The Power and Importance of Modern Ports


You haven’t seen an amazing logistical operation until you’ve visited a modern port.

On a recent trip to Uruguay’s biggest port, I watched men and machines unload 30 tons of timber from a truck in just five minutes. I was surprised and delighted to see how much material they could move and how quickly they moved it. The wood went onto a ship that was bound for Asia. The port where it happened is a showcase of technology, commerce, and raw power.

I’m a farmer in Uruguay who relies on this port in our capital city of Montevideo and another large one in Nueva Palmira. We have a national population of less than 3.5 million, but the food the farmers of Uruguay produce feeds an estimated 40 million people in other countries. We couldn’t do it without state-of-the-art ports, which are necessary links in our international supply chains—and an economic lifeline from my farm in Uruguay’s interior.

The work never stops on my farm. Here in the southern hemisphere, we just planted our winter crops: wheat, barley, canola, and oats. Soon we’ll get ready for our summer crops of corn and soybeans. A large majority of everything I produce is exported, moving to faraway customers through these gateways to the world.

At the ports, costs are massive, security is tight, and timing is essential. A delay of a single day can make the difference between generating a profit and breaking even—or worse.

Singapore knows how much ports matter: It’s spending $14 billion on a massive modernization project that will double its capacity and create the world’s largest automated port by 2040. People will still work there, but so will drones and driverless vehicles.

This automation could mean that traditional threats to port operations, such as labor disputes like the current one involving west coast longshoremen in the United States, won’t matter as much as they do today. It will also create pressure to sweep aside the government regulations that stall or even prevent port-expansion projects.

The biggest menace for ports today is war. The ports of Ukraine are shuttered, thanks to a naval blockade by a ravenous Russia.

Ukraine is a breadbasket—a vital source of wheat and sunflower oil for millions of people in Egypt, Pakistan, Indonesia, and elsewhere. The closing of its ports are reshaping world markets in harmful ways. Even the prices of yams in Nigeria are soaring.

Ukrainian farmers are growing food as best they can in horrible circumstances, but their work won’t matter if their ports remain off limits. This crisis has led some to call for the NATO nations, including the United States and others, to break the Russian blockade in an operation that is at once military (in its reliance on naval firepower) and humanitarian (to forestall a food crisis).

As a wheat farmer, I may be seen as a beneficiary of Russia’s aggression, in the sense that it has increased prices for some of the crops I grow. Yet it’s not so simple. I’ve also suffered negative effects, due to a big spike in the cost of fertilizer and other inputs. My wheat is generating more revenue, but it’s also costing me more to grow.

From my standpoint as a farmer in South America, this war on the other side of the world is not an opportunity but a problem—and one that has created needless suffering for Ukrainians and the people who rely on their exported food.

Farmers don’t need wars to be competitive. Instead, we need peace, with the stability that it brings in a world that is full of disruption in even the most tranquil of times. Nobody expected the pandemic, which made a mess of port logistics everywhere. We’re still recovering from what it did to supply chains.

Russia’s war must end and Ukraine’s ports must open. Profitable farms that can export food through these doors to the world are good for everyone. They help farmers, obviously, but they’re also good for consumers, who benefit from abundance, as well as the environment, because farmers can turn their attention to sustainability.

Our ports in Uruguay are working well, though it’s also possible to see their aging. Like all infrastructure, they will require new investments from public officials who understand the essential role of ports in the trade that allows us all to flourish.

Gabriel Carballal

Gabriel Carballal

Gabriel Carballal has been recognized by the GFN as a 2021 Kleckner Award for Global Farm Leadership award recipient. Carballal uses the latest technology as he grows wheat, barley, canola, oats, GM soybeans, GM corn, rye and forages. He also raises beef cattle with the farm’s seven employees.

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