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Ukrainian grain is arriving in East Africa for the first time since Russia invaded

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

A ship full of Ukrainian grain arrived at the Horn of Africa this week, the first such delivery since Russia invaded Ukraine in February. Russia, you may recall, blocked the shipments from Black Sea ports until a negotiation over the summer. Aid organizations say tens of millions of people are facing extreme hunger in Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia. They are dependent on grain imported from Ukraine and also from Russia. Cary Fowler is the U.S. special envoy for global food security and is on the line. Welcome.

CARY FOWLER: Thank you.

INSKEEP: How important is resuming these shipments?

FOWLER: Well, it's terribly important. Ukraine is one of the Top 5 exporters of grain, of wheat, barley, corn, sunflower oil, sunflower seed. And much of that grain has traditionally gone to northern Africa and Middle Eastern countries, where, for a number of those individual countries, it supplies perhaps 80% of what they have.

INSKEEP: Wow.

FOWLER: So getting the grain out is terribly important.

INSKEEP: Nevertheless, it seems that this is just one of the various aspects of the crisis in that part of the region. This is not going to be very much grain compared to the need for it.

FOWLER: That's right. This is really a unique food crisis in historical terms. We've recently been talking about it as the three Cs, as climate, COVID and conflict being major causes behind this particular food crisis. But we also have low grain stockpiles by historic measures. And this is - all these things contribute to the kind of situation we have now. So we're looking at a food crisis that is not going to go away this year. It's multi-causal. And we're going to have to deal with each one of those major causes.

INSKEEP: Let me ask you about one of those Cs, conflict. There is, of course, a civil war in Ethiopia. The Tigray region has been isolated from the outside world. Is there any way to even get food into that region?

FOWLER: Well, that's a challenge that World Food Programme is going to have to face. And they faced it before. As you know, this wonderful and aptly named ship, Brave Commander, is headed towards that area where the food that it's carrying will provide relief for people in Ethiopia and Somalia. It's 23,000 metric tons of grain. And I know that's hard for people to get their heads around. But think of it this way. It'll produce more than 60 million loaves of bread. And that's just one ship coming out of Ukraine carrying 23,000 metric tons. What Russia with its invasion and blockade has done has essentially sealed up 20 million metric tons of grain in Ukraine that can't get out to the people who really need it.

INSKEEP: Is it clear to you that the agreement negotiated over the summer will allow much or all of that to get out in the months ahead?

FOWLER: It certainly should. The U.S. has been working tirelessly to make sure that alternative routes - these are overland routes - are available. And those will still be used. But historically, almost all of the grain has gone out through the ports. It's much more efficient. It's cheaper that way. It can get to hungry people faster. And farmers make more money because the transportation costs are less. So we'll continue to explore those alternative overland routes just in case. But we certainly hope that the deal that was brokered to allow the grain out of the ports in the Black Sea holds.

INSKEEP: Let me circle back to East Africa and another of your Cs, climate. People who followed the news over the last several decades know that there have been cycles of drought and cycles of famine in East Africa over the decades. How, if at all, is climate change making that worse?

FOWLER: It's making it much worse. Of course, for farmers, it manifests itself as, simply, really, really bad weather. We've had four years of extreme drought in the Horn of Africa. That set a record. And now we're headed towards a fifth year. And if you look globally, last month was the 451st consecutive month in which global average temperatures for that month, July in this case, exceeded the 20th century average. So we've had 451 consecutive months of, quote, "above average temperature." And that's affecting crops and crop yields all over the world.

INSKEEP: Mr. Fowler, thank you so much.

FOWLER: Sure. Thank you.

INSKEEP: Cary Fowler is the U.S. special envoy for global food security. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.