Remarks by Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield on Tackling the Global Food Security Crisis at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs

Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield
U.S. Representative to the United Nations
Chicago, Illinois
August 25, 2022


AMBASSADOR LINDA THOMAS-GREENFIELD: You know when you give a diplomat the opportunity to stand in front of a microphone, she does not pass that opportunity up. [Laughter.] But let me start by thanking all of you – thanking the Chicago Council on Global Affairs – for hosting this event, and thank you, Ertharin, for joining me in this conversation.

Ertharin and I met when I was Ambassador to Liberia and she was head of the World Food Program, and we took a road trip, if you will recall, to visit a small village where WFP was providing food. And a road trip in Liberia is not like a road trip in the United States. It was quite an adventure. So, you have no choice but to get to know each other up close and personal and develop a long-term relationship. So, having Ertharin as a friend since that time has been extraordinary.

Let me say that this is the perfect place to talk about our deeply interconnected world and why, specifically, Americans from all parts of our country should care about the global food security crisis. After all, the Chicago Council was born in response to pervasive isolationism. In 1922, many of the leaders of this city and this country thought the best foreign policy was to avoid alliances and diplomatic relations and bury their heads in the sand. But the forward-looking founders of this institution had a better idea.

A century later, with COVID, conflicts, and climate change, it might be tempting to bury our heads in the sand again, to buy into the false dichotomy that we ought to focus on our own problems and not on the problems of others. But the truth is, our greatest challenges are shared. Our world is deeply interconnected. The right policies abroad help us all here at home. And the food insecurity crisis offers an urgent example.

Right now, the world is experiencing the worst food security crisis any of us have ever seen. And according to the World Food Program, Ertharin’s former organization, over 828 million people go to bed hungry every night – 828 million people. The reasons are myriad. COVID has strained supply lines. Energy costs have made it more expensive to produce and ship food. Rising temperatures and severe droughts have destroyed crops and left fields fallow. And in many conflicts around the world, food is intentionally blocked or destroyed, and dictators use starvation as a weapon of war.

We see this no more acutely than with Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. Before the war, Russia and Ukraine accounted for almost a quarter of global grain exports. But now Ukraine’s once rolling wheat fields have become battle fields. This doesn’t just severely impact Ukraine. It severely impacts us all. It matters because we are a moral nation. We care if the world is starving. It matters because it affects us economically. Food security is directly linked to economic growth. And it matters because food insecurity leads us to political and social instability. And that endangers us all.

That’s why the Biden Administration has been using every diplomatic tool in our arsenal to tackle the food insecurity crisis head-on. Earlier this year, Secretary Blinken and I convened a ministerial in New York to forge a Roadmap for Global Food Security. Over a hundred countries have now signed on to the common picture of this crisis and a common agenda for addressing it. And since May, we have been working together with the UN and others to encourage partnerships on addressing this issue with more donors around the world – including a $4.5 billion commitment at the G7 summit, over half of which came from the United States. We also supported UN efforts to get grain and other food exports out of Ukraine through the Black Sea. And in September, the President will convene heads of state from around the world for a Global Food Security Summit at the UN to move this work forward.

Meanwhile, and we’ll talk a bit about this later, but I traveled to Uganda, Ghana, and Cabo Verde earlier this month to see the impact of this crisis firsthand. And I met with farmers, and I met with leaders, and I met with civil society members. I met with people selling food in the marketplace, and I heard from all of them how the costs were going up, and how their trust in the international system was going down. And so, in a keynote speech I gave in Ghana, I outlined a new vision for peace and progress on food security in Africa, one where Africa serves as its own breadbasket.

