Russia Asks For US Food -
Serious Winter Shortages Expected
By Doug Palmer
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Russia has asked the United States for significant quantities of meat, rice and grains but much work needs to be done before a food aid package is ready, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman said on Tuesday.
Russia faces possible food shortages this winter due to a sharp drop in its grain harvest and the rouble devaluation which has greatly increased the cost of imported food, such as poultry and other meat products. Last year, Russia imported about one-third of its food. Until August, when the rouble was devalued, Russia had been the largest export market for U.S poultry, with shipments averaging about 79,000 tonnes a month.
The beleaguered Russian government is also trying to develop an economic recovery plan to secure a $4.3 billion payment from the International Monetary Fund. ``I think it is in our interest as a country to do our best to accommodate their needs,'' Glickman told reporters. ``But there are still some things to be worked out relating to accountability to make sure that whatever food we provide gets to people,'' he said. To iron out those details, a U.S. team including Chris Goldthwait, the USDA's general sales manager, and two State Department officials will leave Wednesday for Moscow. Until that team reports back, Glickman said it would be premature to talk about the size of a food package. He refused to comment on a rumor in U.S. grain markets that a U.S. aid package might include as much as two to three million tonnes of wheat and 100,000 tonnes of pork, poultry and beef.
U.S. farmers, now facing some of the lowest commodity prices in years, were pleased with the news. ``We want to see as big a package as possible to help Russia,'' said Nick Giordano, a trade expert with the National Pork Producers Council. Goldthwait and other agriculture department officials met Russian government representatives earlier this month to discuss U.S. food assistance. But until Monday, the department had not received a formal request for aid, aides said. Russia expressed ``the need for significant quantities of grains, meat products, rice'' in a letter to the USDA, Glickman said. Russia is also asking other countries for help. Last week, U.S. Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky told reporters the United States plans to work with the European Union on food aid for Russia. The request for U.S. food aid comes at a time when Russia has been negotiating barter deals with other trading partners. Romania recently offered Russia a food-for-oil deal to provide wheat, flour, soybeans, pork, poultry and vegetable oil in exchange for crude oil and gas. Belarus and Ukraine have also offered to repay debts to Russia with more than $1 billion worth of food and commodity shipments.
In recent years, Russia has financed purchases of U.S. pork and other commodities under the agriculture department's export credit program. But Russia has been suspended from that loan guarantee program since August for falling behind on payments. Even so, an export credit official will travel with Goldthwait to Moscow for the food aid discussions. ``We're looking at all avenues right now,'' including donations, Glickman said. ``We're not foreclosing anything.''