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.

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