Our food security depend on threats to agriculture. The life of a plant that we depend on for food, clean air, and materials are challenged by myriad threats, natural and man-made including Viruses, pests, fungi, herbicides, drought, pollution, salinity, flooding, and frost. These rapid or unexpected emergence of these threats put human food security at risk and could lead to destabilization of the economy which depends a great deal on agriculture.
Yet, in this modern age of biological weapons, agriculture and agricultural products have been targeted by various nation states as viable strategic targets as well as targeted by terrorists (aka non-state actors) for acts of bioterrorism.
There is long history of Biological Weapons Development or Attacks against Agricultural Targets. During World War II, the United States, Britain, and Canada were actively engaged in research and development of BW and eagerly exchanged technical information and research results. Japan, well known for the brutal use of BW against civilians and prisoners in China, was also actively researching and developing anti-crop and livestock BW. France anti-crop program was mostly directed at Germany. The former Soviet Union was known to have one of the most innovative and broad anti-crop and anti-livestock programs.
Number of analysts have pointed out that terrorist attacks on livestock or crops, although unlikely to cause terror, are also a concern because they could be executed much more easily and could have serious economic consequences. Parker describes five potential targets of agricultural bioterrorism: field crops; farm animals; food items in the processing or distribution chain; market-ready foods at the wholesale or retail level; and agricultural facilities that include processing plants, storage facilities, and components of the transportation sector as well as research laboratories.
Bioterrorists (aka non-state actors) might use agricultural BW in the following methods: multiple attacks with the pathogen at sites of high concentration of crops or livestock using contaminated animals (e.g. animals smuggled into the country with Avian influenza); pathogen aerosols (Karnal bunt teliospores for wheat crops or FMD in an aerosol for cattle); vectors carrying the pathogen (such as ticks with Heart water); or fruit bats or pigs (domesticated or feral) infected with Nipah virus.
Many developing nations experience food and water insecurity on a higher scale than developed nations because of irresponsible or malicious government policies, the effects of climate change, and rising food prices. National security can be quickly jeopardized by naturally occurring threats to the crop system, including pathogens, drought, flooding, and frost, but especially by threats introduced by state or non-state actors.
Hickson describes the Fabian strategy (named after the Roman general Quintus Fabius Maximus, who defeated Hannibal by avoiding direct conflict) as a strategy of indirect actions used to weaken the resistance of an opposing force. This strategy could include BW directed at agricultural targets with the resultant effects of reduced export trade of agricultural commodities, food shortages, reduced employment for workers in agricultural and food related industries, reduced biofuels productivity (if the targets include biofuels crops), and due to the multiplier effects, overall decreased economic vigor of the nation. This could result in a subsequent cascade of socio-economic effects, including distrust and resistance to state or federal government authority; greater social dissent exemplified by public protests over food or fuel shortages and spiking food prices; riots over unemployment or food shortages. These final actions could indicate to an aggressor that the enemy is now weakened sufficiently so that a quick invasion and defeat is possible.
Thus, the role of food security has vital and far-reaching impact on security. The Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community (2014) warned that “[l]ack of adequate food will be a destabilizing factor in countries important to US national security that do not have the financial or technical abilities to solve their internal food security problems.
Conflicts and Food security
After steadily declining for over a decade, global hunger is on the rise again, affecting 815 million people in 2016, or 11 per cent of the global population, according to The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2017 report. Food being the basic need for life Food Insecurity has been the cause of concern for many countries of the world.
Conflict is a key driver of hunger—60 per cent of the world’s hungry live in conflict-affected areas. Hunger also drives conflict as it fuels longstanding grievances and disputes over land, livestock and other assets.
There are currently 20 million people across the globe who are hungry or face starvation due to man-made conflict. The long-drawn conflicts in Syria and Yemen have escalated the food insecurity. In their report “Hunger As A Weapon Of War: How Food Insecurity Has Been Exacerbated In Syria And Yemen” authors have detailed how the sieges of places like Aleppo, Homs and Eastern Ghouta in Syria and the blockade of Yemeni ports has caused food insecurity and malnutrition to spiral out of control. They detail how forced starvation on a population can have devastating effects in the short, medium and long term and how it disproportionately harms vulnerable people such as children, the elderly and pregnant and lactating women. The war in Afghanistan has left many rural Afghans without access to food because of increases in staple food prices. Using a multivariate framework, D’Souza and Jolliffe (2013) found that provinces experiencing declines in food security have been active hotspots for violence.
Food Security in 2050
With the global population expected to touch 9.7 billion by 2050, there will be increasing pressure on our limited natural resources to produce more food. A new Food and Agriculture Organization report warns that the projected growth in world population is likely to be concentrated in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. This will pose immense problems, as expanding agriculture in these regions will be difficult because of scarcity of land and water resources. India, China and Indonesia will be home to three-quarters of the world’s population by 2030. The three countries will be home to half the world’s urban population. And this will have a significant impact on the demand and food production, as urban consumers have more diverse diets and convenience food.
According to the report, agriculture in 2050 will need to produce almost 50 per cent more food, feed and bio-fuel than it did in 2012. In sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, agricultural output would need to more than double by the middle of the century. Besides more output, dietary transition towards higher consumption of meat, fruits and vegetables will put additional pressure on natural resources.
Climate change is food security’s biggest challenge. Climate change results in weather patterns become erratic and more intense, rising or lowering temperatures, rising sea levels and drastic change of landscapes. For instance, climate change is projected to enhance the probability and severity of drought. Droughts that are 10-20% worse by mid-century would certainly represent an increased threat.
Agriculture takes a hit too because it depends so much on nature—on water, air, soil, and the weather. Plants may refuse to flower because it’s too humid, pests abound because of hot temperatures, supertyphoons may destroy crops such as rice, and too-cold weather could freeze our vegetables.
Agriculture, Biological Weapons and Agrobioterrorism:
The impact of a BW attack on agriculture was summarized by Chalk who writes that three major outcomes would result from a bioterrorism attack on agriculture. First, economic disruption would occur creating at least three levels of costs. Initially these costs come from eradication and containment measures. For example, during the 1997 outbreak of Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD) in Taiwan, the vaccination costs were $10 million, but the surveillance, cleaning, disinfection and related viral eradication costs were $4 billion. The next costs are the indirect multiplier effects that would accumulate from both compensations paid to farmers for destruction of agricultural commodities as well as the revenue losses by direct and indirectly related industries (e.g. dairy processors, bakeries, abattoirs, etc.). Finally, international trade costs would occur due to protective embargoes imposed by major export partners.
One example is the 1989 Chilean grape scare caused by anti-Pinochet extremists that laced fruit bound for the US with sodium cyanide. While only a small handful of grapes were contaminated, the resultant imports suspensions (imposed by such nations as Canada, United States, Denmark, Germany, and Hong Kong) cost Chile over US$200 million in lost earnings.
Plant genetic engineering just might be able to address the global food insecurity problem we have. GMO scientifically alters the genetic makeup of the plant to enhance crop size, reduce a plant or animal’s resistance to pathogens, fungus, or disease, or to help crops become more drought-resistant as our climate becomes warmer and dryer.
Still, there are ethical and health safety issues to consider. In addition to the danger of accidental human ingestion of plants modified to include the Bt gene in their genome, there are some other concerns surrounding GMOs, as well. For instance, there are concerns that genetic modification of a plant can cause the development of diseases which are resistant to antibiotics. This is due to the possibility of viral resistance leading to new viruses and diseases.