Core to that project is Feed the Future, this is a U.S. government commitment to fight global hunger and food security – a food security initiative. It’s a program that’s built on a blueprint that I understand came out of the Chicago Council, that was provided to the Obama Administration back in 2009. This summer, President Biden dramatically expanded Feed the Future, adding eight countries to a total of 20. And as part of Feed the Future, USAID has developed farmer-to-farmer programs, where farmers here in the United States provide technical assistance to farmers around the world. After all, America is facing similar challenges like rising fertilizer costs, increased extreme weather due to climate change, and I understand that I’ve been credited with bringing the rain to Chicago today. When I was in Uganda, it rained, and I was credited with bringing rain to Uganda. So, I’m on a roll. But climate change really is important. And it’s important to get locally grown food to people who need it as well.

So this morning, I visited the Urban Growers Collective, which is working to grow and supply fresh food to feed communities on Chicago’s West and South sides. And I was so impressed with what they were doing there that I almost didn’t show up here. It started raining, so that was an excuse to get out, but they’re working with communities to help communities get healthy food.

And to that end, the Biden Administration has also been working to transform America’s food systems. So, we’re increasing local food production, we’re building new markets and streams of income for farmers and making historic investments toward climate resiliency. That will increase access to healthy, locally grown food for Americans. And it will help us meet our global responsibility through exports and donations to ensure global food security. Illinois is central to these efforts. And after all, you are consistently one of the country’s top three exporters of plant products. You’re one of the largest exporters of corn in the country. You provide food for the world.

And under President Biden’s leadership, the Department of Agriculture is investing up to $500 million in fertilizer production that will allow farmers like the ones here in Illinois to grow more, both for America and for export overseas. And when President Biden signed the Inflation Reduction Act into law, he took the single most aggressive action in our history to confront the climate crisis. It will help the entire country transition to a clean economy. And it will galvanize other countries to accelerate their own actions on climate.

Because the bottom line is this: we’re all in this together. America will never be immune from global challenges; be it conflict or COVID or climate. But we do have the power to choose how we respond. And we are choosing to engage with the world on issues that matter to us all.

Thank you very much.

MODERATOR: Thank you very much, Madam Ambassador. Before we begin – I think it’s important – you mentioned my role at the World Food Program. We need to acknowledge that Catherine Bertini who was one of my predecessors at the World Food Program and one of the lead authors of that report that you spoke about that came from the Council along with former Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman. Thank you, Catherine, for being here.

So, you are by title and by the force of your presence there every single day the U.S. Representative to the United Nations and – the U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations, I should say. And as the ambassador sitting in that chair, this is one of the most difficult times to occupy that post because we – the United Nations was created just for these kinds of tough geopolitical moments. And you spoke about the Russian invasion into Ukraine, the effect that that is having on global hunger. We need a strong United Nations. We need multilateral action led by the United Nations. You must work with the Security Council and the P5. Russia sits on the P5. So does China. How do you as the Representative for the United States on that Security Council support the work that is necessary to ensure that the UN can perform the action that is required?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: That’s an amazingly important question. And I’ll start with the fact that we need to be there, and we need to be there in a strong way. And there was a general sense, when I arrived in New York in February 2021, that we had been out of play and that our leadership had not been particularly present. And so, I was warmly welcomed by all the members of the Security Council, including the other members of the P5, because U.S. presence – U.S. leadership – is seen as important.

As we address the difficult issues we face that relate to peace and security around the globe, the crisis in Ukraine has been a test of the strength of the Security Council and particularly of the P5. Others look at the P5 and say, if you guys are not together then we can’t solve the crises of the world. And this is particularly hard when one member of the P5 has – as I heard someone say yesterday – shredded the Charter of the United Nations and attacked its smaller neighbor.

So, it’s difficult, but we have to find ways of working together. At the same time, we cannot let one country – a permanent member of the Security Council – get a pass. So,we worked immediately to condemn Russia. So, when people said the Security Council is not working – the UN is not working – we brought 141 countries to the table to condemn Russia’s actions in Ukraine. And they felt that. We later had over 120 countries support a humanitarian response for Ukraine. We worked as partners and allies to suspend and kick Russia off the Human Rights Council. And we’re working every day to isolate them in other organizations, and they do feel it. They are not getting away without the – they’re not getting away with murder – without the condemnation, and they know – and they’ve heard from all of us – that we’re going to hold them accountable. So, the UN is doing what the UN is able to do. We’re not a perfect institution, but it is what we have to deal with issues of peace and security, and I think we have been extraordinarily successful, but more work needs to be done.

