In this episode of the podcast (#213): Molly Jahn of DARPA and University of Wisconsin joins us to talk about the growing cyber risk to the Food and Agriculture sector, as industry consolidation and precision agriculture combine to increase the chances of cyber disruption of food production.
Just as it has in other sectors, technology and digital transformation has remade the agriculture sector over the century. The image of farm life in early 20th century looked something like Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, where teams of migrant workers like the characters George Milton and Lennie Small, who labored under close, human supervision to bring in the harvest.
In 2021, George, Lennie and the countless men they worked alongside are gone. Their work is not mostly performed by mechanized, Internet connected and GPS-guided equipment that can sow, tend and harvest crops with astounding speed. That technological revolution, driven by companies like the US agriculture giant John Deere, has made US farms among the most efficient and profitable in the world.
Food production in the US is highly concentrated. An open market institute report from 2019 found extreme concentration in areas like meat production and dairy. There were close to 650,000 dairy farms operating in the US in 1970. Today, there are just 40,000. Market share for the largest four U.S. corn seed companies grew from 59 percent in 1975 to 85 percent in 2015. And on and on.
So what do we have? A handful of companies responsible for producing the lion’s share of US food, and doing it through heavy reliance on precision farming technology that runs on software and – increasingly – cloud based management platforms. What’s missing, according to researchers, is an understanding of the digital risk that has been a byproduct of this digital transformation.
In this episode of the podcast we dig deep on that issue. Our guest is Molly Jahn. Molly is a program manager in the Defense Sciences office at DARPA, a faculty member at the University of Wisconsin Madison and the Principle investigator at Jahn Research Group. She’s also a co- author of a 2019 report for Lloyd’s of London on Evolving Risks in Global Food Supply. (https://www.lloyds.com/news-and-insights/risk-reports/library/evolving-risks-in-global-food-supply)
In this conversation, Molly and I talk about how the US food system became so vulnerable to cyber attack, what a coordinated attack to compromise food production in the US might look like. We also discuss steps that the federal government should take to address the cyber risk to food and agriculture.
Molly Jahn is a program manager in the defense sciences office at DARPA and a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison where she holds appointments in the Department of Agronomy, the Nelson Institute, the Global Health Institute and the Wisconsin School of Law.