Why Container Shipping is a Lot Like Farming

Transporting massive amounts of containers across the high seas has much in common with the business of rearing dairy cows or growing wheat – and alternative thinking about agriculture holds lessons for the maritime industry.

By Olaf Merk

Remorkers carrying containers to ships in Hong Kong harbour,

I have not always worked on maritime transport. One of my first assignments at the OECD was to conduct a Rural Policy Review of the Netherlands. This is how I met Jan Douwe van der Ploeg, professor at the agricultural university of Wageningen. I mention this because I think that his insights on agriculture are very relevant for container shipping. I will summarise them here briefly.

Van der Ploeg’s analysis of business models in agriculture goes against the received wisdom that economies of scale are always desirable. Over the past decades, farms have grown bigger through consolidation of land, driven by a race for market shares via cost reduction. This has required big investments in expensive equipment and huge loans to finance these.

In the process, agriculture and the local environment have become decoupled. The farmer’s main inputs (machines, seeds) are bought abroad. Most of the work has become automated. Agricultural land has turned into a space exclusively dedicated to production – it is no longer a multi-functional area where work and leisure, production and consumption can be combined.

Van der Ploeg’s merit lies in his detailed calculations showing that smaller but more diversified firms are more productive and profitable. They are less indebted, less dependent on intermediaries and less affected by price volatility, because they have developed economies of scope. And they provide more added value, jobs and biodiversity for the local community.

A container terminal seen from above

Striking similarities

Container shipping has followed a course strikingly similar to agriculture. The dominant idea: more economies of scale. The way to achieve it: cost reductions, ever larger ships and industry consolidation. The result: the large majority of the goods we consume are now moved by a handful of very large global shipping companies that source their workforce from developing countries and register their ships in tax havens. These companies have accumulated as much debt as a mid-size country they emit as much CO2 as a big country and have difficulties to be profitable except in the most bullish of times.

Container ports follow the same pattern. Completely sealed off from their surrounding communities, highly specialised, continuously trying to catch up with ever-larger ships, today’s container terminals leave no room for the intermingling that once gave port cities their charm.

In both agriculture and container shipping, policies – notably those of the European Union – are designed to pursue economies of scale. In agriculture the tool was subsidies; container shipping’s equivalent is the tonnage tax. Both sectors have special regimes that make them hybrids: market-driven sectors in name, but dependent on public support in practice.

In both, creating local synergies is an afterthought that goes by the name of rural development policies in one case and maritime cluster development in the other. In both sectoral policies, building large firms is more important than guaranteeing competition. In both cases, policy reform has become very difficult considering sunk investments, path dependency and regulatory capture by corporate lobbyists.

Cargo ship entering Singapore harbour, one of the busiest ports in the world.

Where the parallel ends

There are of course differences. Probably the most important is the extent of what economists would call the symmetry between buyers and sellers. Farmers buy from very large companies (seeds, pesticides) and sell to very large companies (food industry and retailers). In this constellation, company size could be a countervailing force to the monopoly power of buyers and sellers: larger farms – or cooperatives of farms – might better able to negotiate with the large multi-national companies in seed production, the food industry and supermarket chains.

In container shipping, liner companies buy from fragmented suppliers (shipyards, ports and port service providers) and sell to fragmented buyers (the companies that import and export), so it is the shipping company itself that is the major source of monopoly power. 

There is of course another major difference: agriculture is vital, in the true sense of the word. Container shipping is essential to the extent that global trade is. With many world leaders pleading for more regional sourcing, long-range containerised transport might be less inevitable than thought – which opens the perspective for possible fundamental change.

A policy choice

Professor Van der Ploeg proposes an alternative to the large-scale industrialised agriculture: smaller, more localised, quickly adapting to demands of clients. It is time to imagine similar alternative perspectives for container shipping, if only because that will make shipping more resilient.

The first step in sketching potential new futures would be to realise that there is nothing self-evident or inevitable about the strategy of economies of scale. It has been stimulated by public policies – and these policies can change.


Olaf Merk is ports and shipping expert at the International Transport Forum. He is the (co-) author of The Impact of Alliances in Container Shipping (2018) andContainer Shipping in Europe: Data for the Evaluation of the EU Consortia Block Exemption Regulation (I2019). Views are are his own.

Put Women In The Driver’s Seat

If you are looking for a user-friendly, safe and accessible mobility system, involve female transport users and workers.