MODERATOR: You noted the Russian invasion into Ukraine. And many would suggest that that invasion created the perfect storm that is now leading to this food crisis – this high food price crisis – that we are already beginning to witness in a number of countries. But I say we already begin to witness but there have been recent reports this week, that now that the Black Sea is open and ships are leaving Ukraine, that the forecast of a perfect storm of global food prices have been overblown. You just returned from a trip to Africa, where you visited Ghana, Uganda, Cape Verde. What’s your impression of the food security crisis?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: We were pulling out all the stops to deal with this perfect storm of COVID and climate and conflict that has been exacerbated by the Russian attack on Ukraine. And we’re very supportive of the Secretary-General’s efforts to open-up the Black Sea to get food out of Ukraine through Odesa but it is just a small step, right now, to start to address those problems. It is not the answer. The answer is for Russia to stop its unprovoked attack on Ukraine. And that will be the corridor for which we will start to address the impact of this conflict on the food crisis.

Russia has attacked Ukrainian farms. They’ve stolen wheat from their silos. And until recently, they blocked the access to the Black Sea. The impact is long term. And it’s going to take several years before we’re able to start to address the impact that they’ve had on this, but that doesn’t mean we should stop. We have to continue the effort and do everything possible. Because again, this has had a global impact.

When I was in Africa, I heard from – I went to a farm and here’s a woman who is a farmer –she had five acres that she planted. Because of the price of fertilizer, she’s only able to plant one acre. So, we’re talking about dropping down to 20% of her production because she can’t afford the price of fertilizer because the vast majority of the fertilizer and ammonia come from Russia.

Others talked about the price of food in the market. I went into the market and women were saying first – to get this vat of tomatoes, this is what it costs me, but I can’t get my money back because people can’t afford to purchase the tomatoes at the price that she bought them for. So, she’s feeling that, and women who are actually purchasers are feeling it.

And then I come here to Chicago and go to an urban farm and hear a discussion about the impact of the urban desert on communities here in Chicago. And having these urban farms, it’s one way of addressing this issue. When I talked to them about how they can use the technology and experience that they have gathered here to work with African women on kitchen gardens and how they can address issues, alternative uses for fertilizers, so that they’re not so dependent on fertilizer

MODERATOR: As you visited with those women and a country like Uganda where food security and acute food security is at some 41% right now. And you saw the challenges on the West Side of the City of Chicago. You will have people who will say we need to take care of home. Why is it important that the U.S. continue to play an active role at home, of course, but in places like Uganda, Ghana, Cape Verde.

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Well, what happens globally impacts us locally. So, listening at – local news this morning, I’m hearing that the price of fuel oil for heat will be significant here because of the war in Ukraine. So, how do you address that? We have to end that war. We have to be able to work with our allies to bring that war to a conclusion so that the impact on the global supply chain does not impact our pocketbooks here in the United States.

We’re no longer in a world where we can isolate ourselves into our small communities into our small villages and take care of our own needs without being impacted by what is happening tens of thousands of miles away in Ukraine. And so, it is important that local communities have a sense of how the world impacts them. And yes, we want to take care of our own, but we can’t take care of our own if the rest of the world is collapsing.

And I’ll use COVID as an example, because the President was very clear that we cannot address COVID here in the United States and not address the global problem. So, we did provide vaccines. We’ve provided millions of vaccine doses around the world, and as I’ve traveled around the world watching the delivery of those vaccines, watching the administration of the vaccines, and seeing the appreciation that people felt for what the United States was providing, I think, was truly – truly – an important representation of what it means to be a world leader. And that’s what we are, and as leaders we cannot isolate ourselves from the problems of the rest of the world.

