How 'food security' is quickly becoming national security

The fight against food insecurity has grown in importance over the past decade, as a growing number of underserved communities are living in food deserts —  areas that have limited access to food that is both affordable and nutritious. Although the work being done to tackle food insecurity typically happens on a local level, food insecurity is a rising concern for the United States on a global scale.

On March 15, Daniel Sarewitz, Arizona State University professor of science and society in the School for the Future of Innovation in Society, hosted the webinar “What Does ‘Food Security’ Really Mean?” to discuss the weaknesses in our food supply systems and the future threats the country faces as we work to strengthen those systems.

Sarewitz spoke with Molly Jahn, a leading expert on food security who is a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Department of Agronomy and a program manager at the U.S. Department of Defense’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), on the role that plant breeding can play in the future of national security.

In recent years, Jahn has been advocating to reframe food-supply systems as a matter of national security. Many Americans are unaware that the country’s existing processes for breeding, planting and distributing crops have incredible global impact. As our food supply systems grow increasingly interconnected, however, they also become vulnerable to external threats.

In “How ‘Multiple Breadbasket Failure’ Became a Policy Issue,” published in ASU’s “Issues in Science and Technology,” Jahn wrote that “the nature of war is changing, from the 20th century’s open warfare to a 21st-century model that must consider nonmilitary threats to U.S. national and economic security. In this emerging reality, adversaries may disrupt everyday life through disinformation and by acquiring control and power through critical infrastructure such as financial systems, power grids and navigation systems. And it’s not impossible to imagine that the nation’s food systems are soft targets — along with other everyday things such as your bank account or favorite streaming service.”

An American adversary could destroy a significant part of the world’s food by disrupting the software and navigational systems that control the nation’s soybean combines for three weeks during the harvest period, Jahn said.

Aside from concerns of conflict-driven scarcity, Jahn noted that future food-system planners should also be prepared for scarcity created by natural disasters, which can deplete food supplies and imperil communities whenever disaster strikes.

The world learned this lesson over the past year, as COVID-19 disrupted supply chains on an international scale, creating shortages in food, cleaning supplies and a range of other products for weeks — even months — at a time.

“COVID-19 demonstrated conclusively that major disruptions can pile on top of each other to collapse networks designed for efficiency rather than resilience,” Jahn said. “The world had already witnessed this when the 2014 Ebola outbreak caused crops to fail in West Africa, triggering a second crisis, this one of famine and food insecurity. But COVID showed a different type of disruption in the United States, as interdependencies in supply chains and consumer buying, sometimes driven by intentional misinformation, exacerbated shortages and price fluctuations. It gets easier to imagine new dangers almost daily: When American shoppers raced to buy vitamin D, few were aware that China is the world’s only manufacturer of the supplement.” 

Jahn’s examination of how the roles in our food supply chains are interconnected, and her mission to prepare America’s food systems for future threats, is crucial work that will continue. However, it wasn’t an easy road to arrive at the research she’s doing today.

The first step in the fight for food security, Jahn said, was realizing the obstacles within the field of agronomy and plant breeding itself.

“Science often gets stuck in its disciplinary stovepipes,” Sarewitz said during the event, elaborating on the tendency of scientists in their field to operate within established processes, and to wade through research with narrow goals in mind. While proceeding with hyper-focus can lead scientists to desired results, it can also preclude them from making larger, interdisciplinary connections — such as undercovering weaknesses within the global food supply process.

“Starting pretty early in my career,” Jahn said, “I got really interested in what it meant to be working in networks, not pipelines.” While plant breeders are often focused on improving plants and seeds for farmers — the people working directly with the product — Jahn began thinking about taking the next step to make food more enjoyable from the consumer’s point of view.

“Those who eat are not the ones who actually purchase vegetable seed,” Jahn explained. “Already a systems thinker, I was interested in the whole system.” In broadening her scope beyond what the farmer needed, Jahn began to understand food supply through each step of the process — from production and distribution, to getting food on the family table.

Viewing the food supply system through a big-picture perspective further enabled Jahn to think about the gaps in the system — seeing entire regions experience crop shortages, the consequences that come with food scarcity, and the global threats food supply systems will face in the years to come.

“What allowed you to do this,” Sarewitz observed, “is that you didn’t think like a siloed scientist — you could put your head in the space of what the consumer was thinking, but you were also thinking about the farmers; you were also thinking about the seed companies, and you were thinking about how they all connect to each other, and you kind of recognized a commonality of interest that’s lost when you have this pipeline model (of thinking).”

In 2017, Jahn’s team succeeded in making food security a formal piece of America’s national defense policy. An amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act ensures that leading experts will continue to take food supply and demand into account as part of a secure future. Stepping outside of the box to view food beyond an agricultural context, and reframing it to apply to our future survival and security, was key to making that connection.

Today, Jahn and her colleagues are spending more time considering what adjustments our food supply will need to keep us healthy and food-secure on a local level as well.

“We are beginning to explore exciting new questions, such as whether the relatively unexplored universe of microbes, bacteria and fungi produce nutrients in hours or days — far more quickly than it takes to grow crops in a field,” Jahn said. “And what if everyone could produce basic ingredients for household needs? What if food was more like air — so no one could easily control it and everyone could be a farmer in a pinch?”

Questions like these will continue to drive the innovation happening in agronomy, food systems and food security as scientists strive to find the most effective ways to feed people halfway around the world, while also putting healthy and accessible food on the table in our local communities.

Top photo courtesy of pixabay.com.