America’s Fragile Food Supply Chain, Part I


PART I : Introduction to Agriculture in the United States

This is the first installment in a multi-part series discussing America’s fragile food supply chain, from the farm to the fork. This series will take a look at the vulnerabilities in the food and agriculture sector and how the sector can be so easily exploited by threats as varied as naturally occurring diseases, criminal and terrorist actors, or just common human error.

Food and Agriculture is included as one of the 16 critical infrastructure sectors as defined by the Department of Homeland Security in the National Infrastructure Protection Plan, however F&A receives comparatively little attention in the homeland security realm as compared to other areas such as airline security, cyber threats, immigration issues, and the general fear of more directed terror attacks such as bombings or active shooters. However, a significant agriculture disaster, whether an intentional act of Agroterrorism or naturally occurring, could result in tremendous damage to our country and rewrite the way think of homeland security.

One of the main reasons Americans do not think about the threats to and the fragility of their food supply chain is because it generally runs so smoothly. For many decades most Americans have not had to worry about where their next meal was coming from. Most of us have several grocery stores in our neighborhood or town to shop at and they are filled with every conceivable food item we desire. Rows of fresh produce from all over the world, fresh eggs and dairy products, and every kind of meat and seafood products are found in our grocery stores on any day of the week. Most of us

are rarely more than a couple minutes away from a drive thru with a cheap, quick hot meal. Along with this tremendous bounty at our fingertips Americans spend on average only 6.4% of our annual income on food, which is the lowest amount in the entire world. The chart below depicts annual expenditures on food across the glove. It is not uncommon for others to

spend 40% to 50% of their income on food. Another factor is that since the industrial revolution very few Americans work in agriculture producing food anymore. In 1880 nearly 80% of Americans worked in agriculture toiling to feed themselves and others. Now less than 2% of us are required to work in agriculture to feed the other 98%. Due to these factors most Americans do not give the food chain a second thought. Indeed it is safe to say most of us take for granted that when we want to eat that safe, fresh food will be there for us. But what if it were not?

Setting aside our basic need to eat, agriculture is an extremely important industry in the United States. Agriculture and agribusiness related industries represent 4.8% of the U.S. gross domestic product and employed over 16 million Americans as of 2011. Total farm cash receipts exceeded $390 billion in 2013. Agriculture exports alone produce a combined economic output of $320 billion in the U.S. economy.

Florida is a case study in how important agriculture can be to an individual state, yet how nearly invisible it can be at the same time. Most people envision endless stretches of white sand beaches and sprawling amusement parks when they think of Florida, however agriculture and farming have been and continue to be vital industries in the state. Agriculture is the most stable, leading segment of Florida’s economy coming in second in size and importance behind tourism. Florida’s farm industry alone includes 47,500 farms, spread across 9 million acres, growing 300 different crops.

Agriculture industries in Florida contribute over $100 billion in value added impact to the state economy, representing over 10$ of the state gross domestic product, and contribute to providing over 2 million jobs. To give these figures the proper perspective, consider that Florida is a state with a population of about 19 million and gross state product of $704 billion. Forida is not even in the top ten agriculture producing states in the U.S. so one can grasp the great importance this industry has to states across the country.

Despite how well it runs, keeping us supplied with never-ending abundance, our food supply chain is in reality vulnerable to numerous threats and is a distinct homeland security issue. Former Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson said, “I for the life of me cannot understand why the terrorists have not, you know, attacked our food supply, because it is so easy to do.” Similarly, United States Senator Susan Collins (R-ME) noted, “In the war on terrorism, the fields and pastures of America’s farmland might seem at first to have nothing in common with the towers of the World Trade Center or busy seaports. In fact, however, they are merely different manifestations of the same high priority target, the American economy.”

Some have asked, “but has there been an attack on our food supply chain”. Is there a known threat? The answer is no, not lately. This is part of why Agroterrorism is referred to in much of the literature as “low probability — high consequence”. Why is it low probability? The FBI has defined the agriculture sector as, “among the most vulnerable and least protected of all potential targets of attack.” So, what are the potential consequences? How might an attack be carried out? Where are the vulnerabilities? What about a naturally occurring agriculture disaster? What can be done? This five part series on America’s Fragile Food Supply Chain will delve into the food and agriculture sector and answer these questions.

Part I you are reading now is the Introduction to Agriculture in the U.S. Part II is Agroterrorism VS. Naturally Occurring Threats. Part III The Food Production System covers the farm level of the food supply chain including crops and livestock. Part IV The Food Delivery System will discuss post-farm food chain components such as processing, delivery, and retail. Part V What Do We Do? wraps up the series, offers solutions, and discusses what is coming in the future.

Show your support

Clapping shows how much you appreciated bigbirney’s story.