Threats to our food supply are more predictable than we think. Governments and businesses need to adopt a more defensive mindset, argues journalist Nick Hughes.
You don’t have to go far back in history to a time when the supply of food was synonymous with national defence. During the Second World War, the Irish government introduced a number of controls under the Emergency Powers Order. This included a number of measures to increase agricultural production and thereby ensuring self-sufficiency in food. Similarly, Britons were famously urged to ‘dig for victory’ during after German U-boats targeted shipping routes for food imports.But as the developed world rebuilt following the end of the war food gradually became cheap and abundant, and as it did so the narrative around food’s role in protecting a nation shifted subtly away from notions of defence towards security, expressed through the presence of cheap food, full shelves and access to global markets.
Yet the relationship between food and defence has never really fractured. Although the threat of a third global conflict has diminished, new threats in the shape of terrorism and the destabilising effect of natural disasters offer reasons to adopt a defensive mindset where a nation’s food supply is concerned. The UK Ministry of Defence is known to take extremely seriously the defence and security implications of food price spikes due to climate change and water scarcity. There is an obvious increase in the overlap between defence and public health in the narrative.
Dr Amy Kircher is director of the US Food Protection and Defence Institute (FPDI) and as such, has the link between food and defence running through the DNA of her role.
The FPDI is a Department of Homeland Security Centre of Excellence which sits within the University of Minnesota. Its aim is to reduce food system disruption by reducing the potential for contamination at any point along the food supply chain and addressing potential threats to the food system that could lead to catastrophic damage to public health or the economy.
It’s important to acknowledge at this juncture that there is no internationally agreed definition of food defence. While in the US, food defence encompasses issues around integrity, safety and consumer protection, in Europe these same issues tend to fall under the catch-all of food security (another term whose definition is not readily agreed).
But beyond the nuances of specific definitions, wider questions emerge: to what extent is the need to protect our food supply from contamination and adulteration central to concepts of food security and could the global food community do more to prevent such incidences from occurring?
Responses to cases of deliberate contamination tend to be reactive to the situation at hand rather than proactive in taking all possible steps to prevent the situation occurring.
Kircher warns that this approach is not future proof and urges that food disruptions be seen not as unpreventable shocks but as predictable surprises. To illustrate the point, she cites the example of Nigeria in 2014 which was facing a devastating Ebola outbreak at the same time as the militant organisation Boko Haram was causing political instability in another part of the country. Cocoa (a key export commodity) was impacted by these events “This was a predictable surprise, says Kircher.”
A more recent example can be found in the 2017 scandal in which millions of eggs were pulled from supermarket shelves in more than a dozen European countries after it was discovered that some had been contaminated with the potentially harmful insecticide fipronil. This was an example of an event that could have been predicted given the competitive pressures in food supply chains that were leading to intensification and a drive to reduce costs.
One potential explanation for the current state of passivity is that the scale of the threat of food adulteration is underappreciated. Fien Minnens, a Phd Student at Ghent University, presented research showing that the majority of food industry stakeholders believe industry actors underestimate the frequency of occurrence of food integrity issues.
There is also a doubt as to whether classical tools for surveillance and risk assessment, such as audit, sampling, lab screening and confirmation, are fit for purpose in the modern food economy. “It is a very inefficient system,” said Professor Michel Nielen, principal scientist at RIKILT Wageningen University & Research. “It’s not completely effective and cannot prevent scandals. We need to think of a different way.”
So what is the solution? One obvious first step is for those with a stake in the integrity of food supply chains to become much better at joining the dots that can point towards vulnerabilities. Kircher noted that there are multiple indicators of a heightened risk of supply chain disruption, ranging from extreme weather events and shifts in supply and demand to population trends and human behaviour. “We need to ask if the conditions are such that we can intervene before any consumer eats that product,” she said. “We should be able to connect every natural disaster that affects our globe and know exactly what might be adulterated as a result of it.”
Kircher’s team at the FPDI has developed FIDES (Focused Integration of Data for Early Signals), a web application designed to fuse multiple streams of data to predict, monitor, and identify food system disruptions and adverse food events.
By using artificial intelligence, FIDES is able to identify and predict where risks might exist with information displayed in the form of an online dashboard where users can browse, search and layer both dynamic and reference data sets related to global disasters, animal health alerts, import refusals and many other sources of publicly available data.
“Failure in one place will create a ripple throughout the entire globe,” said Kircher. “Understanding how those ripples work is critical to helping people overcome these challenges.”
As valuable as their efforts are, Kircher and her cohorts cannot build a complete picture of food system threats in isolation. The success of FIDES and other such horizon scanning tools (Fera Science, for instance, has developed an early prototype of a dashboard of the latest early warnings for a range of commodities using a traffic light system) is in the cooperation of the private sector in supplementing the public data that is already available. “We must work with food companies to share data in a way that protects their proprietary needs but also allows us to integrate data that truly traces food from farm to fork,” said Kircher.
Within the EU, national governments and their agencies collaborate via forums such as the Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF), the European Food Fraud Network and EFSA’s Emerging Risks Exchange Network. However, industry engagement with such networks can be patchy.
Attempts have been made to create ‘safe spaces’ for food businesses to contribute to the overall intelligence picture. In the UK, the Food Intelligence and Authenticity Network (FIIN) was set up following a recommendation by the Elliott Review, commissioned by the UK government following the horsemeat scandal. Four years later, Ron McNaughton, head of the Scottish Food Crime and Incidents Unit at Food Standards Scotland, reported that FIIN is working well in Scotland where anonymised, aggregated industry data is being shared with the regulator. But reaching this point had been hard, said McNaughton, who stressed the importance of building trust between the authorities and businesses.
FiiN is being looked upon with envy in many countries, according to Professor Chris Elliott, director of the Institute for Global Food Security at Queen’s University, Belfast, who has previously spoken of the need for a “fortress mentality” to combatting food fraud. In a recent article for The Grocer magazine, Elliott wrote: “I see the time when [FIIN] will be a multinational food industry network that will be doing a huge amount to keep the bad guys out across Europe.”
FIIN and FIDES are examples of the kind of proactive approach to defending food supply chains that Kircher, Elliott and others are advocating. They won’t, nor are they intended to, win wars, but they can help protect supply chains from individuals or groups bent on committing deliberate adulteration for reasons of terrorism, sabotage or simply their own financial gain.
More broadly, they should be viewed as part of the return to a mindset where notions of safety, integrity and even defence, are once again seen as intrinsic elements of a secure food system.
ABOUT NICK HUGHES
Nick Hughes is a freelance journalist specialising in food and environmental affairs. He has had articles published in titled including The Times, The Grocer and The Ecologist and is Associate Editor of Footprint magazine.