Kansas City sprang from the banks of its rivers, the channels that floated supplies into the region and shipped them out to distant markets. Later, railroads crisscrossed here. Then came interstate highways.
Today, those shipping routes move more than 380 million tons of goods and commodities worth nearly $270 billion in and out of the regional crossroads every year.
Much of that freight helps feed the world. American railways carry two out of every three bushels of grain bound for export. More than half of American grain exports travel down the Mississippi River — fed by loads moving over the Missouri, the Ohio and other tributaries — to the Gulf of Mexico.
More than a sixth of the world’s soybean supplies, and fully a fifth of the planet’s corn, ultimately travels out of those southern U.S. ports — much of it after first passing through Kansas City by truck, rail or barge.
The same throughways make globalization possible by shipping Missouri beef and poultry for dinner tables in Asia, Kansas wheat for baguettes in Paris — or petroleum-based fertilizer into the Midwest from the Middle East.
Now a study warns that those shipping routes could get clogged by the chaos of climate change — tossing the world’s food supply into jeopardy.
Already, separate from any shifting weather patterns, U.S. railways figure to hit capacity in less than 20 years. The report from the London-based Chatham House think tank concluded many Midwestern rivers suffer congestion made worse by aged locks, dams and shoreline depots.
Add the tremors of climate change — more severe storms, increasingly common and extreme flooding, longer-lasting droughts — and the global transport network that ships enough food each year to feed 2.8 billion people begins to crumble apart.
The Chatham study noted that ever more agricultural supplies and the grain they produce bottleneck into a handful of global “chokepoints” — funneling the world’s food supply through transportation hubs such as Kansas City that could prove less reliable in the years to come.
“Growing international trade means that chokepoint dependency is likely to increase for the foreseeable future,” the analysts wrote.
Climate change, they said, poses “a hazard multiplier.” “It will increase the frequency and severity of extreme weather, leading to more regular closures of chokepoints and greater wear and tear on infrastructure,” the report said.
Rising sea levels could submerge coastal port facilities. So even if drought doesn’t ruin the Kansas wheat harvest, or if storms spare Iowa pork operations, the Missouri cow-calf trade and Nebraska corn growing, the route to international markets could pose tougher passage.
Likewise, ports might stay open, but if dramatic weather erodes farm output, there will be less food to move through. Such flimsy harvests could, predict the researchers, prompt countries to limit exports of suddenly scarce commodities.
“International markets are likely to become tighter and more volatile while dependence upon them increases,” the report states. “Chokepoint failures threaten to compound market fragility by contributing to higher costs and longer delays in delivery, and by making major supply disruptions more likely.”
Regional shippers are far from panicked. They see more potential than calamity in Kansas City as a food-shipping hub.
“While the rail network can be affected by extreme weather conditions like flooding,” the Kansas City Southern Railway Co. said in a statement, engineering and maintenance “crews are adept at quickly repairing or rebuilding after weather events to keep traffic flowing throughout the North American rail network.”
The Chatham report suggests a more complicated, and delicate, system that could see periodic unreliability and long-term deterioration. In the Kansas City region, the prospects can be mixed.
Recent years have seen shortages of larger rail cars able to pack more grain. At the same time, drops in demands for oil have opened up overall capacity for locomotives hauling commodities.
Those shipping patterns will run through cycles depending on energy and grain prices, whether Midwest harvests are stronger than those in South America and other parts of the world. But Darryl Fields, a senior transportation planner at the Mid-America Regional Council, said severe climate shifts could trump economic cycles.
“When you look at rail, if there’s flooding in New Orleans or on the Mississippi River, that detracts from the ability to get to New Orleans” and ports beyond, he said. “Climate change will affect our overall ability to service our nation and other parts of the world.”
Barges come back
The Kansas City region may actually have surplus shipping capacity — on water. For decades, long-running disputes over whether to release enough water from upstream dams to float barge traffic largely killed commercial navigation on the Missouri River.
Then court rulings re-established barges as a priority in how the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers manage the waterway. In August 2015, Port KC saw its first barge since 2007.
“By that time, because of the reduced flows, much of the river traffic was lost to rail,” said Richard Grenville, the vice president of multimodal logistics for Port KC.
Commodity companies such as Gavilon, Cargill and Bartlett all have large grain elevators on the banks of the Missouri, but Grenville said the equipment used to load onto barges went unused and deteriorated when towboats stopped traveling up the river.
“It takes a while to change and to make a difference in the way people ship, especially in these bulk products,” he said.
This year, he said, the Kansas City port expects to move about 70,000 tons of supplies into the region by barge and about 120,000 out — mostly to New Orleans by way of the Mississippi.
The port authority hopes to revive barge traffic, a cheaper way to move freight using less energy. For now, the 190,000 tons barges are expected to move through Kansas City this year is dwarfed by what ships on rail and truck.
Grenville sees barge traffic growing exponentially in coming years, offering shippers another option and creating pressure on rates charged by truckers and the railroads. That’s a hope that the barge industry has touted for decades, without clear examples that towboat traffic dramatically changes the dynamics.
Yet even a barge optimist like Grenville concedes weather can get in the way.
“We got disruptions in river traffic when we didn’t have some impact from global warming. You deal with it,” he said. “Global warming (adds) unpredictability to the weather pattern. We’re going to get disruptions.”
If a Hurricane Katrina-sized storm swamped ports in the Gulf of Mexico at the same time that rains made Brazilian roads impassable, half the world’s soybean harvest might get stuck in transit for months, the study projects.
A backup of U.S. grain shipments, combined with a problem almost anywhere else in the world food chain, could lead to millions of deaths worldwide.
“It’s the old saying: When U.S. agriculture catches a cold, the world sneezes,” said Eric Munoz, a policy adviser for Oxfam America specializing in food security.
The Chatham report recommends more spending on shipping infrastructure, creating better inland and ocean ports — and more of them for alternative paths to get food from farm to families. It also calls for international aid groups and the United Nations to make small-scale farming in troubled parts of the world more sustainable.
Yet it concedes the value of specialization — the large-scale farming of wheat, for instance, that makes Kansas a world breadbasket.
A break in the chain that exports grain from the Great Plains could send food prices soaring worldwide. U.S. consumers would feel the pinch a little. But much of the cost Americans pay for food goes to processing and preparation. Less prosperous parts of the world, particularly Sub-Saharan Africa, remain far more vulnerable to peaks in the cost of raw materials.
The biggest danger to the poorest regions are local harvests. When they fall short, families struggle to pay for staples shipped on the global marketplace. That set off hunger epidemics three times in the last 10 years.
Climate patterns that could disrupt food shipping pose even greater threats to the tenuous farms in the southern two-thirds of Africa, Munoz said. So the dangers begin to multiply each other.
“If you can’t grow food, you’ll go hungry,” he said. “And if you can’t get Kansas wheat to Africa, or if the price is too high once you get it there because of shipping problems created by extreme weather, it only gets worse.”