Agritech: An Attractive Industry for Investment and Target for Attack

With agritech, crops are grown in a controlled environment negating the need for labour-intensive work. Higher dependency on such technology for our basic needs increases its attractiveness as targets of attack. Credit: Unsplash/Steve Douglas


The importance of maintaining food security was re-emphasized with the onset of COVID-19. The pandemic has also emphasized the need for countries to invest in new technologies as they strive towards self-sufficiency i.e. reducing their reliance on trade. Previously, the impetus of such technologies was to ensure that the increase in global food demand, a consequence of rising population, will always be met. These technologies, known as agritech, also offer attractive and viable solutions particularly for countries facing limited available land. The following sections provide a brief description of agritech and its attractiveness as a target for attack.

What is Agritech?

Agritech is one of two part of the billion-dollar agrifood industry. This part refers to technologies that targets agriculture producers such as farmers. Unlike traditional agriculture methods, investors are more receptive to these new technologies due to their capability to ensure consistent production and quality. In other words, reducing the risk while increasing the potential Return on Investment (ROI). This is possible as key to agritech is its precise control of almost every factor that impacts the success of the harvest. Employed are sensors that assist in regulating the environment. Benefits include optimizing the use of resources such as fertilizers, preventing resource wastage thus decreasing overheads, decreasing the potential for such media to get leaked into the environment, maintaining an ideal growth environment for the products, and negating the need for succession planting. This potentially means all types of plants and animals can be cultivated anytime throughout the year.

Additionally, agritech will reduce the need for heavy equipment such as tractors as production facilities become more compact from the optimized use of space and reliance on automation. More important for investors is how agritech encourages research to not only better understand the needs of their products but for genetic manipulation for increased resilience and quality of their products. Such research can, thus, create other numerous revenue-generating sub-industries focusing on husbandry, nutrition, health, and breeding. Therefore, adopting agritech will ensure a shift in the recruitment of higher educated and trained personnel.

Currently, the four technologies that are present in Southeast Asia (SEA) are vertical farming, aquaculture, aquaponics, and cultured meat (also known as in vitro or lab-grown meat). Vertical farming is an innovation that leverages on two existing systems: hydroponics and aeroponics. Utilizing either one of these systems, plants are grown in stacks without the reliance of soil and in growth media. This, thus, improves food safety by eliminating soil-based contamination. Additionally, vertical farming improves space usage as it can be built in the form of tall towers or underground.

Aquaculture is the farming of seafood products such as fish and crustaceans. Previously, such farms are built outdoors and are dependent on the quality of existing water source. There is now a push for such farms to be built indoors i.e. overland for greater control. Aquaponics is simply a hybridized closed loop system that includes a hydroponic system and an aquaculture system. Its principle lies in using wastewater generated from the aquaculture system as growth media for the hydroponic system. Water from the hydroponic system is then treated and re-entered into the aquaculture system. Like its name, cultured meats are meats that are grown using cells in bioprocessing facilities. Although aimed at preventing animal cruelty, this technology still requires some animals to be reared and harvested for their cells. As it is still in its infancy, research is still ongoing to not only reduce the production costs but to expand the variety of meats produced in vitro.

Agritech Facilities as Attractive Targets of Attack

Unfortunately, the characteristics that make agritech appealing also makes it attractive targets of attack. Due to its compact processes, an attack on such facilities would result in higher damage and losses than traditional facilities. Additionally, any damage or disruption inflicted on their centralized control network would lead to similar outcomes. Those leveraging on closed loop systems are also vulnerable as an introduction of contaminants in any part of the system can lead to total system failure. Contributing to its attractiveness as targets could be its limited security features and the psychological impact of an attack on such facilities; food being a basic need. Currently, guidelines and gold standards to securitizing these facilities may be limited and may even be overlooked.

Three Groups of Potential Perpetrators

The first group of potential perpetrators are terrorists. Included in this group are religiously motivated terrorists and ecoterrorists. Religiously motivated terrorists, responsible for most contemporary terrorist attacks, have been argued to display organizational learning. They would therefore not only search for new tactics but also targets. Additionally, the ambiguity of whether lab grown meat are religiously permissible may legitimize them as targets. Aquaculture, aquaponics, and lab-grown meats may come under the crosshair of ecoterrorists as they act to advance animal rights. Though lab-grown meats involved a reduced number of live animals, it may be deemed unacceptable as it promotes the continued consumption of meat and the abuse of livestock. It certainly is a disservice to agritech as it requires electricity to power its operations. Unfortunately, in SEA, coal-powered generators are still a major source of electricity. This provides an additional point of contention for ecoterrorists.

The second group of potential perpetrators are those who are disenfranchised by these technologies. This group of individuals are likely those who have lost their employment when traditional farms adopt these technologies. It could also include small-scale producers who lose their livelihoods to agritech facilities. These individuals may carry out attacks uncoordinated and on their own, through anti-technology movements, or get recruited into terrorist groups. Anti-technology movements have been known to exist since the 1800s, most notable is the Luddites.

The third group of potential perpetrators are opportunists. These are individuals or groups who could demand a ransom from agritech facilities on the threat of disrupting their production. Their tactics would likely come in the form of online attacks to the facilities’ essential IT infrastructure. Non-functioning sensors, for example, will be disastrous for such facilities.

Likely Modus Operandi & Implications

Implicit from the list of potential perpetrators, two forms of modus operandi are envisaged. The first centres on perpetrators physically forcing entry into these facilities. Upon their successful entry, they could sabotage production by either inflicting structural damage to essential infrastructure or contaminating essential resources such as growth media. In such a scenario, the perpetrators potential weapons of choice include guns, explosives, and poisons. It is unlikely that perpetrators would resort to using chemical and biological agents in such attacks as introduction of large amounts of easily obtainable contaminants such as dishwashing liquid is enough to disrupt production.

Additionally, in such a scenario, it is thus important to maintain sufficient security to prevent any unlawful entry into these premises, particularly in essential areas such as control rooms. Personnel and vehicle checks at entry points are also essential. These checks are to screen for weapons and explosives. It is also ideal to create a stand-off distance to minimize damage to the main buildings. This would mean creating as much free space between the entry point and the main buildings.

The second likely modus operandi is the online penetration into the facilities IT infrastructure. In addition to constantly ensuring the facility’s cybersecurity, it may be ideal to also consider decentralizing their systems. A decentralized system allows the creation of redundancy and is more tolerant to faults.

The views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of STRAT.O.SPHERE CONSULTING PTE LTD.

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