New Report Warns of Chokepoints on Global Food Trade Routes
There are significant and under-appreciated risks and vulnerabilities in the global food trade and key physical chokepoints where things could go wrong, according to a report published today by the think tank Chatham House.
Chatham House’s first-of-its kind analysis shows that policymakers must take action immediately to mitigate the risk of severe disruption at certain ports, maritime straits, and inland transport routes, which could have devastating knock-on effects for global food security.
“The risks are growing as we all trade more with each other and as climate change takes hold,” said Laura Wellesley, one of the report’s authors. “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 flavor of the sort of disruptions that can occur when chokepoints are closed.”
The report, “Chokepoints and Vulnerabilities in Global Food Trade,” identifies fourteen chokepoints that are critical to global food security. Of these, eight are maritime, including the Panama Canal, Suez Canal, and the Turkish Straits. Three are inland and include US inland waterways and Brazil’s road network; and three coastal chokepoints include the Black Sea ports and US Gulf Coast ports.
The report warns that incidents or delays at these chokepoints could disrupt supply, and push up food prices. The increasingly interrelated nature of the global food trade means that disruption to one trade route could have knock on effects for others.
Among the vulnerabilities identified in the report, 54 percent of the global trade in soybeans, cereals and fertilizers passes through at least one maritime chokepoint while 10 percent passes through a maritime chokepoint for which there is no viable alternative. Over the past 15 years, all but one of the 14 critical chokepoints has been subject to closure or to restrictions on traffic. Over a quarter of global soybean exports transit the Straits of Malacca annually. A fifth of global wheat exports pass through the Turkish Straits each year. Four ports on Brazil’s southern coastline are responsible for one third of global soybean exports. The Suez and Panama Canals are only 200 meters and 300 meters wide at their narrowest points.
“There are three main categories of risk: weather and climate; political and institutional; and conflict and security,” said Wellesley. “Often, responses taken by governments that have short term, national interests in mind can exacerbate the global problem, and undermine systemic resilience. Meanwhile, climate change is going to make things worse by increasing the frequency of extreme weather events, fueling conflict, and damaging already-weakened infrastructure. We need a new, collaborative approach to mapping and mitigating the growing threat we all face.”
Global food security depends upon trade in four staple crops – corn, wheat, rice and soybean – production of which is concentrated in a handful of exporting breadbasket regions. The US exports 30 percent of the world’s corn supply, and 29 percent of its soy, while Brazil is the largest exporter of soy globally (32 percent) and accounts for 48 percent of China’s soy imports. In total, nearly 25 percent of all food for direct human consumption is traded on international markets and this is increasing.
The degree of risk faced by food importing countries depends in part on the proportion of their imports that passes through a chokepoint. The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region is the most food-import-dependent in the world, is encircled by maritime chokepoints, and depends heavily on wheat imports from the Black Sea region via 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 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. China is also a major importer – particularly of soybean – but has done the most to mitigate its exposure to chokepoint risk.
The report urges governments to act immediately, including by diversifying production and stocks, strengthening global rules and cooperation, and investing in climate-resilient infrastructure. It suggests policymakers should integrate chokepoint analysis into mainstream risk management and security planning.
“There have been constant and repeated disruptions at these critical chokepoints over the last fifteen years,” said Wellesley. “That none of these events has led to a crisis does not mean that the risk can be discounted. On the contrary, in the context of a changing climate and growing demand, this constant background of overlooked disruption underscores the need for governments to act now, not least because many of the necessary reforms will take a while to take effect.”
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