Food security: how protected is our supply chain from cyber attacks?


he UK is facing one of the worst cost of living crises, with the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) noting annual inflation of 9.4 per cent, exceeding the Eurozone’s average of 8.6 per cent. In the year to June 2022, food and non-alcoholic beverages as a part of the Consumer Price Index in the UK rose 9.8 per cent.

The conflict in Ukraine has put a spotlight on the potential for disruption to our food supply chain. It took until the end of July, months into the war, for Ukraine and Russia to negotiate a deal which allows for the export of grain through the Black Sea. In July there were already 20 million tonnes of grain stuck in silos in the port city of Odesa, rotting away. All it takes is a walk into the supermarket to plainly see how globally interconnected our food supply chain is: grain from Ukraine, chard from Spain, apples from Chile and bananas from Ghana.

With such an interconnected fragile food supply chain, we need to look beyond the bricks and mortar to the digital realm to better understand where we might be at risk from cyber disruption across our critical supply chain infrastructure.

The machinery we rely on

Our farms are becoming ever more connected, with data being used to do things like more accurately measure crop yields and more efficiently manage jobs around the farm using connected and autonomous vehicles.

With these opportunities comes risk. Last year a hacker called Sick Codes accessed farm machinery manufacturer John Deere’s customer information and farm data by infiltrating their data operations centre. Agricultural ‘smart’ machinery manufacturers can become single points of failure for our farming supply chain- if a hacker were to disable fleets of CNH, New Holland or John Deere machinery, they could put a dramatic halt to our farmers’ ability to complete the work they need to grow or harvest our food.

It’s not just on the farm that we’re more connected, but further down the supply chain at the processing and distribution stage as well. In June 2021, the world’s largest meat supplier JBS was hit by a ransomware attack on its servers, shutting down its processing capability for days. This represented one quarter of the USA’s total capacity for processing beef, pork and chicken.

Moving our food from A to B

We also need to think about the fabric which stitches together key operations in our global food supply chains: transport links. Our port infrastructure, as well as the trucks, container ships and trains which service them are all managed by IT. Danish conglomerate Maersk fell victim to the ‘NotPetya’ attack in 2017, resulting in ransomware locking staff out of their computers all over the global operations. This meant that container ships for two weeks could not be loaded or unloaded and trucks were turned away from ports.

Buying from our retailers

The final step are the retailers or wholesalers from which we buy. These house the customer facing tools we need to actually buy our food: the barcode scanner, the till, and the point of sale devices used to take our payments. The real risk for our supply chains comes from the disruption or outage of the payment system. Even with our supermarkets stocked up, we wouldn’t be able to pay for the food we need to continue with our everyday lives, and so too is the supply chain at risk from not receiving the cash they need to continue operating at a daily basis.

The bottom line

We live in a highly interconnected world, where the supply chain to get our food from farm to fork is fragile and littered with risk for cyber disruption. Food at an accessible price is critical for our national security, and we need to view this supply chain as critical national infrastructure. This means we need to embed a strong cyber security process along every step of the way.

Cooperation is essential for everyone involved, from our equipment manufacturers to our farmers, processors, distributors, logistics providers and retailers. And without adequate protections, your supermarket’s shelves could be suddenly become bare.

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