Smart farming machines are a weakness in food supply chains

Artificial intelligence is poised to drive an agricultural revolution, helping to meet the challenge of sustainably feeding the world’s growing population.

The latest generations of agricultural robots use AI, which allows them to perform a wide variety of tasks. The use of such “smart” equipment reduces human involvement, helps to alleviate labor shortages and increase output.

However, fear of security risks associated with smart equipment is also growing, adding to worries about already strained food supply chains.

A recent report from the University of Cambridge warned that autonomous drones, crop sprayers and robotic harvesters could be hacked to disrupt commercial farms.

And in April, the FBI issued an alert advising agriculture and farming businesses to prepare for an increase in ransomware attacks at critical times, like planting and spring harvest.

Ransomware groups view agriculture and farming as a profitable target where victims may be more inclined to pay a ransom for a decryption key due to the time-sensitive nature of the industry.

Last year, a massive cyberattack on meat giant JBS increased pressure on a food supply chain already struggling with high transport costs, labor shortages and production constraints.

JBS reportedly paid hackers $11 million after the cyberattack forced the company to close several factories in the United States and Australia, impacting beef markets.

Similarly, the FBI detected six ransomware attacks against grain cooperatives during the 2021 fall harvest; and earlier this month a ransomware attack on US agribusiness AGCO disrupted the company’s production.

Last year, a group of security researchers led by a hacker known as Sick Codes conducted a “good faith” review of John Deere and Case New Holland (CNH) industrial systems, identifying several vulnerabilities.

John Deere and Case New Holland are large American technology companies that manufacture high-tech agricultural equipment.

The researchers explained that flaws in the operating system could allow an attacker to remotely upload or download data on agricultural equipment such as tractors.

The disease codes told the BBC that he detected flaws in John Deere software and that he used websites and apps to access company information and machine data.

He believes it’s only a matter of time before a skilled hacker uncovers critical flaws and disrupts vulnerable food supply chains.

“That’s what we try to avoid – blocking something during the most important times, especially planting or harvesting. If you can’t move your tractor during this time, or if you can’t pick or pull the crop from the ground, you can imagine what happens. It stops, all that,” he said.

James Johnson, global director of information security at John Deere, told the BBC the company was working with several ethical hackers to identify vulnerabilities.

The bugs found by Sick Codes do not pose a threat to consumers or their equipment, he said.

“No company, including John Deere, is immune to vulnerabilities, but we are deeply committed and work tirelessly to protect our customers and the role they play in the global food supply chain.”

“Everything is so interconnected now, that by shutting down one system it can stop deliveries from reaching us or stop tractors from moving,” said Richard Heady, a cattle and arable farmer from Buckinghamshire whose tractor can be directed by a GPS tracking system.

“If we’re in a busy harvest window, we can’t just have sit-down tractors.

“We’ve seen empty shelves due to Covid – we could see the same happen if we receive a cyberattack.”

James G. Williams