Southern U.S. Agriculture Faces Headwinds in Asia Amid Red Sea Shipping Disruptions

The sudden disruption in the Red Sea, one of the world’s most critical maritime passageways, has sent shockwaves through global trade, having the potential to harm agricultural exports from the Southern U.S. We delve into the manifold implications of this blockade, examining its direct impact on trade flows, freight rates, and the challenges posed by the limited capacity at the Panama Canal for Southern agricultural exports.

The Red Sea blockage, precipitated by heightened military tensions and attacks on commercial vessels by the Houthi terrorist organization, has led to a dramatic decrease in shipping activities through this critical route. As Figure 1 shows, about 500 cargo vessels were diverted via the Cape of Good Hope due to the attacks in the Red Sea. This diversion implies that the volume of container traffic in the Red Sea experienced a more than 50 percent decline in December, with the current volume almost 70 percent below normal as of January 18, 2024. This decline is a stunning indication of the magnitude of disruption faced by global shipping lines, including those serving agricultural exporters in the Southern U.S.

The Southern U.S., a powerhouse of agricultural exports of grains, soybeans, cotton, and forest products, could be negatively affected by this disruption. The rerouting of vessels around the Cape of Good Hope, necessitated by the Red Sea blockage, has added up to 20 days to shipping times and increased freight rates. These delays could considerably impact perishable agricultural products, risking product spoilage and financial losses. Furthermore, the automotive sector, akin to the agricultural industry, has already started experiencing production adjustments due to the maritime delays. This parallel suggests that agricultural exporters from the Southern U.S. could face similar operational and logistical challenges, further compounding the adverse effects of the Red Sea crisis on the region’s agricultural economy.

A direct consequence of the blockage has been the surge in ocean freight rates. Figure 2 illustrates an increase in the average cost of transporting a standard container (measured as a twenty-foot equivalent unit, TEU) from about USD 700 in November 2023 to over USD 1,900 in January 2024. On some routes, this increase is even more substantial. For instance, the freight rate from China to Northern Europe rose from nearly USD 750 to over USD 2,000 as of January 18, 2024. Although these figures are specific to the Europe-Asia route, they reflect a global trend in rising freight costs, which inevitably impacts the cost of exporting agricultural products from the Southern U.S. to international markets.

The Panama Canal’s limited capacity further complicates the situation. Initially rerouting from the U.S. Atlantic Seaboard and the Gulf of Mexico to Asia via the Suez Canal, many carriers have shifted back to the Panama Canal. This redirection will lead to increased congestion and delays, exacerbating the logistical challenges for Southern U.S. exporters who rely on this route for more efficient access to Asian markets.

The trade dynamics with South and Southeast Asia, an important and growing market for Southern U.S. agricultural exports, could be particularly affected. The extended transit times and shifting shipping routes disrupt the timely delivery of goods. Figure 3 shows that the daily freight capacity in the Red Sea fell by almost 70 percent below the expected level in January 2024. As cargo vessels reroute and face delays, the availability of products in South and Southeast Asian markets is affected, potentially leading to lost sales and strained trade relationships. The ripple effects of these disruptions are evident in increased insurance costs for vessels transiting high-risk areas like the Red Sea. These rising costs, which reached one percent of the vessel’s value, add an extra financial burden on shippers and, by extension, agricultural exporters in the Southern U.S.

In response to these unprecedented challenges, agricultural exporters in the Southern U.S. should explore alternative logistical strategies. These include diversifying port usage, considering air freight for urgent shipments, and re-evaluating supply chain routes to mitigate the impacts of delayed deliveries and increased costs. However, these adjustments come with their own financial and operational complexities.

The Red Sea blockage by the Houthi terrorist organization represents a substantial disruptor in the global trade ecosystem, with potentially profound implications for U.S. agricultural exports to South and Southeast Asia. The escalation of freight costs, extended shipping durations, and the strain on alternative routes, such as the Panama Canal, paint a challenging picture for 2024 agricultural exports from the Southern U.S. As the situation evolves, agricultural stakeholders must remain agile, leveraging data-driven insights and innovative solutions to navigate these turbulent waters while also considering long-term strategies for resilience in an increasingly uncertain global market environment.

Figure 1: Close to 500 cargo vessels diverted due to Houthi attacks on ships in the Red Sea.
Note. Cargo vessel position data sourced from Flexport (2024). Out of 6,141 cargo vessels tracked, 448 had been redirected via the Cape of Good Hope as of January 6, 2024.
Figure 2: Drewry World Container Index increased by 75 percent since December 2023.
Note. The Drewry World Container Index is a composite index of the major shipping lines from Drewry (2024). The dataset covers January 18, 2023, to January 18, 2024.
Figure 3: Daily freight capacity in the Red Sea falls by 66 percent below the expected level.
Note. The daily freight rate capacity in the Red Sea until January 11, 2024, comes from Fleetmon (2024) and the expected freight capacity from the Kiel Institute of the World Economy (Hinz and Rauck, 2024).

Learn More

Hinz, Julian and Mathias Rauck (2024). Cargo volume in the Red Sea collapses. Kiel Institute for the World Economy, Press Release 01/2024.

Goyal, Raghav, Sandro Steinbach, Yasin Yildirim, and Xiting Zhuang. “Southern U.S. Agriculture Faces Headwinds in Asia Amid Red Sea Shipping Disruptions.Southern Ag Today 4(4.4). January 25, 2024. Permalink