Food trade chokepoints: A perspective on UK food security

We’ve witnessed three chokepoint sets of events affecting food trade in the last couple of years:

  • The Dover Strait: With the ending of the Brexit transition period on 31st December 2021, UK food security has been profoundly affected by the Government’s decision to impose non-tariff barrier controls between us and the EU27.
  • Blockade of the Black Sea ports owing to the Russian invasion of Ukraine on 24th February, affecting global supplies of wheat, maize, sunflower oil and fertiliser. An agreement was made on 22nd July 2022 for a safe maritime humanitarian corridor in the Black Sea, known as the Black Sea Grain Initiative. This was extended on 18th March 2023 for at least 60 days.
  • The six-day closure of the Suez Canal in March 2021 owing to the grounding of the cargo ship, Ever Green. It finally reached its destination, Rotterdam, on 29th July 2021. Among other goods, it contained food, including fresh produce destined for Minor Weir and Willis here in Birmingham.

The map shows where the major food trade chokepoints are across the world:

Chokepoint risk is increasing.  These places are exposed to four broad categories of disruption:

  1. Weather and climate hazards, including storms and floods that could close them, and infrastructure wear and tear, likely to be exacerbated by extreme weather events.
  2. Security and conflict arising from war, political instability, piracy, organised crime and/or terrorism.
  3. Institutional controls, such as a decision by authorities to close a chokepoint or restrict the passage of food as, for example, imposing import or export controls.
  4. Minor disruptions or temporary closures due to human error or other misadventure, as happened in the Suez Canal in March 2021. In such circumstances, there is always a risk of a crisis developing, perhaps due to other events happening simultaneously.

1: Maritime chokepoints
Maritime transport is the only way for heavy, bulk food stuffs, such as grains and seeds, and for fertiliser. Of note:

  • Closure of any one of the chokepoints in the Middle East, a region subject to political instability, civil unrest, war and drought, puts food supplies to many at risk.
    • The closure of the Turkish Strait is currently vital for global food security. If it is closed, there is no maritime alternative.
    • Agri-food production depends on energy. 30% of all the oil traded on the word’s oceans passes through the Strait of Hormuz.
  • The 900km long Strait of Malacca links Asia with the Middle East and Europe, carrying about 20% of global maritime trade, and 60% of China’s trade flows.
    • This Bloomberg article Choking on our harvests (2018) quote UN Commodity Trade Statistics; there was a 563% increase in grain and seed imports to China between 2000 and 2016, and a 705% increase in soybeans.
  • Although trade flows across the Dover Strait is vital to UK food security, in global terms, it is of secondary importance.
  • The importance of Northern passages such as the Bering Strait will grow in importance as climate change opens up Arctic shipping lanes. (1)


(1) If there is a collapse of the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), the Arctic ice melt will slow down, perhaps reverse. Such a collapse, however, poses different unprecedented challenges to UK food security; see this paper by Ritchie et al (2020) in Nature Food

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