as humanitarians and the UN agencies do best.
Moderator: Great, thanks very much for that, Ambassador. We have a journalist who’s put up his hand to ask you a question live. That is Alex Raufoglu with Turan News Agency in Azerbaijan. Please go ahead, Alex.
Question: Thank you so much, Justin, and thank you, Ambassador, for making yourself available for us today. Of course, each day of war brings a massive food crisis closer, but can you please give us any timelines? Right, we – maybe Russian people mostly – have a clear understanding of how close we are to a crisis and how urgent this problem is. Thank you so much.
Ambassador McCain: Well, we are extraordinarily close. As far as a timeline, I think the timeline depends on whether Russia decides to pull out or continue this insane war. So timelines – timelines are critical, though, because we’re looking at famine in a large portion of the world. We’re also looking at food prices skyrocketing, and if trade is cut off and if exports are cut off, then we have – then this is where we move into what I described earlier, which is food hoarding. So I wish I had a timeline. I wish I could be more generous with making people feel better about this. But I don’t have it right now, and I don’t think many other countries do either. We are going to be faced with a very serious crisis – we already are, but this could move into the kinds of things with regards to famine and others that will really not just disrupt the world, but it will kill millions of people. That’s what we’re faced with right now. I wish I had a better answer for you.
Moderator: Thank you very much, Ambassador. We have a question here that was submitted by Karolina Wójcicka with Dziennik Gazeta Prawna in Poland, and the question is: “Is the U.S. administration planning to support emerging markets, especially those in the Middle East, that were affected by the war in Ukraine?”
Ambassador McCain: Well, as you know, we already do support emerging markets, and the U.S. is focused on building long-term resilience. We want to give people a chance to really thrive throughout. And as you know, we recently announced an $11 billion package for long-term investment in food security, which is very helpful. We need more innovation now. We need more access to cutting-edge technology. We need to learn and teach other countries and learn from other countries how we can grow much more with less. That’s really what we’re facing right now because climate change has pushed us into that corner. So now we’re faced with this crisis in Ukraine, and also climate change issues going on around the world that have really debilitated food security and food access for so many millions of people.
Moderator: Great, thank you very much for that. We have a question that was put into the chat by Arul Louis with IANS, and the question is: “Does the U.S. have any plans or suggestion” – or I’m sorry, “Do you have any plans or suggestions for the U.S. to cooperate with India, which has a huge food-grain stockpile to help alleviate the looming food shortage that will hit some developing countries hardest? This topic was among those that came up in President Biden’s virtual meeting with Prime Minister Modi last month.”
Ambassador McCain: Well, the United States cooperates with all grain-producing countries, and of course our purpose is to alleviate the shortage that’s going to happen. But the key element in all of this is we must be able to stabilize the markets and bring prices down. With that, we – again, we’re encouraging people not to close markets, not to close exports, but instead to keep doing what we’re doing, which is working together as a world community.
This upcoming food security ministerial in New York is a prime opportunity for – to talk about the immediate solutions and long-term strategies which are really important. And India, as you know, has been invited to join.
Moderator: Great, thank you very much for that. We have a question that was put into the chat by Ali Younes with the Arab News. The question is: “What is the U.S. as a major producer of food doing to offset food shortages around the world that are resulting from the war in Ukraine?”
Ambassador McCain: Well, you – we are – we’ve managed at this point to be able to talk to farmers about changing crop ideas, changing the options to not only what they grow but they grow it. We’re in high gear in the United States right now to try to help alleviate even more this food crisis. But we encourage – we work together with all countries, and it’s going to take all of us to manage this crisis and all of us to make sure that those who are less fortunate, the most vulnerable on the planet, don’t starve to death. So I can assure you that we’re looking and the United States is looking into more technology, better growing; as I mentioned, the ability to be able to grow more with less; water projects – water is one of my key issues, and water conservation but, more importantly, water management. In a country like Ethiopia or a country like Madagascar, as I mentioned, and some of the other countries, water management is critical. And we can’t afford to waste a drop. And so that’s where the United States can be very helpful because we have a lot – and so can Israel and so can the other Middle Eastern countries that are so involved in this.
And let me also mention to you, the United States is the largest contributor to the World Food Program. So we are doing our best not only as a country growing but a country that is contributing to organizations that can help alleviate this crisis.
