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Threats Loom Over Global Food Trade

May 18,2018 13:35

The ability of global trade to feed the world is one of the great success stories of the past generation. More than 1 billion people faced hunger on a planet of 5.6 billion a quarter-century ago; that number has fallen to 800 million, even as the ...



A time-lapse sequence from the deck of the "Ebba Maersk" container ship operated by A.P. Moeller-Maersk AS during its southbound passage through the Suez Canal in Egypt. Photography by Bloomberg
Threats Loom Over Global Food Trade

By Alan Bjerga, Hannah Dormido, Cindy Hoffman and Adrian Leung
May 18, 2018

The ability of global trade to feed the world is one of the great success stories of the past generation. More than 1 billion people faced hunger on a planet of 5.6 billion a quarter-century ago; that number has fallen to 800 million, even as the population has grown to 7.6 billion. Trade has brought much of that progress: Shippers and exporters have become better and better at getting affordable food from places of surplus to regions of scarcity.
But the planet is at rising risk of choking on its good fortune.

More people, less hunger
In billions, 2000-2016
Population
Undernourished

The percentage
of undernourished
in 2016 is estimated at
10.91%
down from 14.65
percent in 2000

The percentage
of undernourished
in 2016 is estimated at
10.91%
down from 14.65
percent in 2000

The percentage
of undernourished
in 2016 is estimated at
10.91%
down from 14.65
percent in 2000

Source: FAO report, "The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World"

The shipping of farm commodities by road, rail and sea—the basics of how a harvest gets from Point A to Point B—remains concentrated on increasingly vulnerable trade routes that, when disrupted, become “chokepoints” in the global food supply, suddenly raising food prices and cutting off supplies when they fail. From aging locks and dams on the Mississippi River and days-long traffic delays in the heart of Brazil to political unrest on routes serving the Black Sea, the Middle East and China, transit networks are strained from growing agricultural shipments.

Agricultural goods exported worldwide
Billions of tons, 1990-2016

Global exported agricultural goods have increased
810%

Global exported agricultural goods have increased
810%

Global exported agricultural goods have increased
810%

Source: United Nations Commodity Trade Statistics, United Nations Statistics Division

Global farm-commodity trade volume nearly tripled from 2000 to 2016, to 1.66 billion tons, according to UN data. Nearly half of all soybeans, almost a quarter of all wheat and more than an eighth of all corn is traded internationally, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data.

Percentage of major crops exported worldwide
Growing years 1989-1990 to 2017-2018 (estimated)

Soybeans
▲76% change

Wheat
▲20%

Corn
▼14%

Rice
▲185%

Wheat
▲20%

Soybeans
▲76% change

Corn
▼14%

Rice
▲185%

Soybeans
▲76% change

Wheat
▲20%

Corn
▼14%

Rice
▲185%

Source: World Agricultural Supply and Demand Estimates

Of 14 potential chokepoints worldwide identified by research firm Chatham House, only one has been free of disturbance in the past 15 years. “There has been little attention paid to the physical risks that you find along international supply chains,” said Laura Wellesley, a research fellow with London-based Chatham House. Increasing trade dependence, weather volatility from climate change, and underinvestment in infrastructure all place the world in greater danger of a humanitarian crisis brought on by a breakdown in the global food system, she said.
Trade will become only more important, especially as climate change makes weather more volatile and increases the need for different regions to shore each other up when harvests fail.

Agricultural commodity maritime chokepoints
Trade volume, in millions of tons, for 2000 and 2015

57 / 91
Panama Canal

8 / 75
Turkish Straits

28 / 108
Strait of Malacca

8 / 75
Turkish Straits

57 / 91
Panama Canal

28 / 108
Strait of Malacca

8 / 75
Turkish Straits

57 / 91
Panama Canal

28 / 108
Strait of Malacca

Source: Chatham House

Some country and company efforts, from China’s Belt and Road Initiative to new ports on existing routes, are emerging to meet the challenge. New routes may also emerge, from a railroad connecting Brazil to the Pacific Ocean to (less fortunately) the North Pole, as warming temperatures make it more navigable. Yet most farm goods still pass through networks increasingly at risk of buckling under the strain.
Here are the biggest chokepoints that make feeding the world a tougher task—and what’s being done (or not done) to make the deliveries that feed the world more certain.

