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How the Red Sea Crisis is Disrupting Global Food Trade

What happens when one of the world’s most important marine trade routes becomes a warzone?

Despite global efforts to stabilise the region, Iran-backed Houthi rebels are continuing to cause significant disruption with their attacks on commercial cargo ships and communication networks. With many container ships now being diverted around the southern tip of Africa, adding thousands of kilometres to their routes, the conflict risks reigniting inflated food prices and is highlighting key vulnerabilities in global food trade.

The Red Sea is bookended by the Suez Canal and the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, critical chokepoints in global trade. Photo by Sayed Hassan via Getty Images.

The Red Sea is bookended by the Suez Canal, pictured, and the Bab el-Mandeb Strait - both critical chokepoints in global trade. Photo by Camille Delbos via Getty Images.

The Red Sea is a narrow passage separating Africa and the Middle East. For centuries, it has been the primary trade route for goods travelling between Europe and Asia. Chaos hit the region in November last year, when Iran-backed Houthi rebels began sending missiles towards commercial cargo ships travelling through the region, in what they claim to be a protest against Israel’s war in Gaza.

Despite over a month and a half of international airstrikes against the Houthis, tensions in the region show little sign of easing. March saw the first fatal attacks by the rebels, along with damage to critical internet and telecommunication cables running along the seabed.

The Houthis are a political and religious group controlling western Yemen, a region which borders the Red Sea. They are allied with Iranian groups in standing against Israel. Photos show Yemenis taking part in a rally held to support Palestine. Photos via Getty.

A vital route at risk

As well as providing vital passage for the global transport of agricultural fertilisers and many staple grains, the Red Sea also facilitates the movement of oil from the Persian Gulf to Europe and North America. 

Many shipping companies have paused cargo movement through the area, including Maersk and Hapag-Lloyd, two of the largest global shipping firms. For those ships still braving the passage, they are facing rises in risk premiums of more than 40%.1

Over 12% of all global trade travels through the Suez Canal, the Red Sea’s northern access point.2

Marine traffic data shows that Houthi attacks in the region have caused a significant drop in the number of vessels travelling through the area, when compared to the previous year.3

To avoid conflict in the region, some boats are taking an alternative route around South Africa, adding an extra 6,000km, 10 days to the trip, and costing $1m USD extra in fuel for a round trip between Europe and Asia.

The British-registered cargo ship 'Rubymar' sinking, after it was attacked by Houthi forces in the Red Sea, on March 3, 2024. The Rubymar was carrying thousands of tonnes of fertiliser and now poses a significant threat to local marine life.

The British-registered cargo ship 'Rubymar' sinking, after it was attacked by Houthi forces in the Red Sea, on March 3, 2024. The Rubymar was carrying thousands of tonnes of fertiliser and now poses a significant threat to local marine life. Photo by Al-Joumhouriah channel via Getty Images.

The cost of conflict

Maritime commerce is a truly globalised affair, which means increased shipping costs are inevitably being felt around the world in the form of inflation. However, price inflation hits some countries harder than others. According to Dr. Ian Ralby, Maritime and International Affairs Expert, those with few supply alternatives and limited funds to alleviate price repercussions are most at risk.

“The countries with the thinnest margins in terms of food financing, access to medical supplies or critical goods, they're the ones that are most at risk. We need to figure out how to make sure our maritime supply chains are disrupted as infrequently as possible, and when they are, that we prioritise finding ways to keep the critical goods flowing to the places that are most susceptible to disruptions”.

A significant percentage of key crops, including wheat, maize and rice are exported through the Red Sea.

Countries in East Africa, Pakistan and Iran are particularly reliant on wheat imports travelling from the EU, Russia and Ukraine. This makes them highly vulnerable to trade disruptions in the Red Sea.

Ukraine’s maize exports to China are particularly vulnerable to Red Sea disruption. China accounts for 20% of Ukraine’s maize exports, making it one of their most important trading partners. With disruption in the Red Sea leading to delays and cancelled shipments, it is further harming Ukraine’s competitiveness, already weakened by the ongoing war with Russia.4

In normal times, Ukraine is one of the world's largest grain exporters. Photo by Alexey Furman via Getty Images.

In normal times, Ukraine is one of world's biggest suppliers of crops such as sunflower oil, barley, maize and wheat. Photo by Alexey Furman via Getty Images.

Chokepoints in global food trade

The Red Sea Crisis is a stark reminder of the fragility of our global food system - a system with risk factors materialising at an alarming rate. As well as political and security hazards, chokepoints in maritime trade are also facing immense challenges from rising trade volumes, underinvestment and weak governance. At the same time, the impacts of climate change coupled with the global trend of decreasing soil fertility is leading to greater reliance on international trade to meet growing food demands.5 

With compounding pressures adding more and more weight to the already overloaded hinges of our global food systems, the question has become when, not if, these trade routes will begin to buckle and break. In the Red Sea, the writing was on the wall. “We could have (better) understood the Houthis - what motivates them, what their interests are, to be better placed to respond in ways that would have actually stopped them”, Ralby told FoodUnfolded. “We have disincentivised resilience (and) contingency planning. Right now there is pressure on the maritime industry to be as quick as possible and as cheap as possible, which is an incentive scheme that does not build any space for agility. We need to make sure that ports and choke points around the world are prepared to handle the full spectrum of potential threats and that even includes natural non-human-made threats.”

A 2017 Chatham House report mapped out eight maritime chokepoints in global food trade. These are locations considered to be systemically important to international trade in food and other agricultural products

A 2017 Chatham House report mapped out eight maritime chokepoints in global food trade. These are locations considered to be systemically important to international trade in food and other agricultural products, and their functioning is deemed critical to maintaining stability in global food markets.6

The Panama Canal, which connects the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific, is facing a climatic threat. Drought in the region has pushed the water levels to an all-time low, leading to delays and forced reduction in the number of ships travelling through the region. These dry periods are becoming more extreme, leading to questions about the long-term viability of the canal.7

The path forward

It seems inevitable that dependence on chokepoints will always exist in global food trade, as geographical constraints in many cases leave limited options for alternative trade routes. Nonetheless, more must be done to safeguard against growing strains and future shocks. 

Chatham House made a series of detailed recommendations for policymakers on this issue back in 2017, which, six years on, still hold strong. Without significant investment in infrastructure, a more proactive approach to understanding of chokepoint risks, stronger governance, and international cooperation, volatility in food supply will worsen.8 The question now is, will the Red Sea Crisis be enough to finally shake the international community into collective action?


Graphic Design: Cait Mack
Motion Design: Eloise Adler
Editing: Oliver Fredriksson
Research support: Inés Oort Alonso
With special thanks to Dr. Ian Ralby

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