A new study published in Nature looks at how climate change is driving pests and pathogens into new regions. This migration of 612 different types of “fungi, bacteria, viruses, insects, nematodes, viroids and oomycetes” is marching toward the poles at a rate of around 2 miles a year, threatening food production along the way. This highlights a possible challenge to international assistance programs that mobilize food assistance to combat hunger and poverty, and to mitigate the impacts of climatic disasters. The issue also raises questions about how concerns over climate change and invasive species factor into the foreign policy and national security calculus of donor nations.
Pests like warm weather too
In the past, cold weather has typically killed pests and pathogens, limiting crop damage. With increases in temperatures, such pests are no longer dying off so easily. Disease is currently responsible for the loss of between 10-16% of global crops, and this number is likely to increase with global temperatures, adding another climate-exacerbated threat to global food security, and piling onto the already mounting challenges of floods, droughts, sea level rise, and ocean acidification and warming.
The study finds that the global trade of crops is the primary way pests and pathogens are transferred across regions. This raises a potentially significant problem. The transport of crops, either through trade or aid, to alleviate climate-damaged regions, is a common disaster risk reduction and resiliency strategy among nations. If such pests hitch a ride onto that food, they could undermine the future food security and climate insecurity that the assistance is designed to alleviate. Sarah Gurr, a co-author of the study, suggests that “international government officials must pay greater heed as to what crops they allow to cross their borders.”
Some studies have also looked at the possible relationship between international assistance programs, homeland security and invasive species. Though there is a need for more research on this nexus, a report by Murphy and Chessman examined international assistance activities conducted by “development programs (particularly in relation to agriculture, (agro) forestry and aquaculture), disaster relief programs, and military assistance programs with a humanitarian remit (such as peace-keeping operations conducted under the auspices of the United Nations),” and found some evidence of the introduction of invasive species by assistance efforts, with costly and long-lasting negative impacts outweighing the positive impacts of the assistance. Another study looked at the potential for a deliberate introduction of an invasive species with the intention to cause harm to a country.
Invasive species and U.S. national security
The United States has taken some measures to prevent the proliferation of invasive species. In 1999, President Clinton created Executive Order 13112, the goal of which was “to prevent the introduction of invasive species and provide for their control and to minimize the economic, ecological, and human health impacts that invasive species cause.” In 2005 the Bush Administration reaffirmed the order in a review by a high-level National Invasive Species Council, and that same council laid out an invasive species management plan for 2008-12. It is not clear if anything is planned for 2013.
However, among the fine print of Executive Order 13112 is a point regarding national security, which is worth noting. Section 6(d) states:
“The requirements of section 2(a)(3) of this order shall not apply to any action of the Department of State or Department of Defense if the Secretary of State or the Secretary of Defense finds that exemption from such requirements is necessary for foreign policy or national security reasons.”
This raises interesting questions about the definition of U.S. national security and foreign policy interests, and whether or not the prospective long-term harm to food security as a result of invasive species would ever compete with other more pressing national priorities.
Invasive species and international security
Whether it is delivered through development programs, disaster relief or military assistance, the stated purpose of international food assistance is to improve the humanitarian situation on the ground (though there is obviously much more to it than that). Food assistance can also reach beyond the immediate needs of disaster relief, particularly when it is part of a broader strategy to reduce unrest and conflict in places where food shortages are occurring – issues clearly within the realm of security interests (see a new report from ECSP on food security, conflict and cooperation). However, as suggested by the Executive Order language above, shorter term national security interests often trump long term concerns. In this context, it would seem that the possibility of introducing invasive species might sit low on the priority list.
That is why it is heartening to see the Strategy Office at the U.S. Department of Defense, for example, talk about the importance of climate, food and water security. As such human security issues are given greater attention and importance by the national security community, the likelihood that they will be taken seriously increases.
A matter of security
This recent study helps expose a very complex web of international food assistance, pests and pathogens, and human and national security. Climate change is set to add another layer to these problems, potentially increasing the proliferation of pests, damaging food security, and exacerbating other problems that can lead to instability. In this context, the approach to addressing emerging threats related to climate change (and invasive species) should not be followed by “except in matters of national and international security,” to “especially in matters of national and international security.” Understanding the links between climate change, pests, international food assistance, and human and national security, will be a crucial first step.
These are leading indicators of the larger phenomenon, which can be broadly described as total systemic failure of the biosphere from the point of view of human health and well-being.They are simultaneously symptoms and causes of further degradation, component parts of an exponentially strengthening feedback dynamic. We’re just about to leave the shallow part of that curve, I think, and ramp up towards an asymptote.