Moderator: Great, thank you very much, Ambassador. It looks like we’ve got one final question here put into the chat from Robert Papa with MCN TV in Albania. The question is: “Do you see any abnormality that Russian vessels keep sending grain via the Durrës seaport in Albania?” I guess that gets to the idea of sort of food smuggling that’s going on there.
Ambassador McCain: Yeah. The one thing that we have to demand of Russia is to unblock the ports. They can no longer continue what they’re doing. It’s – in my opinion, and this is my opinion, but I think it borders on war crimes the things that they’re doing with regards to food and food access and using food as a weapon, more importantly. And that’s exactly what we’re seeing. And as you know, it’s causing a huge domino effect around the world. Food – it starts there and then, of course, it ripples all around the world. And once again, it’s the most vulnerable.
So not only do we have to continue to support organizations, but my job here is to encourage other countries to support in a larger way and to be a part of this. The EU has stepped up, many other countries have stepped up, but it’s still not enough. And so I’m – I’ve made it my own personal – my own personal job here to make sure that I encourage other countries on a daily basis to step with us. Let’s do the best we can and the most we can to help alleviate this.
Let me also say countries like – we have not forgotten about countries like Afghanistan, Yemen, of course Ethiopia, some other smaller countries that are really struggling right now. They’re – unfortunately, they’ve taken a back burner to the Ukraine crisis because that’s front and center right now. But let me tell you, that’s why it’s so important to donate to organizations like World Food Program, because it’s – it will strengthen their ability to feed everyone, not just the squeaky wheel which is Ukraine right now.
So it’s a tough – we’re in a very tough situation, and Europe has always been very generous, but we’re – we all have to work together to do more.
Moderator: Great, thank you very much, Ambassador. While you were answering that, we do have an additional question here. This is from Joel Gehrke with The Washington Examiner, and he asks: “Have you observed Russia seizing Ukrainian grain and other food stocks? Does it seem that Russia is taking that grain for use in Russia or for re-export?”
Ambassador McCain: We’ve heard all kinds of stories and none of it has been able to be really seriously documented. We’ve heard they’ve been stealing grain. We’ve heard that they’ve emptied some of the silos. The critically cruel thing that they have done is they’ve put landmines in most of the agricultural fields and they’ve also – the ones that they haven’t stolen, but the equipment they left behind, they mined that too. So the – any ability to harvest what is coming into season right now is almost shot. And of course with the dilapidation now and the bombing of the rail lines and the ports being blocked off, there – the – this crop looks like it may not – we may not be able to get any of it out.
So we’re in a very critical situation. I said earlier and I stand by what I said: I think what they’re doing is war crimes. Anytime you do the things that they’re doing and then use food as a weapon also is just – it’s unconscionable and it’s unbelievable. And so I think personally and I think the United States agrees that the – Russia can – Putin can end this. Just pull out. Stop this senseless, unjustified war, and let’s start feeding people and going back to making sure that people have quality lives and are sustained through life.
Moderator: Well, I think we will draw this to a close on that very sobering, sobering note. Thank you to all the journalists on the line for your questions, and thank you very much, Ambassador McCain, for joining us.
Ambassador McCain: No, thanks.
Moderator: Before we close the call, I’d like to see if you have any closing remarks for us, Ambassador.
Ambassador McCain: Oh, sure. Well, Justin, thank you so much for having me, and to the hub, thank you for listening and for joining in. This is an important conversation and you had great questions, which I really appreciate. This is a very complicated issue and it’s very – sometimes a little tough to understand if you’re not in it every day the way some of us are. As I said earlier, food security is at the heart of every global crisis we face, and this crisis is especially deep. And I hope that the upcoming meeting in New York brings concrete results, and I really hope that Russia puts an end to this senseless war before more innocent people around the world have to suffer.
And with that said, please know that we here in Rome value your input as reporters and journalists and your moving the message of a food security crisis within your articles and your podcasts and everything else that you do. It’s really important to make sure that we keep this issue alive and that we make sure people understand that this is not going to be solved if this war ends. We’re in a deep crisis now. Thank you again for having me. I appreciate the opportunity.
Moderator: Well, thank you very much, Ambassador. Very shortly, the Brussels Media Hub will send the audio recording of this briefing to all the participating journalists and we’ll also provide a transcript as soon as it becomes available. We’d also love to hear your feedback, and you can contact us at any time at TheBrusselsHub@state.gov. Thank you very much for your participation and we hope you can join us again for another press briefing soon. This concludes the call.