Auburn professor says food and agriculture vital to national security

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Professor Bob Norton, chair of the Auburn University Food System Institute’s Food and Water Defense Working Group, discusses the importance of a safe and secure food chain, especially in connection with COVID-19 and cybersecurity. He says the pandemic has created problems, as well as opportunities, in the food and agriculture sector.

Why is the food and agriculture sector considered a critical infrastructure in the United States?

The federal government has designated the food and agriculture sector as one of 16 critical infrastructures essential to the welfare and security of the nation, and for which there is no substitution. COVID-19 confirmed what was already known, but not well understood about critical infrastructures: The weakening or destruction of any of the sectors would have a debilitating effect on security, national economic security and national public health or safety.

Not only is the entire population dependent on the food and agriculture sector for food, but the sector accounts for 11 percent of U.S. employment, according to the United States Department of Agriculture. Agriculture, food and related industries contributed $1.053 trillion to U.S. gross domestic product in 2017, a 5.4-percent share. In addition, the food and agriculture sector is completely dependent on the cyber systems that enable U.S. production efficiencies, creating the safest, most secure and economical food supply in the world.

How has the food supply chain changed during COVID-19?

COVID-19 has caused problems and opportunities in two areas of necessity: people and cyber. People became ill, causing the food chain to slow in distribution or to move away from one subsector (i.e., dine-in restaurants) to new ways of food delivery (i.e., home delivery to the consumer). This minimized the public health risk of disease transmission, while home food delivery and fast food have thrived during COVID-19.

Have cyber threats increased due to COVID-19?

Food and agriculture employees and those in other critical infrastructures, businesses and governmental agencies have had to adapt to remote working environments. This rapid and unprecedented pivot to virtual business is totally dependent upon cyber systems, opening up new vulnerabilities in the form of intensified cyber-based malignant activities and actual exploitation by adversarial nations, criminal organizations and groups.

We have learned as a nation that cyber has truly become the backbone of food and agriculture (as it has across our entire economy), but also that people remain both the source of minds and muscle that make possible our food supply. 

How can the food and agriculture sector prepare for future pandemics or disruptive events?

Preparedness, planning and response to future pandemics or other disruptions are dependent upon the recognition that people and cyber must not be looked upon separately, but instead integrated in planning and treated operationally as equally essential elements in the food chain. This is true in times of normal business, but especially in times of emergencies and disruption. Because of these necessities, they must be made equally robust.

Public health and cybersecurity can no longer be considered separate and distinct priorities. They are what help feed our nation, keep our economy moving and protect our national security.

About Bob Norton:
Professor Bob Norton has 35 years of experience in veterinary infectious diseases, national security, bioterrorism and agroterrorism detection and defense. A veterinary microbiologist by training, he serves as the chair of the Auburn University Food System Institute’s Food and Water Defense Working Group and is a professor of veterinary infectious diseases, biosecurity and public health in the Auburn University College of Agriculture’s Department of Poultry Science. He is also the national security programs coordinator for The Futures Laboratory, an outreach effort to the Department of Defense. He is a longtime consultant to the U.S. military and federal and state law enforcement agencies and is editor of Bob Norton’s Food Defense Blog.

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