June 27, 2017, by Alex Kirby
The crowded Suez Canal is a likely checkpoint for the world food trade.
Image: By http://www.panoramio.com/user/2433337?with_photo_id=64163879, via Wikimedia Commons
A group of physical chokepoints – roads, ports and waterways – could disrupt the flow of world food trade, with drastic consequences.
LONDON, 27 June, 2017 – The sheer size of the world food trade is hard to digest. The amount of food transported around the world to fill empty stomachs is prodigious.
Every year a global fleet of ships, trains and trucks moves enough of four staple crops – maize, wheat, rice and soya – internationally to feed about 2.8 billion people (more than one in three of us alive today).
But this world food trade, which also includes agricultural fertilisers, is highly vulnerable, a new report says. The report, from the UK-based independent policy institute Chatham House, says there are a small number of key physical chokepoints where things could go wrong, with the risk of price rises, food shortages, and, as it puts it, “consequences that could reach beyond food markets”.
The report, Chokepoints and Vulnerabilities in Global Food Trade, identifies fourteen chokepoints as critical to global food security. Eight are maritime waterways, including the Panama and Suez canals and the Turkish Straits, which link the Black Sea to the Aegean and Mediterranean.
There are three inland chokepoints, including the US inland waterways and Brazil’s road network, and three coastal ones, including the Black Sea ports and those on the US Gulf Coast.
The report draws on data included in a new interactive online database, available to those researching the global resource trade.
Laura Wellesley, co-author of the report, says: “The risks are growing as we all trade more with each other and as climate change takes hold. The oil industry has been mapping this sort of risk for years but it has been woefully overlooked in discussions of food security.
“Past events, including floods in Brazil and the southern US, and the export bans on wheat from the Black Sea countries that contributed in part to the Arab Spring, give us a flavour of the sort of disruptions that can occur when chokepoints are closed.”
The authors say the increasingly interrelated nature of the world food trade means that disruption to one trade route could have knock-on effects for others. The potential risk is both poorly understood and poorly managed, except by China, which “has done the most to mitigate its exposure to chokepoint risk.”
Beijing, they say, “is acutely aware of its exposures and actively invests in overseas infrastructure to relieve pressure on existing chokepoints, diversify supply routes, and increase its operational footprint along its supply chains.”
They also say the ongoing territorial dispute over the South China Sea may add to insecurity over food in the region.
The report says more than half the global trade in soya, cereals and fertilisers passes through at least one maritime chokepoint, while 10% passes through a maritime chokepoint for which there is no viable alternative.
“Climate change is going to make things worse by increasing the frequency of extreme weather events, fuelling conflict, and damaging already-weakened infrastructure”
A fifth of global wheat exports transit the Turkish Straits each year, and four ports on Brazil’s southern coastline handle nearly a quarter of global soya exports.
The report identifies three main types of risk: political and institutional; conflict and security; and weather and climate. Laura Wellesley says: “Climate change is going to make things worse by increasing the frequency of extreme weather events, fuelling conflict, and damaging already-weakened infrastructure.”
Nearly 25% of all food for direct human consumption is traded on international markets, and the quantity is increasing. The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) is the world region most dependent on food imports, especially on wheat from the Black Sea region coming through the Turkish Straits.
Just over a third of all grain imports to MENA passes through at least one maritime chokepoint for which there is no viable alternative. The report says the risk of disruption, given the political situation in the region, is high.
Low-income net food importers in sub-Saharan Africa, including Uganda, Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania and Sudan, are also very exposed, as are Japan and South Korea.
Chatham House says the report is a “first-of-its-kind analysis”, but the wider problems of food security have attracted attention for years, and especially the probable impact of weather and climate.
Other studies have examined the viability of different approaches to feeding the world. A report late last year warned of one consequence of the growth in human pressure.
The report says the risks to the chokepoints are increasing as our dependency on them grows. Chronic under-investment in infrastructure is a significant problem, and climate change, as so often, will multiply existing threats.
The authors write: “If a hurricane comparable in ferocity to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 were to shut down US exports from the Gulf of Mexico at the same time as extreme rainfall rendered Brazil’s roads impassable (the latter happened in 2013), up to 50% of global soya exports could be affected.
“If this in turn occurred in conjunction with a Black Sea heatwave similar to the one recorded in 2010, around 64% of global soya shipments could be halted or delayed.” – Climate News Network
Alex Kirby is a former BBC journalist and environment correspondent. He now works with universities, charities and international agencies to improve their media skills, and with journalists in the developing world keen to specialise in environmental reporting.