The Turkish Straits
Perpetual Political Risk

RUSSIA

UKRAINE

Bosphorus

Black Sea

TURKEY

Dardanelles

Mediterranean Sea

RUSSIA

UKRAINE

FRANCE

Bosphorus
Narrowest width:
.43 mi (.69 km)

TURKEY

Dardanelles
Narrowest width:
.8 mi (1.3 km)

ALGERIA

SAUDI ARABIA

RUSSIA

UKRAINE

FRANCE

ROMANIA

Bosphorus
Narrowest width:
.43 mi (.69 km)

TURKEY

Dardanelles
Narrowest width:
.8 mi (1.3 km)

GREECE

Mediterranean Sea

ALGERIA

SAUDI ARABIA

RUSSIA

UKRAINE

FRANCE

ROMANIA

Black Sea

BULGARIA

Bosphorus
Narrowest width:
.43 mi (.69 km)

GREECE

TURKEY

Dardanelles
Narrowest width:
.8 mi (1.3 km)

Mediterranean Sea

ALGERIA

SAUDI ARABIA

Source: Oil Companies International Marine Forum (widths)

The Turkish Straits, considered the boundary between Europe and Asia, have been fought over since the Trojan War—and they are now more important than ever. Ever-expanding Black Sea wheat exports from Russia and Ukraine increasingly feed the Middle East, Africa and the world. The tonnage tells the story: Russian/Ukrainian shipments of bulk grains and oilseeds rose from 4.5 million tons in 2000 to 75 million tons in 2015. One-fifth of all wheat exports, and one of every six bushels of corn shipped overseas, travel through the Bosporus and the Dardenelles—site of the famous World War I Battle of Gallipoli—making it the world’s biggest transit point for the grain. When the straits are closed, there is no maritime alternative.

Russia/Ukraine exports
Bulk agricultural commodities in metric tons
Russia
Ukraine

Ukraine’s bulk grains and oilseed shipments increased
1784%

Ukraine’s bulk grains and oilseed shipments increased
1784%

Ukraine’s bulk grains and oilseed shipments increased
1784%

Sources: UN Commodity Trade Statistics, UN Statistics Division

Unrest continues to characterize the region. Ukraine ordered the closure of Black Sea ports in Crimea in 2014 as Russia occupied the region, and the Bosporus Strait was closed for several hours in 2016 during an attempted coup. The straits are only the first step in a gantlet of potential disruption that runs through the Strait of Hormuz, the Strait of al-Mandab and the Suez Canal. Each of these passageways border or is home to a nation judged by the Fund for Peace to be at an elevated or high risk of becoming a failed state. Turkey, the nation that administers much of the straits, is considered highly unlikely to close it. But unforeseen circumstances could quickly spiral out of hand—making conditions such as Russian-Turkish tensions and regional terrorism activity crucial threats to global food security.

The Strait of Malacca
China’s Lifeline

Philippine Sea

THAILAND

South
China Sea

Bay of
Bengal

MALAYSIA

SINGAPORE

Strait of
Malacca

INDONESIA

Indian Ocean

South
China
Sea

Philippine Sea

Bay of
Bengal

THAILAND

VIETNAM

PHILIPPINES

Andaman
Sea

MALAYSIA

Strait of Malacca
Narrowest width:
1.7 mi (2.7 km)

SINGAPORE

INDONESIA

Indian
Ocean

Philippine
Sea

THAILAND

Bay of
Bengal

South
China Sea

VIETNAM

Andaman
Sea

PHILIPPINES

MALAYSIA

Strait of Malacca
Narrowest width:
1.7 mi (2.7 km)

SINGAPORE

INDONESIA

Indian
Ocean

South
China Sea

Philippine
Sea

THAILAND

Bay of
Bengal

PHILIPPINES

VIETNAM

Andaman
Sea

MALAYSIA

Strait of Malacca
Narrowest width:
1.7 mi (2.7 km)

SINGAPORE

INDONESIA

Indian
Ocean

Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration (width)

The passageway that links the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea has become the key conduit for feeding China. Chatham House estimates that one-quarter of all soybean exports and one-fifth of all rice pass through Malacca, supplying rising Asian markets and satisfying increasingly wealthy populations.

