The Call for Agriculture and Food Supply Cybersecurity

“It’s not a sexy topic,” Kevin Paap, president of the Minnesota Farm Bureau Federation, told the MinnPost for a recent report on the agriculture industry’s vulnerability to cyberattacks. But what the topic may lack in appeal, it certainly makes up for in importance. Cases throughout the year such as the large-scale JBS ransomware attack, which impacted meat plants across the U.S., Canada and Australia, and an attack carried out on Iowa-based farming co-op New Cooperative have served as warnings of the type of disruptions we could experience more of if we do not address the security needs of agriculture and food supply systems.

As one of the country’s leading agriculture producers and a hub for high-profile food companies like General Mills and Cargill, Minnesota is a case study for what a future target could look like if measures to enhance cybersecurity are not taken and the challenges that persist. Although cyberattacks are not a new threat, the industry’s reliance on connected devices and advanced technology like AI has continued to grow. Despite an update in these methods, however, the software used has mostly remained the same. It is that dependency on outdated software and a failure to invest in upgrades that have put the networks at such risk. A shortage in expertise is also problematic. When the MinnPost reporter reached out to the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, a spokesperson revealed that the department did not include any team members that specialized in agriculture cybersecurity. As Tamara Nelsen, executive director of AgriGrowth, a nonprofit organization representing Minnesota agriculture, stated in the article, “The concern is high, and the questions about what to do about it are significant.”

So, what can be done about this problem that poses potentially expensive and detrimental repercussions? John Hoffman, senior research fellow at the Food Defense and Protection Institute, suggests that there needs to be more federal action requiring certain cybersecurity standards. In a piece for ToolBox, Head of Underwriting at Cowbell Cyber Caroline Thompson also recommends that organizations conduct detailed assessments of their systems and seek out cyber insurance. At the core of it all, though, is education. As Thompson outlines, there should be programs implemented that train employees on cyberattack awareness. She emphasizes this by pointing to a survey that found that 88% of data breaches stemmed from an employee mistake. The MinnPost report also refers to the weight behind improving cyber hygiene among staff. This can be kept up through practices like multi-factor authentication.

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