The future of Fifth Generation Warfare: Follow the food!

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(Reuters) Loose translation: "Germany, we're mad as hell and we're not going to take it anymore!"

Everybody thinks that the future is going to see fights over energy, when it’s far more likely to be primarily over food. Think about it: The 19th century is the century of chemistry and that gets us chemical weapons in World War I. The 20th century is the century of physics and that gets us nuclear weapons in World War II. But the 21st century? That’s the century of biology, and that gets us biological weaponry and biological terror. My point: obsessing over nuclear terrorism is steering by our rearview mirror.

Which gets me to our Spanish friend over here: an actual E. coli outbreak in Europe, centered largely in Germany, kills upwards of two dozen while sickening hundreds more. The early fingers point at Spanish cucumbers, but that’s looking iffy on investigation. Truth is, we may never know, but once the accusation is levied, Spain’s vegetable and fruit export industry may never be the same, and to me, that’s an interesting pathway for what I expect Fifth-Generation Warfare (which focuses – by some experts’ definition – on the disruption of the enemy’s ability to “observe” in John Boyd’s OODA loop) ¬†will be all about in the 21st century: biological terror to create economic dislocation and loss (along with the usual panics).

Same basic dynamic happened to the US beef industry early last decade: In 2003 US exports of beef amounted to about 1.3 million metric tons. Then there was a whiff of mad cow that year. They were real cases, all right, but the cause? One cow imported from Canada was fingered. The result was clear enough, though, as US beef exports plummeted by a million metric tons. The US beef industry has struggled to regain its previous level ever since, as major Asian markets that immediately shut themselves down to US exports have been very reticent to open back up again.

My point: if you’re a terrorist looking to sow fear and confusion, disrupt supply chains and ruin crucial industries, you can’t do much better than to work some biological mischief on food networks. Make that one cow happen from Canada. Make that one batch of messed-up veggies go into Germany – whatever. If you think people are afraid of radiation (dirty nukes, etc.), that’s nothing compared to their fear of tainted food.

The timing on the E. coli outbreak in Europe is perfect: right on the heels of the “periphery” debt crises, you’ve got the same countries (Spain, etc.) squared off against the same “victims” (Germany foots the bailout bill disproportionally and now suffers disproportionally on this tainted food outbreak). Bottom line: you – Mr. Terrorist – have created tons of enmity, economic loss, and discombobulating fear. If I’m al Qaeda, I’m claiming this one on principle.

The average farm-to-fork journey in this world is now about 1,500 miles, and it’s getting longer by the week. Global climate change will make it harder to grow food across a thick band of territory (roughly up to/down to the 35th parallel) centered on the Equator. That’s where most of the population growth and water stress problems will erupt in coming decades, and it’s also where countries all tend to be highly dependent on imported food. See your Arab Spring and realize how much of this unrest is caused by rising food prices and you’ll get the overall picture.

Mark my post: this century is all about biology, rising food demand – and thus dependencies exacerbated by climate change (see the buying-up of arable land in Africa by Arab and Asian nations), and thus biological terror comes to the fore. Forget about energy nets, because they all go far more localized with smart grids, co-located generation/distribution, etc. It’s food that will be the most vulnerable global network in the future.