Protecting Life – Securing Agriculture

By Dan Frazen, CO-CEM, Agriculture Emergency Co-ordinator (All Hazards), Colorado Dept of Agriculture

Whether a person had a bowl of cereal or a ribeye steak for dinner last night, it does not take much to convince our citizens that food & agriculture is one of the most important critical infrastructure sectors. Critical infrastructure protection (CIP) experts understand the interconnectivity and obvious dependence the Food & Agriculture Sector has on other sectors (e.g., Water, Transportation, Energy). We can also review the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)’s Community Lifelines and quickly visualize those same connections. Our agriculture supply chains are complex, the world is a dangerous place with threats looming, and we have an obligation to prepare and protect this sector at all levels.

The Importance of Agriculture
According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Economic Research Service (ERS), in 2023, agriculture, food, and related industries contributed 5.6% to the United States Gross Domestic Product (GDP) or $1.53 trillion. Agriculture workers comprise 10.4% of national employment. The ERS also estimated that there were 879 million acres of farmland in the US last year. In the State of Colorado alone, agriculture and agribusinesses contribute over $47 billion annually to the state’s economy. There are approximately 39,000 farms and ranches in the state, providing almost 200,000 jobs for Coloradoans. Colorado, although not a “dairy state,” also has 200,000 milking cows, and is home to Leprino Foods, the world’s largest pizza cheese (mozzarella) manufacturer. According to a Forbes report, this global dairy leader employed 5,000 people in 2023, and had a revenue of $3.6 billion thanks to pizza delivery chain restaurants and frozen pizzas.

Initiatives Past and Present to Protect Agriculture
If we look back over the past two decades at the relevant history, we see a theme that emerged during the Global War on Terror after the September 11th Attacks, and it persists today. Agriculture in the North America is vulnerable and criminals, terrorists, and our adversaries will attempt to exploit the vulnerabilities. An attack on agriculture would destroy communities in rural America and have a profoundly negative impact on state, provincial and national economies.

On November 19, 2003, the United States Senate Governmental Affairs Committee held a hearing entitled “Agroterrorism: The Threat to America’s Breadbasket.” The senators mentioned the caves of Afghanistan, a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) report on the 9-11 hijackers being interested in crop dusting, and that agroterrorism was a true threat to the US economy. The committee chairperson for that hearing, Senator Susan Collins, stated that America’s agriculture and food industry were just as important as America’s urban centers and ports.

Former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota often spoke about the US military locating evidence that Al Qaeda would target agriculture in the US homeland, which begins the timeline for this summary. Coincidentally, or perhaps not, the original Homeland Security Presidential Directive (HSPD) 8 was issued that same year, implemented via the National Planning Scenarios.

• 2003 – Al-Qaeda Cave in Afghanistan – Ag articles, USDA documents, List of six pathogens that target livestock and poultry located by special operations troops (also National Planning Scenario 14; Biological Attack – Foreign Animal Disease was published).
• 2007 – The Congressional Research Service (CRS) published a report titled Agroterrorism: Threats and Preparedness with the quote that agroterror attacks were “not about killing cows,” but rather “causing economic damage, social unrest and loss of confidence in the government.”
• 2015 – The Blue Ribbon Study Panel published A National Blueprint for Biodefense which stated, “The Food and Agriculture critical infrastructure sector is a distributed and highly complex system,” and agriculture security is an important component of our national security.
• 2021- Presidential Executive Order 14017 on “America’s Supply Chains” directed federal agencies to secure and strengthen the agriculture supply chain – USDA Agri-Food Supply Chain Assessment: Program and Policy Options for Strengthening Resilience identified six (6) vulnerabilities and made nine (9) recommendations. “Diversify” was the most important take-away.
• 2022 – National Security Memorandum (NSM) 16 – Strengthening the Security and Resilience of United States Food and Agriculture was published. David Steifel, Director of Biodefense on the National Security Council (NSC), engaged with agriculture emergency management associations and emphasized the importance of securing agriculture.
• 2024 – 118th Congress – Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton and New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand are sponsors of the Farm and Food Cybersecurity Act, which is legislation that directs “the Secretary of Agriculture to periodically assess cybersecurity threats to, and vulnerabilities in, the agriculture and food critical infrastructure sector and to provide recommendations to enhance their security and resilience, to require the Secretary of Agriculture to conduct an annual cross-sector simulation exercise relating to a food-related emergency or disruption, and for other purposes.”

US Congressman Brad Finstad of Minnesota introduced and publicly supports the Farm and Food Cybersecurity Act, he stated, “Food and farm security is national security.” Is it remarkable that the agriculture security message is the same from 2003 to today?

