According to the independent UK-based Chatham House policy research institute, the world's food security risks are growing -- especially at 14 indispensable "chokepoints" for global trade. In a new report "Chokepoints and Vulnerabilities in Global Food Trade," Chatham House authors Rob Bailey and Laura Wesley recommend that policymakers "take action immediately to mitigate the risk of severe disruption at certain ports, maritime straits, and inland transport routes, which could have devastating knock-on effects for global food security."
So what does this mean? Essentially, the world's food moves through a select number of ports not by choice, but because those are the only trade points available. As food production grows and the worldwide population of hungry mouths to feed grows, too, we're approaching a breaking point where some trade ports will become too backed up to efficiently pass the food shipments through in a timely manner.
According the the report, "global food security is underpinned by trade in a few crops and fertilizers," with three crops -- maize (corn), wheat and rice -- making up about 60 percent of global food energy intake. A fourth crop, soybean, is the single largest source of animal protein feed, about 65 percent of the global supply.
How important are these crops? According to the report, "Each year, the world's transport system moves enough maize, wheat, rice and soybean to feed approximately 2.8 billion people."
Add to this the nearly 200 million tons of fertilizer applied to farmlands each year to grow that corn, wheat and rice, and it's clear just how important these trade routes are, and how devastating any interruption could be.
The risks are growing
The Panama Canal, for instance, sees 75 percent of Japan's maize and wheat imports pass through its 300-meter width. A full one-quarter of soybean exports cross the Straits of Malacca.
One-third of the grain in the Middle East and North Africa pass through the Turkish Straits -- the only route available. Brazilian roads, along which the bulk of the world's soybeans travel for export, are under regular threat of flooding and landslides.
What can be done?
Shopping your local farm stands, especially for grains and bread, is a small change you can make to your daily routine. While the scope of this problem is global, every tiny bit helps, even when you're not sure of it yourself.
Additionally, starting conversations with the people around you raises awareness and the first step in changing a system or making it more effective is to have a conversation. Out of sight, out of mind is especially real when it comes to international large-scale problems such as this.
As for the report's suggestions, it acknowledges that "reducing chokepoint risk in the food system is a long-term project."
"New institutional and governance arrangements need to be negotiated and implemented at international and national level, existing infrastructure strengthened and new infrastructure built. Work must begin now for the necessary measures to be in place before climate change becomes a major source of disruption and instability."
The report goes on to identify five areas for action. The first is to integrate chokepoint analysis into mainstream risk management and security planning. The second is to invest in infrastructure to ensure future food security.
The third deals with enhancing confidence and predictability in global trade. The fourth point dives into developing emergency supply-sharing arrangements and smarter strategic storage. The fifth and final suggestion is to build the evidence base around chokepoint risk.