The United States is making the tackling soaring prices of food commodities the main focus of its presidency of the United Nations Security Council in May. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the country’s permanent representative to the UN, elaborated on the topic at a press conference to mark the start of the rotating presidency.
“You may recall that in March of 2021, just after I arrived in New York, the United States chaired a Security Council meeting on the link between armed conflict and food security,” she said on May 3. “Once again, we will bring a spotlight to conflict as a driver of food insecurity.”
To address this growing crisis, the US is holding an open debate in the Council on May 19 to examine “the nexus between conflict and food security.” Secretary of State Antony Blinken is expected to preside over the meeting in person.
The decision by the US to wade deeper into the heightened cost of food across the world but especially affecting the world’s poorest countries occurs as the Food and Agriculture Organization said that prices of farm produce have hit a 32-year high.
Russia’s war on Ukraine, which began on Feb. 24, is being blamed for the sudden rise in food costs.
“Ukraine, as you all know, used to be a breadbasket for the developing world, but since Russia has spurned the largest refugee crisis in Europe since World War II, blocked crucial ports, and destroyed civilian infrastructure and grain silos, desperate hunger situations in Africa and the Middle East are getting even direr,” Thomas-Greenfield said.
The FAO Food Price Index averaged 159.3 points in March 2022, up 12.6 percent from February, marking a giant leap to a new highest level since the index’s inception in 1990, the organization said on April 6. But new data show global food commodity prices fell slightly in April, a result of minor drops in the prices of vegetable oils and cereals.
The UN agency responsible for feeding the world’s hungry — the World Food Program — also said its cost of feeding the hungry had shot up by an additional $42 million a month, or 30 percent compared with 2019.
The agency said that four factors are responsible for the spike in food insecurity, but conflict takes up 60 percent of the blame. “I’ve seen starvation up close with my own eyes,” Thomas-Greenfield said. “That famine and acute malnutrition are largely caused by war, sometimes intentionally, is really unacceptable.”
International sanctions on Russia and, by extension, on Belarus for its support of Moscow, have frozen a huge chunk of the world’s trade in wheat and fertilizer.
The 2019 figures on fertilizer supply indicate that Russia was the world’s largest supplier of nitrogen and urea, key nutrients for soil fertility. President Putin reportedly placed a temporary freeze on Russia’s exportation of fertilizers, before the European Union even reached a deal to begin to reduce its own dependence on Russia for oil and gas, in retaliation for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Russia’s destruction of civilian and other infrastructure and the cordoning off of Ukraine’s crucial ports in the war means that the country cannot produce and send food items to countries that are still struggling to recover from Covid-19 problems. Nearly 25 million ton of grains are stuck in Ukraine and unable to leave the country because of major infrastructure collapse and blocked Black Sea ports, including Mariupol, according to a UN food agency official.
On May 18, Blinken is scheduled to chair a “global food security call to action ministerial” at the UN as well. The meeting will include foreign ministers from “many regionally diverse countries to review urgent humanitarian needs and take steps to build future resilience,” Thomas-Greenfield said.
The other focus of the US in May at the UN is the use of digital tools to create disinformation that threatens global peace and security. Thomas-Greenfield said that the US would hold a meeting on May 23 on the topic.
“Peace and security have been completely transformed by digital technology, for better or for worse,” she said. “We know how these tools can be abused to spread disinformation, restrict access to information, and deny human rights, but we also see opportunities to use digital technologies to do tremendous good.”
One country where digital technology is reportedly being used to manipulate public opinion right now is the West African nation of Mali.
Last month, France accused the Wagner Group, the Russian-linked paramilitary organization, of framing it for killing and burying an unspecified number of Malians in a mass grave near a military base in Gossi, in northern Mali.
The accusation follows a stream of claims that the Wagner Group is using fake social media accounts to create dissension with Malians against the French and European Union forces in the country. France has announced that it is leaving Mali by the end of the year, and European troops are slowly deciding their plans on whether to remain in the country, where they help to train its military. Germany recently said it was pulling out of Mali.
The US chairs the Security Council as the Russian war on Ukraine grinds into its third month with no peace talks in the offing. Washington has reportedly given intelligence about Russian troops that has enabled Ukrainians to kill many of the Russian generals on the battlefield.
