Most consumers today take for granted a safe, secure and abundant food supply. Few have ever gone to the grocery store and found the shelves empty, except perhaps those living along the coast, just prior to a hurricane. Fewer still have ever been turned away from a fast-food restaurant or a local eatery because they had run out of things to eat.
That being said, we Americans tend to have a very short attention span. We as a nation have largely forgotten that just a few years ago, in the early years of the decade that assumption was not so widely held. People had begun to worry about food. The public was regularly warned about potential terrorist activities, including those that might be aimed at the food supply and other critical infrastructures. A former Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services precipitated a firestorm in 2004 when he stated, “For the life of me, I cannot understand why the terrorists have not attacked our food supply, because it is so easy to do.” The American public was shocked to say the least.
The full impact of the statement can only be gauged accurately today by remembering the context of the times. The U.S. was still recovering from the devastating attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. Shortly thereafter, anthrax-laden letters were sent by a person or persons unknown, first on September 18, 2001, to news outlets in New York and Florida and then to the Senate on October 9. Speaking as someone who was working on the front lines of national security, including food and agriculture security (now called food defense), I can attest the public concerns were very real. Many even expected it would be only a matter of time before agriculture and the food supply were attacked, but thankfully those scenarios were never realized.
What else could have been expected from the public? Fear and an ambiguity were almost palpable in these times, making fear a self-fulfilling prophesy that could only be righted with time and loss of public interest.
Were the fears justified? Could the food supply and agriculture be attacked? The simple answer is yes. It could be attacked. People could die because they ate poisoned food and have certainly done so in places like China and India, where intentional food contamination has occurred. But simple answers often distort the objective truth and therefore cause us to miscalculate the full spectrum of reasonable possibilities and probabilities. Reviewed objectively, food and agriculture just don’t come to my mind as a tier one objective of the adversary, if for no other reason that food and agriculture are so widely dispersed and the logistical support needed to respond to an emergency is so mature and, most importantly, strongly based in the private sector.
Are terrorists going to target the food we eat? In my professional estimation the likelihood is moderately high, but if proven a reality, I would seriously wager that it won’t come in the direction for which the government has planned (and spent) to respond. Terrorists, like most people tend to be lazy and most often seek the path of least resistance, so as to better assure a probable success. Rather than using biological weapons to kill cattle or poisons to contaminate milk, why not just turn off the electricity? Doing that can kill the animals (e.g., chickens in commercial operations), spoils the milk and makes the ground beef inedible, with the extra special bonus that it also causes everyone to plunge into darkness (widespread panic), shutters access to bank ATMs and fuel, causes breathtaking gridlock and makes the government look totally helpless and inept.
More importantly, all can be done from the comfort of the local cyber cafe where the hacker(s) don’t even to have to break a sweat. The cyber realm is where the greatest vulnerability in food and agriculture resides; therefore it by definition it becomes the most likely target. Also importantly, the adversary has both the means (expertise) and the access points (the web), by which that vulnerability can be attacked. The U.S. government should continue to plan for all contingencies, including those attacks that emanate from the very computers that make modern life possible. Failure to adequately defend will not only enable tragedy to be assured, but at a scale that we cannot even imagine.
Robert A. Norton, a veterinary microbiologist, is the director of Auburn University’s Open Source Intelligence Lab and is the faculty liaison to the university’s Cyber Initiative. His research interests include Big Data, public health, protecting the nation’s food supply from threats and tracking foodborne illness outbreaks.