The U.S. and the United Nations are working to get grains and essential food moving out of closed ports in war-torn Ukraine.
On Wednesday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, and the World Food Program Executive Director David Beasley began two days of meetings at the U.N. in an effort to rectify food crises in Ukraine and across the world.
Blinken will meet with African leaders — where several food crises are headed for famine conditions — at U.N. Headquarters in New York during his two-day trip. Earlier this month, Ukraine closed its four Black and Azov sea ports after they were captured by Russian forces.
"If ports in the Odessa region do not open up immediately, two things will happen: First, we're going to have agricultural collapse across #Ukraine. Second, famines will be looming all over the world. Food needs to move, ports must reopen and this needs to happen NOW," World Food Programme (WFP) Executive Director David Beasley said in a tweet.
"We've been very vocal about the need to reopen the ports," Shaza Moghraby, World Food Progamme Spokesperson, told CBS News on Wednesday, a point made by. "The Ukrainian black sea ports are being choked which in turn is disrupting the export of grains and agricultural inputs..this in turn is contributing to rising global food prices," Moghraby said.
At the Wednesday meeting, Guterres said that "Russia must permit the safe and secure export of grain stored in Ukrainian ports."
"Alternative transportation routes can be explored — even if we know that by itself, they will not be enough to solve the problem," he added. "Russian food and fertilizers must have unrestricted access to world markets without indirect impediments."
Guterres also said he has been in "intense contact" with Russia, Ukraine, Turkey, the U.S., the European Union and "several other key countries" to address the issue.
"I am hopeful, but there is still a long way to go," he said. "The complex security, economic and financial implications require goodwill on all sides for a package deal to be reached."
Blinken also pushed back on the notion that sanctions on Russia have contributed to the food crisis, calling it "false" and noting that the U.S. carefully crafted exceptions for agricultural goods and fertilizer.
"We're working every day to get countries any information or assistance they need to ensure that sanctions are not preventing food or fertilizer from leaving Russia or anywhere else," Blinken said.
About 276 million people worldwide were already facing acute hunger at the start of 2022, according to the WFP. That number is expected to rise by 47 million people if the conflict in Ukraine continues, with the steepest rises in sub-Saharan Africa.
Before the war, most of the food produced by Ukraine – enough to feed 400 million people — was exported through the country's seven Black Sea ports.
Prices on wheat and maize rose by 22% and 20% respectively, on top of steep rises in 2021 and early 2022.
Secretary of State Blinken will be presiding — as the U.S. is the President of the Security Council for May — at a meeting of the Council on Thursday after a minister-level meeting run by the U.S. on Wednesday.
During a meeting with 10 African nations at the U.N., Blinken said, "because Ukraine is one of the world's top exporters of key crops, including corn, as well as wheat, seeds for cooking oil, the result that we're seeing is that people around the world are suffering the consequences of choices that President Putin has made, and especially, again, people across Africa."
U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Linda Thomas-Greenfield told reporters earlier this week that the Secretary-General informed the U.S. about the effort to get exports moving, but with the war raging, few world leaders at the U.N. are optimistic about negotiations with Russia.
Since Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February, the U.S. announced over $2.3 billion in new global humanitarian food assistance, with a particular focus on countries hardest hit by food price hikes. There are also plans to launch a Roadmap for Global Food Security at the U.N. meetings.
"The Biden administration has understood this from an early stage and this week's food security meetings at the U.N. are a well-crafted effort to show that Washington understands the global dimensions of this war," Richard Gowan, U.N. director for the International Crisis Group think-tank, told CBS News.
"The U.S. needs to demonstrate that it can focus on defending Ukraine and managing global food issues at the same time," he said.
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