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The U.N. brokered a deal but can Ukraine's grain shipments be exported safely?


Ukraine says it's preparing to reopen ports on the Black Sea as part of a United Nations brokered deal to export millions of tons of grain trapped by the war.


But can the grain be exported safely? That's in doubt now because Russia dropped missiles on the main port of Odesa less than 24 hours after signing this deal, a deal that the U.N. and Turkey worked on to address global food shortages and rising prices.

MARTINEZ: NPR's Joanna Kakissis has been following this story from Kyiv. Joanna, tell us why this deal is so important and why it's now in question.

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: So the U.N. and Turkey brokered this deal between Russia and Ukraine because these countries are top producers of grain, cooking oil and fertilizer. Russia's invasion of Ukraine has blocked those exports, and food prices are soaring. People in some countries are also going hungry because they lack food staples like wheat and sunflower oil. So this deal is supposed to secure the shipment of Ukrainian grain from Black Sea ports, including Odesa. It's also supposed to facilitate the shipment of Russian grain and fertilizer, which are blocked because of Western sanctions on Russian banking and transport.

On Saturday, however, less than 24 hours after this deal was signed, Russia hit the port of Odesa with missiles. World leaders condemned the strike, but Ukraine says it still wants to move forward with shipping that grain.

MARTINEZ: And why is exporting this grain so important for Ukraine?

KAKISSIS: So Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy says agricultural exports would bring in $10 billion to the Ukrainian economy, and that is lifesaving cash for a country that's expected to lose up to half of its GDP this year. Ukraine usually exports at least 4 million metric tons of grain a month, but just about half of that is getting out now. Ukraine also has about 20 million tons of grain from last year's harvest in storage. And now this year's harvest is coming in, and it risks going bad because there's nowhere to store it. I spoke to Ukraine's deputy agriculture minister, Taras Vysotsky, and he worries farmers won't be able to begin planting this fall.

TARAS VYSOTSKY: And if farmers stop planting, this means we will have much worse problems later. If we don't plant, then we lose a whole year. And even if we open logistics after, we won't have goods to be exported.

KAKISSIS: He says if happens, the country's agriculture industry could collapse.

MARTINEZ: Joanna, what's Russia saying about this deal and the global food shortages?

KAKISSIS: So Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov is in Africa this weekend. He insists Russian grain and fertilizer can actually do more to ease the food crisis. His spokesperson also admitted that Russian missiles did actually strike the port of Odesa, but she claims Russia did not actually violate the grain transport deal because it hit a military target at the port. The language in this deal is very vague about what port and - about, like, what port infrastructure is protected. So Ukraine is asking for more security guarantees to safely transport the grain the world, you know, needs so badly to feed, you know, countries that need it.

MARTINEZ: All right, that's NPR's Joanna Kakissis reporting from Kyiv. Joanna, thanks.

KAKISSIS: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Joanna Kakissis is a foreign correspondent based in Kyiv, Ukraine, where she reports poignant stories of a conflict that has upended millions of lives, affected global energy and food supplies and pitted NATO against Russia.

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