Exports to China
In metric tons, 2000-2016

Grain and seed exports to China have increased by
563%

Soybeans have
increased by
705%

Grain and seed exports to China have increased by
563%

Soybeans have
increased by
705%

Oilseeds*
Rapeseed
Course grains**
Pulses
Corn
Wheat

Grain and seed exports to China have increased by
563%

Soybeans
have increased
705%

Note: *NESOI (Not Elsewhere Specified Or Included), **Excludes corn
Sources: UN Commodity Trade Statistics, UN Statistics Division

Unlike the Turkish Straits, shippers to Asia have alternatives to using the Strait of Malacca. Much of its traffic comes from Brazil and the U.S., the world’s two top soybean exporters, and could travel via such other routes as the Panama Canal and the U.S. Pacific Northwest. Shippers use Malacca because of cost and logistics: Going east around Africa’s Cape of Good Hope avoids canal fees, and when fuel is inexpensive, additional stops along the way to carry everything from oil to children’s toys can make Malacca’s longer transit route less expensive.
Given that this is the world's biggest throughpoint for all bulk shipments, any disruptions would quickly reverberate through the global food chain, even as ships were re-routed, creating delays, clogging other ports and raising commodity costs on everything from corn to oil, which itself is a significant component of the price of food. Pirates are another problem: Armed bandits frequently troll Malacca’s waters, abducting a bulk-ship crew in 2016. Climate change may also pose a risk to the region as tropical storms increase. Water and resource stresses in the world’s most densely populated areas could add to political tensions, threatening traffic.

The Panama Canal
A Weakening Supply Chain

Atlantic Ocean

MEXICO

Carribean Sea

NICARAGUA

Pacific Ocean

COLOMBIA

Panama Canal

BRAZIL

Atlantic Ocean

MEXICO

DOMINICAN
REPUBLIC

Panama Canal
Lock width:
180 ft (.05 km)

GUATEMALA

NICARAGUA

COSTA
RICA

VENEZUELA

PANAMA

COLOMBIA

Pacific Ocean

BRAZIL

Atlantic Ocean

MEXICO

DOMINICAN
REPUBLIC

Carribean
Sea

Panama Canal
Lock width:
180 ft (.05 km)

GUATEMALA

NICARAGUA

COSTA
RICA

VENEZUELA

PANAMA

Pacific Ocean

COLOMBIA

BRAZIL

Atlantic Ocean

MEXICO

DOMINICAN
REPUBLIC

BELIZE

Carribean Sea

GUATEMALA

Panama Canal
Lock width:
180 ft (.05 km)

NICARAGUA

COSTA
RICA

VENEZUELA

PANAMA

Pacific Ocean

COLOMBIA

BRAZIL

Source: Panama Canal Authority (width)

The Panama Canal—across a small land mass separating North America and South America—was built more than a century ago to cut travel times for ships and avoid an almost 8,000-mile trip around Cape Horn at the southern tip of Argentina and Chile. While the narrowest stretch is only 180 feet wide, the waterway handles more than a third of U.S. corn exports and nearly half its soybeans. In 2016, a third set of locks was added that doubled the canal’s capacity.
The greatest threat to traffic at the Panama Canal may not be the canal itself, but the aging and inadequate infrastructure among the major exporters that ship goods to it.

Brazil

To the canal’s south, Brazil’s transportation costs are increased by poor highways and a lack of rail capacity, creating weeks-long traffic jams during harvest seasons. Increasing government investment will take years to alleviate the decay, coming after years of neglect that has left Brazil’s density of road and rails at less than half that of other emerging economies.

Transport highways
and railroads

BRAZIL

Brasília

Atlantic
Ocean

Brazil’s
combined
corn and soy production has increased by
88%

Santos

Paranaguá

São Francisco
do Sul

Rio Grande

Transport highways
and railroads

BRAZIL

Brazil’s combined corn and soy production has increased by
88%

Brasília

Atlantic
Ocean

Santos

Paranaguá

Pacific
Ocean

São Francisco do Sul

Rio Grande

Transport highways
and railroads

BRAZIL

Brazil’s combined corn and soy production has increased by
88%

Brasília

Atlantic
Ocean

Santos

Paranaguá

Pacific
Ocean

São Francisco do Sul

Rio Grande

The Mississippi River

To the north, U.S. transportation faces its own investment issues. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 2016 pegged the cost of fixing backlogged needs on the upper Mississippi River alone at over $1 billion. Lack of attention threatens to make U.S. farm goods more expensive and less reliable in the future.
U.S. shippers are relying more heavily on highways, typically a more expensive form of transportation, than on barges and railroads, as infrastructure improvement hasn’t kept pace with export volume.

