SEATTLE — When thinking of global food security and its challenges, the mind is apt to go to the food itself, like wondering how to grow food sustainably so that the disadvantaged can more easily access it. Something that is easily skipped over but integral to maintaining global food security is infrastructure. And in a recent study, the think tank Chatham House identifies venerable choke points that threaten global food security.
The study explains that the world food supply is based largely on the three major crops maize, wheat and rice. These crops are shipped through choke points, critical points on trade routes, such as the Panama Canal and the Strait of Malacca, through which massive amounts of food supply pass. According to the study, “A serious interruption at one or more of these choke points could conceivably lead to supply shortfalls and price spikes, with systemic consequences that could reach beyond food markets.”
The problem is that a serious interruption at these choke points, resulting in massive food shortages, is becoming more and more likely. Climate change is increasing the likelihood of choke points closing as the weather becomes more severe and rising sea levels further damage the maritime chokepoints. Climate change also has the potential to decrease local crop yields, ensuring that even more food will have to be exported to countries facing shortages. This further strains the chokepoints. Additionally, choke points are becoming even more venerable as the global commitment to investing in infrastructure wanes and waterways and roads become more susceptible to flood and harder to cross.
These choke point vulnerabilities put the state of global food security at risk. Many countries in the Middle East and North Africa have no alternative to the tenuous choke points, and if they close due to climate change or poor infrastructure, one-third of their food supply will be cut off altogether. Many other low-income food-deficit countries like Benin, Ethiopia, Haiti and Honduras are in this position as well. Developed countries have a lot to lose, too. If the Panama Canal became impassable, Japan would lose nearly three-quarters of its food imports.
Chatham House concludes its study with recommended solutions. Some of these include encouraging government agencies to consider choke point policy when analyzing overall risk management, developing a global emergency response plan for a global food security crisis and investing more in infrastructure.
A good model of this is the Chinese One Belt One Road initiative, an enormous infrastructure investment that essentially builds a new Silk Road connecting China with countries across Europe, Asia and Africa. The One Belt One Road initiative has the potential to help the entire continent of Africa “plug its infrastructure deficit, a necessary step for economic growth on the continent.” And, most importantly, it provides new trade routes outside of tenuous choke points and can potentially prevent a global food security disaster.
Global food security is a layered and deeply complex issue, and it can be easy to get lost in its complex contours. It is important not to lose sight of the fact that food is useless if no one can access it. Ensuring that global trade infrastructure is built sustainably, with close attention paid to its vulnerabilities, is the first step towards global food security for all.
– Adesuwa Agbonile