Climate change is the largest challenge facing the global fight against food insecurity, and diplomacy will be critical in the implementation of a plan to address challenges that lead to food insecurity worldwide, said Ramin Toloui, assistant undersecretary for the State Department’s Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs.

Toloui met with business leaders in Des Moines last week for the World Food Prize Foundation’s Borlaug Dialogue. During his visit, he sat down with the Business Record for a conversation about his work and the role the State Department plays in global efforts to fight food insecurity. 

Here are takeaways from that conversation. Some answers have been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.

What is the bureau’s role in addressing food insecurity?
The bureau sits at the nexus of economics, business and diplomacy. So how do we use diplomacy to advance U.S. and business interests? And how do we use economic and business levers to support and advance our diplomacy? In the area of food and food insecurity, even before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine the global food system was under a tremendous amount of pressure. And then with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it just exacerbated those challenges. Many people talk about it in the terms of the three C’s  COVID, conflict and climate being the three factors that are really putting pressure on the global food system. So what we are trying to do at the State Department is to try to alleviate, to the extent that we can, all three of those.

What does that work look like?
With COVID, my bureau has worked to address supply chain disruptions. With respect to climate, this is a broader issue that Special Envoy John Kerry is working to address climate issues. But then our special envoy for food security, Cary Fowler, is very focused on how do we adapt seeds and other agricultural processes to climate, and then we’re working on trying to end the war in Ukraine. In the interim, after Russia invaded Ukraine, Russia blockaded Ukraine’s ports and prevented critical agricultural goods from getting into global markets. So my bureau participated in trying to build international diplomatic pressure on Russia to agree to an initiative of the UN and Turkey that enabled those ports to be reopened in July.

You mentioned a road map or plan to address global food insecurity. How will that work?
Secretary [Antony] Blinken hosted a meeting in New York in May among 35 ministers of foreign affairs, agriculture and development and they got an agreement on a road map for global food security. It was basically a call to action in seven different areas, which included increasing humanitarian contribution for urgent food relief, trying to take actions to mitigate the global fertilizer shortage, making investments in long-term agricultural development, investing in climate-smart agriculture to increase resilience, refraining from export controls on agricultural goods, and a couple of other areas related to increasing market information and providing transport of critical foodstuffs. The road map has now been endorsed by more than 100 countries, so it represents the international community’s game plan for trying to respond to this global food crisis. Now that we have that road map, our diplomatic challenge is to push countries to implement it. We in the United States have announced over $10 billion in humanitarian and development support aimed at trying to alleviate some of those problems overseas. And domestically, [Agriculture] Secretary [Tom] Vilsack announced several weeks ago $2.8 billion in pilot projects for climate-smart agriculture here in the United States. So this is really a multidimensional effort.

How do you get other countries to buy into the road map?
It’s really a matter of bringing donor countries and recipient countries together so there’s a meeting of the minds on what the priorities are and to get a shared understanding of the problem among all of the different actors who need to be participating. So from developing countries, it’s an understanding of what they’re identifying as important. For example, when Secretary Blinken was in New York he met with 10 representatives of African countries that were experiencing this food crisis, and one thing they emphasized was that they welcomed humanitarian support but they needed those investments in long-term agricultural development to make their countries more resilient. So you need to know what the priorities are of the policymakers in those developing countries.
Of the three C’s that you spoke about, can you list them in order of priority for your bureau?
I think all of them are important. Fortunately we are working our way through these COVID-related disruptions. Certainly not complete, but hopefully we’re on the path out of those COVID-related disruptions. Climate is something that’s affecting us now but is also for sure going to affect us going forward, so in terms of the long-term picture of global food security, finding ways to adapt agriculture to the changes we know are coming because of climate change is critically important. And then the conflict, I would say falls in the middle there. We have the challenge of trying to resolve as many of these conflicts, not just the war in Ukraine, it’s also regional conflicts in Africa which have interrupted the food supply, to resolve those to lay the basis for peace going forward so that it doesn't interrupt the ability of people who need it to eat.
What’s the next step that needs to be taken?
One immediate area of focus is the U.N. grain deal that is set to expire in November. Right now we’re working with other parties, including the U.N., to make sure that’s renewed. So that’s a key priority to make sure agricultural commodities continue to flow out of the Black Sea to those who need it in the global markets. I will also say that we need to find ways to adapt agriculture to climate change. I think that is absolutely critical. That's something that requires a partnership among government, the private sector and academia. You need the science. You need that solution. You need them to scale things up. If it’s very costly and works on a small scale, that is not very helpful. You need to be able to figure out how to scale up solutions and make them economically viable. And then you need acceptance by governments and populations for those innovations.

How do you make the work you do relatable to folks on the local level at food banks and food pantries and farmers?
In the food area, we are feeling the effects of climate in our local communities already. If you’re in Florida, you feel it in the form of stronger hurricanes. If you’re in California, you feel it in the form of wildfires. If you’re here in the Midwest, you feel it in the form of drought or extreme weather like the derecho in 2020. So the first step is to connect these large policy issues with people’s daily lives. It’s also going to connect for farmers with their bottom lines. That’s something that achieves new tangibility, which is an important part of starting the conversation. Then you can start to say, here’s the problem you’re experiencing, connect that with how others are experiencing it and then connect that to the larger policy issues and decisions we’re trying to make as government and businesses to address those challenges.