When you drive through a McDonald’s or pick up a gallon of milk at the grocery store you probably aren’t thinking of national security. However, the food sector of the United States economy is one of the areas most susceptible to national security threats in a variety of forms. One need only look at the recent E.coli outbreaks in Germany and France to realize that even a food that is not commonly consumed (although it is quite likely Europeans eat more sprouts than Americans) can pack a considerable punch to a nation’s economy if it is found to be contaminated. The United States finds itself in a similarly precarious situation when it comes to food security, a problem that most associate with only third-world countries. Nonetheless, the right natural disaster, disease, terrorist attack, crop failure, or combination of any of the above poses a real and growing threat to U.S. national security.
From an economic standpoint many may be quick to criticize the idea that an agricultural problem is really a threat to U.S. national security. After all only 1.9% of the United States’ labor force is employed in “the fields,” and farming only accounts for 0.7% of U.S. GDP. However, in February of this year food prices rose by the most since 1974, a whopping 3.9%. When gas goes up 15 cents we cringe and point to the national security implications of high priced oil. Likewise food prices equally affect national security. Rising food prices can be indicators of problems in other sectors of the economy–transportation, for instance. Also, not everyone needs to drive a car, but everyone does need to eat; everyone, everywhere, that is. The U.S. exported $11 billion in food just last month, while importing $8 billion. If something went wrong in the U.S. or in one of the countries from which we heavily import food the U.S. could see an escalating price spiral that would lead to an even weaker economy than the one we already experience.
The E.coli outbreak killed less than 100 people in both France and Germany, yet it sent both countries into a panic. Germany immediately began boycotting Spanish cucumbers, only later to find out that it was homegrown sprouts that were contaminated. For a short while Germany was able to sell domestic cucumbers to the benefit of its farming societies, while Spain’s cucumber market took a hit. A small scale outbreak, such as the one in Germany, accounts for millions of dollars lost and a relatively small amount of deaths. A large scale outbreak could cause trade tariffs that slow down the wheels of trade, hurt agricultural economies worldwide, and cause thousands of deaths.
Natural disasters also pose great threat to food security. Japan is experiencing this right now in the form of radiation poisoning. A prolonged natural disaster in the Midwest of the United States or in Russia’s or China’s grain belts could cause similar fear and insecurity. During Stalin’s reign and throughout the 1970s and 80s the USSR experienced firsthand the devastation that can come from the inability to feed one’s people. On a more extreme angle, food terrorism is also possible. Much like a biological attack, a deliberate food contaminant could potentially kill thousands of people. Unlike a biological attack, food terrorism would be a rather inexpensive way to spread diseases throughout a population. Like all terrorist attacks, one of the main purposes is to instill fear. Fear ends up costing the U.S. huge amounts of money (think of the TSA post 9/11).
The probability of a severe food security threat in the United States is relatively small at present, however it would not take much to change that probability. Because of the volatility of the food market and its potential for failure the United States must enact policies that promote good agricultural practices. From an individual standpoint each citizen can slowly build up a food storage that will allow for food problems to pass with as little damage as possible. So, the next time you go to McDonald’s and get a hamburger or pick up a gallon of milk from the grocery store, remember how easy it is to feed yourself today and how difficult it could be tomorrow.