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Covid-19 is a wake-up call to strengthen our food supply chain amid shifting geopolitics

February 10, 2021

Editor’s note: Joseph Byrum is an Aspen Institute Business & Society fellow and spent 25 years as an R&D executive in the agricultural industry. The views expressed in this guest article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of AFN.

It wasn’t just Covid-19 itself, but the public response to it, which sent shockwaves through our food system and exposed its fragility. Short-term shortages, in the form of bare supermarket shelves, revealed that this highly complex food supply chain is not as resilient as it ought to be.

All it took was fear of a toilet paper shortage — there was never a production problem — to turn paper products into the lockdown’s scarcest commodities. While the system adjusted to the strange new dynamic after a few weeks, it only took a small shock to empty the shelves of certain foods and other essentials. What happens if greater pressure were placed on the food supply chain by someone acting intentionally? Would we be able to cope with the result?

Undermining an adversary’s food supply is a time-tested tactic. Retreating Celtic armies would burn their own fields to prevent Roman invaders from being able to feed their troops off the land. The victorious legions, for their part, might salt the enemy’s territory to prevent the foe’s return.

These are the most obvious and crude ways to attack a food supply chain, but in the 21st century, pressure can be applied in far more subtle — and perhaps even undetectable — ways. There’s no need to poison the wells if a superpower can be brought to its knees through information warfare targeted at agriculture.

Allowing food to run out can overturn regimes, and thus it can become a potent weapon. The Arab Spring arose after global commodity prices and local drought triggered food riots in Syria and Egypt. It ultimately shifted the balance of military power in the Middle East.

The US has also wielded its status as an agricultural superpower for political leverage. With a highly complex $1 trillion-plus food production sector employing 22 million people, its influence is powerful. Even in the country’s earliest days, Thomas Jefferson imposed food embargoes in an attempt to coerce the UK and France into allowing the young nation to exert greater influence in world affairs without fielding a standing army.

But US agriculture’s dominance in no longer unquestionable. South America’s long-expected rise as a producer of key crops like soybeans has finally materialized, with Brazil grabbing the title of world’s leading soybean producer. On top of this, US farmers found themselves on the financial edge well before Covid-19 hit.

Commodity prices are low. A trade war is raging with China. 2019’s ‘bomb cyclone’ winter devastated many fields in the Midwest. Farming has generally been the only major economic sector where the US has tended to enjoy a trade surplus, yet three of the first four months of 2020 were in deficit, according to the latest US Department of Agriculture figures.

Foreign companies are also snapping up key US agricultural resources, allowing critical resources like crop seed genetics to escape our control – which could one day undermine the resilience and stability of our food supply chain.

The old school approach to ‘hardening’ the food supply chain has involved simplistic options like stockpiling foodstuffs and raw commodities, erecting barriers to physical threats, and creating a strategic reserve for emergencies.

This is outdated thinking. Attacks on the food supply today are likely to be a bit more sophisticated than they were in the days of ancient Rome.

Cyberattacks could cripple the high-tech machinery used to harvest crops, or knock out the logistical infrastructure used to distribute it. Nation-states can, and have, deployed disinformation campaigns as a means of narrowing the competitive gap with another country’s agriculture.

That’s precisely what Russia has been doing, using state-linked media outlets like RT and Sputnik to reshape US public opinion against GMOs, the technology that gives US agriculture a significant productivity edge in the world market.

Such attacks might go even further, perhaps manufacturing fake ‘proof’ of contamination that undermines the public’s trust in key products. Or the malefactors can fund lawsuits against various technologies, like crop protection chemicals, that are responsible for our competitive advantage.

There’s no need for an adversary to go after difficult targets, like sprawling corn fields, when softer targets are available. Disinformation spread via media outlets or the internet represents a low-risk, low-cost technique that can achieve the same goal as conventional warfare. Such actions can take a significant toll in terms of an adversary’s economic and political resources.

China has demonstrated it understands the need to shore up critical resources to assure food security. For the past several years, Beijing has invested billions in overseas ventures related to farming, seeds, fishing and forestry. China’s sending of food aid and granting of trade preferences to countries that sign on to its ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ makes it clear that these efforts are tied to deeper foreign policy objectives.

To compete against such savvy players on the world stage, the US must move beyond the stockpile mentality and elevate concern for food security to address our current vulnerabilities. In a country where agricultural abundance has always been the norm, it’s easy to forget food defense when setting national priorities.

We should, for example, harness the power of artificial intelligence systems to monitor for signs of stress in the complex networks that we rely upon for food. We must guard against the ongoing disinformation campaigns that have undermined trust in advanced agricultural technologies. We need to restore the nation’s self-reliance when it comes to food production by ensuring key inputs like seeds and chemicals will still be available if overseas cargo shipments are held at port.

The coronavirus pandemic has been our wakeup call, but perhaps it can be used as the catalyst for change that should have happened decades ago.

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