Vulnerable 'Chokepoints' Threaten Global Food Security, Experts Warn

Chatham House analysts say climate change could affect 14 key transportation routes.

The Panama Canal is one of 14 transport routes identified as in need of protection.  (Reuters)

More than a dozen supply chains and trade routes that facilitate global food trade are vulnerable to unforeseen crises or climate change, according to a new report.

Analysts at Chatham House, the U.K.-based think tank, released a report Tuesday identifying 14 critical junctures, or “chokepoints,” through which large volumes of global food trade pass that could be vulnerable to major disruption if they are not properly maintained—an issue that could adversely affect global food supply and prices. The report found that the weak and aging infrastructure of these chokepoints are not equipped to cope with natural disasters, which could occur with more frequency as the planet warms.

“Three principal kinds of chokepoint are critical to global food security: maritime straits along shipping lanes; coastal infrastructure in major crop-exporting regions; and inland transport infrastructure in major exporting regions,” the report reads, adding: “A serious interruption at one or more of these chokepoints could conceivably lead to supply shortfalls and price spikes, with systemic consequences that could reach beyond food markets.”

These chokepoints, which include key maritime routes like the Panama Canal, coastal areas like the U.S. Gulf Coast ports, and inland routes like the Roads to Brazil, are responsible for transporting a significant amount of the world’s food supply—a quarter of which is traded through international markets. The most important of these chokepoints are in the U.S., Brazil, and the Black Sea, which account for more than half of the world’s staple crop exports such as wheat, rice, maize, and soybean. A third of grain imports for the Middle East and North Africa, which is considered the most food import-dependent region in the world, rely on a single chokepoint.

Laura Wellesley, one of the authors of the Chatham House report, said the risk increases as climate change poses a heightened risk.

“We are talking about a huge share of global supply that could be delayed or stopped for a significant period of time,” Wellesley told the Guardian. “What is concerning is that, with climate change, we are very likely to see one or more of these chokepoint disruptions coincide with a harvest failure, and that’s when things start to get serious.”

Some of these routes have already been affected. The Panama Canal has been hit by drought, floods have affected roads in Brazil, and sandstorms have previously shut down the Suez Canal—all crises the report says could intensify because of global warming. To combat this, the report calls for investment in “climate-compatible” infrastructure, as well as for more global cooperation to plan for future crises.

“The straits of Hormuz [which Iran has threatened to close] is a really interesting example of where the energy sector is sitting up and taking notice – the food sector should be doing the same,” Wellesley said. “Those same countries that rely on Hormuz to export their oil rely almost entirely on the same strait for their food supply.”