"Immediate action" must be taken to protect food trade chokepoints

Chokepoint graph

Bailey, R. and Wellesley, L. (2017), Chokepoints and Vulnerabilities in Global Food Trade, Chatham House Report, London: Royal Institute of International Affairs

A UK think-tank has warned governments must take immediate action to mitigate the risk of severe disruption at certain trade ‘chokepoints’ around the world, which could have ‘devastating knock-on effects’ for global food security. 

The Royal Institute of International Affairs said these critical junctures on transport routes through which exceptional volumes of trade pass were coming under increasing pressure as international food trade continued to grow.

These chokepoints include the Panama Canal, the Strait of Gibraltar, US Gulf Coast ports, the Suez Canal, and the US inland waterways and rail network.

“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,” authors Rob Bailey and Laura Wellesley wrote.

“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.

“More commonplace disruptions may not in themselves trigger crises, but can add to delays, spoilage and transport costs, constraining market responsiveness and contributing to higher prices and increased volatility.”

Maritime chokepoints will become increasingly integral to meeting global food supply as population growth, shifting dietary preferences, bioenergy expansion and slowing improvements in crop yields drive up demand for imported grain, the report said.

In addition, rising trade volumes, increasing dependence on imports among food-deficit countries, underinvestment, weak governance, climate change and emerging disruptive hazards together make chokepoint disruptions “increasingly likely”.

Climate change will have a “compounding effect on chokepoint risk”, it went on to say, increasing the probability of both isolated and multiple concurrent weather-induced disturbances.

The report also mentioned that investment in infrastructure lagged behind demand growth; critical networks in major crop-producing regions are weak and ageing, and extra capacity is urgently needed.

The Institute recommended chokepoint analysis be integrated into “mainstream risk management and security planning.”

“For example, government agencies should assess exposure and vulnerability to chokepoint risk at the national and subnational levels,” it said.

It also urged more investment in infrastructure, such as by agreeing on guidelines for climate-compatible infrastructure through an international taskforce established under the G20, and said confidence and predictability in global trade should be enhanced, which could be done through a process under the World Trade Organization (WTO) to continually reduce the scope for export restrictions.

Furthermore, it recommended emergency supply-sharing arrangements and smarter strategic storage be developed.

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