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UN Security Council talks global food supply as Russia attacks Ukraine agriculture

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

The United States says it didn't want a showdown with Russia at the U.N. But Secretary of State Antony Blinken did use a meeting he chaired at the security council to call out Russian attacks on Ukraine's agricultural sector. And he warned that the rest of the world is paying the price, as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Russia recently withdrew from a deal that allowed Ukraine to export its grain through the Black Sea. It was an initiative that stabilized world food prices. Secretary of State Antony Blinken says grain prices are rising again, and Russia is ignoring the needs of the rest of the world.

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ANTONY BLINKEN: What has Russia's response been to the world's distress and outrage? - bombing Ukrainian granaries, mining port entrances, threatening to attack any vessel in the Black Sea no matter its flag, no matter its cargo.

KELEMEN: Chairing a Security Council meeting on food security, Secretary Blinken called on countries to send a united message to Moscow.

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BLINKEN: Every member of the United Nations should tell Moscow, enough - enough using the Black Sea as blackmail, enough treating the world's most vulnerable people as leverage, enough of this unjustified, unconscionable war.

KELEMEN: Secretary Blinken had left the chamber by the time Russia's ambassador, Dmitriy Polyanskiy, spoke. The Russian diplomat told the council that while the topic of discussion was important, U.S. interests are, he said, opportunistic. He spoke through an interpreter.

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DMITRIY POLYANSKIY: (Through interpreter) They have become concerned about the threat of world hunger only recently and only insofar as they think they can attempt to exploit this topic to demonize Russia.

KELEMEN: He blames the West for not keeping its end of the bargain in the grain deal, easing sanctions on Russian banks to allow Russia to export food and fertilizer. Polyanskiy says if that changes, Russia would come back to the grain deal. Blinken says Russia was exporting more grain at higher prices while the deal was in place. Other speakers at the U.N. Security Council focused on the big picture. The U.N.'s Famine Prevention and Response Coordinator, Reena Ghelani, told the meeting she knows there's a lot on the international agenda.

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REENA GHELANI: But the threat of famine, people starving slowly to death, must be a red line. And yet the number of people suffering from acute food insecurity reached a quarter of a billion last year. This is the highest recorded in recent years.

KELEMEN: And conflicts not just in Ukraine are driving this. The president of the aid group the International Rescue Committee, David Miliband, points to Haiti, Mali, Afghanistan, Somalia and Yemen. And he says, too often the Security Council doesn't do anything when aid workers come under attack.

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DAVID MILIBAND: Combatants attack civilians, deny humanitarian aid, destroy farms and food warehouses - all illegal as well as immoral. The solution is that perpetrators need to be held to account. We do not need new resolutions for this, but we need resolution to uphold the existing ones.

KELEMEN: The Biden administration has made food security a priority issue each time it has held the rotating presidency of the Security Council. This time, it drafted a communique asking countries to agree that food should never be used as a weapon of war. Blinken says 91 countries have signed on so far. Russia is not among them. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.

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