Understanding the Vulnerabilities and Threats
The US National Preparedness Goal says, quite simply: “Prevent, Protect, Mitigate, Respond, Recover.” CIP, Homeland Security, and Law Enforcement professionals should always prioritize the defense of agriculture and food, but it is apparent that our attention is not always on raising livestock or growing crops to feed the world. There are so many different threats across all critical infrastructure sectors.
The agriculture sector is almost entirely under private ownership, which results in very different approaches to biosecurity and physical security across North America. The argument that rural, agricultural communities are underserved is a real one. Metropolitan areas have significantly more resources for all things security-related, raw materials, water supply, and transportation. And as previously mentioned, the supply chains upstream and downstream of a farm or ranch are complex.

Ag Vulnerability 101:
• The Food & Agriculture Sector is interconnected and dependent on other important critical infrastructure sectors.
• Agriculture business continuity can be challenging with single points of failure in supply chains, limited transportation routes and conveyances, and/or austere weather conditions with more drought, wind, fire, etc.
• The open range have large expanses of land that are not watched or even visited frequently. A rural sheriff’s office may not have surveillance capabilities or even the staffing to patrol near farms and ranches, and producers may not see the need for fencing, cameras, drones, or anti-theft devices.
• The US Agriculture Transportation System is one of the most efficient transportation networks in the world, making for efficient contributions to commerce (and the economy), but also creating a target-rich environment for bad actors.

Humans are the greatest threat to agriculture. Natural hazards, to include drought, wildfires, severe weather, flooding, and plant & animal disease, are awful, but people are worse. The following groups can easily weaponize pests, tamper with chemicals, sabotage equipment, steal animals, or simply set a haystack on fire on a windy day.

Bad Actors:
• Insiders – The disgruntled worker motivated by revenge or hate is almost unstoppable.
• Criminals – The worst of society target the vulnerable for profit or because they are evil.
• Competitors – Those that injure and damage for a business advantage are in every industry, to include food and agriculture.
• Activists / Domestic Extremists – Anti-commercial agriculture views motivate a small, but often loud section of our populous. Ecological (Eco) Terrorists, Animal Rights Activists (not Welfare), and Radical Environmental Advocates are in this group.
• Terrorists – International or domestic terror cells attack agriculture with political and religious aims.
• Adversaries – The nation-states that wish ill upon the US government are China, Russia, North Korea, and Iran for a myriad of reasons.

Knowing the usual suspects in a specific region is extremely important. For instance, in Colorado, the state’s largest extremist group that threatens commercial animal agriculture is Direct Action Everywhere, also known as DXE. This group advocates for the total liberation of animals, and their direct action is burglary, theft, and criminal mischief under the guise of “rescuing” farm animals. Across the Western and Southern US, the Peoples’ Republic of China is monitored by federal law enforcement and intelligence agencies when the communist party acquires agriculture data companies, purchases agriculture land near US Department of Defense (DOD) or US Department of Energy (DOE) facilities, or is involved in American agriculture technologies and seed research. Are China’s initiatives in North America food security for a nation with over 1.4 billion people or attempts at espionage?

The Best Practices
Partnerships that collaborate and communicate on agriculture security are the key to successfully preparing and protecting the Food & Agriculture Sector. Several regions in the US have built AgSecure Working Groups to identify threats and share information. AgSecure brings together state and federal agencies with agriculture professionals, veterinarians, CIP or homeland security experts, law enforcement officers, inspectors (regulators), intelligence analysts, and emergency managers. These multi-disciplinary teams work closely with their field teams to have their fingers on the pulse of agriculture, ag business, and the threats and hazards that could impact agriculture or the food supply. The positive relationships that are built in working groups often lead to other beneficial projects and initiatives. The AgSecure Working Group for the Rocky Mountain Region is led by the Colorado Department of Agriculture (CDA), and after re-starting their group two (2) years ago, the CDA now works closer with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Colorado’s state fusion center, and the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA).

Currently, the CDA’s Agriculture Emergency Coordinator and the Region 8 CISA Cybersecurity Advisors (CSAs) are collaborating on a cybersecurity campaign specific to farms and ranches in rural Colorado.

Emergency managers and coordinators in state departments of agriculture and in the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) are an outstanding place to start when building an AgSecure Working Group. Agriculture emergency managers understand the complexities of agriculture and the importance of drawing subject matter experts (SMEs) from all disciplines. These organizers have expertise in planning and logistics, and they promote a common operating language and picture. Most are members of agriculture emergency management associations, such as the National Alliance of State Animal and Agricultural Emergency Programs, the Multi-State Partnership (MSP) for Security in Agriculture, the Southern Agriculture & Animal Disaster Response Alliance (SAADRA), the Extension Disaster Education Network (EDEN), and the Western States Agriculture Resiliency Partnership (WSARP). These associations, much like CIP associations, have a stockpile of valuable resources to help protect agriculture.

We need to make a stronger commitment today to defend our homelands and protect our economies by prioritizing the security and business continuity of farms, ranches, and agricultural businesses across North America. The Food & Agriculture Sector, although vulnerable, can be better protected by regional, multi-disciplinary teams that coordinate, collaborate, and communicate.

Image courtesy of Kris Stewart, Emergency Manager, Delta County (Colorado)