“We see the storm coming”: US struggles to contain global food crisis deepening

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky told the UN Security Council on Tuesday that Moscow had provoked a “global food crisis that could lead to famine in Africa, Asia and other countries.” [regions] and large-scale political chaos in many countries. “

Representatives of the White House and the State Department are working with USAID and the WFP to counter the deficit, and President Joe Biden has pledged $ 1 billion in humanitarian aid to “those affected by Russia’s war in Ukraine and its serious consequences around the world.” But after Congress approved $ 4 billion in humanitarian aid to Ukraine and refugees in nearby countries last month as part of a comprehensive spending package, many Republican lawmakers have little political appetite to further fund global food aid. And while the administration has some resources it can use without Congress to send U.S.-grown food to regions in need, agricultural realities, including last year’s widespread drought, planting season dates and rising material costs such as fertilizers and fuels, limit how much U.S. crops can help fill the gap created by the crisis in Ukraine.

According to two people familiar with the plans, the administration plans to unlock additional international food aid in the coming days, including the Bill Emerson Humanitarian Fund, a $ 260 million federal cash reserve the government keeps to buy American grain and other goods to ship. foreign countries in crisis. Lawmakers are pushing Agriculture Minister Tom Wilsak to approve the withdrawal of funds for USAID, which must first formally request it. But congressional aides acknowledge that available funding is a drop in the bucket compared to the general assistance that is needed.

Meanwhile last weekend the push for Congress to provide additional foreign aid failed. A small group of senators has tried to resume efforts to attract $ 1 billion to $ 2 billion in international funding into the Covid-19 package, including about $ 200 million in global food aid. But the plan fell through after Republicans rejected Democrats’ methods of paying for aid, and several Republicans demanded that the Biden administration cancel a move to repeal the Trump-era deportation policy, with a public health order at the southern border 42, according to three assistants to Congress.

Chris Koons (D-Del.), One of the senators seeking additional food aid, lamented the move as a “serious mistake” and argued that “mass starvation is a real impending threat”. Also Koons, a Republican Lindsay Graham South Carolina and other like-minded senators warn that such widespread food shortages could cause mass migration and political destabilization in North Africa and the Middle East, which in turn could threaten U.S. national security. Koons said he would pursue a stand-alone bill with global funding for vaccines and food aid.

“We see a storm coming and feel unprepared for it,” the senior Senate aide said.

Feelings. Bob Menendez (DN.J.) and Jim Rish (R-Idaho), Chief Legislators of the Foreign Affairs Committee, on Tuesday sent a letter requesting the Biden administration will develop a strategy to address the effects of global food security, including the “full use” of the Bill Emerson Humanitarian Foundation and other programs. But they stopped demanding additional funding from Congress.

State Department Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs officials are tracking the global consequences of food insecurity as a result of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

“Vulnerable groups, especially in the Middle East and Africa, are at greater risk because of Russia’s war,” said Ramin Tolui, who heads the bureau.

Tolui said U.S. diplomatic posts are in close contact with countries whose residents are at risk of food security, and U.S. officials are working with allies, multilateral agencies and international financial institutions to address food security.

U.S. officials are particularly concerned about countries such as Afghanistan and Yemen, which are already suffering from severe hunger crises, and Lebanon, where three-quarters of the population lives in poverty. The latter country, already in an economic free fall, received about 80 percent of its grain from Russia and Ukraine before the war. Another blow to Lebanon could keep wheat only about a month after the explosion in Beirut in 2020, which destroyed major grain bins.

With the growing deficit, the US is forcing India, Argentina, China and other countries with significant grain stocks to donate part of their supplies to the World Food Program or at least release it to world markets. After meeting with G-7 leaders late last month, Biden warned of a “real” global food shortage. Biden added that the U.S. and Canada, two major grain exporters, were discussing how the two countries could send more grain abroad to help fill supply gaps.

But as U.S. officials work to close the deficit, they face other challenges: namely, that world wheat stocks, including in the U.S., are declining after last year’s record drought. Governments with surplus grain are reluctant to produce too many of their supplies, including Canada.

Increased demand for wheat, corn and other foods is also reflected at a time when farmers around the world are under enormous financial pressure due to high costs for fuel, fertilizers, seeds and other agricultural materials.

In the U.S., Cecilia Rose, chairman of Biden’s Council of Economic Advisers, told reporters last week that the White House expects U.S. farmers to increase production to benefit from rising commodity prices that have risen sharply since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“As food prices rise, they will respond to additional plantings and try to take advantage of signals of rising prices,” Rose said. “So the market will work the way the market will work.”

Rose added that the U.S. government, including USAID, is working with partners and other international organizations “to get food and ease price pressures” for countries in need.

But American farmers, who usually make plans and order winter supplies for the spring planting season, are already in the fields in some states. The Department of Agriculture released a report a few days after Rose’s remarks stating that American farmers planned to plant about the same number of acres as last year, but with less corn, which added to concerns about grain stocks.

GT Thompson from Pennsylvania, a senior Republican on the House Committee on Agriculture, said the “completely naive” White House said farmers would be able to boost production amid high fuel costs and other production costs.

“We’re not talking about just producing what we’ve always done,” Thompson said. “With hunger, famine and death to come, we will have to give [U.S. farmers] tools to increase their productivity ”.

Thompson, other Republican lawmakers and some farming groups say they want Wilsak to allow farmers to plant crops on land that is currently under federal conservation programs to meet global demand. Wilsak recently rejected the request, arguing that the impact of such a move would be limited as a “significant portion” of the land is located in drought-prone regions. Land is also by design often located in hard-to-reach places to help mitigate soil erosion and trap carbon. Environmental groups were pressing on Wilsak to make him look for alternatives.

If the U.S. fails to respond to the food crisis abroad, some lawmakers are worried that China or other competing countries could use their grain stocks to gain additional political influence in Africa and Asia.

“They are predators. They are extortionists, ”he said. Kevin Kramer (RN.D.) said of China, noting Beijing’s previous efforts to use goods and its own assets as a kind of “predatory lending” tool.

According to economists monitoring the situation, China is unlikely to be able to export significant amounts of grain in the near future. But it is possible that Russia may try to fill a small segment of food gaps left by Ukraine. U.S. officials are concerned that Russia’s recent threat to export its agricultural products only to “friendly” countries will lead some vulnerable countries to remain silent about the Russian invasion.

“That’s why we – as a peace-loving, freedom-loving, generous nation – can’t leave our post in these fragile areas,” Kramer said, adding that he would be inclined to support a separate funding bill. “The emptiness of leadership will meet others who will use it for much less noble purposes.”

Kramer is currently in the minority of his Republican counterparts, many of whom say the United States is already a leading provider of global food aid and that the administration can still spend money on current aid programs – including Kramer’s home state colleague. , John Hoven.

Asked whether the United States should increase funding for programs that purchase and ship American goods abroad, Hoven said: “We must use existing programs.”

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