By Emma Latham-Jones

Every step made to improve the experience of women in transport is a win for everyone. When policy makers address gender issues in transport, they increase accessibility for all. What this means is taking a user-centric approach: every single transport user is the focus. We need to rethink transport policies that are biased against certain users, especially vulnerable citizens: children, pregnant women, disabled people, those from poorer backgrounds – they all need to be at the heart of transport policy decision making.

To do that, it is important to look at the data. The evidence should inform transport policies to ensure they reflect real-life situations and solve real-world problems. Rich evidence shows that gender is a significant determinant for the choice of transport modes. Women’s travel habits tend to be more multifaceted than those of men: they tend to take more frequent, mostly short trips; they use different services than men, and at different times of the day.

Women’s trips also more often involve children. To make transport inclusive, we cannot only serve those who make few, direct trips at set times and normally alone. Transport needs to work for everyone. When it does, it has an incredible ability to empower citizens.

Female leadership

Here at the International Transport Forum, we celebrate women who work across the sector and work to amplify women’s voices and visions for improved transport for all. The ITF appreciates the importance of diversity for the quality and value of our transport systems, and we know that women can be powerful agents of change. That is why we have a broad  range of work on Gender in Transport: from consultations on (and with) women in transport, via conferences on how to attract more females to the transport sector, to reports on how to ‘Plan and Design Transport Systems That Will Ensure Safe Travel for Women’.

Female leadership is of critical importance to increase representation of women in the transport sector. At the ITF, we are proud that three members of our staff – Mary Crass, Sharon Masterson and Magdalena Olczak-Rancitelli – have been honoured as “Remarkable Women in Transport” by the Transformative Urban Mobility Initative (TUMI); testament to our commitment advance the mainstreaming of gender perspectives in transport, together with our partners in governments, international organisations, academia and the private sector.

“The transport sector needs more gender diversity”, say argues Magdalena Olczak-Rancitelli, who is Manager of Summit Preparation at the ITF. “One of the most effective way to motivate women to make themselves heard and felt in transport is to tell stories about inspiring women who thrive in the sector.”

Outstanding female researchers

Women already achieve great things on the frontlines of transport, as bus drivers, aircraft pilots, logistics planners, and so on. But they play an equally as important role as researchers, academics and thinkers. When French transport scientist Anne de Bortoli won the ITF’s Young Researcher of the Year Award 2020, with a groundbreaking study on the environmental impact of shared e-scooters in cities, she was only the latest female success story in a long history of female excellence in transport research.

2013 Young Researcher of the Year, Laura Schewel from the United States, won the Award with a fascinating analysis of the history and policies of moving retail goods. Today, Laura is the CEO of Streetlight Data, a start-up that provides transport and urban planners the with an easy and affordable way to incorporate data on mobility behaviour into important decisions – for instance how citizens are using roads, bike lanes and sidewalks. Last year, Schewel’s company created the first ever bike and pedestrian metrics for the urban transport industry. The MIT Technology Review named her one of its “35 Innovators Under 35” in 2013.

Laura Schewel receiving the Young Researcher of the Year Award at the ITF Summit of Transport Ministers in Leipzig, Germany, in May 2013

Women researchers are also making major contributions to better understanding the link between transport and climate change. In 2015, Dr Nihan Akyelken from Turkey won the ITF Young Researcher of the Year Award for developing a conceptual framework for the governance of sustainable freight transport, which the jury honoured for its’ originality and policy relevance. Today, Nihan is an Associate Professor in Sustainable Urban Development at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom, where she is teaching students in the Masters and Doctoral programmes in Sustainable Urban Development, she helps to form the next generation of innovative transport leaders, many of them women. Her forthcoming book is, appropriately, titled “Women, Work and Mobilities”.

This year’s award winner Anne der Bortoli also has a clear take on gender and transport: “Women are generally under-represented in expert panels, academia, PhD programs, and industrial leading positions higher education. This is particularly noticeable in some STEM subjects, to the point that it’s almost jarring, she says. “Yet women have proven time and again that we can overcome barriers and smash glass ceilings, and this is exactly what we must do in order to see long-lasting positive change.

We must be confident, we must challenge discrimination, and we must take action for what moves us. Women need a large variety of role models. I urge all female researchers who work in transport-related fields to apply for the next ITF Young Researcher of the Year Award. Why? Because every time you give yourself a chance to win, you’ve made a major step towards gender equality.”

2929 Young Researcher of the Year Award, Anne de Bortoli

Emma Latham-Jones is a Young Associate at the International Transport Forum. You can read more about the 2020 ITF Young Researcher of the Year Award, Anne de Bortoli’s research, and find the recording of the ceremony here.