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Chokepoints threaten food supply

7th July 2017

Just fourteen “chokepoints” threaten the security of global food supply chains, according to a report from analysts at the Chatham House thinktank. The critical locations for food supply include the Suez canal, Black Sea ports and Brazil’s road network – most of which are hit with frequent disruptions.

These chokepoints are likely to be more of a concern as climate change brings more frequent extreme weather events – such as heatwaves, fires and flooding – which result in harvest failures, adding to supply disruptions and damaging aging transport infrastructure. According to the report, more than half of the globe’s staple crop exports – wheat, maize, rice and soybean – have to travel along inland routes to a small number of key ports in the US, Brazil and the Black Sea. On top of this, more than half of these crops – and more than 50% of fertilisers – transit through at least one of the identified maritime chokepoints.

Many of the chokepoints have already suffered repeated disruptions. US inland waterways and railways, which carry 30% of the world’s maize and soy, were hit by flooding that halted traffic in 2016, and a 2012 heatwave that kinked rail lines caused derailments. The Panama canal has been hampered by drought, while the Suez canal has been closed by sandstorms and threatened by attempted terrorist bomb attacks. Brazil’s muddy roads are often blocked by heavy rain, with 3,000 trucks stranded earlier in 2017, while its critical southern ports have been disrupted by storms and floods. The only chokepoint that has not recently been disrupted is the Straits of Gibraltar, which connects the Mediterranean with the Atlantic.

The report found the Middle East and North Africa region was particularly vulnerable, due to it high reliance on imported food, compounded by being encircled by supply bottlenecks. In a region that has had its share of war, disruption of food supplies is likely to lead to further geo-political conflict and unrest.

Chatham House analysts recommend increased global cooperation to plan for food supply crises and investment in crucial infrastructure.

As much as free trade agreements, physical infrastructure is vital for market access and food supply chains that span the globe. This report highlights the vulnerability of these global food supply chains. Worsening climate and geo-political conflicts have the potential to severely impact the most vulnerable populations if there is no concerted effort to mitigate the risk through cooperative planning and investment that reduces these bottlenecks.