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Though nefarious, Russian hack of JBS should prompt environmental debate over meat “oligopoly” (commentary)

  • The recent cyberattack on Brazilian meatpacking giant JBS attracted a lot of attention, but Author Nikolas Kozloff said that most of analysis and discussion neglected to focus on broader issues associated with the industry.
  • “Public discussion has missed the mark by focusing far too narrowly on mere supply chain issues: however nefarious, the JBS hack exposes wider concerns ranging from food justice to animal rights to public health to the environment and climate change,” Kozloff.
  • “It is highly ironic, and that is putting it mildly, that it has taken Russian cyber-crime to highlight such systemic and underlying problems, yet perhaps such high-profile incidents might succeed in prompting long-overdue debate.”
  • This article is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.

In the wake of a Russian hack on giant meatpacker JBS, U.S. policymakers have argued that we must shore up the nation’s cyber-defenses in order to protect the food supply from future attacks. Unfortunately, public discussion has missed the mark by focusing far too narrowly on mere supply chain issues: however nefarious, the JBS hack exposes wider concerns ranging from food justice to animal rights to public health to the environment and climate change. It is highly ironic, and that is putting it mildly, that it has taken Russian cyber-crime to highlight such systemic and underlying problems, yet perhaps such high-profile incidents might succeed in prompting long-overdue debate.

JBS is hardly a bit player: the behemoth is the largest cattle processing firm in the U.S., accounting for nearly a quarter of the market. The corporation is responsible for about a fifth of American pork capacity, and sells beef through major retailers such as Costco. A JBS subsidiary, meanwhile, holds a majority interest in the nation’s second largest poultry company. Growing from a purely Brazilian cattle company to the world’s largest meat supplier, JBS owns facilities in 20 countries and exports to more than 50.  The firm is Australia’s largest meat and food processor, and within the country the company markets beef, lamb and pork. Notoriously corrupt, JBS has been caught up in labor disputes within Brazil, and has been accused of violating human rights in the Amazon rainforest.

Intersection of Climate Change, Animal Rights and Public Health

Moreover, the company has a questionable environmental record: as I reported in a previous online article, JBS has been linked to illegal logging. Under the right-wing presidency of Jair Bolsonaro, Brazilian deforestation in the rainforest has surged, and beef from farmers accused of such illegal deforestation continues to make its way into global supply chains, including those serving JBS. Indeed, within the Brazilian beef industry, the corporation is responsible for the largest share of CO2 emissions caused by deforestation.

Even before the emergence of COVID-19, JBS was targeted by animal rights activists, though the pandemic has certainly added a new twist when it comes to debates over food safety and public health. In Colorado, for instance, a union representing meat-packing workers at a JBS plant staged a protest after six workers died and hundreds more were infected by COVID. Though the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (or OSHA) fined the company, the union argued that a mere $15,615 penalty was “insulting” and the federal government should have fined the company more for its failure to ensure proper working conditions.

In Utah, meanwhile, demonstrators protested JBS’s inhumane treatment of both workers and animals. Amidst concerns over zoonotic disease and spillover pathogens, activists pointed out that no one has ever caught a virus from a soybean or broccoli. PETA (or People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) has noted that meat-processing facilities act as a breeding ground for deadly disease. In addition to COVID-19, which may have originated in a Chinese “wet market” full of live and dead animals, other diseases such as swine flu and influenza have been linked to factory farms or traced back to chickens. In tandem with such concerns, PETA has offered to help defray the cost of retraining JBS employees, in an effort to promote vegan meat production.

From Animal Rights Hackers to Russian Cyber-Criminals

Other forms of protest against food giants have taken on a more subversive quality. Back in 2013, for example, animal rights activists hacked the website of America’s largest foie gras producer, Hudson Valley Foie Gras, and later published the names and e-mails of customers who had purchased duck products from the company. Campaigners charge that foie gras is a cruelly-produced “gourmet” delicacy resulting from the force-feeding of young ducks or geese which makes the animals’ livers swell. The hackers, who timed their attack to coincide with Earth Day, accused the firm of torturing birds while polluting the earth.

Another recent cyber-attack took down JBS no less, though ironically the culprits weren’t anti-foie gras folk, but rather Russian hackers. According to U.S. intelligence, the ransomware attack was likely launched by a Russian-based criminal group called REvil, though predictably President Vladimir Putin denied any involvement. Shortly after the attack, Joe Biden demanded that Russia shut down ransomware groups attacking U.S. targets, and mysteriously, REvil suddenly went off-line, either because it was brought down by U.S. Cyber Command, dismantled by Putin, or alternatively the hackers simply decided the “heat was too intense.”

Facade of the JBS offices in São Paulo. Image by Marcio Isensee e Sá.

With all its plants shut down, JBS’s production was wiped out and the company was obliged to pay $11 million in bitcoin to the hackers in order to avoid further attacks. Reportedly, the June 2021 attack wrought havoc on the firm’s IT systems in the U.S. and Australia, and led to a halting of cattle slaughter in both countries, in addition to the idling of a plant in Canada. Following the attack, JBS installations failed to perform even routine tasks such as weighing poultry, sharpening knives, and clocking in employees. “It may come as a bit of a surprise to those who don’t work in the food industry,” note experts, “but food production (from slaughterhouses to finished products) is highly automated and data driven.  That’s one of the lessons of the JBS ransomware attack.”