MODERATOR: And you noted that COVID was a factor. It’s something that we should recognize that it’s not just a problem over there, it’s probably everywhere. And so you talked about that perfect storm of COVID, conflict, and then let’s talk a bit about climate. Because we know climate is also affecting food security. How will the U.S. foreign aid be used to support and help address the climate effect on agricultural productivity and on our food systems transformation?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Well, the passing of the IRA was a significant achievement of the Administration, because part of that focuses on the impact of climate change and how we can address climate as a global issue.

And one – it’s so much bigger than this – but the one thing that stood out for me as I was looking through what we’re doing is, you know, we’re providing farmers – local farmers from the United States – who will go and share their technical knowledge with farmers elsewhere in the world. We’re looking at how technologies can support better productivity for farms. We’re giving millions of dollars, for example, in Africa to support increased productivity because we know the capacity is there with just a little bit of additional support. And we’re working with American farmers so that American farmers can produce more that can be provided into the export market to address the impact of climate change.

People are starving because they can’t plant. Animals are dying. I heard that over and over again in Ghana. Herders are moving further and further South, encroaching on farmland, causing conflict. So, there is a relationship between hunger and conflict as there is a relationship between conflict and hunger. It is a perfect circle.

MODERATOR: That perfect circle has also affected the governments in these countries. And many would argue that this is also a finance crisis for many of those countries where they expended their resources, their coffers in supporting and addressing COVID, and now they do not have the resources that are necessary to support what you’ve just described as should be a priority for their country in assisting their local farmers.

So, China – I’ll go to those questions now that are starting to come in – Chinese officials were recently in Africa, as well, and have since waived the debt of 17 African nations and offered billions in relief through the IMF. What do you make of this? And what are the implications for the deepening relationships between China and countries on the African continent, and the U.S. and those same countries?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Well, I would say, sort of off-the-cuff, it’s about time China stepped up to the plate and started to provide assistance because they have contributed to the extensive debt of many of these African countries. And so they have to provide debt relief, because if they don’t provide that relief, these countries will go under, which we’ve seen happen in a number of countries who sunk under China’s debt.

We think China can play a much more significant role in helping to address the global food insecurity crisis. China has been buying up wheat to build its own stockpiles. We think they should be pushing more of that wheat out into other countries and that they should play a much more significant role in supporting these countries that they have, unfortunately, contributed to their debt crisis.

MODERATOR: Let me just follow on that for one second. The multi – the international banks, the World Bank, the IMF – there’s been a call by many that would suggest that they should also reduce and waive, if not reconfigure, the debt of many of these countries. And they’ve been reluctant because of China’s debt. So the question is: do you think that the recent actions of China with addressing their debt will result in more debt relief from the World Bank and the IMF?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Well, we think the International Financial Institutions do have a role to play. I was meeting with the Secretary General earlier this week, and he noted to me that this was a major priority that the World Bank and the IMF and others need to play a much more aggressive role in addressing the debt crisis because these countries will sink economically without that support. So again, yes, I do support there being a much more – You know, I think we’re going to have to think outside the box in how we address these issues. And there is a role – a significant role – for the Bretton Woods institutions.

MODERATOR: So, I could ask you lots more questions, but I need to ask one more from here, and then I see we have a long line forming in the room.

What is the UN doing to prepare longer term for climate refugees who will need to leave regions that become uninhabitable due to climate change and will need to be resettled?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: It’s interesting that you raise that because it took a bit of time for there to be global understanding of what it meant to be a climate refugee. I think in the past, we put climate refugees in the same basket as economic migrants. They were fleeing because of the economic situation in their country and not recognizing that they actually were impacted by climate change.

And the UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations are looking at – one – how to address these issues before people decide to vote with their feet and move elsewhere. What kinds of support can we provide to them to help them start to mitigate the impact of climate on their lives so that they’re not forced to move? But once they make the decision to move, how do we provide additional support for them so that they’re in a better position to take care of their basic needs?

