How food and ag fell behind on cybersecurity

With help from Doug Palmer

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— The ransomware attack that shuttered JBS beef plants last week came after years of warnings that food and agriculture operations weren’t keeping up with cybersecurity, even as the industry relies more heavily on internet technology and automation.

— The Biden administration will spend $1 billion on rewiring the food bank supply network, with a focus on fresh produce and more sourcing from smaller, underserved producers.

— Rural, conservative districts are lagging other parts of the country in Covid-19 vaccination rates, according to new data that highlights the political divide over vaccines.

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HOW FOOD AND AG FELL BEHIND ON CYBERSECURITY: A group of security analysts warned the Agriculture Department in late May that cyber threats such as ransomware could wreak havoc on America’s vulnerable food and agriculture system. Less than two weeks later, the threat became reality when Russian criminals hacked meatpacking giant JBS, shutting down slaughterhouses that process nearly a quarter of the nation’s beef supply.

The ransomware attack could be a wake up call for an industry that hasn’t kept up with cyber safety, and the federal officials who neglected to set strict cybersecurity standards for food and agriculture businesses — despite years of warnings — your host and POLITICO’s Martin Matishak write.

How we got here: Food producers have long prized efficiency over all else. But the rise of high-tech farming and faster processing has raised the system’s exposure to digital threats. The government has put forth mostly voluntary rules for food and ag businesses, and the industry itself disbanded an information-sharing collective created to coordinate on cyberattacks.

Writing on the wall: Federal agencies from DHS to the FBI and cybersecurity firms such as CrowdStrike have all sounded the alarm in recent years. After the JBS hack, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack acknowledged that disruptive attacks are a “new reality” for the food system.

— The prescient warning to USDA in May came from the University of Minnesota’s Food Protection and Defense Institute, which noted that cyberattacks on the food system could have bigger implications than wobbling grocery prices.

— Worst-case scenarios? Hacks could potentially lead to the sale of tainted food to the public, financial ruin for producers, or even injury and death among workers at food processing plants, the institute said.

What to do: Cybersecurity experts say there needs to be better cyber safety education for industry leaders and employees, minimum standards or even federal subsidies for companies making costly upgrades to their cyber defenses.

USDA TO FUND MORE DIVERSE FOOD BANK SOURCES: After winding down the Trump administration’s food box program, Vilsack is pivoting to promote local, small-scale producers as suppliers of food banks — and spending $1 billion on the effort, reports Pro Ag’s Helena Bottemiller Evich.

The effort falls under the Emergency Food Assistance Program, a major USDA initiative to buy up commodities and distribute them to hungry Americans. TEFAP is a key piece of the sprawling network of food banks, nonprofits, churches and pantries — but historically it hasn’t focused as much on fresh produce, and it’s seen as somewhat inaccessible for small businesses.

In an interview last week, Vilsack said the new initiative will boost nutrition by supporting more healthy food options, while also improving equity among ag producers by sourcing from a wider range of farmers and businesses.

“This is part of a much, much larger effort to transform this food system in the country,” Vilsack said in an interview.

Where the money goes: Out of the total $1 billion, half will go directly toward “nutritious, domestically produced food,” including money set aside for socially disadvantaged businesses; up to $400 million will go toward cooperative agreements with state and tribal governments to promote local food purchases; and $100 million will be grants for infrastructure (such as cold storage) with a focus on rural and low-income communities.

THE PARTISAN SPLIT OVER COVID VACCINES: There are 39 congressional districts where at least 60 percent of residents have received a coronavirus shot — and only one of those districts is represented by a Republican. On the flip side, Democrats represent just two of the 30 districts where less than one-third of residents have gotten a shot, according to a Harvard University analysis.

The study highlights the stark correlation between an area’s politics and its vaccination rate. That’s becoming a significant obstacle for the Biden administration, which wants 70 percent of adults to have received at least one shot by July 4, write Pro Health Care’s Dan Goldberg and Alice Miranda Ollstein.

Two different problems: Public health experts and House members in districts with low vaccination rates say the solution involves two distinct efforts: Chipping away at vaccine hesitancy among conservative white Republicans, and reducing socioeconomic barriers to vaccination for poorer populations and communities of color.

DAN GLICKMAN ON DUCKING ‘BISON GUTS’: The former ag secretary under President Bill Clinton is out with a new book, Laughing at Myself: My Education in Congress, on the Farm, and at the Movies. In an excerpt for POLITICO Magazine, Glickman says his work on the Pigford discrimination cases was the most important issue he encountered during his time at USDA.

He also discusses being “the most assaulted Cabinet member in history,” recounting several occasions when he had to dodge organic seeds, soda bottles, tofu pie and even bison guts hurled by residents.

SOUTHEAST SENATE BATTLEGROUND RACES TAKING SHAPE: Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black on Friday launched a Senate campaign to challenge freshman Democrat Raphael Warnock in November 2022. Black, the state’s three-term ag chief, is the biggest name so far in the Republican primary, reports POLITICO’s James Arkin.

Warnock joined the Senate Agriculture Committee and has focused heavily on agricultural equity issues, spearheading the push to include debt relief for minority farmers in the latest coronavirus relief package. Georgia is one of the key Senate battlegrounds in 2022.

In North Carolina, former President Donald Trump on Saturday endorsed Rep. Ted Budd for the open Senate seat in 2022, after his daughter-in-law, Lara Trump, decided against running. Like Georgia, the Tar Heel State is expected to be one of the most competitive Senate races next year, James writes.

— Neil Dierks will retire as CEO of the National Pork Producers Council by the end of 2021. Dierks has been NPPC’s chief executive for 20 years and will stay on until his successor is chosen by the board of directors. Details here.

— Brennan Duckett is joining the National Restaurant Association as technology and innovation policy director on the trade group’s public affairs team. Duckett is leaving the Retail Industry Leaders Association, per POLITICO Influence.

ITC OKAYS HONEY ANTI-DUMPING INVESTIGATION: The U.S. International Trade Commission voted 5-0 on Friday to approve a Commerce Department investigation that could lead to high anti-dumping duties on about $300 million worth of honey imports from five countries: Argentina, Brazil, India, Ukraine and Vietnam.

The American Honey Producers Association and Sioux Honey Association have asked for duties ranging up to nearly 50 percent on imports from Argentina, the largest of the foreign suppliers. They’re seeking even higher tariffs on imports from the four other countries. Commerce is expected to announce its preliminary duty determinations in late September.

— Biden is putting off a post-Brexit trade pact with the U.K. at least until the 2022 midterm elections, and there’s no indication yet that either side is willing to budge on nagging disputes like so-called chlorine chicken. Pro Trade’s Gavin Bade takes a look at the trade relationship as Biden heads to the U.K. this week for a G-7 meeting.

— House Democrats introduced a $547 billion surface transportation package on Friday with a focus on climate change, similar to President Joe Biden’s infrastructure proposals. The legislation was immediately criticized by Republicans and is scheduled for a House hearing on Wednesday. Pro Transportation’s Tanya Snyder has more.

— The Interior Department will rescind two Trump administration moves that weakened protections for endangered species, but the process could take years to complete. The rules, finalized in December, effectively changed what areas could be designated as critical habitats, report Pro Energy’s Ben Lefebvre and Alex Guillén.

— The U.S. government might be underestimating methane emissions from the livestock industry. Researchers at NYU and Johns Hopkins University say the EPA’s official estimates don’t match up with higher methane concentration in the air near livestock operations, as measured by independent scientists. Here’s the study.

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