Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield’s Interview with Ravi Agrawal at the FP Summit: Food+ 2022

Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield
U.S. Representative to the United Nations
New York, New York
December 14, 2022


MODERATOR:  Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, welcome. Thank you for joining us.

AMBASSADOR LINDA THOMAS-GREENFIELD:  Good. Thank you, Ravi. I’m really delighted to be here with you.

QUESTION:  It is always good to speak with you, and I think in this case specifically, I know you care so much about the issue of food security and everyone having access to food a lot at a personal level. I guess it’s important to maybe just begin with that. Why is this an issue that is so personal to you?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD:  You know, Ravi, I spent 35 years in the Foreign Service, and half of that period focused on humanitarian. And I served in Kenya working in refugee camps and traveling to Uganda and refugee camps in Goma. I lived and worked in Pakistan working in refugee camps, and then eventually ended up heading our Refugee and Migration Affairs Office in Geneva.  And one of the things that resonated with me throughout that period is that food was a major issue to really focus on in terms of humanitarian work.

And when I was selected for this job, my team said, “What do you want to focus on? What’s going to be your signature during your tenure as the UN ambassador?” And for me, it immediately became food security. I’ve watched a two-year-old baby – and she looked like a baby, I didn’t realize she was two – I watched her die from hunger. I’ve visited refugee camps in Kenya where a refugee – we were providing bulgur wheat to a refugee, and he didn’t know how to prepare bulgur wheat. It was all we had available, and we provided it, and we provided it in – really in good faith. But this refugee looked at me and said, “I don’t know how to eat this.  I don’t know how to cook this. It would be easier for me to eat sand.” And at the time I was like, this is food, but it was not what they needed.

I watched another refugee who we’d provided a month’s worth of food to; we gave him kidney beans and he divided up his whole ration for 30 days, laid it out and showed me a handful of beans that was maybe 16 beans and said, “This is my ration for today.”


AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD:  So this is really personal for me, and as we have gone through the experience that we’ve gone through over the past two years with the war in Ukraine and the impact that that’s had on food insecurity, I have thought about all of those times in the past where I’ve dealt with this issue, and for me this is the most important issue that we can address from the humanitarian standpoint right now.

QUESTION:  Thank you for sharing those personal stories.  I think that’s really important and it frames the rest of this discussion. I should also point out that food security isn’t normally the primary remit of a U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, so I thank you for your focus on that effort.

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD:  You know, Ravi, the primary focus is peace and security, and people will not have peace and security if they do not have food security.  So, I would disagree with you that this is not the primary focus. This is a primary focus for any U.S. ambassador or any ambassador going forward.

QUESTION:  It should be. I agree. I stand corrected. I guess it’s mostly it hasn’t always been the case for your predecessors.


QUESTION:  So, let me ask this – ask you this. I want to push you towards areas where we can think through solutions for the global food crisis, but just very quickly, before we do that, what strikes you as the biggest part of the problem? Is it that we have too many people? Is it that we’re not making enough food, we’re not producing enough? Is it that we’re not efficient enough? Is it that we’re not very good at supply chain logistics? What strikes you as the biggest part of the problem?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD:  I would say – I will give you the easy answer: all of the above.  But truthfully, it is that we need to prioritize food.  We need to prioritize food security, whether it’s supply chain, it’s fertilizer, it’s capacity, it’s delivery of food to people in need. All of those things come together as a priority to ensure that people have enough to eat.

I would argue very strongly that we don’t have a shortage of food. We waste food. We just have to figure out how to get food to the people in need, where they need it, and when they need it.  And there – we should always focus on situations where we are seeing people go through food insecurity issues.

For example, right now in Somalia: Somalia is on the verge of a famine.  We averted it, but it’s still on the edge.  We ought to be laser-focused on what is happening in Somalia right now because people who are food insecure also become politically insecure. Their physical security also is at risk if they are not able to get enough food to feed – to feed their families. And we know right now 828 million people go to bed hungry every night. That should not be the case in the world today.

QUESTION:  That’s 820 million people too many. You’ve written in the past about how you have hopes for the world using technology, for example, to combat food insecurity. Can you talk to us a little bit about that?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD:  Let me go back to 2004.  I always have a story to tell. But in 2004, I was in a program called the Senior Seminar in the State Department, and they took senior officers around the United States to meet American citizens who were doing – making a living. And I had the opportunity to go and live on a farm with a pig farmer in Indiana, and what was so striking to me about that visit: he had this huge combine that had computers on board, and those computers could tell him about forecasts of the weather; he could see all of his fields and areas where there were brown spots and try to figure out what was causing that; he could determine how much fertilizer to deliver. And that was cutting-edge in 2004. And now we’re in 2022, and technology has advanced significantly since then. We need technology to help local farmers get the fertilizer and use it efficiently so that they’re not overusing fertilizer.  We need technology to help farmers in Liberia. I saw women farmers using their cell phones where they were able to connect with the market to say, “I just picked my tomatoes and they are ready to get to the market, and if you’re not here by tomorrow they’ll start rotting.”

