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How secure is our food supply chain from cyber attacks?

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The United Kingdom is experiencing one of the greatest cost-of-living problems, with annual inflation of 9.4 percent, above the Eurozone’s average of 8.6 percent, according to the OECD. Food and non-alcoholic drinks climbed 9.8 percent in the year to June 2022, according to the UK Consumer Price Index.

The crisis in Ukraine has highlighted the risk of disruption to our food supply chain. It took until the end of July, months into the war, for Ukraine and Russia to reach an agreement allowing grain exports across the Black Sea. Already in July, 20 million tonnes of grain were decaying in silos in the port city of Odesa. A trip to the grocery demonstrates how internationally interwoven our food supply chain is: grain from Ukraine, chard from Spain, apples from Chile, and bananas from Ghana.

With such a complex and linked food supply chain, we must go beyond the physical to the digital domain to better understand where we may be vulnerable to cyber disruption throughout our essential supply chain infrastructure.

Our farms are becoming increasingly linked, with data utilized to perform things like more accurately monitor crop yields and handle activities around the farm more effectively utilizing connected and autonomous vehicles.

Risk is associated with these prospects. Sick Codes, a hacker, gained access to agricultural machinery giant John Deere’s client information and farm data last year by accessing its data operations center. Agricultural’smart’ machinery manufacturers can become single points of failure in our farming supply chain; for example, if a hacker were to disable fleets of CNH, New Holland, or John Deere machinery, it could put a dramatic halt to our farmers’ ability to complete the work required to grow or harvest our food.

We’re more linked not only on the farm, but also farther down the supply chain at the processing and distribution stages. JBS, the world’s largest meat supplier, was targeted by a ransomware assault on its systems in June 2021, effectively shutting down its processing capabilities for days. This accounted for one-quarter of the entire capacity for beef, hog, and poultry processing in the United States.

We must also consider the thread that connects essential processes in our global food supply chains: transportation connectivity. IT manages our port infrastructure, as well as the trucks, cargo ships, and trains that support them. Maersk, a Danish multinational, was hit by the ‘NotPetya’ assault in 2017, which resulted in ransomware locking employees out of their computers throughout the world. This meant that cargo ships could not be loaded or unloaded for two weeks, and vehicles were turned away from ports.

The final step is to purchase from stores or wholesalers. These houses the customer-facing instruments we need to buy our food: the barcode scanner, the till, and the point-of-sale gadgets that accept our payments. The true threat to our supply chains is an interruption or outage in the payment system. Even if our stores were fully stocked, we would be unable to pay for the food we require to go about our daily lives, and the supply chain is also jeopardized due to a lack of cash.

We live in a highly connected world, where the supply chain that transports our food from farm to fork is vulnerable and rife with cyber threats. Food at an affordable price is vital for our national security, and we must see this supply chain as critical national infrastructure. This means that we must implement a solid cyber security procedure at every stage of the process.

Cooperation is necessary for everyone involved, from our equipment manufacturers to our farmers, processors, distributors, logistics providers, and retailers. Without sufficient safeguards, your supermarket’s shelves might suddenly go barren.

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