GENEVA, SWITZERLAND — Talks on extending the Black Sea Grain Initiative, which has allowed Ukrainian grain blockaded by Russia’s invasion to be safely exported from three Ukrainian ports, have begun with hopes of extending the deal past its March 18 expiration date.

The deal, which Ukraine and Russia signed in separate agreements with the United Nations and Turkey on July 22, 2022, and extended for 120 days in November, established a safe shipping corridor in the Black Sea and inspection procedures to address concerns that cargo vessels might carry weapons or launch attacks. 

UN trade official Rebeca Grynspan and aid chief Martin Griffiths arrived at the UN European headquarters in Geneva on March 13, without making a comment. Two sources involved with the talks who spoke with Reuters said they initially were scheduled to last just one day but could be extended as needed.

Ukraine and Russia are key global suppliers of wheat, barley, sunflower oil and other food to countries in Africa, the Middle East and parts of Asia where millions of impoverished people lack enough to eat. Russia and Ukraine together had accounted for about 30% of the wheat that reached world markets. Ukraine is also a major supplier of corn, while Russia was also the world’s top exporter of fertilizer before the war. 

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022, led to historically high prices for wheat and fears of a global hunger crisis until the grain deal was established. Global wheat prices have fallen about 30% since the deal was signed in July.

The deal, managed by a Joint Coordination Centre in Istanbul, Turkey, has contributed to lowering the global cost of food and provided “critical relief to people, who are also paying a high price for this war, particularly in the developing world,” UN Secretary General António Guterres said on March 8 during a visit to Ukraine.

The agreement has facilitated the export of 23 million tonnes of grain from Ukrainian ports since its inception in July.

Russia has signaled it will only agree to an extension if restrictions affecting its own exports are lifted, but many diplomats and senior officials, including Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar, are optimistic that the deal will be renewed, Reuters reported.

“In separate talks with the Russian and Ukrainian sides, we saw that both sides are approaching this positively,” Akar said in an interview with state-owned Anadolu Agency. “We believe it will conclude positively.” 

Russian officials say that although the country’s agricultural exports have not been explicitly targeted by the West, sanctions on its payments, logistics and insurance industries have created a barrier for it being able to export its own grains and fertilizers.