MODERATOR: We often get questions when we talk about food security, global food security, about aquatic foods, particularly because we don’t often talk about them. And so, the question is, how do they fit into the U.S.’s support? And because these foods can contribute importantly to sustainability, including through improving nutrition, climate, and ocean health and U.S. leadership would be invaluable in this space. Do you agree?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: I agree. That’s one more tool that we have. One more possibility to address the food crisis, and I don’t think we should turn our backs on any new technologies, new ways of producing food. I’m seeing these urban gardens, but also urban gardens on top of buildings that no one thought of before. So certainly, aqua agriculture is one more element that we ought to be looking to add to our arsenal.

MODERATOR: So, we have lots of questions all over the map here. So, we’re going to go back to your opening comments when you were talking about the P5. We have a question here: Without reform of the P5, do you think the UN will survive?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: The UN has to survive. That’s not a choice that any of us have. It is the only institution that we have that is global. But the Security Council reform is something that we’re all looking at and how we can make the Security Council function more efficiently and, you know, find solutions to these global problems.

There are recommendations that we should add new members to the Council – new permanent members as well as new elected members to the Council – and all of those are being looked at across the board. There are a number of UN members who are leading on the forefront of this discussion. And we’ve been an active participant.

One that – one reform that just happened recently, the Government of Liechtenstein proposed in the General Assembly that the P5 be required to come before the General Assembly to explain why they felt the need to use their veto power. And we decided to join as a co-sponsor of that, because we do think the P5 has to show responsibility in how it uses its veto power.

MODERATOR: So, I’ve been asked to take a question from the room. So, can you step to the microphone? Give your name and briefly state your question. Thank you.

QUESTION: Hi, I’m Isabella. Thank you so much, Ambassador. So, I know that plant-based foods require less resources such as land and water usage and have less of an environmental impact and therefore can feed more people with the same amount of resources. So, my question here is, as a global leader, what policies has the United States implemented to promote more of a plant-based diet, both in this country and around the world?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: You know, we look for all opportunities to help to improve the environment. I can’t give you a specific policy that we have on that issue, but we’re certainly working to encourage more efficient farming and that’s plant-based, it’s not animal-based, and looking for opportunities to support technologies that support plant-based diets. And companies, I’m sure many in this room, have worked on that and certainly with the support of the U.S. government. But I’ll look for something specific and we can get back to you on that.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MODERATOR: Let’s take another question from the room.

QUESTION: Hi, my name is Aaron Masliansky, and it’s an honor to be able to ask you a question, and I greatly appreciate it. While we’ve been in this room, there have been reports of fires at the Ukrainian nuclear plant, the Zaporizhzhya plant, and they’ve been disconnected – Ukraine has been disconnected from that plant. What do you expect the Administration’s response be to that? While it’s not global food security it does certainly impact.

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD:  This is a huge concern that we have discussed almost on a daily basis at the Security Council and in the United Nations. Russia needs to remove itself from that plant. They raised it in their disinformation campaign indicating that they were being attacked by the Ukrainians, and we said to them clearly that they need to leave the plant because of these concerns. We’ve been pushing for an IAEA visit. The Ukrainians invited the IAEA. The Secretary-General was there last week and pushed both sides to allow for an IAEA investigation. And what I heard but we have not seen confirmed, and this is very worrisome that you just shared with us, that both sides agreed that the IAEA could come into the plant and do an investigation. But we’re dealing with a pariah state. We’re dealing with the Russians. We can never trust their word. We have to judge them by their actions. The actions that you’re describing, if true, shows that, again, they are not to be trusted.

MODERATOR: So, we have time for one more question. And then we’re going to bid adieu to our online participants but carry forward with the discussion in the room and if you have a question, I’d ask you to please go to the microphone. I’d ask you to please go to the microphone if you have a question. Thank you. Next.

