U.S. Treasury Secretary Yellen visits South Korea
U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen attends a meeting with South Korean Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Economy and Finance Choo Kyung-ho at Lotte Hotel, in Seoul, South Korea July 19, 2022. Chung Sung-Jun/Pool via REUTERS Reuters

U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen urged Group of 20 finance and agriculture ministers on Tuesday to take urgent steps to help the 70 million people at risk of acute food insecurity as a result of Russian President Vladimir Putin's war in Ukraine.

Yellen told the inaugural meeting of G20 joint finance and agriculture ministers that Putin and his officials - including those taking part in meetings in Washington this week - were responsible for "immense human suffering" caused by the war, a Treasury official said.

"That includes the innocent lives taken by President Putin's barbaric missile attacks across Ukraine yesterday," she said, referring to the most widespread wave of air strikes to hit away from the front line since the start of the war on Feb. 24.

Russia says it is waging a "special military operation" in Ukraine to rid it of nationalists and protect Russian-speaking communities. Ukraine and the West say it is an unprovoked war of aggression.

Yellen said Russia's blockade of ports and destruction of agricultural infrastructure had disrupted global supply chains and food production, with the impact felt particularly in developing countries that Russia "falsely claims to support."

She stressed that U.S. sanctions on Russia do not target the production, manufacture, sale, or transport of agricultural commodities, including fertilizer, and urged G20 officials to ensure their industries knew that sanctions should not impede the flow of agricultural commodities to those who need them.

She also called on G20 countries to increase financial aid to initiatives such as the Global Agriculture and Food Security Program, to which Washington just gave $155 million, and to avoid all food export restrictions.

The United States had announced nearly $10 billion in assistance this year to provide critical support to food-insecure countries, Yellen said.

She said G20 members should urge international financial institutions to continue implementing commitments made in their Action Plan to Tackle Food Insecurity.

Washington would also support temporary debt service standstills for countries that needed debt relief and sought help under the G20 Common Framework adopted in late 2020, she said.

The group as a whole offered a freeze in debt service payments to low-income countries from May 2020 through the end of 2021, suspending $12.9 billion in debt-service payments, but refused to extend it into 2022.

(Editing by Jacqueline Wong)