Remarks by U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack at a UN Press Briefing on Food Security

Secretary Tom Vilsack
U.S. Department of Agriculture
New York, New York
June 16, 2022


MS. MELISSA QUARTELL: Good morning, everyone.  For those of you who don’t know me, I’m Melissa Quartell, the acting spokesperson for the U.S. Mission.  Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield unfortunately is unable to join us, but you hear from us plenty; you know where to find us.  And what’s special about today is that we have U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack here with us, who’s been here in New York for a series of meetings on food security.

It’s not every day that we get the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture at the UN, and his presence here is a demonstration of just how seriously the United States is taking this global food crisis.  So without delay, I will turn it over to Secretary Vilsack.

SECRETARY TOM VILSACK:  Well, thank you very much.  I appreciate the opportunity to be with you this morning.  I had a very informative discussion today with a number of leaders very interested and concerned about global food security.  I think it’s fair to say that all of us in the meeting recognized that global food security is not a new challenge.  However, I think the world’s awareness about global food security has risen and perhaps the significance and import of the challenge has increased as a result of the supply chain disruptions caused by COVID, the challenges that we now see on a regular basis from climate in terms of productivity, and obviously the brutal and unprovoked invasion of Russia – by Russia of Ukraine has obviously caused a disruption in the grain and oil markets and also made it more difficult for many countries to access the inputs necessary to plant crops this year.

I think as we met, there was a consensus that there needs to be a coordinated and comprehensive response to this challenge.  And I was heartened by the fact that much of what we’re doing in the U.S. seems to be in line with what the rest of the world is doing and needs.  We are increasing production in the U.S., as are other countries, through a series of efforts to double crop.  We’re also looking at ways to reduce the level and the amount of inputs that we’re using on our crops so that it creates more supply globally.  We continue to look for ways to invest in innovation.  President Biden has directed the Department of Agriculture to invest up to $500 million in looking at new and different ways to use fertilizer and to produce fertilizer or steps that could be used in lieu of fertilizer in order to continue to increase crop productivity.

All of the participants in the meeting, I think, believe that it’s necessary for us to continue to have transparent markets, more data and more information so we have a better understanding and appreciation for the cost of food.  We all, I think, agreed that export bans that have currently been put in place by several countries have created some difficulties in terms of food prices because it essentially creates a circumstance of speculating as to the impact and effect the ban has on food supplies.  This is also true when we don’t have a true read of grains in storage by countries.  This – essentially, that speculation ultimately leads to higher food prices, and so that’s the reason why the countries in the meeting were pretty clear about the necessity of trying to avoid export bans or any other restrictions, trade restrictions.

We all obviously recognize the importance of humanitarian assistance.  I shared with them that the Department of Agriculture has recently freed up $282 million from our Bill Emerson Trust, which is a humanitarian assistance program we have at USDA.  We essentially emptied that program.  I was told today that it will assist the World Food Program in helping to supply $476,000 metric tons of product to countries in North Africa and the Middle East.

I think many of the countries at the meeting and certainly the U.S. are very much interested in providing direct help and assistance to Ukraine.  The U.S. is providing and responding to requests for equipment that the Ukrainians are in need of.  As they try to export their grain, they continue to need the equipment that will allow them to do so – the testing equipment, the measuring and weighing equipment, the lab equipment.  They’ve provided us a list of needs, and we’ve circulated that list not only within USDA but also to our public universities in the hopes that they might be able to identify some unused equipment that could be provided.  We’ve also shared it with other countries as well.

We also discussed briefly the MOU that was signed between the United States Department of Agriculture and the Ministry of Agriculture in Ukraine.  It’s an MOU that is a commitment by the U.S. not only to focus on technical assistance today to assist the Ukrainians, but also a commitment when the war ends, as they begin to rebuild and restructure their agriculture, we’re going to be there to help provide technical assistance, expertise, fellowships, scholarships, things of that nature that will allow them to accelerate their recovery.

All of the nations at this meeting recognize the importance of opening the port so that the grain which is currently in storage in Ukraine can be released and allowed to go into market.  Obviously, that’s a deep concern and is – and continues to have an impact on food prices as well.

I wanted to make sure that the attendees at this meeting were aware of and were clear about the fact that the U.S. has not and will not sanction food or fertilizer.  It’s important for us to make that clear to the world that we’re not sanctioning food or fertilizer and that we feel that food should not be used as a weapon in war.

