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McCain: Only Putin withdrawal will solve world food, fertilizer shortages

The only way to restore access to food from Ukraine and fertilizer from Russia is for Russian President Vladimir Putin to withdraw troops and give Ukraine back to its people, Cindy McCain, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations food agencies in Rome, said today.

McCain made the remarks in a conversation with former Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., founder of the One Country Project, in an online event sponsored by the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

“We are in a real mess here,” said McCain, the widow of Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who was appointed by President Biden and confirmed by the Senate to the ambassadorial post that conveys U.S. official positions to the United Nations World Food Programme, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization and the UN International Fund for Agricultural Development.



“The horizon with respect to fertilizer is bleak,” McCain said, pointing out that the whole Black Sea area is “blocked” in terms of shipping.

The Russians have mined Ukrainian fields, making the harvest of winter wheat impossible in many areas, she added.



Noting that 5 million people have left Ukraine, McCain added that the war “could go on for years and years.”

Plans will have to be made to feed people without food from Ukraine and fertilizer from Russia, McCain said, adding she is not sure how that will be figured out.

But she also discussed possible actions that could relieve the situation somewhat in the short run.

One possibility, she said, is for Russia to agree to “humanitarian pipelines” through which grains and fertilizers could move.

In addition, she said, the World Food Programme needs more money to buy commodities on the global markets to feed people, particularly those in emergency situations. She noted that David Beasley, the former South Carolina Republican governor who is executive director of WFP, has said the organization is now halving the food it sends to the hungry in order to feed the starving.

NO EXPORT RESTRICTIONS

Heitkamp, whose One Country Project organization is focused on rural America, said that Americans should not adopt a policy of “America first” and discourage exports in order to keep American food prices lower. She noted that she has advocated allowing exports of shale oil even though she has been criticized for taking that position.

Former Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., founder of the One Country Project. Courtesy photo

McCain added that the United States must avoid imposing export bans and creating trade restrictions, which would “only exacerbate the crisis.” The U.S. government must also “demand” that other countries “step forward” with policies to keep trade open and provide more money to WFP and encourage public-private partnerships.

McCain said she spends “half my day” talking to representatives from other countries about not restricting exports.

Policies “are not set in stone yet. It is not going to be easy,” she said.

McCain and Heitkamp noted that Russian invasion of Ukraine has made avoiding food waste more important worldwide. Before the war, Russia and Ukraine accounted for about 12% of the calories the world trades, including more than 30% of the global wheat market and also large amounts of global corn, barley, and sunflower oil production, they said.

Heitkamp recalled that when she was growing up if she did not finish the food on her plate, her mother would say there were starving children across the world and kids would reply that it was impossible to serve them that food.

“Maybe it is time to revive that ethic,” Heitkamp said.

Heitkamp also said she sees glimmers of hope in the plans of U.S. farmers. Although a recent Agriculture Department planting intentions report said American farmers only intend to increase wheat production slightly, Heitkamp said she has spoken with North Dakota farmers who do plan to increase wheat production. She also noted that many farmers made planting decisions and fertilizer purchases last fall.

Heitkamp said she believes Europeans protect agriculture more because they remember the hunger during and after World War II. The German Marshall Fund of the United States, she noted, was established by the German government as a thank you for the Marshall Plan that helped redevelop Europe after World War II.

Heitkamp also noted that the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, which was started by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, has been criticized for not achieving food security in the countries in which it operates, and suggested following Howard Buffett, the philanthropist, who emphasizes “the brown revolution” to improve the soil.

Heitkamp said no one was more committed to the Trans-Atlantic relationship than John McCain, and she asked Cindy McCain what she thought he would say today about U.S.-Russian relations.

Cindy McCain replied that her husband “was right about Putin. He called Russia ‘a gas station masquerading as a country.’”

John McCain, she concluded, “would be devastated” by the current situation and “scolding some of these countries as well for not stepping up to the plate.”


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