Moderator: Greetings to everyone from the U.S. Department of State’s Media Hub of the Americas in Miami, Florida. I would like to welcome our participants who have dialed in from the United States and across the region. This is an on-the-record press briefing with Jose Fernandez, Under Secretary of State for Economic Growth, Energy, and the Environment.
Under Secretary Fernandez will discuss food security in Latin America. He will give opening remarks and take questions from participating journalists.
And with that, I’ll turn it over to Under Secretary Fernandez.
Under Secretary Fernandez: Thank you. Thank you, Kristina. Good afternoon, everyone. Buenas tardes. Boa tarde. It’s a pleasure to be here. Let me just make a couple of remarks early on, and then I’ll be delighted to take questions.
Look, let’s start with where we’ve been in the last five years. In the last five years, the number of people that have been living in acute foot insecurity has increased from 100 million to about 160 million. And this is in large part because of climate, conflict, COVID, and increased demand. But the world food organizations’ project the conflict in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will push more than an additional 40 million people into food insecurity.
Prior to the – to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, we had a number of initiatives that were starting to make [inaudible] we were hopefully making a dent on food insecurity – climate-smart agriculture. We have agriculture innovation missions for climate. We have our Feed the Future program and we have a number of other programs.
But what’s happened now is because of the war in Ukraine, right now Russia’s military forces have occupied some of Ukraine’s most productive farmland. They’ve planted explosives throughout the fields. They’ve destroyed and stolen vital agricultural infrastructure. We now have a naval blockade and a threat of further attacks that are preventing crops from being exported. And so we now have a situation where 20 million tons are trapped in silos and ships in Ukraine. And as I said earlier, there are credible reports that Russia is pilfering Ukraine’s grain exports to sell for its own profit. So not only are they destroying the agricultural infrastructure, but they’re taking the exports that could have been sold by Ukraine and selling them for their own profit, and those that they cannot sell, they are [inaudible] on Ukraine’s coast.
What this does is it means that millions of people that are far from Ukraine, people around the world, especially in Latin America but also in the Middle Eastern region and Africa, are at risk of food security – insecurity.
So what are we doing? Well, we can go into this a little bit more, but we’ve provided already $2.8 billion – $2.8 billion to food security. Plus, there also a supplemental additional aid of five and a half billion dollars that we are projecting. Second, there’s also – in countries such as Brazil, I know there’s a concern with fertilizer, and we’re working with other countries to mitigate the shortage in fertilizer. President Biden has announced a $500 million investment to increase U.S. fertilizer production, to increase capacity.
We are continuing – this is number three. We are continuing to work through our initiative, Feed the Future, which is providing about a billion dollars a year in food aid, increasing our agricultural capacity and resilience. We’re also providing additional assistance to cushion the shocks of this crisis in the most vulnerable populations. We’re working diplomatically with our allies and partners on improving food security and trying to mitigate the consequences of Putin’s invasion.
On that score, I do want to remind you that on May 18th, we hosted the Global security – Food Security Call to Action. We had countries and regional organizations take steps, and they pledged $215* in new emergency food assistance, largely to African countries, bringing the total U.S. funding for emergency food assistance to the $2.8 billion that I just mentioned, and for countries in Africa, the Middle East, and Latin – and South America and Central America.
Now what is happening is this week, tomorrow I believe, we have a – we are supporting the German-led Global Alliance for Food Security to meet on donor responses and to coordinate additional actions to increase global food security. We have approximately 40 countries represented by foreign ministers coming as well as a number of UN crisis groups.
So tomorrow Secretary Blinken will head to Germany to join foreign ministers for the Berlin ministerial conference on June 24th. And what he’s going to do, the Secretary will work with his counterparts to address food insecurity – food insecurity stemming not just from Russia’s unprovoked and brutal war against Ukraine, but also the effect of other conflicts.
And so we’re doing all we can. We are well aware of the crisis that has been created because of the shortage of food around the world, and we will continue to do what we can to help countries around the world to meet this need.
So with that, let me just, Kristina, ask you to just ask our colleagues if they have any questions.
Moderator: Thank you, Under Secretary. We will now begin the question and answer portion of today’s call.
Our first question will go to Claudia Torrens from Associated Press. The question is: “Food insecurity is tied to migration. Tell us which areas are most concerning to you within Latin America when it comes to food insecurity.”
