Protecting America’s Food and Agriculture From Emerging Threats

In many parts of America, we take food for granted. With full grocery store shelves and copious options available at the push of a button on food delivery apps, we seldom think about the complex but critical food and agricultural systems behind this abundance.

But our food supply faces several emerging threats, including climate change effects, ransomware attacks on increasingly digitized farms and production facilities, and even espionage.

The White House recently recognized the importance of defending the nation’s food, agriculture and veterinary systems with the release of the National Security Memorandum on Strengthening the Security and Resilience of United States Food and Agriculture, or NSM-16. The document gave several government agencies new or more clearly defined responsibilities to respond to a range of threats, setting off a rapid government restructuring around this issue.

With its long history of working in food and agriculture, along with its trusted relationships with many sponsors in the space, the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland, was perfectly positioned to help.

Agricultural Vulnerabilities

The U.S. ranks among the top countries in the world with regard to the amount of productive farmland it has. While that reduces the nation’s dependence on allies and other nations to feed its population, the situation can pose challenges.

“If you’ve ever driven through the Midwest and gone through miles and miles of cornfields and not seen anything else, you can see how difficult it would be to track and secure and protect them,” said Collin Timm, the chief scientist for the Applied Biological Sciences Group in APL’s Asymmetric Operations Sector (AOS). “You also have to consider all the interconnected systems involved in providing food and agricultural products to the public. If food products from the Midwest have to go out to the more highly populated coastal states, but Interstate 80 is knocked out in Ohio, how does that affect our ability to get grain to where it needs to be?”

On its way from farms to our dinner tables, food goes through production, distribution, processing and access. At each point, there are vulnerabilities.

One question, Timm said, is how much does each vulnerability matter? Another, as government agencies prepare to restructure to provide better support to food, agriculture and veterinary defense, is who is responsible for what?

Creating a Community of Practice

The release of NSM-16 sparked conversation among several government agencies that work with APL, said Kathy Santos, the Laboratory’s program manager for Homeland Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear and Explosives Defense.

Given APL’s expertise in threat characterization, policy analysis, technology development, and food and agriculture, Santos and Karen Meidenbauer, a veterinarian in AOS, knew the Laboratory could help stakeholders begin to untangle roles and responsibilities and determine gaps in capabilities and response coverage.

Santos and Meidenbauer secured an internal grant to host a threat landscape workshop at APL, bringing together the relevant sponsors to meet in person for the first time post-pandemic.

“We saw a need for people to communicate and collaborate,” Meidenbauer said. “Since food, agriculture and livestock are relevant to multiple sectors and departments across the Lab, it was nicely aligned to be a grant-supported effort.”

Multiple government agencies attended the event, including representatives from the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Agriculture, Customs and Border Protection, the National Counterterrorism Center, the Food and Drug Administration, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The workshop allowed participants to discuss threats facing their respective agencies, identifying areas of overlap and gaps. They also discussed the scope of and connections between recent policy documents, identified focus areas for research and development investment, and applied use cases to assess capability needs.

“The event was a great success,” Meidenbauer said. “APL was the first organization that took the initiative to start this community of practice around this topic, and as a result, we started building our role as a trusted partner in this space. Since then, we’ve been invited to several interagency agricultural working groups that are focused on responding to emerging threats.”

A Trusted Partner

A key factor in establishing APL as a trusted partner, Meidenbauer said, was its long history of relevant research. Some of the primary threats to food, agriculture and livestock — climate change and cybersecurity, for example — align with major research areas at the Laboratory. But APL has also done significant work in disease surveillance and threat assessment, which translates directly to similar efforts in agriculture.

Meidenbauer is the APL lead for an effort to develop the foundations of an early warning system to alert public health partners to potential emerging zoonotic threats. The project builds on 20 years of disease surveillance work at the Laboratory, including the Electronic Surveillance System for the Early Notification of Community-based Epidemics (ESSENCE) and, most recently, the Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center and its COVID-19 Dashboard.

“What drives our awareness of threats is data,” Meidenbauer said. “APL is really good at analyzing, managing and deciphering data, and using it wisely. That’s where our impact was in the COVID-19 response. In the food, agriculture and veterinary defense problem space, we have had an explosion of data in the past several decades, and we need to leverage that data to better understand the health and resiliency of our agricultural infrastructure and how to protect it moving forward.”

One Health

Another key factor, Meidenbauer said, is APL’s work on One Health, which the World Health Organization describes as an integrated, unifying approach to balance and optimize the health of people, animals and the environment.

The approach recognizes that all three are interconnected and integral to the health of the other components.

With significant experience in advanced data integration, the Laboratory can help stakeholders — both government sponsors and the wider agricultural community — begin to wrap their arms around this vast and complex system.

“If we take a critical view of this entire system and the vulnerabilities at each step of the process from farm to table, we can begin to poke it in different places and see where issues might have significant downstream effects,” Timm said. “That’s where we need to solve problems.”

In many cases, research and development will be needed to conceive creative technical solutions, and the Laboratory is already anticipating those needs.

In addition to sponsored work in food pantry management, detecting food needs and resources, and equitable food distribution, staff members are working on a series of Independent Research and Development efforts related to agriculture. These efforts include projects to identify biothreats in crops, develop models to indicate the effects of pests on food production and security, and monitor the presence of pathogens in farm-based livestock, among others.

Meidenbauer and Santos intend to hold the next community of practice event at APL later this year to continue facilitating communication and collaboration among the many partners and stakeholders addressing this critical issue.