When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, academia stepped in to help keep food supply chains moving.
The effort came out of the Department of Homeland Security’s Science & Technology Directorate's commissioning of universities that lead centers of excellence focusing on specific mission challenges to the agency.
One of those COEs is the Cross-Border Threat Screening and Supply Chain Defense (CBTS) Center of Excellence led by Texas A&M University, which had a unique role to play when the pandemic upended agricultural and food supply chains earlier this year.
“A lot of the mitigation efforts around the world shut down the movement of goods,” CBTS Director Gregory Pompelli told GovernmentCIO Media & Research. “If you think about supply chains, where there might be certain ingredients or pieces of equipment needed by U.S. manufacturing to produce goods or complete the manufacturing process — when those products were stalled, there were concerns about shipping, we could see an immediate effect or immediate impact on manufacturing and the U.S. economy. We also saw an immediate impact on reduction in demand. Whole seasons of clothing — the market wasn't there any longer.”
CBTS ramped up research in this area to provide insight of supply, demand and health of the workforce into key supply chains and how they were affected by the pandemic, such as the food and agricultural system.
"We learned in the meatpacking industry, in particular, certain vulnerabilities in those supply chains," Pompelli said. "They didn't have the capacity to bring more people on, help where they were losing people, so production slowed down and we saw the impact on the meat industry. Now the meat industry has recovered, even with the absence of a lot of restaurant trade. We were worried because so many things in the transportation and agricultural process require so many people. That's one of the things we were concerned about: health and welfare of the workers. The inability to access sufficient quantities of [personal protective equipment] became one of those nodes in the supply chain that very few people paid any attention to on the agricultural process side.”
While pandemic-focused projects dominate much of CBTS’ bandwidth, the team is also focused on facilitating a healthy supply chain relationship with Mexico due to the “tremendous amount of trade that goes on between the U.S. and Mexico,” Pompelli added.
“Critical supply chains come through Mexico, and we wanted a better understanding of what they were going through,” he said. “Working with DHS has been valuable [to show] how we can support folks in Mexico.”
Another project at CBTS is around blockchain. Because so many companies now use blockchain ledgers to track goods and components through their supply chains, CBTS wondered if that data could be useful for the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
“The idea of blockchain is something that's key not only for understanding the chain of custody on a product, but helps us do a better job of understanding supply chains and where there might be critical nodes that are potential sources of risk,” Pompelli said. “Supply chains are fairly fluid in some respects. Blockchain information is helpful, but necessarily exhaustive in terms of our work to build and better understand the supply chains that feed into the U.S. economy. In those cases, blockchain is going to be a key input, but it won't necessarily be all the information we would use.”
CBTS is collecting tracking data on the tuna supply chain for one particular blockchain project and is 25% to 30% finished, with about 18 more months of research to go.
“We're providing [a tuna tracking] testbed so we can see how blockchain data coming from the outside may interact with whatever DHS systems they may set up,” Pompelli said. “We are, in a sense, a nexus between the two, we are not going to be building their data system or the blockchains for the companies.”
The goal of the project is to accelerate the customs process.
“Our big goal for anyone in business is speed of execution,” Pompelli said. “Blockchain has given us the opportunity to tap into critical streams of information. That type of information is very much what is useful to a government agency for protecting the nation's economy or the people in the economy."
One of the project's intent is to enable visibility of different types of blockchain information with different levels of security and validation to marshal resources or data toward helping DHS protect against risks and threats, Pompelli added.
CBTS also develops tools that transition to DHS. A current project aims to assist dogs working to detect contraband in shipping containers during inclement weather.
"We've been working with DHS on a system that would enable an operator to draw an air sample out of a vent on a container and bring it back to where the dogs are,” Pompelli said. “It might be one more arrow in the quiver they can use, where some elemental pressures might make it really hard to work the dogs that long.”
Like other DHS S&T centers, CBTS also provides courses and training to undergraduate students interested in careers with DHS. CBTS is also helping DHS develop curriculum for CBP workforce development.
“A lot of what we're doing, it's got to be relevant to DHS, but also goes out to be a public good,” Pomeplli said. “As we go forward, our ideas are not only something we're going to deliver and make useful for DHS, but build on a body of research and literature in particular.”