A new report has found that global food supply chains are highly vulnerable to disruption, price spikes and uncertainty.
The London-based Chatham House, a strategy think tank, has analysed the world’s food trade routes and has uncovered 14 ‘chokepoints’, each of which could have a seriously negative impact on global supplies.
The research looks at the trade routes for key food commodities, such as grain, as well as the transnational supply of the fertilizers on which the world’s farms depend.
The degree of vulnerability within the global food supply chain is troubling. Two-thirds of the world’s total harvest crop calories are derived from only four crops: maize, rice, soybean and wheat. Production of which is growing increasingly concentrated on fewer regions. Coupled with growing urbanization and climate change, smaller production zones are feeling greater strains.
These are the ‘chokepoints’ which the authors define as “vulnerable point of congestion along a route”.
Here, transportation may disrupted by natural disasters, political risk, industrial disputes or other commercial issues which can have far greater global impacts than would be implied by their local origins.
Within the United States, 60% of agricultural exports channel through country’s aged and congested waterway system, most of which stems from the Mississippi delta. 60% of wheat exports rely on the railway system, 30% of which is currently over-capacity, with a further 23% forecast to be over-capacity in 20 years.
20% of world maize exports are transacted through the US Gulf Coast ports. This area has been suffering from chronic under-investment and is also situated on one of the world’s most hurricane-prone regions.
Previously, food insecurity has tended to relate to poorer countries. This report challenges that notion, and argues that even economically developed countries face an exposure to unreliable delivery channels.
“Japan and South Korea rank among the most exposed countries in the world, despite also being two of the richest. Though not considered food-insecure by traditional metrics, both countries rely heavily on food imports that transit one, two or three chokepoints. Just under three-quarters of Japan’s maize and wheat imports pass through the Panama Canal; and one-third of South Korea’s wheat and maize imports pass through the Suez Canal, Strait of Bab al-Mandab and Strait of Malacca.”
Unfortunately, these are global problems, which requires international co-operation to solve. China’s own pioneering example of directly managing its offshore supply lines provides a potential blue-print for global emulation. Its Belt And Road initiative has seen Chinese engineers cross the world in building logistics and transports hubs to help secure a seamless supply of essential goods.
International bodies, the report’s authors contend, should take a similar approach and seek to reduce the stress felt at trade chokepoints by investing in further capacity.
Unfortunately, global co-operation is an increasingly rare quality in a world that seems divided by burgeoning nationalism and economic protectionism. The fragmentation of European unity, a vociferously self-interested United States as well as political discord throughout the world’s regions, may cast doubt onto the idea.
More of an intriguing question is the role of China once these logistical strains become apparent. If the world does not take charge over this issue, it may find itself at the mercy of Chinese bureaucrats, who have their hands at world’s food supply chokepoints.