As Climate Changes, Global Food Supply Will Become Increasingly Unstable

CC BY 2.0. Comrade King

Global food shipments rely on 14 key 'chokepoints' that are susceptible to disruption, with disastrous effects.

In an ideal world, all food would come from within our own communities. It would be grown and harvested by people we know, sold directly at fair prices, and enjoyed fresh with minimal packaging. It sounds lovely, but in reality there are few people in North America able to live this way.

If you do not eat local farm produce exclusively, then you probably shop at a grocery store that is dependent on complex global food production networks to stocks its shelves. While this has its perks – cheap bananas, plentiful lemons, and Greek salad in wintertime, for example – it has the downside of being susceptible to distant political and environmental tremors.

Take, for example, the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011. While there were many reasons for the widespread protests that escalated into violence and eventually the protracted war in Syria, sky-high food prices and lack of bread in Cairo did not help. Fascinatingly, this has been linked to a lack of wheat imports from the Black Sea region in Russia, which had experienced a drought the previous summer and shut down all exports to meet national needs for wheat.

A new report from Chatham House in London draws attention to the fragility of international food distribution networks. Currently there are four main crops – maize, wheat, rice, and soybeans – that are responsible for global food security as we know it, feeding approximately 2.8 billion individuals. The first three crops account for 60 percent of global food energy intake, while soybeans account for 65 percent of global feed supply (for animals to convert into meat).

These crops travel internationally by road, rail, and ship, passing through 14 key ‘chokepoints’ that Chatham House believes to be increasingly risky. These chokepoints are “critical junctures on transport routes through which exceptional volumes of trade pass.” While chokepoints in the oil industry are an obsession among pundits, they tend to ignored in the world of food – a risk that’s not worth taking.

“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.”

All but one of these 14 chokepoints have experienced blockages or disruptions in the past 15 years. The only one that hasn't, the Strait of Gibraltar, the Post writes, "may now come under pressure in Brexit negotiations."

Rob Bailey, research director at Chatham House, says these chokepoints have been perilously overlooked. He told the Washington Post, “It is a glide path to a perfect storm."

Chatham House says that climate change is only going to make the situation worse, especially if droughts, storms, or floods were to hit several key chokepoints simultaneously.

“[Climate change] will increase the frequency and severity of extreme weather, leading to more regular closures of chokepoints and greater wear and tear on infrastructure. Rising sea levels will threaten the integrity of port operations and coastal storage infrastructure, and will increase their vulnerability to storm surges. [It] is expected to aggravate drivers of conflict and instability. It will also lead to more frequent harvest failures, increasing the risk of governments imposing ad hoc export controls. Climate change may also increase the risk of concurrent supply disruptions. As extreme weather events become more common, the chances of coincidental disruptions occurring at different locations are likely to increase.”

The Washington Post uses the example of Hurricane Isaac, which hit in August 2012 and closed ports and suspended barge traffic on parts of the Mississippi River.

It is a dire prediction for the future of food and one that Chatham House recommends governments start addressing before things get any worse, perhaps by creating alternative routes and supply sources. For ordinary citizens, the discussion about chokepoints is a valuable reminder of the importance to establish and support local food networks. Crop diversification and resilient organic growing methods are safer and healthier strategies than the industrial-scale monocrop production that’s become standard in much of the world and relies heavily on fossil fuels every step of the way, from planting and harvesting to transporting around the globe. The 100-mile diet (or less!) food movement isn’t just trendy; it’s sensible, too.