Thomas Weiss, director emeritus of the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and an expert on UN affairs, said in an interview with PassBlue that diplomacy is no longer valuable in bringing peace to Ukraine and thereby reducing global food, energy and other commodity prices as a result.
And in the Council, Thomas-Greenfield acknowledged that the tone has become “somewhat muted,” brought on by Russia’s devastation of a neighboring country, as accusations of war crimes by Russia mount daily.
“I think on the social side, all — there is a sense of discomfort, and I think, fortunately, in the past few months, there have not been any large social engagements that we’ve been required to participate in and where we have to be diplomatic and smile,” she said. “But I do look forward to continuing to try to move the Council forward during my month as President to deal with the issues of peace and security across the globe and make some positive impact,” she said.
The ambassador is traveling to Belgium on May 9-10 to lead the US delegation at a pledging conference on the “future”of Syria. Her May 9 visit to Turkey to the Bab al-Hawa border crossing into Syria was canceled at the last minute, without explanation. Her trip to Brussels precedes efforts in the Council by the US and other members (led by Ireland and Norway) to renew the mandate in July that allows the single, remaining cross-border humanitarian aid channel into Syria to stay open. At one time, the mandate encompassed four such aid routes, but Russia’s veto has dwindled it down to one now and it may try to shut it down at this juncture.
Each month, PassBlue profiles UN ambassadors as their countries assume the Council presidency. To hear more details about the goals of the US in May and to hear Weiss’s assessment of the US and its Council presidency, listen to PassBlue’s podcast, UN-Scripted, produced by Kacie Candela and Damilola Banjo, on SoundCloud and Patreon.
US Ambassador to the UN: Linda Thomas-Greenfield, 69
Ambassador to UN Since: February 2021
Languages: English and French
Education: B.A., political science, Louisiana State University; M.P.A., University of Wisconsin-Madison
Her story, briefly: Thomas-Greenfield was born in Baker, a small city outside Baton Rouge, the capital of Louisiana. She was educated, for the most part, in the legally segregated South. “At the time, Baker was really just a tiny couple of stores along the highway, and back in 1950, [it] started to grow very big,” Mark Ballard, a journalist for The Advocate, in Baton Rouge, told PassBlue. He’s written an extensive profile article of Thomas-Greenfield. “Then it was a suburb of Baton Rouge. After segregation, it has become a predominantly African-American suburb. . . .”
Thomas-Greenfield is the oldest of eight children, and many of her siblings have become prominent members of the Baton Rouge community, working in health care, education and law enforcement. A good student herself, she studied at Louisiana State University, also in Baton Rouge, and was part of the first cohort of African-Americans who attended the university after desegregation. She pursued a master’s degree in public administration at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She later said in a speech that when she left Louisiana, she put it in her rearview mirror, not wanting to form a family there. Yet she has stayed close to the community.
Thomas-Greenfield joined the State Department in 1982, where she rose to become assistant secretary of state for African affairs, working in that post from 2013 to 2017. Throughout her career, Thomas-Greenfield has represented the US in such countries as Liberia, Pakistan, Kenya, Nigeria and Jamaica. She is married to Lafayette Greenfield, a fellow US diplomat, and they have two adult children.
Head of State: President Joseph Biden Jr.
Secretary of State: Antony Blinken
Type of Government: Federal, constitutional republic
Year America Joined the UN: 1945
Years in the Security Council: One of the five permanent members (Britain, China, France, Russia and the US)
Population (2020): 329 million
Memberships in Regional Groups: Group of Seven (G7), Group of Twenty (G20), NATO
Per capita CO2 emission figures for 2019 are (in tons): 16 (in comparison, the United Arab Emirates is 20; China, 7; India, 2).
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Damilola Banjo is a staff reporter for PassBlue. She has a master’s of science degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and a B.A. in communications and language arts from the University of Ibadan, Nigeria. She has worked as a producer for NPR’s WAFE station in Charlotte, N.C.; for the BBC as an investigative journalist; and as a staff investigative reporter for Sahara Reporters Media.