U.S. grain on rail, barge and truck
Percentage share of movements
Rail
Barge
Truck

Shipment by barge decreased by
34%

Shipment by barge decreased by
34%

Shipment by barge decreased by
34%

Source: USDA

The result is vulnerabilities across the supply chain that sends goods to the Panama Canal. Hurricane Katrina in 2005 stopped grain exports via the mouth of the Mississippi River for two weeks, while wet weather in Brazil in 2013 delayed more than 200 vessels that waited outside Brazilian ports for an average of 39 days. The canal itself is not immune: A strong El Nino in 2016 lowered water levels and forced depth restrictions that affected almost one-fifth of the vessels that use the canal, and flooding temporarily closed it in 2010.

New Routes:
Challenges ahead

While the planet itself creates new routes that could alleviate stresses (albeit via the unfortunate process of climate change), major projects devoted to alleviating chokepoints have faced difficulties.

The North Pole

A warmer planet means an increasingly navigable Arctic Ocean, which means greater interest in an eventual Northern Sea Route created by a melting polar ice cap. Such a route would cut sailing time between northwest Europe and northwest Asia in half. With proper rail networks, it would even alleviate pressure on the Turkish Straits. Alternatively, a Northwest Passage to the north of Canada would finally realize the dream that sent Christopher Columbus sailing to the New World. Neither route is expected to be navigable in the next three decades; environmentalists hope it takes much longer.

Northern Sea
Route

Northwest
Passage

CANADA

Arctic
Ocean

RUSSIA

Atlantic Ocean

Northern Sea
Route

Northwest
Passage

CANADA

Arctic
Ocean

RUSSIA

Atlantic Ocean

Northwest
Passage

Northern Sea
Route

CANADA

Arctic
Ocean

RUSSIA

Atlantic Ocean

The Belt and Road Initiative

China’s $8 trillion plan to ensure steady supplies of food and other commodities would further ensure that it has steady food supplies—and further project its power in the countries included in its plan. But sometimes it’s hard to know what Belt and Road is. The grab-bag of major and minor projects has no timeline, and skeptics question the reality of its lofty visions.

Silk Road
Economic Belt

Maritime Silk
Road Initiative

Moscow

Duisburg

Silk Road
Economic Belt

Rotterdam

Venice

Almaty

Urumqi

Istanbul

Bishkek

Samarkand

Dushanbe

Athens

Tehran

Fuzhou

Guangzhou

Kolkata

Maritime Silk
Road Initiative

Kuala
Lumpur

Colombo

Nairobi

Jakarta

Moscow

Duisburg

Rotterdam

Silk Road
Economic Belt

Venice

Urumqi

Almaty

Istanbul

Bishkek

Athens

Samarkand

Dushanbe

Tehran

Fuzhou

Guangzhou

Kolkata

Colombo

Kuala
Lumpur

Maritime Silk
Road Initiative

Nairobi

Jakarta

New Capacity, Same Routes

EGT LLC’s massive new grain terminal, which opened in Longview, Washington, in 2012, was the first new grain export terminal in the U.S. in 25 years, beefing up capacity in the Pacific Northwest. EGT is a joint venture between Bunge North America and ITOCHU International Inc. Ukraine is also seeing new construction, with three new grain terminals expected in separate ports this year, funded by Cargill, Louis Dreyfus and other agribusinesses. The infrastructure will make it more efficient to at least get grain to the Turkish Straits, even if it doesn’t create an alternative to them. Same in Brazil, where Bunge Ltd. and others have been expanding port capacity.

Conclusion:
To Feed the World, Ensure Trade

The ninefold expansion of exports in the past generation has made the world a less-hungry place. Now global agriculture feeds the world at less expense and greater efficiency than ever before.
But those ties are fraying—and not only in such obvious ways like China’s threatened tariffs against U.S. soybeans, “America First” trade skepticism or retreats from globalization in the name of inequality. The physical infrastructure is also strained.
Routes long taken for granted have suffered from neglect. Weather and politics are both becoming more turbulent. And every day, more mouths need to be fed.
Hunger has declined, and trade can take credit. But hunger still exists, and trade is threatened. Feeding people is more than simply producing enough food. It’s getting it to where it’s needed. That second challenge increasingly will be crucial to one day eliminating hunger.

trade,exports,shipping,soybeans,wheat,corn,rice,Turkish Straits,Strait of Malacca,Panama Canal

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