The programme opens up an avenue for the implementation of devious intent to squeeze an adversary, on an immediate basis (one growing season), in a precisely targeted way, of crops of importance(Raj K Raj/ Hindustan times)
The programme opens up an avenue for the implementation of devious intent to squeeze an adversary, on an immediate basis (one growing season), in a precisely targeted way, of crops of importance(Raj K Raj/ Hindustan times)

The weaponisation of food is taking a new form. It could change warfare

Insect Allies, a defence programme, may enable attacks on an adversary’s food crops, with far-reaching impact
By Manmohan Bahadur
PUBLISHED ON NOV 19, 2019 07:43 PM IST

An essay, “War is not over”, in the latest issue of the Foreign Affairs magazine, argues that contrary to popular thinking, war is as prevalent as before. It is only that it has become less lethal with the ratio of three to one between the wounded-to-dead having changed to ten to one. From the death of 5,000 and 7,000 individuals per day in World War I and World War II respectively, it now averages at around 50 per day.

Though the essay speaks of improvements in medical science and fast transportation of the wounded, and a distinction between the two world wars and modern day conflicts, as being major reasons for the reduction in statistics, it has omitted the arrival of precision weaponry as one of the major reason for the reduced bloodshed.

Cautioning that nations still display “a great deal of belligerent behaviour”, the authors point to the fact that while there were less than ten border walls post the collapse of the Berlin Wall, there are close to 70 walls across the world now. “It strains credulity that the better angels of our nature are winning when humanity is armed to the teeth” the essay concludes.

An ongoing scientific programme, which projects itself as being an “angel”, but is anything but, and is as “precise” as precision can get, needs red flags going up.

The Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) of the United States is in the middle of a four-year programme called Insect Allies in which it has demanded “…proposals that enable expression of crop traits within a single growing season… by delivering a modified virus to target plants by a mobile insect vector; ….target crop must be an important annual, perennial, or subsistence plant.….Proposals to work solely with model plants (e.g., Arabidopsis, Nicotiana, etc.), will not be considered.”

The project has already been called out for it sinister implications by scientists, led by the Max Planck Institute, in a Science magazine article, and at a meeting on September 1 at the United Nations Biological Weapons Convention held in Geneva, which I attended.

In a nutshell, the Insect Allies programme is working towards creating genetically modified viruses to be carried by insects to fully mature crops of agricultural importance — in other words, crops whose non-availability would affect the food security of a nation. The viruses, on dispersal by insects, would modify the genes of the target crops and secure them from man-made or natural vagaries like drought, salinity, flooding, or so the programme says. DARPA has also cited another reason for the project; “A wide range of threats may jeopardize food security, including intentional attack by an adversary...”

But the programme is frightening, to say the least, for five reasons.

First, it is in violation of the spirit of the Biological Weapons Convention since, once the technology gets developed, it can be used to create genetically modified viruses to attack an adversary’s food crops through use of insects as vectors. For sure, genetic modification of agricultural plants is already happening, but its effect is from one generation to another in a controlled manner, and takes decades. The transfer through insects would, however, genetically modify the whole crop in just one season; imagine the potential sinister use against an adversary’s food chain through insects let loose.

Second, since no nation will accept its food security situation to become vulnerable, other countries would start similar programmes. In fact, they already may have commenced, as has been alluded to by DARPA, stating that its research would counter threats from States and non-State actors.

Third, the resultant domino effect would result in a breakdown of deterrence in the social security sector, where food assurance is among the primary responsibilities of a government. Just as the development of a ballistic missile defence shield is a destabilising step in the nuclear realm, so would the case be here when an asymmetry of capability develops.

Fourth, there would be no end to attempts of staying ahead of an adversary once deterrence stability is adversely affected. It would start an “agricultural weapons race”, with more exotic methods being devised.

And fifth, this “precision” agricultural weapon would be deadly, skewing the wounded-to-dead ratio in an agonisingly long time frame.

The horizon in creation of weapons of war is vast, limited only by man’s ingenuity. Weaponisation of food is centuries old. But how the Insect Allies programme
is different is that it opens up an avenue for the implementation of devious intent
to squeeze an adversary, on an immediate basis (one growing season), in a precisely targeted way, of crops of importance.

One hopes that the Indian government has its ears to the ground to see whether a similar programme is happening in our neighbourhood.

Any country that disregards the cliché that “capability takes time to build but intentions can change overnight”, is courting trouble.

Manmohan Bahadur is additional director general, Centre for Air Power Studies, New Delhi
The views expressed are personal
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