Precision Agriculture & National Security

National security is commonly thought of as having a well-equipped, well-trained and well-supplied standing army that is ready to be deployed when a nation is threatened by some foreign entity. Few people connect national security to food security and indirectly to precision agriculture. Before discussing how precision agriculture relates to national security, it may be instructive to discuss the role agriculture plays in national security.

In addition to needing air to breathe and clothing and shelter for protection from the elements, every human requires a reliable supply of food and water. It is the role of governments to ensure that its citizens have access to safe and affordable food and water. Not to do so could result in political and social instability.

Historically, in many parts of the world, this instability has manifested itself as food and water riots. While the statistics vary among publications, it is estimated that the number of nations experiencing a food or water riot may be as high as 60 over the past decade. The political or social circumstances that actually trigger a food or water riot can be quite complex. However, many are due to the lack of resource self-sufficiency in a country, unanticipated refugees from neighboring countries, and near-sighted, economic policies.

Most studies on society and food make the distinction between food “availability” and “accessibility.” Availability is the actual supply of food harvested around the world. Accessibility is the ability of a populace to purchase food.

Nearly everyone agrees that food is readily available but not easily accessible. This disparity between food availability and accessibility is easy to comprehend when the earnings of one-third of the world’s population are less than $2 a day. In developing nations, a full-time worker may spend most of his or her earnings on food. Even a slight increase in the price of food could spell disaster for a person living on a subsistence salary.

The Major Cause

A recent article cited in the MIT published Technology Review identifies the price of food as the single most important factor for predicting food riots. Researchers in the New England Complex Systems Institute studied the time dependence of a food price index and the occurrence of riots worldwide. They identified a specific threshold for the index that if passed would indicate an increasing potential for riots. The threshold was exceeded in 2008 at the time of African riots and again in 2011 at the time of the Middle East riots.

The researchers are predicting that price index threshold will be exceeded again in the summer of 2013 due to price speculation by traders in deregulated commodities markets and the subsidized conversion of corn to ethanol for energy markets. Of course, excessive rain, droughts or other extreme weather events would exacerbate an already shaky social situation.

As one begins to appreciate the relation between the food availability and accessibility and social unrest, it is not a stretch to see the link to national security. As more and more people are unable to purchase food in a given country, their instinct to survive will result in desperate measures. These measures could be in the form of stealing, cheating, corruption, riots, political upheaval and cross-border human migrations. The social disruption by a growing minority will affect all classes of a society. As social disruption grows, a nation as a whole is less secure and more vulnerable to extreme ideologues within its borders and foreign forces outside.

The obvious question is: “How does one ensure a safe, reliable supply of food and water so as not to threaten national security?” There are several answers to this question.

One answer is for a nation to increase its own food supplies by expanding production within its borders or purchasing arable land in another country. This expansion of production assumes that there is adequate water. A second answer is to export raw resources or manufactured goods in return for monies to purchase food on the world market. A third answer is to increase productivity on existing land by being more efficient and sustainable. It is this last answer that incorporates precision agriculture.

Improving Production

The steady trend in increased yields worldwide indicates that there is room for improved production practices. Even in the U.S. with relatively good management, the choice of seed with resistant traits, advanced mechanization that provides for better crop stands, conservation practices the stabilize soils and improve their water storage, new irrigation techniques and the application of precision agriculture programs can all contribute to increased yields. Precision agriculture programs with their support of variable-rate applications of seed, fertilizers and crop protectants minimize materials and energy while maximizing production and profit.

The success stories in this issue are the reminders that precision agriculture is part of the solution for food security and national security both here in the U.S. and abroad. With one-third of the world’s population expected to be at or below the poverty level by mid-century, we in the precision agriculture community have both a moral and professional obligation to do the best we can to introduce production practices that increase the supply and quality of food worldwide.

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