In the first article of this series, I suggested that our food supply and agriculture will be domains of war should global war break out. Both would be eventual targets should an adversarial nation state, in this case China, eventually choose to challenge the U.S. militarily. The second part introduced the concept of “War Games” for corporations to examine the most likely attack scenarios and gauge whether defenses are sufficiently robust. Part three discussed the importance of operational security or “OPSEC,” and now part four discusses the potential expansion of coordinated attacks.  

Over the last decade, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has developed a military doctrine called “Systems Confrontation and System Destruction” aimed at defeating the U.S. military.[1] The doctrine outlines strategies to attack our military, characterized as a highly complex, interlocking system of systems. Although we have the most highly trained, equipped, and experienced military personnel in the world, our battlefield dominance is dependent on technology such as satellite systems that play a crucial role in detecting enemy movement as well as enabling communication and precision targeting. We are also highly dependent on our logistics capabilities to project power to any location in the world.

These issues may sound irrelevant to food and agricultural companies, but the combination of the U.S. military and U.S. technology discourage adversaries. Degrading our ability to protect the mainland degrades America’s ability to project power. And the loss of global dominance would lead to the loss of economic and diplomatic dominance, which have enabled U.S. corporations to prosper since the end of World War II. Yes, it is that serious.

What do we know about Chinese military strategies? Several elements imply potential attacks on food and agriculture, but a larger contextual analysis and deeper dive into available data are necessary to accurately discern potential agriculture and food targets, or the ways in which they could be attacked. Openly available Chinese military literature does not call for direct attacks on U.S. food and agriculture; that level of candor and specificity would be foolish on the part of the Chinese and invite immediate economic and diplomatic retaliation by the U.S. The Chinese are seldom foolish. They are methodical and relentless, even if victory takes decades or centuries.

Understanding how food and agriculture could become potential targets requires an understanding of the larger context of Chinese military doctrine. This idea of “doctrine” is important to understand. Current U.S. food defense strategy focuses on single events rather than on a coordinated series of events, spatially and temporally scattered across the U.S. and designed to instill panic. Attacks on food and agriculture would be strategically targeted to cause cascading effects. The purpose of such attacks would be to degrade U.S. capability to respond on the battlefield.

The RAND Corp. has released a report that describes System Destruction Warfare. “The PLA’s current theory of victory is based on successfully waging system destruction warfare which seeks to paralyze and even destroy the critical functions of an enemy’s operational system. According to this theory, the enemy ‘loses the will and ability to resist’ once its operational system cannot effectively function.”[1]

The report goes on to say that systems confrontation is waged not only in the traditional physical domains of land, sea, and air, but also in outer space, cyberspace, electromagnetic, and even psychological domains. “Psychological warfare,” or “PSYOPS,” is designed to help break the will of the enemy (that would be us in this case). Psychological operations do not end on the battlefield. 

Sowing Doubts
In an effort to encourage surrender, nation states like China would seek to sow doubts about the government’s ability to protect its citizens and to foment dissent. The PLA is developing the capabilities to cause disruption of critical infrastructures (cyber, power grid, etc.); disruption would cascade into the agriculture, food, and water sectors. Perception always trumps reality in successful PSYOPS. Disruption occurs when the American public believes there is a contaminated food supply, whether that contamination has actually occurred.

Fear causes anger. The public would project its anger toward the easiest available target—government officials who they perceive as failing to protect. PSYOPS seeks to trick the mind. “Don’t look at reality. Look at what I want you to see.” The enemy would limit the food supply by convincing you the available food would kill you. Would you take the chance?

What other military priorities does the PLA have? Think first of a coin with two sides. The “head” of the coin is the image the PLA wants you to perceive. The PLA doesn’t want you to see the “tails” side until it serves their purpose. The PLA, like the U.S. military, prioritizes the “military supplies and resources provision support network.”[1] Armies have to eat, and hungry armies are less capable of sustaining the fight. Since the PLA openly acknowledges the importance of this element for battlefield success (“head” side of the coin), the reverse side of the coin could be that they are developing capabilities to disrupt our ability to do that—eat.

One way the PLA could seek to disrupt our food supply is by disrupting our logistics system. The U.S. military’s food supply is not separate from the civilian food supply. That is important to note. The PLA can be expected to seek to disrupt the food supply on the battlefield, but also reach back to the food supply’s origins—the food and agriculture critical infrastructures.

In the U.S., food defense is heavily focused on preventing and responding to the intentional contamination of food or feed with pathogens or chemicals. Intentional contamination, however, is only one method of attack. Food and agriculture corporations should anticipate other tactics, including indirect attacks like disabling the satellite system used to enable land navigation. Imagine the chaos resulting from the loss of GPS or other logistics support systems.

GPS loss would not be fatal, but would be disruptive and expensive. Imagine the cost and inconvenience of having to locate maps to reestablish food delivery operations. And how can you know which products to deliver to what customers if you have lost your customer listings and their orders and no longer have GPS-facilitated navigation capabilities? Or imagine an attack on the U.S. financial system or stock market. Your company’s stock value could plummet and your brand could be severely damaged.

This is System Destruction Warfare. The enemy seeks to take away the system’s capability to deliver your food products to both the battlefield and the consumer.    

Companies must be able to access accurate threat information in a timely manner. Food defense must be more than preventing intentional contamination of your company’s food products. Those kinds of potential threats do exist, of course. What is emphasized here, however, is the need for a corporate-wide/holistic approach to security, with every phase of business, every input, every output, every process, every bit of intellectual property, and every element that makes your corporation identified and protected.

The solutions, however, must be dynamic to be most effective. Threats evolve. Information about yesterday’s threats may not be relevant to today’s threats. “Real time” or “near real time” threat assessments and warnings are essential to stop threats before they become realities. Adversaries think, and so must food corporations. “Vetted” information—meaning information that is proven to be accurate—is essential for right decisions.

Information sharing is also important. What you need is a place to do it, which protects your proprietary information, allows you to remain anonymous, if you chose to do so, but also provides you with the tools to make your defenses so robust, the adversary chooses to go elsewhere. You need to be a part of an Information Sharing Analysis Center, otherwise known as an “ISAC,” and that is the subject of my final article.

Robert A. Norton, Ph.D., is chair of the Auburn University Food System Institute’s Food and Water Defense Working Group ( He is a long-time consultant to the U.S. military, federal, and state law enforcement agencies. His blog, Bob Norton’s Food Defense Blog, can be found at He can be reached at or by phone at 334.844.7562.

Disclaimer: Dr. Norton and production of this article were supported by the Alabama Agricultural Experiment Stations and the Hatch program of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). The article represents the personal opinion of Dr. Norton and does not reflect official policy or statutory related opinion of the federal government, NIFA or USDA.