Modern inventory systems have come close to perfecting the just-in-time ideal, whether delivering rubber window wiper blades to the manufacturing floor of a Toyota plant at just the right moment, or filling the hot chicken cabinet at your local Woolworths with only so much cheap and tasty, high fat protein as an entirely predictable number of consumers will come to regret by close of business each day.
Just-in-time processes keep shelves full and profits fat.
They are also a point of critical failure, with entire industries facing disruption should a single supplier prove unable to deliver their particular part of the puzzle.
Risk management specialists in the UK are quietly freaking out over the country’s food security in the event of a hard Brexit completely and immediately exploding the logistics chains keeping nearly seventy-million Brits supplied with cheap curry, lager, and pork pies. In a 2018 Brexit briefing paper the UK’s Centre for Food Policy wrote that “UK food comes via a complex logistics system run on a just-in-time basis, i.e. three to five days’ supply. There are only tiny food stocks, commercial or public, held in the UK’s food distribution chain.”
Brexit has focussed the minds of at least a handful of responsible bureaucrats on the old adage that civilisation is only ever nine meals away from collapse. But increasingly, the vulnerability of national food systems run according to just-in-time principles are also drawing the attention of other strategic planners.
The US Centre for Naval Analyses has published research confirming that most modern cities cannot feed themselves from shelf stock for more than three days, and Canada’s national agency for Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness (PSEPC) identified the inevitability of panic buying as a further limit on that three-day horizon.
For such a glaring and obvious point of failure, there has been very little public discussion of the fragility of modern food supply systems in advanced economies. In the US, for instance, a handful of wholesale distributors source, store and transport the vast majority of the food consumed by three hundred and twenty-eight million Americans, fifty million of whom are already described as being ‘food insecure’; a bloodless bureaucratic term meaning they might not be able to afford food today.
The public imagination, when it focusses on the idea of cyberwar at all, tends to imagine attacks on power utilities and transport systems. The Russian and Chinese militaries continually probe for weaknesses in those systems, just as western agencies do in return. But with so much of the west, in particular, being so highly urbanised, large cities and towns are uniquely exposed to a singular line of attack on their food supply chains. Malware placed into the servers of just three US companies that control 250 of the country 300 major food distribution depots could quickly starve out most of the US population. In Australia, the dominance of the two main supermarkets creates a very small target for hostile actors.
How real is the threat?
So far this year Webber Insurance Services, which tracks major cybersecurity breaches, has listed over forty instances including attacks on Australia Post, Woolworths, Big W, Parliament House, ANU, AMP, the Bank of Queensland, Toyota Australia, Parliament House, and the Victorian Public Service.
While researching Zero Day Code, a novel based on published plans and scenarios for a major cyberwar between China, Russia, and the West, I was struck by just how completely vulnerable we are to the risk of complete systemic collapse in the event of conflict. It is quite possible that the end of civilisation could be effected, not with an exchange of nuclear-tipped ICBMs, but by an electronic tsunami of ones and zeroes. And the most likely and effective strategy for using that invisible high tech weaponry? A Dark Ages favourite. Siege and starvation.
About the author
John Birmingham is a Brisbane based author who, when lived with 96 flatmates as research for his first novel. He also worked as Department of Defence researcher. Zero Day Code is a thought experiment and a publishing experiment. It is available only on Audible. But you can get it free when trialing a new account.