QUESTION: It’s a pleasure to be here, Madam Ambassador. Madam Ambassador, my apologies for what happened earlier. I fixed my phone so that I can take another picture after you’re done, please. Can you talk about what it is that you had to clean up from your predecessor when you found yourself walking into this job on its first day? Because a lot of damage in your position was done in four years of your predecessor.

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: That’s an extraordinarily important and interesting question, because what I found was, one, a real welcome from all of my colleagues that we were back on the multilateral stage, so we were truly embraced. But there was also a lack of trust and a lack of confidence and whether our words could be trusted, whether we could – that we’re back for good or this was temporary – and that’s still out there. And so, people, while they were embracing us, were nervous about us. Whether, you know, this commitment that we’re making now, is it a commitment that we can trust that you guys are going to honor? How long are you back for?

And just re-establishing relationships. Doing meetings every single day. I have, there are 193 members of the UN, and I think – I’ve been there a year and a half – I’ve met with about 130. And I try every single day to at least do two a day. So that when a small country, like the Solomon Islands – I met with the Solomon Islands Permanent Representative this week – that they know who we are and when I call them to say, “look you need to join us in condemning Russia,” it’s not the first time they’ve ever heard from me. And that has been one of the goals that I’ve worked to achieve that I think we lost a lot of leverage on during the previous four years.

MODERATOR: From my experience in serving in Rome, I know those small nation states appreciate so much when they hear from the United States. And so, that engagement with the Solomon Islands will pay dividends to you throughout your tenure. So that is quite impressive.

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: I visited Cape Verde for example, and again, an important island country that has been at the forefront of democracy. We have to make sure we continue to embrace every single country in the world to make sure that we are living what we preach. And that is that democracy matters, and democracy delivers to its people, and we need to make sure we embrace all of those democracies.

MODERATOR: That’s fantastic. Next question.

QUESTION: Thank you very much. I’m Adele Simmons. My godfather was one of your predecessors, Adlai Stevenson. But, so, my one question is, are you still staying at the Waldorf? But more important, could you talk more about U.S.-Russian relationships? You’ve talked about some specific pieces of it. But I think how we manage and deal with Putin and his group at this time is an enormous challenge, and I’d love to hear your thoughts.

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: We’re not in the Waldorf anymore. The Chinese bought the building, and they’re refurbishing it, so we bought an apartment elsewhere. You know, the Russians are on the Security Council, and I have to constantly remind people, they’re there. They’re a permanent member; it’s in the UN Charter. We can’t change it. So we have to figure out a way of working with them and around them to achieve our own interests and our own goals.

So, to give you an example, last year, we got a one-year extension of the Syrian resolution. We worked with the Russians to get their support and agreement to vote, and we got a unanimous vote on that resolution. This year they were difficult and uncooperative. And we ended up not being able to work with them on achieving that resolution. I’m reminded every single day that we can’t forget the rest of the world. So, there are going to be areas where we will find – because of our own national interest – we find a way to work with the Russians and the Chinese as well as with others. But it has to be in our own interests, as well as the interests of the world and not just in their interests. Climate change is one of those areas where we hope to be able to continue to work with them.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MODERATOR: Well, I had hoped that we would have time for more questions. I am being told that we need to close out the program. And I, so this is my opportunity on behalf of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs to say thank you, Ambassador. Thank you for joining us. Thank you for being willing to share so much of your knowledge with our audience. Thank you for being willing to cover questions that were far outside the brief that we gave you. [Laughter.]

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: I’m going to have to look up this question on plant-based policy. [Laughter.]

MODERATOR: Well, that just shows what a great diplomat that you are and how important you as a leader are for the United States, and particularly during this very difficult time that no question stumped you. You still answered it. And we very much appreciate it, and we appreciate that we have an audience here in the room. After two years, we’re back, and we are proud to have had Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield as that first speaker to reopen the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. Thank you, Ambassador.