Nebraska Farm Bureau, FBI partner for Agriculture Threats Symposium

June 6, 2023, 2:57 p.m. ·

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The FBI Omaha Field Office hosted an Agriculture Threats Symposium this week with Gov. Jim Pillen and the Nebraska Farm Bureau key speakers at the start of the event Tuesday morning. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

LINCOLN — The Nebraska Farm Bureau and the FBI’s Omaha Field Office are partnering to encourage farmers and ranchers to be aware of agriculture threats with a rise in technology.

At the Nebraska Innovation Campus, part of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, FBI Omaha Special Agent in Charge Gene Kowel said four main threats face the agriculture sector. 

These include bad actors seeking to halt business operations, steal data or technology and manipulate the markets, as well as bioterrorism or biowarfare.

Kowel and Nebraska Farm Bureau President Mark McHargue said the rise in American technology and innovations have made farms, ranches and the food processing industry more productive and efficient “than ever before.”

However, this technological rise has brought a trade-off in vulnerability to cyber threats without additional protections.

McHargue and Kowel spoke in a video prior to the two-day event, which began Tuesday.

“Cyber risk is business risk,” McHargue said in the video. “And cybersecurity is national security,” Kowel continued. 

‘Nothing more urgent’

Agriculture is vital to the nation’s security as well as its economic security and public health, Kowel said. He echoed warnings that the world is only a handful of meals away from anarchy.

“It can be argued that there really is nothing actually more urgent or critical to our nation’s security than our supply of food, feed and biofuel,” Kowel said. “It doesn’t take a long time for our food supply to be threatened to have a real threat to our national security.”

McHargue said technological innovations include gene editing to decrease the susceptibility of crops or animals to certain diseases. The changes have also led to less water, fertilizer and diesel fuel being used than ever before while producing more crops.

“We have the ability to do more with less,” he said. “And those of you in agriculture know that we have been doing that for a long time.”

‘Food security is national security’

McHargue told reporters it might seem “second nature” for farmers or ranchers to think about data security, partly because these are people who wake up and want to get to work.

Though the FBI might not be the first entity people think of to call, McHargue said the agency can be a valuable resource.

“We shouldn’t be afraid to reach out to the entities that are there to protect us,” McHargue told reporters. “They can’t protect us if we’re not sharing information with them.”

Kowel said having a partnership such as with the FBI or the Department of Homeland Security is critical, particularly for large producers.

“I don’t think people want to wait until there’s an incident and then try to educate themselves,” Kowel said, such as learning basic cyber-hygiene steps as soon as possible.

Kowel and McHargue pointed to the FBI and Nebraska Farm Bureau websites for more resources.

Event organizers said the symposium had 400 registrants. McHargue said at least 19 states with representatives at the symposium account for trillions of dollars in value to the world, highlighting a need for vigilance.

“That’s what’s at risk when you start dealing with agriculture and the food sector,” McHargue said. “That is the reason that we say food security is national security.”

‘Breadbasket of the world’

Gov. Jim Pillen joined Kowel and McHargue and said he and Pillen Family Farms learned firsthand in early 2020 when they, too, became a victim of cyber threats.

“We couldn’t do anything,” Pillen said. “So when you just think about how sobering, because of how reliant we are on technology — I don’t know very much, I’m not a technology-oriented person, but I certainly understand the reliance and how critical the security and the work is.”

Pillen encouraged those in attendance not to forget the importance of their work.

“We are the breadbasket of the world,” Pillen said. “We in Nebraska agriculture feed the world, and we save the planet when we’re doing it.”

McHargue said after Tuesday’s introductions that such threats are not something people always want to talk about publicly but that they are happening.

“The fact of the matter is, it’s real,” McHargue said. “And it’s happening not only in other sectors, it’s happening in the ag sector.”