Digital Hostages and Healthy Food

For a brief moment last year food security became a topic of mainstream interest. COVID and its fallout had an impact on every aspect of the economy, but it was particularly visible when it came to food. There were shortages in grocery stores even as food packaged for restaurants and institutions was dumped. Slaughterhouses shut down, forcing factory farms to euthanize tens of thousands of animals. But despite these bumps the system made it through; food shortages were local and brief, and things generally got smoother as time past. (Though now, with restaurants booming, a similar dynamic is playing out in the other direction.)

But this week another event in the news serves as a reminded that the scale and consolidation of agriculture come with risks. JBS, the world’s largest meat packer, has been temporarily crippled by a cyberattacks. As a result, thousands of workers in the US and Australia have had shifts cancelled, and the effects, both on price and meat availability, are only beginning to work their way through the food system.

To me this looks like a great opportunity to revisit some of the questions raised by the overstressed supply chains of last summer. I’m specifically thinking about the issues of scale, interconnectedness, and just in time logistics. Our ever growing food system is usually justified in terms of cost - generally, the larger the scale the cheaper, and calories are certainly cheap by historical standards. Efficient distribution and transportation also lower cost. But security is a more vexed issue.

I assume (though perhaps I should not) that JBS has significantly better cyber security than I do. But if someone took down my site for a couple weeks, it would hardly be a blip on the food landscape. I’d miss all of you, of course, and I hope you’d miss me, but it wouldn’t be national news. Compare that to what’s happening now. A single attack against one giant company has a huge impact on both domestic and international markets.

There is a brittleness to massive systems, and their complexity gives them vulnerabilities that smaller, more independent organizations can avoid. I happen to also think there are a bunch of other good things that come with trading some modicum of efficiency for a more distributed network of smaller farms and middlemen, ranging from healthier, more beautiful rural communities to wider availability of high quality food.

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