Transport chokepoints threaten food supply

 By RP Siegel

Global food trade has grown to the point where nearly 25 percent of the world’s food is traded on international markets…

As of 2015, global food trade exceeded $1.5 trillion. This came about largely through consolidation in the global food supply chain. At the retail level, food sales today are roughly $4 trillion, with more than 30 percent of that going to 15 global supermarket companies, primarily American and European.
Likewise, at the other end of the chain, the number of farming units in the United States has dropped by two-thirds while the average farm size has tripled over the past fifty years.
As these giant enterprises seek ever-larger economies of scale, they are increasingly setting their sights on global markets. That requires transporting huge quantities of grain and other commodities over vast distances. Cargo ships are highly efficient means of transport, nearly ten times more so than trucks, but still, there is a cost in emissions. Beyond that, there is another problem, rarely discussed, in moving all that food around the world.

Container ship Olga Maersk (Glen, Wikimedia)

A recent report by Chatham House, entitled “Chokepoints and Vulnerabilities in Global Food Trade“, lists 14 food supply chokepoints, that could conceivably be disrupted by various types of events such as weather disasters or terrorist acts, leading to chaos in the food supply, price spikes, and potentially even starvation. According to report co-author Laura Wellesley, “They are major infrastructure bottlenecks along international supply chains that could be maritime chokepoints like the Strait of Malacca or major canals like the Suez or Panama Canal. They could also be coastal hubs such as export centers for grain or they could be inland chokepoints like railway networks, roads or waterways that link ports to farms.”
Whoever came up with the expression, “a chain is only as strong as its weakest link,” may not have been thinking of a supply chain, but the same rationale applies.
The report focuses on three primary crops: corn, rice and wheat, which collectively account for roughly 60 percent of all calories consumed globally. Soybeans, which provide 65 percent of the protein fed to livestock is also considered.
The 14 so-called chokepoints include eight maritime passages, the most well-known being the Panama and Suez canals. Also on the list are the Straits of Gibraltar, Hormuz, and Malacca, along with the Turkish Straits and the Bab al-Mandab Strait.

To get a sense of how critical these passageways are, consider these facts:
• Three-quarters of Japan’s corn and wheat imports pass through the Panama Canal, which is just 984 ft wide
• Just over a third of grain imports for the Middle East and North Africa pass through the Turkish Straits, with no alternative maritime route available
• More than 25 percent of soybean exports are shipped across the Straits of Malacca

Altogether, 55 percent of the entire global trade in grain passes through one of these tight spots.

Why does this matter today? It’s important to understand these chokepoints in the context of food security, and what Wellesley called “the biggest challenge facing food security,” namely, climate change.
Wellesley said in an interview, “Food-insecure, low-income countries will be the hardest hit by droughts and floods and extreme weather that will destroy crops. That means that import dependence on our basic food supply is rising. That means that the importance of trade is rising. That means the importance of chokepoints is rising. These chokepoints are vulnerable to climate change but also to day-to-day heavy rains or winds which affect the integrity of their infrastructure at key transport chokepoints, and as we see poor weather events become more frequent—and extreme—we are likely to see disruptions at these key bottlenecks.”
Three more chokepoints can be found at coastal ports on the Black Sea, the Gulf of Mexico and the southern ports of Brazil. Wheat exports from Russia and Ukraine must pass through Black Sea ports, while U.S. exports of wheat and maize pass through ports on the Gulf of Mexico.

The port in Odessa, Ukraine (Aktron, Wikimedia)

In addition to climate and weather-related threats, there are security and conflict hazards that “may arise from war, political instability, piracy, organized crime and/or terrorism.” Then there is also the possibility that authorities could shut down or restrict the flow of trade for political or economic reasons.
The final three chokepoints are found on inland routes, either waterways, roads or railroads, in the U.S., the Black Sea region and in Brazil that bring the grain from agricultural centers to commercial ports. These inland routes convey 53 percent of all corn, wheat, rice and soybeans on the global market, including 60 percent of U.S. exports of these crops and 60 percent of the wheat coming out of Russia and Ukraine.

With population, prosperity, and global temperatures all on the rise, it’s clear that these chokepoints are more than likely to appear in the news as problems with increasing frequency. In fact, all but one of these has already seen a restriction or a closure in the past 15 years.

The authors provide a number of solid recommendations for addressing this issue. These include:
• Incorporating chokepoints into risk management analysis and security planning
• Investing in infrastructure to improve resiliency in these areas
• Taking policy action to discourage export controls
• Developing emergency food storage and supply-sharing arrangements
• Increasing monitoring, data collection and sharing, as well as contingency planning

What’s not included, but also worth mentioning is a move to preserve some degree of decentralized agriculture. Small farms in and around cities can help improve resilience and take pressure off strained transport infrastructure. Studies by Luke Meterlerkamp and others have shown that well-managed small farms can be as productive as large ones.
New models of vertical indoor farms and aquaculture can bring food supplies to places where they have not been viable before. As we look to the future, we need to evaluate the benefits of global food trade more holistically, taking into account, not only the economic value of the foods being provided but the nutritional value as well. Land and water utilization, as well as environmental impacts, should also be evaluated.

Chicago O'Hare Airport Vertical Farm (chipmunk_1, Flickr)

Some groups have raised concerns that globalizing the food supply can be used as a means to circumvent environmental, worker safety, as well as food safety protections. With the massive influx of imported food, the number of inspectors has not been able to keep up in their efforts to ensure that the food is safe.

All of these elements should be pursued as we strive to sustainably feed a growing population in the years to come.

SEE MORE: New era of farming by RP Siegel

about the author
RP Siegel
Skilled writer. Technology, sustainability, engineering, energy, renewables, solar, wind, poverty, water, food. Studied both English Lit.and Engineering at university level. Inventor.