Updated: Nov 17, 2021
By: My Nhan and Mary Wong November 16, 2021 ~
What do food systems and food security have to do with the discussion on global supply chain shortages and U.S. foreign policymaking? As explained in a 2016 Stimson Center article, food security and human security has long been recognized as an important component of a nation’s survival and security, but it seldom receives the attention or visibility of other components of national security. In this blog, we consider how the United States and other countries might put food systems at the center of its priorities as part and parcel of the global supply chain and its ability to respond to the impacts of crises felt across the globe.
There’s clear evidence, particularly in times of instability, that food supplies, as a valuable commodity, are weaponized in conflicts. The National Counterintelligence Strategy of the United States for 2020-2022 speaks directly to supply chain security and the Office of Directorate for National Intelligence (ODNI) has defined supply chain as “a network of people, processes, technology, information, and resources that delivers a product or service.” In this digital age, there is understandable concern that supply lines are evermore susceptible to cyberattacks as demonstrated on two Iowa grain co-ops this year. The food supply chain too can be disrupted by adversaries, state and non-state actors.
While the pandemic has further exposed the vulnerabilities and weaknesses of the global supply chain, the global food system has been working to address the challenges of labor, production, and consumption at all levels of the supply chain. The Obama Administration had taken early steps to name food as one of the products essential to support the U.S. way of life in his 2012 National Strategy for Global Supply Chain Security. Take the Stimson article referenced earlier, the Trump Administration had signed and reauthorized the Global Food Security Act, which was a landmark legislation that had bipartisan support; however, the issues have become more complex mid-COVID and the lines between foreign and domestic are increasingly blurred. In many ways, the pandemic was a wake-up call as described in a March 2020 Harvard Business Review article, advocating for better measures as part of crisis management, including supply network mapping.
As illustrated by the International Center for Tropical Agriculture’s (CIAT) infographic below, the food system is highly complex to start and mapping such a supply network won’t be easy.
In recent years there has been traction for thinking about food systems in the framework of sustainability and resilience. These are two important frameworks to inform on building stronger, more stable and equitable networks. They are essential to improving the livelihoods of present and future generations.
Another useful perspective may be to take a more diversified approach, as explained in this month’s Nature Food article by Hertel et al (2021). Figure 1 below proposes a diversification of measures to enable resilience along the food chain with actions taken at different levels of organization.
Permeating many intersectional issues is climate change. Disasters such as floods, made worse and more frequent by climate change, threaten the production and consumption of food. The impact that climate change has on food and delivery systems is not a one-way road. According to the Global Food Banking Network, “Food loss/waste (FLW) amounts to roughly $990 billion worldwide and produces the equivalent of 3.3 billion tons of greenhouse gases, exacerbating climate change.” Another yet alarming find shared in a March 2021 Nature Food article asserts that regional transportation of food in comparison to long-distance transportation created more greenhouse gas with 81% from transportation by road, 15% by rail, 3.6% by ship, and 0.4% by aviation. This snapshot of greenhouse gas caused by regional transport is concerning. Food security clearly isn’t just about a lack of food but also timing of their delivery and waste of food before getting to a market, and the linkage between issues of food security and climate change underscores the need for a more integrated global approach to supply chain.
On the domestic front, the United States passed the Global Food Security Act, but can it be improved so that there are clear actions and incentives to address the supply chain issues in a truly global manner and possibly to include a domestic orientation and linkage? In June, the Biden Administration's Supply Chain Disruption Task Force released a 100-day supply chain assessment for four critical products, but food was not one of the four. We will have to wait until at least February 2022 for food to be considered in another round of assessments. More recently, leading up to the Food System Summit in September, the United States held a series of National Food System dialogues in which it engaged different types of actors from stakeholders, agricultural organizations, civil society, youth, and academia. Industry associations too like the Association for Supply Chain Management (ASCM), based in Chicago, can play a role in convening key industries. The United States must work better to coordinate across the interagency. Might there be opportunity for the Department of Homeland Security to assume a greater leadership role here? With ambitious goals it will take time to see where the commitments endure, monitor for progress and to measure against goals and adjust accordingly.
On the international front, the United States’ ambition for a food system that is receptive to the challenges of meeting the Sustainable Development Goals and addressing climate change has potential to inspire and form alliances. At the Food System Summit, the United States announced the commitment of $10 billion in food systems, half of this amount focused on resiliency and the other addressing global food insecurity. Beyond mobilizing financial resources, it’s an opportunity for the United States to repurpose and build trust and transparency. In an interconnected network like the food system and digital era it is crucial to have an open line of communication. Exchanges don’t stop at ideas. There’s also transfer of knowledge in data, tools, and methods which will only meet their full potential when relations are transparent and reliable. Aside from international platforms such as the COP26 to raise issues like climate change, the United States should also seek opportunities to establish partnerships with countries that will not only share in the burdens and the challenges in the next 10 years but to address immediate issues that can be met through technological mobilization and expertise.
It is crucial not just for the present moment to overcome the immediate crisis of the pandemic but also repurpose with longer-term challenges in the next 10 years in mind. The United States, not only as a government, but also as civil society including food and beverage industry associations, academia and farmers, has an opportunity to shape a global supply chain that can meet the challenges of today and tomorrow. Now is the time to rethink purpose, imagine, and create a sustainable and resilient food system that can meet the challenges of impending crisis. There's so much we don't know and what little we do know terrifies and yet humbles, so wouldn't it be better to work together than against each other to preserve this generation, but also to protect our natural and man-made resources worthy of our childrens’ children?