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What the inspection of a ship taught us about the deal helping stabilize food prices

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Now we're going to board one of the ships connecting Ukraine's vast grain supplies to the world. Russia has allowed shipments out of the Black Sea under an agreement with Ukraine. That deal helped stabilize global food prices. Russia suspended it earlier this week after accusing Ukraine of a drone strike at sea. Well now, Russia has reversed course and says the deal can continue. At the heart of the agreement is a tight inspection process with the United Nations and Turkey. And NPR's Fatma Tanis got to see how it works.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOAT ENGINE PUTTERING)

FATMA TANIS, BYLINE: Before this weekend's brief suspension of the grain deal, I rode along with teams of inspectors from Russia, Ukraine, Turkey and the U.N. as they sail into the Bosphorus waterway to inspect massive cargo ships. A small boat took us to the first vessel of the day, the Tzarevich. The 200-meter ship carried 10,000 tons of sunflower meal from Chornomorsk in Ukraine to Bulgaria. We climbed a 40-foot rope ladder to get on board. The teams went straight to the captain's office.

(CROSSTALK)

TANIS: There is a lot of paperwork.

CHRISTIAN SANTOS: Once this part of the inspection gets completed, then they will proceed to the physical inspection.

TANIS: That's U.N. inspector Christian Santos. He says the inspections can take up to four hours as they look for weapons or stowaways or anything that especially Russia, which effectively blockades Ukraine, might object to.

SANTOS: The teams will proceed to inspect all of the compartments, starting off at the bridge and then all the crews' quarters and finishing with the galley.

TANIS: Since early August, more than 10 million tons of Ukrainian grain has been exported, most of it wheat and corn. The deal has been a lifeline to Ukraine's crippled economy and helped stabilize global food prices.

On deck, inspectors prepare to go into large cargo vaults where they will wade through mounds of loose sunflower meal. The Russian inspector takes a sample for his record. Meanwhile, at the master's office, Captain Edmon Seropyan, from Bulgaria, isn't happy with how long he's had to wait to get an inspection.

EDMON SEROPYAN: You know, I am already 40 years at sea, but waiting without any serious reason for more than 10 days is ridiculous.

TANIS: There's a huge backlog of ships anchored and waiting. The grain deal is a complicated operation in a war zone with dangers of mines in the Black Sea. This ship is headed to Bulgaria, which is on the Black Sea, but had to come down to the Bosphorus first for inspection.

SEROPYAN: If everything goes OK and tonight we succeed to pass the Istanbul straight, tomorrow, noon time, inshallah, we'll be in Varna. It means one month and one day.

TANIS: The inspectors pile back into the captain's office for a final pass through the checklist. The Tzarevich is officially good to go, and we climb down the rope ladder back to our little boat.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOAT ENGINE PUTTERING)

TANIS: Russia's brief suspension didn't disrupt much. For a few days, Russian and Ukrainian inspectors weren't participating, and some ships were delayed leaving Ukraine. After Russia says it got Ukrainian security guarantees, things are expected to return to normal. The agreement itself comes up for renewal on November 19, and the U.N. and Turkey are pressing for that, hoping that Ukraine and Russia will continue to work together to let food get out to the world despite the war.

Fatma Tanis, NPR News, Istanbul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.