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SAFE with Cyberbiosecurity: Protecting the agriculture and food system

Virginia Tech students at the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences are learning about how cybersecurity is changing agriculture.
Virginia Tech students at the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences are learning about how cybersecurity is changing agriculture.

While we’re nowhere near the apocalyptic fiction world of the “Hunger Games,” new strategies, efficiencies, and approaches are essential to producing enough food to feed a growing global population. Among the top priorities is boosting our cyberbiosecurity in our agricultural sector, which is becoming increasingly digital.

“Advances in technologies, computerization, wireless connectivity, and autonomous systems are creating both challenges and potential solutions for addressing the expanding global food needs,” said Susan Duncan, associate director of the Virginia Agricultural Experiment Station in the Virginia Tech College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

“These advancements, at the intersection of the digital, physical, and biological realms introduce another set of vulnerabilities that must be addressed to avoid the apocalyptic scenario like the Hunger Games. We need to protect data-intensive agricultural information that drives wise decisions supporting our food supply chain,” Duncan said. “Protecting our agricultural and environmental resources requires a paradigm shift, a change in thought, a convergence at the interface of cyber-, bio-, and physical security. Cyberbiosecurity coalesces each of these domains to protect our national security, bioeconomy, and our future domestic and global food supply.”

To address these issues, the Commonwealth Cyber Initiative co-sponsored a workshop hosted by Virginia Tech in October 2020 to address the risks unfolding as the U.S. agricultural and food system rapidly moves into the fourth industrial revolution. This two-day virtual program, Securing the Agricultural and Food Economy with Cyberbiosecurity (SAFE with Cyberbiosecurity), explored an integrated cyberbiosecurity system for the agriculture and food bioeconomy, with the intention of developing a regional and national community of interest.

The workshop was funded through a grant from the USDA National Institute for Food and Agriculture (USDA NIFA), and was co-sponsored by the Virginia Tech College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Virginia Agricultural Experiment Station, and Tyson Foods. The workshop attracted 170 participants from across the U.S. and representing state and federal agency representatives, legislators, professionals from agriculture, cybersecurity, and technology companies and organizations, community leaders, academic researchers, educators and administrators.

Some top takeaways include:

  • Cyberbiosecurity is considered to be the action arm of safeguarding the domestic bioeconomy.
  • Stealing data, such as the genetic blueprint for a biological material, accelerates the timeframe and increases the potential for reducing the potential agricultural economic value. Stolen data means lost economic potential.
  • Agriculture is a soft target for agroterrorism. The system is complex and was developed for production efficiency, not for biosecurity or cybersecurity. Vulnerabilities exist.
  • A threat anywhere in the system derails the entire system, allows failure in the food supply chain, and creates mistrust by consumers. An economic driver is lost.
  • Hacktivism, financial fraud, ransomware, insider threats are not unique to the agriculture and food system. However, the risks to public trust in and availability of our food supply escalates the impact of the threats.
  • Convergence of critical partnerships across cyber-, bio-, and physical security across the agriculture and food system is needed. Bipartisan convergence is also needed in policy and regulatory discussions.
  • The debate about ‘who’s responsibility is it’ to support the food supply chain security continues. Convergence, transparency, and trust are needed across the entire system instead of silos and independent sectors.
  • A framework for success includes: be involved, help solve the problem, simplify the definition of cyberbiosecurity, and develop common language.
  • The call to action identified that cyberbiosecurity awareness within and across sectors of the agriculture and food system is needed. There is a need for identifying responsible leadership champions.
  • Addressing the risks to the agriculture and food system is not ‘just an IT’ thing. Other security aspects are involved. Cybersecurity for a biological application has different aspects than normal IT cybersecurity.

“We all have a stake in creating and implementing cyberbiosecurity strategies for the U.S. agriculture and food system. Incentives and return on investment come in many forms,” Duncan said. “Food on our plate gives each of us personal incentives.”

According to the American Farm Bureau, one U.S. farm feeds 166 people annually. Anticipating the increased growth in population, farmers around the world will have to increase food productivity by 70%. American agricultural products are exported around the world, with 2018 value of $139.6 billion, and the U.S. currently experiences a positive agricultural trade balance where exports outpace imports. Feeding 1.9 billion more people requires innovation and technical advances in agriculture but it also requires protecting the data and the technologies that are essential for feeding the world of today, tomorrow, and in 2050.

This work was funded, in part by USDA-NIFA Grant No. 2019-67021-29956 (Accession No. 1019771), Commonwealth Cyber Initiative Southwest Virginia Node, Virginia Tech College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Virginia Agricultural Experiment Station, and Tyson Foods. Duncan is principal investigator of the USDA NIFA grant with Co-PIs Randy Murch, Tiffany Drape, Megan Seibel, and Joseph Simpson.



Michele McDonald