Chokepoints and Vulnerabilities in Global Food Trade

This project aims to provide an analysis of disruption risks in global food trade and develop recommendations for preventative and responsive action.

Pedro Miguel locks along the Panama Canal. Photo: Gonzalo Azumendi via Getty Images.

Global food security relies increasingly on international trade. Production of grain is highly concentrated in just a handful of regions – principally the US Midwest, the Black Sea region, and Brazil.

Together, these breadbaskets supply the majority of the world’s wheat, maize and soybean and, crucially, provide the principal source of staple food supply in the most food-insecure countries of the Middle East, North Africa and East Africa.

The globalization of food supply chains has played an important role in bringing down the share of the world’s population without access to sufficient food from over 50 per cent in the mid-1960s to 3 per cent today. But it has also introduced new risks.

Tightly interconnected food supply chains mean that disruptions – a harvest shock, for example, or a ban on exports – occurring in one part of the world can ripple out through the entire food system.

Poor harvests following a heatwave in Russia in 2010, and the decision by the government to stop wheat exports, were a contributory factor in the Arab Spring – high wheat prices translated into high bread prices, triggering food riots in countries where social unrest was already high.

Annual maritime throughput of maize, wheat, rice and soybean, 2000-2015.

Annual maritime throughput of maize, wheat, rice and soybean, 2000-2015.

While there is understanding among governments and food security experts of the need to manage these cascading effects through global markets, the importance of the physical structures of international trade has been overlooked.

Chatham House has undertaken a first-of-its-kind assessment of the importance of global trade chokepoints - maritime straits, major port hubs and inland transport networks - to global food security.

We find that over half of all internationally traded grain must pass through at least one of 14 major chokepoints and that over 10 per cent depends on a maritime chokepoint to which there is no viable alternative route. 

In June 2017, we published our findings in the Chatham House report Chokepoints and Vulnerabilities in Global Food Trade.

The research can also be explored through the website

Project outline

The Energy, Environment and Resources Department’s briefing paper ‘Maritime Choke Points and the Global Energy System: Charting a Way Forward’ drew attention to the impact of disruption at key maritime chokepoints on global energy supply while the ‘Edible Oil: Food Security in the Gulf’ briefing paper highlighted the susceptibility of GCC countries to food shortages as a result of trade route closures.

However, no comparable analysis has been undertaken for agricultural commodities traded globally, which, in the event of a maritime, coastal or inland chokepoint disruption could result in food insecurity and significant price increases.

Building on this research, we have developed the Chatham House Maritime Analysis Tool (CH-MAT) which couples Chatham House’s Resource Trade Database with a set of detailed assumptions on the most likely routes taken by food-carrying dry bulk vessels between any two regions.


This project is funded by the MAVA Foundation.