So, technology is important to efficiency. Technology is important to production. And I think technology is important to helping people make a living and really advance in this period. And so I think we have to spend more time, more effort in ensuring that we bring technology to the table as we discuss how we address food security issues.

QUESTION:  What are the other main tools in the arsenal for you, for the United States as it looks to take leadership on the issue of global food security?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD:  Well, first and foremost, we are the leader on global food insecurity. We are the leader in providing humanitarian assistance. And we are the leader in providing capacity to countries to address many of these issues. And I think one of the biggest tools that we have in – available to us is diplomacy. It is being able to use our diplomatic platform to engage countries and bring countries together to talk about how we address this issue.

So, we were able in May of this year, to get over 100 countries to sign on to a roadmap to how we will deal with food security issues in the future. We will have 49 African leaders in Washington, probably already right now – the Leaders Summit starts tomorrow – where we will be talking about how we can work and partner with African countries so that they can address the food security issues that they are facing, because many of those countries are suffering more than any other parts of the world because of the war in Ukraine.

So, if we use our diplomatic platform, our leadership, I think we can make a difference in the world as we start to address this issue in the future.

QUESTION:  On that note, on the issue of U.S. leadership, we haven’t talked about the war in Ukraine this year. Give us a sense of how much of a setback the war has represented for food and food security around the world. And then I also want to push you towards explaining a little bit how the Black Sea grain deal and other initiatives have ameliorated some of those disruptions.

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD:  Well, first, what we saw immediately as this war started is the impact that it had on the food supply around the world, but particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East, where many of these countries depended upon Ukraine and Russia for significant portions of the wheat that they imported as well as on oil and energy in those countries. I made a trip to Africa, where I visited Uganda, Ghana, and Cabo Verde, talked with leaders about the impact of the war on their country’s economy. I met with farmers. I visited a granary in Uganda, met with farmers in Ghana. And all of them understood very, very clearly the impact that this war was having on their ability to continue to produce.

One woman farmer in Ghana told me that she was only able to plant one acre of her five acres because of lack of fertilizer.  The price had gone up so significantly, and she knew that this came about as a result of the war in Ukraine. And I gave a keynote speech in Ghana, where I talked about the impact of the war and talked about how we might work together to address those issues on the continent of Africa.

The Black Sea deal has been a real game-changer at this moment because it unlocked hundreds of millions of tons of wheat that was being blocked in the Black Sea. And we really have to commend the UN, particularly the Secretary-General for his relentless efforts to push forward this Black Sea initiative. He worked closely with the Government of Turkey, he worked with the Government of Ukraine, he worked with the Russian authorities to get them to the table to figure out how to stop this blockage. And so, it has made a difference over the course of the past few months to see grain moving through the Black Sea into the marketplace. And we know that the vast majority of this grain is going to Africa, to the Middle East.

QUESTION:  I have a broader question. It’s obviously important to ensure a global supply chain of fertilizer and of food, but there’s also the issue of self-sufficiency and that’s something that concerns, I think, the poorest countries the most because when there are disruptions, they’re the ones who tend to suffer first and also the longest. I’m thinking of countries in Africa, but also parts of South and Southeast Asia, parts of Latin America. What can the world do to not only improve supply chains but to simultaneously make some of the least developed countries on the planet more self-sufficient?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD:  Well, that is part of what we will be doing in our conversations with African leaders over the next three days. It’s a conversation we’ve had across the board that these countries actually do have the resources and the capacity to feed themselves. It’s about developing that strategy and building on their capacity to do just that. And that’s what I talked about in Ghana when I delivered my speech on food insecurity there – that we have to work with countries so that they produce enough food to feed themselves. Africans have the resources. They have the people resources. They have the land. And it’s an issue of capacity and an issue of developing a strategy to do that.

There are countries that are exporting flowers. Those same countries could grow wheat to produce flour for consumption. And I think all of these countries have come to realize that they can’t depend on the global food chain. They’re going to have to work together to produce enough food so that they’re not somehow disadvantaged when there is a shortage. And I think they have all come to realize that, and they’re working together to find a way forward and to find solutions, and we will be addressing that again with African leaders as we have done with other countries around the world.

QUESTION:  Last question. When it comes to food security, what is your big priority for 2023 as we look ahead to the new year?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD:  I think I would put those in two buckets. The first is, we have to end the war in Ukraine because that is where the impact on the food chain started, and if we’re able to end that war, allow Ukrainian farmers to go back to their farms to produce the wheat that they were producing, that will have a huge impact on the global food market. And then secondly, to really dig in deep on capacity, helping countries build the – build on the resources they have so that they are able to produce the food that they need to survive and maybe even to thrive and to export to other countries. And so, we’ll be working with countries on how they will develop that capacity over the course of the next year.

At the UN Security Council, peace and security, as you noted at the beginning, is what we focus on; but I do believe that peace and security is also about being able to feed people and not have any child, any person go to bed hungry.

QUESTION:  The links couldn’t be more clear. I wish you all the best in your endeavors in the next year. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, thank you for joining us.

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD:  Thank you so much for having me, Ravi, and I wish you the best in the new year.