In world that’s been shaken to its core by COVID-19 and remains extremely polarized over politics, there seem to be few things that the American electorate can agree on.

However, we brought diverse speakers together last month to address a topic that’s risen to utmost importance this year: “The Critical Links Between Food Security and National Security.”

Rep. Mike Conaway, R-Texas, who serves as the ranking minority member of the House Agriculture Committee, said the topic was “stunningly timely” given the stresses and strains all of America and all of the world have been put through because of COVID.”

“A nation that can feed itself is more secure than a nation that can’t,” he emphasized.

“Lord knows our farmers and ranchers have been facing one unprecedented situation after another in the past two years. I know our farmers in Michigan are going into harvest with the need for much more certainty,” noted Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., the ranking member of the Senate Ag Committee.

Newsletter signup for email alerts

“This has been quite a year for American agriculture, and, certainly so for American consumers. Perhaps for the first time since the Great Depression, the significance of food security has resonated throughout the entire agriculture and food value chain, impacting nearly every kitchen table around the country and the world,” said Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., chairman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry. He was one of the keynote speakers at the 2020 Agri-Pulse Ag & Food Policy Summit in Washington, D.C.

“Today, we find ourselves in a brave new world. We must take a fresh look at what agricultural security means in terms of the defense of the agriculture sector and food supply," he said. "The United States must continue to play an active role in feeding a troubled and hungry world. There is no greater threat to national security than food insecurity.”

Roberts said his perspective on this topic has been shaped by his time as a Marine, the first Chairman of the newly-formed Emerging Threats Subcommittee of the Senate Armed Services Committee, the Chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, and as the Chairman of the House and Senate Agriculture Committees.

As COVID-19 started to hit the U.S. in March, there were a number of supply chain disruptions — especially as meat and poultry processing plants shut down. But restaurants, food service institutions and grocery stores were also impacted as demand flows changed dramatically.

Roberts said we must take a “fresh look at what agricultural security means in terms of the defense of the agriculture sector and food supply."

“As COVID-19 has demonstrated, if any singular component in that food supply chain is vulnerable or harmed—the seeds, plants, feed, animals, workers, or infrastructure – significant challenges can result," he said.

Members of Congress have been planning to be better prepared for disease outbreaks and other types of threats.

“We have taken significant and important steps in agricultural security, especially as it relates to animal disease preparedness,” Roberts noted.

For example, in the 2018 Farm Bill, Congress directed $300 million dollars in mandatory funding to a new animal health program, which Roberts said, “builds off the existing National Animal Health Laboratory Network.”

Other federal actions include:

  • Creating the National Animal Vaccine and Veterinary Countermeasures Bank and a new cooperative agreement program with states, universities and other partners to bolster our animal health infrastructure.
  • Establishing the Agriculture Advanced Research and Development Authority or AGARDA in the 2018 Farm Bill. Similar to authorities at other agencies like DARPA and BARDA, this advanced research and development authority prioritizes efforts to prevent, protect against, and prepare for intentional and unintentional threats to agriculture and food.
  • Passing the Protecting America’s Food and Agriculture Act. The bill, cosponsored by Roberts, passed Congress earlier this year, and President Donald Trump signed it into law in March 2020. The law will improve the safety of U.S. agriculture and the food supply by increasing the resources directed to our ports of entry and our Customs and Borders Patrol inspector force. It will help prevent the introduction of dangerous pathogens, biological threats and illegal agricultural goods from entering the U.S.

Of significant importance is the establishment and construction of the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility, or “NBAF,” which will soon be operating in Kansas. This facility will be a vital national security laboratory asset that will provide for critical research and development. And, it will have diagnostic and training capabilities for emerging, zoonotic, and foreign animal diseases, Roberts noted.

Coordination between agencies and partners is paramount, Roberts added. The U.S. Department of Agriculture must work hand in hand with relevant agencies like the Department of Health and Human Services, as well as the Department of Homeland Security. It will also take a coordinated effort between the federal family, the partnership of our state governments, universities, and the private sector.

COVID-19 is a zoonotic disease, most likely originating from animals, which became a human pandemic.

“We are in a better place today to react to zoonotic disease and further scientific understanding of such diseases. But, it is clear we still have a great deal of work to do, especially as it relates to human health and disease preparedness," Roberts said.

The pandemic has further strained food security around the world, especially in regions that already face food shortages due to economic factors, weather, insect infestations and political unrest.

“Show me a nation that cannot feed itself, and I will show you a nation in chaos,” Roberts added.

Speaking from Rome, Ambassador Kip Tom has seen first-hand how global food policies impact some of the most vulnerable people and cause chaos and civil conflict.

“The mission to end hunger has never been more urgent than today,” he emphasized. That’s because food security is not just a humanitarian issue, it’s also a matter of our national security.

“We live in a world where we produce enough food to feed everyone, but one in nine people still go to bed on an empty stomach each night. One in three suffers from some form of malnutrition,” he explained.

“Today, there are 135 million people in 55 countries already facing a crisis level from malnutrition. The current COVID crisis could push 130 million more into starvation as we move toward 2021.

Over 65% of the 86 countries we deliver humanitarian aid to is in the midst of a protracted civil conflict . . . places like Syria, Yemen, Somalia and Venezuela, he added.

“With more than 820 million people around the world who don’t have enough food to eat and hunger is affecting them all, as Secretary (of State Mike) Pompeo and I have discussed — without food security it’s almost impossible to promote peace and stability around the world,” Tom said.

Wyant is president and founder of Agri-Pulse Communications Inc. For more news, go to www.Agri-Pulse.com.