USDA report calls for waterway improvements to ease supply chain clogs

CHARLESTON, S.C. (WBTW) — Upgrading waterway and port infrastructure is key to easing current and preventing future supply chain problems, according to a report released Thursday from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The USDA Agri-food Supply Chain Assessment is a one-year review of the country’s supply chain issues and provides recommendations for easing issues across the agriculture and transportation industries.

While the pandemic has exasperated existing problems, “other vulnerabilities have been of longer-term concern, such as the risks posed by the nation’s aging transportation infrastructure, cybersecurity threats, impacts of climate change on farm production and resources, animal disease outbreaks that affect supply, food safety related recalls that can disrupt marketing channels, workforce health and pre-pandemic labor supply challenges facing farms and food industries, and unequal access to agri-food markets by historically disadvantaged groups and underserved communities,” the report reads. “From the long-term perspective, there is a lack of basic resiliency in the agricultural system.”

Aging infrastructure is causing bottlenecks, according to the report, and that “even temporary disruptions to food supply chains immediately affect nearly every American household, as food needs to be frequently purchased and consumed daily.”

Ocean ports need extensive improvements, according tot he report, stating that “as a nation as a whole, America’s ocean ports, container terminals, and connecting inland infrastructure have not expanded comprehensively or commensurately with global container vessel capacity growth, unlike those of our global trading partners and competitors. This mismatch, together with 2021’s nearly 18 percent demand-driven growth in inbound container tonnage over 2019, has caused temporary landside congestion overwhelming terminals, local storage, truck service, and rail operations, further slowing port operations.”

Port delays “severely stress every aspect of the supply chain,” the report reads. Hurricanes and sea level rise are also decreasing freight movement.

“A resilient ocean and inland transportation system is crucial to our Nation’s — and our agriculture industry’s — ability to recover from these weather and infrastructure-related supply chain disruptions,” according to the report.

Ports aren’t digitally integrated with ocean carriers, ports, chassis providers and other transportation industries, the report said. Since 2016, the number of major ocean carriers in the U.S. East-West trade routes has decreased from 15 to less than 10, and only two U.S. ocean container carriers are still in service.

The report recommends using funding from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act to fund port improvements, along with using training to update technology systems. The report does not include information on improvements for specific ports.

South Carolina Ports had a record-breaking year in 2021, according to the organization, handling 2.75 20-foot equivalent container units at the Wando Welch terminal, North Charleston Terminal and Hugh K. Leatherman Terminal — an increase of 18% from 2020 and 11% higher than in 2019.

The ports attribute the increase to people buying more retail goods during the pandemic, including home goods, appliances, furniture, clothing and electronics. The ports create one in 10 jobs in the state, according to South Carolina Ports.

The Hugh. K. Leatherman Terminal, which opened in March 2021, was the first container terminal to open in the nation in more than a decade, and will be the only new container terminal capacity planned until 2030. The Wando Welch Terminal has also been modernized, and the Charleston Harbor Deepening Project is set to be finished this year. When the deepening is complete, the Charleston Harbor will be able to accept mega container ships during all tides.

Inland waterways are also crucial, the report said, especially for mass transit. They also produce less greenhouse gas and carbon emissions than other methods of transportation. Modernizing locks on the systems, the report reads, will reduce transportation costs for farmers.

Conditions have “slightly improved” over the last decade, the report reads, but inland waterway delays led to 18,000 hours of unscheduled closes between 2010 and 2014, and 5,000 hours of unscheduled maintenance closures from 2015 to 2019. Key lock chambers in the Midwest are outdated and cannot handle the largest, most efficient barges, according to the report.

Other potential issues across the agricultural systems include the concentration of meatpacking facilities, which mean that even temporary shutdowns can increase the cost of meat. Beef cows are mostly located in plains states. Pork production clusters in the Midwest and North Carolina.

Seed price increases have become an issue, as have a decrease in truck drivers and farm workers. Climate change has also made crops and fisheries more vulnerable to extreme weather events.

“Too much warm weather in winter could disrupt the dormant period many fruit trees require to set the crop for the next year, with limited diversification to access significant seasonal supply elsewhere,” the report reads.

Overall recommendations included in the report include increasing data collected on the agricultural industry, diversifying supply chain infrastructure, improving working conditions for farm workers, helping farms adapt to climate change, increasing preparedness to pest and disease threats to animals and crops and boosting exports.