The chokepoints that threaten the global food trade

Contributor: Gracie Pearsall

A recent report published by the UK think-tank, Chatham House, has identified 14 critical locations that, while integral to global food trade, are also extremely at risk to the effects of climate change. The report dubs these locations “chokepoints,” and analyzes how disruptions from climate change could impact the food security of millions of people.

All 14 chokepoints are junctions on the global food transport system. The chokepoints encompass areas such as maritime corridors, ports, and inland transport infrastructure. The global food trade relies heavily on these chokepoints. For example, more than half the world’s staple crops (wheat, maize, rice, soybean) and fertilizers pass through at least one of the maritime chokepoints identified.

Increasing chokepoint risks

These chokepoints are exposed to distinct risks and hazards. Weather events, such as flooding and drought, regularly reduce efficiency and damage infrastructure. Security, conflicts, and political dynamics can also disrupt trade at these chokepoints. Additionally, chokepoints face institutional risks if authorities choose to close a port or restrict exports and imports. All but one of the identified chokepoints have been closed or severely interrupted at least once in the last 15 years. This report found that closings and interruptions such as these will occur more frequently as chokepoints risks increase.

Aside from climate change, two trends are increasing the chokepoint risks. First, dependency on chokepoints is growing. For example, in 2000, only six percent of crops and fertilizers relied on one of the maritime chokepoints as the only viable transit route. Now, this figure has risen to ten percent. This dependency increases risks because it concentrates a major amount of crops and fertilizers in a small number of vulnerable locations.

Second, there is chronic underinvestment in the infrastructure at these chokepoints. Inadequate infrastructure leaves these locations ill-prepared to handle the growing volume of trade, and also limits the infrastructure’s capacity to become resilient to the changing climate. For example, frequent heavy rains often render Brazil’s muddy roadways impassable.  Likewise, US waterways and Gulf ports are old and congested, making them especially vulnerable to flooding, droughts, and hurricanes. Countries that rely on food imports, such as those in North Africa and the Middle East, will become especially vulnerable as weather hazards intensify and as the international food trade grows

Climate-related risks

The Chatham House report identifies climate change as the biggest risk to chokepoints. Climate change will act as a “hazard multiplier,” by amplifying the effects of all the aforementioned risks. Moreover, climate change will bring risks of its own. Climate change will increase the frequency of extreme and severe weather events, such as floods, droughts, heavy rainfall, and heatwaves, which will block chokepoints and harm infrastructure. For example, flooding hit US waterways in 2016, which completely stopped transit. During a 2015 heatwave, major US rail lines kinked and derailed several trains and stopped transit.

Slow on-set climate consequence further threatens chokepoint infrastructure. For example, sea level rise poses a huge risk to maritime corridors and ports and will require significant adaptation responses. Furthermore, climate change acts as a driver of instability because climate-related stress exacerbates social and political climates, and fuels armed conflicts.

Dealing with the at-risk chokepoints

An example of a country successfully minimizing chokepoint risks is China. It imports a lot of food, but it has diversified supply routes. Although 87% of China’s grain imports travel through maritime chokepoints, only four percent move through chokepoints with no alternative routes. Chinese companies have also built railroads in South America as an alternative route to the Panama Canal (one of the 14 chokepoints). China’s actions epitomize the report’s recommended approach to handling increasing chokepoint risks.

In conclusion, the Chatham House report emphasizes the need to mitigate damage by investing in infrastructure at these chokepoints, and adapting to the risks by lessening reliance on the checkpoints. The report also advises governments and businesses to integrate chokepoint analysis into risk management planning, and create a “supply-sharing” network and plan, in case of chokepoint failure and trade emergency.

Cover photo: Maritime, coastal and inland chokepoints and major shipping routes identified in the report. Source: Chatham House.

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