Commentary – Agri-Pulse’s Harvesting Perspectives: Agriculture and Food Policy Summit

By Michelle Grundahl, Biodefense MS Student

“We never could have imagined how the critical connections between food security and national security would be generating headlines when we first planned this Summit in 2019.”

– Sara Wyant, Agri-Pulse Editor and Founder

This virtual 2020 Ag & Food Policy Summit highlighted the links between food security and national security. We are reminded of Alfred Henry Lewis’s words, “There are only nine meals between mankind and anarchy.” This might be new information for some, but our intelligence community is well aware. To set the stage here, an issue in agricultural security is the misunderstanding of the term “food security” as food insecurity, and all definitions should include securing the food supply. Food security is national security. Food insecurity – resulting from a pandemic, a contaminated supply chain, an intentional biological attack, or an animal disease outbreak – can lead to national instability. Imagine the horror if an additional food supply problem arose while much of the US was panic buying groceries in March 2020. Sheltering-in-place is only possible if citizens have enough safe food with which to hunker down.

This event consisted of topics in food trade, farming practices, agricultural technology, biosecurity, food contamination, and national stability. Kip Tom, US Representative to the United Nations Agencies for Food and Agriculture, was the opening presenter. He led by saying that food insecurity can lead to civil unrest. Political conflict in food insecure countries is, unfortunately, very common. When the US intervenes with food aid in other countries, it is for the purpose of creating stability, but it is not simply for altruism. Early on in COVID-19, several industries were forced to shut down, creating food insecurity issues in many nations. Tom reminded the audience about the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDG’s), which include goals to reduce hunger. He then explained that the European Union’s agroecology plan is an “ideological indulgence” for rich countries since some agroecology practices include manual labor instead of high production machinery. The methods of the EU (using agroecology and highly sustainable practices) are not as highly mechanized or efficient as implemented in the US. These practices could take years to implement, but could lead to local sustainable food supplies. Producing less food (and less efficiently) than the US is what seemed to be condemned here. Perhaps this is just our tendency as Americans to always want “bigger, more, faster.”

Tom suggested that the use of CRISPR, hybrid seeds, and similar technologies are the only path forward and he disparaged the EU for diverging. Helping farmers become more productive through innovation and technology, he insisted again, is the only way forward. Tom called upon the need for political will to uphold the environmental, social, and economic pillars of stability. William “Kip” Ward, a Retired US Army General who served as Commander of the United States Africa Command (USAFRICOM), is also concerned about stability. Stability is a key factor for the security of a nation. Creating stability always includes the food system, so unrest due to a lack of food security can lead to leadership instability. He explained that the national security of the US benefits when other nations are fed. 

As politics are certainly involved, Sonny Purdue, the Secretary of Agriculture, asserted the political side of trade and that feeding people requires technology and innovation. His statements seemed to echo Tom’s in that implementing agroecology (as in the EU and Africa) creates a national security risk to the US. Would US influence be diminished if these nations have food trade based on systems that the US is not using? Ted McKinney, the Under Secretary of Agriculture for Trade and Foreign Agricultural Affairs, remarked that having productive agriculture is important. He stated that our “Innovation Agenda” embraces technology, but it is being rejected by some countries and that the EU has “misguided” Africa with their ideas. It was implied that that there will be trade implications if other countries do not grow food at sufficient rate. My takeaway from this was that a slow rate of growth toward stability and sustainability in some countries might be too slow for an impatient US. If countries are growing just what they need, they will need to import less. Right now, the US produces more food than we need, putting us in a good trade position.

The US, and the world, needs the diversity of small and mid-sized farms, as well as major corporations. The current US paradigm of farm monocropping can be seen as a national security risk to some people. Creating huge farms of just one crop is “not natural.” A lack of biodiversity is not congruent with a healthy ecosystem, and McKinney’s opinion is that diverse American farms are an insurance policy. But McKinney also stated that we use less insecticides, fungicides, and pesticides when we use GMO seeds. While this might be technically true, Chef José Andrés, Founder of World Central Kitchen, might disagree.

Andres noted that patented seeds are a risk to the American people. If small farms cannot grow food for their local communities, especially after a major disaster, then they are not truly resilient. Natural seeds should be accessible to small farmers, because patented GMO seeds are costly. Having only patented seeds available causes the control of food production to be in the hands of just a few corporations. Andrés’ example is that the US primarily grows five crops, so we are at risk of an incident (intentional or natural) that compromises our ability to feed the population, let alone trade with the rest of the world. Corn, wheat, soybeans, cotton and hay seem to be what the US specializes in. His comments bring to mind the government’s suggested Victory Gardens of 1917 and 1942. During WWI and WWII, US citizens were encouraged to plant food as “war gardens” and “food gardens for defense.” This reduced pressure on the food supply.

Andrés went on to describe the challenges of the food boxes provided by the USDA in response to COVID-19. Andres was dismayed at the long lines and empty food banks. The chef said that when people are in need, they need food and water immediately.  Having US citizens wait in line for food, while some food was being destroyed (milk), was the result of inefficient delivery systems. Andres encouraged creativity, such as accepting SNAP subsidies at local restaurants (using local food), which could alleviate many supply chain issues.

The chef then stated his main concern that “at any moment, we could experience a terror attack on the American food supply.” Mike Conaway, a ranking member of the House Committee on Agriculture, had concerns with possible contamination of the food supply, too. He stated that the supply chain worked well during COVID-19 early on. People could get food, even if they had to buy items that they did not prefer or had to wait in long lines to get groceries. We need to maintain a secure supply chain. Conaway said that the US needs to consider our food security interests and rank them at the same level as our military defense interests and spending.

In the panel “Is the US food supply really secure? A closer look at the biggest challenges in agriculture biosecurity at home and abroad,” Everett Hoekstra, President of Boehringer Ingelheim Animal Health, reminded the audience that animal health and human health are intertwined, especially regarding the protein supply on which humans depend. Dr. Liz Wagstrom, the Chief Veterinarian of the National Pork Producers Council, reflected on biosecurity gaps. These gaps are on farms as well as at international borders and places in between. Considering that some diseases can cause severe economic and trade impacts, farms need to be ready for diseases like African Swine Fever. Another panelist, Dr. Alan Rudolph, Vice President for Research at Colorado State University, suggested using biosurveillance systems and a One Health approach to ecosystem science. We need One Health solutions for resiliency to future outbreaks as we rebuild our infrastructure after COVID-19.

Securing America’s farms and food systems will pave the way to viable strategies for food production beyond today’s systems. Defending the food supply will include supporting international systems. The world’s projected population growth will impact land use as people cause changes in land that affect whole ecosystems. Food security also includes supporting indigenous people’s right to eat and regulating the illegal wildlife trade. Considering the root causes of certain novel emerging infectious disease can inform improvements for the American food system.  For now, the focus should be on designing secure systems, ones that consider how even the smallest livestock – honeybees – supports an increasing population’s demand for protein.  In the biodefense of food, a wholistic bipartisan policy is needed if we want to sustain a stable world where we collaborate with nature and science. And where we can always have enough to eat.

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