Growth in reefer shipping to be almost pandemic proof

Barcelona, Spain - May 2, 2015: Row of refrigerated white containers waiting to board at the port of Barcelona.

Refrigerated trade will almost be unaffected by the COVID-19 pandemic, according to shipping consultants Drewry, which expects it grow faster than dry cargo in the coming years.

In a statement, Drewry said seaborne refrigerated trade will reach 124 million tonnes by 2024, which would represent an average annual expansion of 3.7%.

By contrast, dry cargo will only grow on average 2.2% annually, and this difference will be driven by the “broader resilience” of the food supply chain.

“Drewry expects the reefer trade to be more recession proof against the economic impacts of COVID-19,” said Drewry’s head of reefer shipping research Philip Gray. 

“And near term, it will continue to benefit from African swine fever induced protein demand into Asia.

“The continuing trade standoff between the US and China remains a threat to transpacific trade, but could provide opportunities on other routes through trade substitution, such as East Coast South America to Asia.”

What Does the Future Hold for Reefer Shipping and the Cold Chain?

Refrigerated shipping has grown substantially in recent years, despite a poor 2019 where droughts in South Africa and Chile, combined with extreme weather conditions in Europe, held it back.

Demand for plant-based and vitamin-high diets in Europe and North America has combined with a booming Chinese meat market has meant carriers and ports have had to adjust operations.

Specialised vessel modes have given way to fully cellular containerships as the most popular way to move refrigerated goods.

Drewry estimated that the former’s share slumped to 13% in 2019 and is projected to diminish further to just 8% by 2024, due to an ageing fleet and limited investment in newbuilds.

Bananas and fish are the biggest commodities carried in specialised reefer ships and their largest trade route is West Coast of South America to Europe thanks to the dominance of the banana trade out of Ecuador.

The sector does have its challenges, most notable the availability of refrigerated shipping container equipment due to imbalanced trade routes.

Gray said Drewy expects conditions to “tighten” as equipment fleet growth is not expected to keep pace with projected cargo demand.

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