Under Secretary Fernandez: Look, there are a number of countries that are affected by food insecurity. Obviously, the one that we hear about more here in the U.S. are our neighbors in Central America. But it is a – no country is immune from food insecurity. We’ve seen over the years how different crops are affected. I would say food insecurity continues to be a problem, continues to be something we’re concerned about and we’re working to mitigate in Central America, but also countries that can ill afford it – Venezuela, for example. That just adds to the woes that the population there is feeling.
Moderator: Thank you. We will now go to Philippe Buteau. Operator, please open line 22.
Moderator: Yes, please go ahead.
Question: Thank you, Under Secretary. My question is: Would the State Department consider working with the Millennium Challenge Corporation to grant to the governments of developing countries or to stop the food insecurity problem?
Under Secretary Fernandez: Yeah, thank you for the question. Look, the Millennium Challenge Corporation, we’re very proud of it. It’s a program that was started by the first – by – I’m sorry, by President Bush, and it does good work all around the world. We cooperate with the MCC. We work with them jointly. But keep in mind that the Millennium Challenge Corporation works with countries to ascertain the needs. So they would have – the countries working together with the MCC would have to come up with a plan, and of course we would – and I have in the past personally worked with the MCC to try and help implement the projects, the programs that have done a lot of good around the world, and we continue to support it.
Moderator: Thank you. The next question goes to Bertha Becerra from El Sol de Mexico. The question is: “Given the situation in Eastern Europe due to the war conflict, since both nations are producers of grains and fertilizer, what measures are taken so that more grains and oil [inaudible] do not become more expensive in our hemisphere?”
Under Secretary Fernandez: Sorry, you could – could you repeat the – what?
Moderator: What measures – yes. “What measures are taken so that more grains and oil [inaudible] do not become more expensive in our hemisphere?”
Under Secretary Fernandez: Look, let’s start from the beginning. We – it’s the – this is because of the Russian Government has tried to deflect responsibility for its actions by blaming everyone but Russia for the worsening crisis in the global food system. It’s part of their disinformation campaign. Start from the basics. Okay. And this goes – this will answer your question, I hope.
Russia is using food as a weapon. It’s using food as a weapon by blocking the export of foodstuffs from Russia – from Ukraine’s ports. We are not sanctioning – now, this is not an opinion. This is in black and white. You take a look at General License No. 6. The U.S. is not sanctioning exports of Russian grain, agricultural commodities, fertilizer, and medicines. In fact, it explicitly – black and white – exempts those agricultural commodities, as were mentioned, from sanction.
So the first thing that needs to happen for us to be able to start reducing the consequences of the worsening crisis in the global food system is for Russia to stop the invasion. That is the most important thing that needs to be done.
What are we in the U.S. doing to help mitigate the food security crisis? Number one – and I mentioned some of this in my beginning talk – we are a leader, and have been – this is way before the Russia-Ukraine conflict – we’ve been a leader in addressing food insecurity, and in fact we have committed to work with Congress to invest more than 11 billion – $11 billion over the next three years to address food insecurity.
Since the war began, we have provided – we’ve announced $2.8 billion, as I mentioned, in humanitarian aid assistance. We’ve got the American farmers that are doing more to expand their agricultural production. We’ve got the Feed the Future program that has been around since 2007 at the State Department to provide additional foodstuffs to needed areas.
So we are continuing to do what we can, and in fact we believe that we lead the world in providing food security assistance. But at the end of the day, we need the invasion to end and we need Russia to stop blocking, as I said at the beginning, more than 20 million tons of foodstuffs in the ports and silos in Ukraine.
Moderator: Thank you. The next question was sent by Everardo Martinez from El Heraldo. [Inaudible] subsidies which will help people with more purchasing power instead of subsidies only for diesel and food?
Under Secretary Fernandez: Subsidies for – Kristina, repeat that, please. I’m sorry, I was hoping you could – yeah.
Moderator: “In Mexico, would you recommend passing gasoline subsidies instead of subsidies only for diesel and food?”
Under Secretary Fernandez: Well, I – one thing I’ve learned in life is not to provide unrequested consejos to other countries. I couldn’t answer that. That’s really a question for the Mexican Government to provide, but it underscores the fact that in Mexico, as throughout Latin America, you are seeing the effects of the invasion on the people that are most needed – that are most – neediest. But I can’t comment on that. I’m sorry.
Moderator: Thank you. We have one question from Anna Ramdass from Trinidad Express in Trinidad and Tobago. The question is as follows. “What assistance, if any, will be given to Latin American and Caribbean countries in particular to assist with food security? Trinidad and Tobago and other small nations are experiencing high prices in wheat, leading to increased prices to an already burdened population.”