And finally, I had a brief opportunity to share with them the belief that we not only have to focus on the short-term challenge that we face with reference to global food security, but we also need to take a look at the long-term challenges, especially that which is presented by climate.  The U.S. has made a significant commitment.  We have essentially provided a billion dollars.  We’ve challenged our food and agriculture industry to respond to ideas and thoughts that they have about aggregating and accelerating the use of climate smart practices on our farms and fields and ranches, and we’ve been quite surprised by the reaction.  We received over a thousand applications for assistance under that program – about 18 to 19 billion dollars of requests, so we’ll be making some decisions about that sometime this fall so you’ll see an acceleration, a lot of activity on climate-smart agriculture in the U.S.

So it was a very productive meeting, and I think we left the meeting knowing that we have a significant challenge but also an opportunity to transform the food system, not just in our respective countries, but globally.

MS. QUARTELL:  Thank you, Mr. Secretary.  We have time for a few questions, and the first we’ll go Valeria Robecco.

QUESTION:  Thank you so much.  Thank you, Mr. Minister, on behalf UNCA for this press conference.  And Valeria Robecco from ANSA News Agency.  My question is in this round consultation, did you have the perception that Russia really wants to get out of the wheat crisis?  And do you think that Russia wants to cooperate or not on this matter?  Thank you.

SECRETARY VILSACK:  Well, I can’t speculate on the Russian state of mind, but I can tell you that the failure of Russia to allow and to enable the port to be open and available is obviously causing some significant disruption.  To the extent that that grain – nearly 20 million metric tons – can’t get into the market, it again not only creates potential shortages in countries in North Africa and the Middle East that can least afford to have food shortages at this point in time, it creates the risk of additional unrest and instability in those countries.  But it also creates, again, the opportunity for those who speculate about the value of grains and oils to be able to speculate on the high side, which ultimately results in higher food prices across the board.

So I would certainly hope and would encourage Russia to be – to – first and foremost, to end this war, and secondly, in the alternative, to make sure that they are negotiating in good faith about the reopening of the port and that they do so quickly because the need is – the need is immediate.

QUESTION:  Thank you so much.  Thank you, Mr. Secretary.  I have two questions.  The first question is I know there is many variables in terms of this crisis.  How long do you expect this price hike and the crisis, food crisis, to last globally if the issue of supply remains due to a war in Ukraine?  And my second question is, there’s a lot of concerns about humanitarian programs, especially UN humanitarian programs that are helping millions in conflict zones across the world in terms of – because of the high food prices.  Does the U.S. have a special program to help these humanitarian programs in this crisis, especially because most of their aids is actually food for the refugees especially?  Thank you.

SECRETARY VILSACK:  Well, it’s always risky to try to evaluate when something is going to occur in this area of food prices.  I will say that we’re facing multiple challenges.  We still see some level of disruption in terms of the overall supply chain as a result of COVID.  When countries have a resurgence of COVID and there are lockdowns or shutdowns or there’s a reduction of activity, that can have an impact on the ability to move product.

I mentioned the export bans.  Oftentimes, countries in circumstances like this think it’s in their best interest to restrict the trade of certain items.  The challenge with that, of course, is that by doing so it creates additional uncertainty in the market.  That uncertainty creates the opportunity to speculate about the value of what is in the market, which leads to higher prices.  And so our hope would be that those who are engaging in export bans rethink that position.  That would certainly speed up a potential reduction.  Solving the supply chain challenges that we face as a result of COVID would certainly help in reducing the price hikes.

I think it’s also incumbent upon us to look for opportunities to increase production and to hope that mother nature cooperates and allows us to have those increased acres actually result in production.  I’ve said the United States is double cropping.  We also have a program called the Conservation Reserve Program, which essentially takes highly erodible, very – not very productive land out of production.  About a million acres of that program is coming out of the program and is not being renewed at the decision by the farmers who own that property, and they’re putting it into production, so that should make a difference.  The mix of crops being raised in the United States is a little different than it has been in the past – fewer corn acres, more soy bean acres in response to some of the challenges that we see.

So it’s a combination of all these factors, and it’s going to take time for those factors to sort of smooth the process out.  Obviously, an end to the war and/or the opening of the ports and the availability of those 20 million metric tons would be very, very important as well.

QUESTION:  In general, the humanitarian programs?

SECRETARY VILSACK:  Well, I think that the challenge here is to make sure that we continue to support them.  And the United States certainly has.  The most recent Ukrainian supplemental passed by Congress, signed by President Biden, has additional support.  So we’re working through those multinational organizations because they have the conduit and the capacity to target those resources appropriately.  They are prepared to accept more help, and they want and need more help.

