SEN. GRASSLEY: Attacks from foreign cybercriminals threaten livelihood of farmers and security of food

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Earlier this month, Senator Ernst and I sent a letter to Secretary Mayorkas asking him to address the devastating cyberattacks conducted against our nation’s agricultural sector. Agriculture is designated as one of the country’s sixteen critical infrastructure industries. But historically it has not received robust cybersecurity support from the government. Attacks from foreign cybercriminals are threatening both the livelihood of our farmers and the security of the food we eat.


Last month, NEW Cooperative, an Iowa grain co-op, was the target of BlackMatter, a Russian cybercrime cell. The cyberattack shutdown systems that control crop irrigation, livestock feed schedules and inventory distribution. NEW Cooperative comprises 40 percent of the grain distribution in the country. The co-op narrowly managed to avert a crash in grain prices without paying the $5.9 million ransom.


These attacks are not limited to just large distributors. The Russian group BlackByte claims it attacked Farmers Cooperative Elevator Co., an Iowa grain co-op with just four locations. BlackByte is threatening to release 100 gigabytes of sensitive data — including financial, sales and accounting information if a ransom isn’t paid.


The extent of the damage from the NEW Cooperative and Farmers Cooperative Elevator Co. attacks is not isolated to the grain market. Feed from these co-ops sustain more than eleven million heads of livestock. These attacks affect the supply chain that puts food on the shelves in grocery stores across the country. As Iowa farmers adopt new technologies to get their crops to market, their exposure grows to similar attacks.


These two ransomware attacks are only the latest in a long line of cyberattacks on our critical infrastructure this year. In July, a Miami-based software provider was attacked, which resulted in trickle down affects to thousands of organizations. In June, JBS Foods, the world’s largest meat processing company was attacked, shutting down nine meat packing plants in the United States. In May, Colonial Pipeline was shut down for eleven days, resulting in buying panics and shortages.


While many cyber-attacks originate from Russia, attacks have come from other countries. Earlier this year the Biden Administration formally blamed China for a massive hack of the Microsoft Exchange email server. The hackers responsible appear to work directly for China’s Ministry of State Security. Estimates range as high as 250,000 victims in that attack.


In July, the Senate Judiciary Committee, where I serve as Ranking Member, held a hearing at my request looking at how to prevent and respond to ransomware attacks. During this hearing, witnesses testified that the Department of Homeland Security would be identifying and hardening critical points of failure. However, it is clear that their actions up to now have not deterred criminals from targeting the United States Agricultural Industry.


Farmers might be only two percent of the U.S. population, but they provide for the other 98 percent. Their job is no small task. Keeping America fed. There is an old quote that goes “There are only nine meals between mankind and anarchy.” The quote is key to understanding the importance of keeping our agriculture supply chains safe and secure.


I want to thank my colleagues, Senator Ernst and Senator Cotton for joining me today in calling attention to this ongoing national security concern. Agricultural security is national security. It is time that we do more to protect this critical sector of the economy.