Under Secretary Fernandez: Yeah, look, as I mentioned at the beginning, we have a number of programs. We have the food security program. We’ve provided over – we’ve provided just since the war began in February more than $2.8 billion in humanitarian food assistance. Some of that is going to Latin America. We are also working with countries. I have personally been involved with Brazil to try and support their production of fertilizer. We’ve provided $500 million of assistance to our farmers so that they can increase the production of fertilizer, some of which can be exported. Over the next three years, we’ve committed to invest more than $11 billion to address food insecurity.
This is something we’ve been doing for a long time, and we will continue to do all we can to ameliorate the situation. Again, a situation that Latin America did not create, but Latin America as well as many countries around the world that are really far away from Ukraine are feeling right now.
Moderator: Thank you. We have time for one more question. The question comes from Adela de Coriat from La Estrella de Panama. The question is: “Will the United States enter a recession in 2023? How much longer are we going to have escalated oil prices and how does this intercede in the food chain, especially in Latin American countries?”
Under Secretary Fernandez: Increasing food prices and oil prices affect agriculture, obviously. It affects the price of fuel needed to transport food. It affects the cost of fertilizers. It has an effect on food prices.
We – President Biden has taken a number of steps to lower gas prices to U.S. families, but also to reduce the prices around the world. The President has announced the release of a record 1 million barrels per day from our strategic petroleum reserve, which has been critical. And lead oil market analysts will tell you this has been critical in keeping this from rising even more. A couple of months ago, he rallied international partners to join the United States by releasing a combined 240 million barrels of oil on the market. We’ve also expanded access to biofuels like E15. This is gasoline that uses 15 percent of ethanol. Increasing supply lowers prices. And we’re also engaging with oil and refining companies to ask them to work with the administration to bring forth concrete solutions that increase refinery capacity and output.
The other thing to keep in mind is our oil and gas industry is – has continued to improve production. Right now, more than 50 percent of the gas that’s imported into Europe comes from the United States. This is something that was not – did not take place until earlier this year, and it was a result of our gas producers just ramping up production in order to make up for the loss of gas from Russia. Just already in the first year of this administration, okay, just in the first year of the Biden administration, the U.S. has produced more oil than it did under the first two years of the prior administration. And so we are ramping up production. We are working with countries around the world to increase their production. And we believe that it’s having some effect.
But again, we’ve also known, Kristina, that this – Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was not going to be painless. We’re all feeling it. We in the U.S. are feeling it at the gas pump. In Latin America that’s also being felt and it has knock-on effects on inflation and also on fertilizer prices.
So we are – we’ve always known this was not going to be painless and we’re feeling the pain, but we’re doing all we can to reduce that pain on the continent and also to – frankly, to increase the costs to Putin, to do all we can. Thank you.
Moderator: Thank you. Before concluding today’s call, I’d like to pass the word back to Under Secretary Fernandez for closing remarks.
Under Secretary Fernandez: Thank you. Look, thank you very much for this opportunity and I hope we can do this more in the future. I think let’s keep something in mind. The reason we thought it was important to have this conversation is that there’s a lot of misinformation on – coming from Russia on the causes of the food insecurity [inaudible] not just in Latin America, but around the world, and it’s being used for many reasons.
Something to keep in mind: When you look at food insecurity, first of all, we were in a difficult situation at the beginning of the year, but then Russia invaded Ukraine. It invaded Ukraine. It captured Ukrainian farmland. It put landmines on the Ukrainian fields. It has bombed Ukrainian agricultural plants and silos. It is now blocking ports – 20 to 25 million tons of food right now are being blocked by Putin. And he’s saying that if we want that food to be released, we’ve got to cut our sanctions. So he’s basically blackmailing people around the world who need this food today. And then to add insult to injury, Russia is stealing, pilfering the exports from Ukraine and selling it for its own benefit.
So we wanted to make it clear that these are the reasons why the – why the food prices have skyrocketed in the last few months, that were also – I want to make it clear that we are doing all we can to help with the food insecure around the world with billions of dollars of aid, and we will continue to do that.
And then the last thing to stress is we do not have sanctions on food, on medicine or on fertilizer. In fact, they are explicitly – black and white – excluded from our sanctions. Russia is selling lots of oil and gas around the world. It could do the same thing for food if that’s what it wanted to do, but it’s not doing that because it’s holding the food insecure populations of the world hostage as we speak.
Moderator: That concludes today’s call. I want to thank Under Secretary Fernandez for joining us and thank all of our callers for participating. If you have any questions about today’s call, you may contact the Miami Media Hub at MiamiHub@state.gov. Thank you and have a good day.