I would say that part of the challenge is making sure, again, that we are – I’m going to probably say this a million times in this press conference – we want to produce more; to produce more, we need inputs to be able to do that; to have inputs, we need those who are banning the access to those imports to lift those bans, which would make it more likely that we could do and have more production, and if we have more production we have potentially lower costs, and if we have lower costs the money that is in those humanitarian programs gets stretched further.

MS. QUARTELL: Thank you.  Pam?

QUESTION: Thank you, Governor, Mr. Secretary.  It’s Pamela Falk from CBS News.  President Biden just announced a plan, short of the ports opening in Donbas, to build silos in – on the Polish side of the border.  You announced $2 billion worth of aid for food security.  How do both of those plans work?  And you mentioned double cropping.  How else can the U.S. boost enough commodity exports from Iowa or any other place in the United States, and how much would that be in order to help the Ukraine situation?  Thank you.

SECRETARY VILSACK: Well, it’s important and necessary to understand what’s happening in Ukraine in terms of the grain that’s currently being stored.  Not only is it being stored, but it’s also at risk.  It’s at risk of being stolen or taken, and we know of circumstances and situations where that has occurred, Russians having taken grain from Ukrainian farmers.  So to the extent that we can get it out of the country, that is a plus.  It reduces the risk of loss.

Obviously, we would like to see the ports open because that’s the most efficient and most effective way to transport that grain.  But it’s still going to take time even if the port is open, so you still have to have a place to put the grain.  And the reason that it – that the storage makes sense is that the rail systems in Poland, Romania, and some of the countries that would be used for an overland route don’t necessarily align with the Ukrainian rail system.  The gauges are different, the widths of tracks are different, and so it does take time to basically get it to the border and then get it on the right – in the right car to be able to be transported to the Romanian ports.

So a storage opportunity obviously preserves the value and the quality, if you will, of the grain.  So there is some reason to do this, and it’s also important to get grain out of Ukraine relatively soon because they will be harvesting the crop, the winter crop, very soon and they have to have a place to put it.  So they need storage; the storage that they would normally have needs to be available.  So there are multiple reasons.

In terms of U.S. production, it’s not just the U.S., obviously.  It’s all of the grain and food-producing countries in the world.  And I think we all recognize the Brazilian representative was there and suggested that they’re not just going to double crop, they’re going to try to figure out how to triple crop.  So I think there is an effort underway globally to look at ways in which we can collectively increase productivity and increase production.  Double cropping is one way.  The CRP acres, the new acres coming in is another way.  Utilizing more efficient utilization of inputs is a way of assuring continued productive while also reducing the cost to our producers.  Obviously fertilizer and some of the input costs have gotten pretty high, so to the extent that we can help them be more efficient with those inputs, we don’t sacrifice productivity.

Longer term, it’s really about innovation.  This is – this circumstance and situation we face, again, it’s amplified by virtue of Ukraine, but it was there before Ukraine and it’s something we need to address.  So we need to look at ways in which we can sustainably produce more.  The United States and the United Arab Emirates began a research and innovation initiative called AIM for Climate, focused on trying to accelerate innovation in this space so that we could continue to sustainably produce more.  I’ll give you a couple of examples – gene editing, the ability to sort of edit the genetic makeup of a particular crop naturally, can create, can accelerate research that allows us to learn how to grow crops in unfavorable weather conditions more productively.  There’s a coating that can be placed on seeds that can reduce potentially the need for more fertilizer because it enables the crop at a very early stage to draw more of the organic material out of the soil as nutrition and maintains the productivity.  So, I mean, there’s a multitude of things that need to be done and will be done in order for the U.S. to do its part, but it – the U.S. alone is not in a position to solve this.  This has got to be a global effort.

MS. QUARTELL: All right, thanks so much.  I am so sorry to say that we are out of time.  I know we hardly had the opportunity to get to very many of you, and I see a lot of hands.  So if you have follow-up questions, I’m very happy to pass those.

QUESTION: I wanted to ask about the UN plan to get the grain out, in terms of the UN plan.

QUESTION: Yeah, and to follow up –

QUESTION: I mean, we don’t know if the U.S. thinks that’s viable, Martin Griffiths’ plan.

SECRETARY VILSACK: Well, we certainly appreciate the fact that there is a serious negotiation taking place, and we believe that and are confident that the Secretary-General is using his office and using his good graces in a very concerted, sincere way to get something done.  The Turkish representative to these negotiations I think is certainly proceeding with the level of seriousness that is necessary.  I would just simply hope that the Russians take this thing as seriously and that they’re not just doing this to create an image.  This is serious things.  We shouldn’t be using food as a weapon.  They should be acting immediately to open up those ports and they should end this war.

MS. QUARTELL: Thank you so much.  Thanks, everyone.