Will the Suez Canal Crisis drive more food fraud?

Posted: 7 February 2024 | | No comments yet

Professor Chris Elliott explains why ongoing unrest in the Middle East could impact food security and prices on faraway shores…

chris' corner

I remember reading many years ago about the history of the construction of the Suez Canal. The scale of the engineering feat is remarkable, but so was the cost in terms of human lives. Gamal Abdel Nasser once claimed that 120,000 Egyptians died building the canal, though that figure is thought by many to be somewhat inflated.

Its purpose was to facilitate East – West trade and the fact that it has become one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world demonstrates that it has achieved exactly that. Many will remember the chaos caused when the Ever Given blocked the canal , but compared to what is happening now, that was a rather minor issue. It is not an exaggeration to say that the canal is now in great danger of becoming a fully-fledged war zone, with different factions seizing upon its strategic importance to world trade to wreak havoc.

This article is not about the rights and wrongs of the conflict, but solely about the impact on the global food supply system a long-term continuation of the present hostilities could bring. I don’t find much joy in getting one of my predictions from last year correct, but I did say that wars and changing geopolitics were likely to be major contributing factors in future food price increases and shortages and in affluent as well as developing countries who have not factored such events into national food security plans. And no country more so that the United Kingdom in my humble opinion.

Episode 46: Unwrapping 2023…with Professor Chris Elliott

Due to the dangers of taking the route through the Gulf of Aden and the Suez Canal, many cargo ships are now having to travel many thousands of extra miles round the Cape of Good Hope to reach European shores. This adds up to close to two weeks of additional transportation time. The major effects of this so far has been to add cost of shipping, create a shortage of cargo ships and give rise to the potential for some food to perish on route. The CEOs of major retailers such as Tesco and M&S have issued warnings of the potential impacts that could result from ‘The Suez Crisis’.

In terms what might be affected in terms of prices and availability there is a very long list of food commodities and ingredients that are imported from Asia, parts of Africa, China and Oceania. Processed meats, especially chicken from Thailand, rice from India, Pakistan and Thailand, lamb from New Zealand are just some examples. As these are all either dry goods or can be deep frozen during transportation, shortages will be unlikely but prices may rise.  We also import a lot of fresh fruit from Asian countries and the additional journey time could mean much higher levels of spoilage.

What really is the future of future food?

When I think about major disruptions to the food system, I always turn my attention to likely impacts on food fraud. With many of our spices coming from India, Vietnam and China, these products have to be on the ‘watch list’. For example, the price of ginger was already soaring on the world market pre the Suez conflict and the surge in prices continue. Another likely candidate on my ‘fraud alert list’ is vegetable oils. The Ukraine war has already put a lot of pressure on Sunflower Oil supplies and subsequently prices. Now Palm Oil from Indonesia which travelled mainly via the Suez Canal will be in shorter supply than normal and likely drive fraudulent practises.

Food has been described as a weapon of war and there is no doubt that one of the factors driving conflict in the Suez region in disrupting food supplies. Will one of the consequences of this be more food fraud alerts on the horizon?  

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