Cyber-Threats and Food Supply Chain

Never in their wildest dreams could animal rights activists have imagined inflicting such economic pain on the meat-packing industry, with overall U.S. cattle slaughter down by 22% in just one week, and hogs down by 20%. Chicago cattle futures, meanwhile, plummeted more than three percent in one day, before trimming losses. Despite these setbacks, however, JBS was able to recover without REvil’s assistance, and within a matter of weeks, the company resumed most of its operations.

Even though disruptions proved temporary, the JBS hack has highlighted concerns about the long-term reliability of the food supply chain. According to industry insiders, food companies display “about the same level of security as manufacturing and shipping.  Which is to say, not very.”  Reportedly, JBS was hardly the first food manufacturer to fall prey to cyber-threats, with more than 40 reported attacks against food firms over the past year or so. However, it is possible there have been many more attacks than publicly acknowledged, since some food processors may not wish to discuss such matters openly. What is more, other insidious attacks targeting process control systems may have occurred without the food manufacturer’s knowledge.

Such attacks may result in the incorrect addition of chemicals or additives, which in turn may lead to people getting sick with tainted food. Industry experts note that, “tainted burgers, not detected until they were being consumed all across the country, certainly would qualify as terror.” Because software controls a large portion of the food industry’s safety systems, and every part of companies’ production system is traced, tracked and verified by such electronic systems, the entire sector is vulnerable to ransomware attacks. Indeed, everything from sanitation to traceability to ingredient monitoring is now linked to automated safety systems.

Breaking Up the Meat “Oligopoly”

In addition to these concerns, the food industry is vulnerable to other pressures. Because the meat supply chain is highly concentrated among a handful of suppliers, with four giant corporations controlling more than 80% of U.S. beef processing, any disruption can result in drastic effects on consumers. Early in the pandemic, when workers fell ill at meatpacking facilities, plants were forced to close temporarily, and this in turn led to shortages and price increases. As major hog and chicken processing plants became COVID hotspots, this in turn caused shutdowns, including one plant responsible for processing more than 15% of all U.S. pork.

Cow in Colombia. Photo credit: Rhett A. Butler
Photo credit: Rhett A. Butler

Such corporate concentration has led lawmakers to call for diversification of the nation’s meat processing capacity, with some calling for greater “resilience” and the promotion of multiple plants in multiple locations. Other activists, meanwhile, have demanded a wholesale “de-industrialization” and decentralizing of the meat cartel or “oligopoly.”  Amanda Little, author of The Fate of Food: What We’ll Eat in a Bigger, Hotter, Smarter World, writes “not since Upton Sinclair’s eye-opening novel “The Jungle” has the American meat industry faced a more significant paradigm shift, and Biden and Congress must get out in front of it.”

“Consolidation,” she adds, “has made the U.S. meat industry — and the global protein supply — profoundly and unacceptably vulnerable.  It will become more susceptible in the years ahead as public health threats and potential cyberattacks continue to loom large, and as climate change increases the risk of natural disasters.  Drought, heat, flooding, wildfires, insects, superstorms and weather volatility are raising pressure on our farms and ranches.  In short, the cost-saving benefits of agricultural consolidation are increasingly outweighed by the risks of disruption.”

Misplaced Cyber-Defense Solution

Despite systemic problems, few seem willing to rein in a disaster in the making.  Amidst escalating computer hacking, corporate executives have grown increasingly concerned about their industry’s underlying vulnerability to cyber-attacks. Reportedly, companies have prioritized productivity and profits over security, which in turn has led to a general lack of awareness and over-reliance on out-of-date software, as well as antiquated operating systems such as Windows 98.

Even with repeated warnings, federal oversight over industry’s cyber-security operations has historically remained light. Currently, in fact, there are no mandatory rules governing the food and agriculture sector, just voluntary guidelines. After being caught flat-footed, the Biden administration recently wrote a memorandum to corporate executives, advising them to strengthen cyber-defenses by observing protocols ranging from multifactor authentication to endpoint detection and response to monitoring of malicious activities on company networks to data encryption to creation of skilled cyber security teams.

On Capitol Hill, some legislators have called for greater scrutiny of national security threats to the supply chain, whereas other experts have pushed for federal grants and incentives for food companies to improve their cyber defense capabilities. However, observers note that increasing cyber-security will require further resources, and it’s unclear whether the industry will be willing to invest, given the highly competitive global marketplace. Speaking candidly, one insider noted, “I wish there was an easy and foolproof system for food companies to implement to protect against cyber-attacks, but there isn’t.  The threats are always changing.”

More Radical Change Needed

In light of climate change and the meat processing industry’s lack of environmental sustainability, the idea of merely propping up the sector by spending more on cyber-defense seems to miss the mark. Currently, animal farming accounts for 15-18% of overall greenhouse gas emissions, with substantial quantities of food being required to feed animals. In the U.S. alone, consider the massive feed necessary to sustain 9 billion farm animals, not to mention high levels of methane associated with waste and manure.

Deforested and burnt area already being used for cattle ranching in Porto Velho, Rondônia on July 30, 2021. Photo © Christian Braga / Greenpeace
Deforested and burnt area already being used for cattle ranching in Porto Velho, Rondônia on July 30, 2021. Photo © Christian Braga / Greenpeace

Needless to say, methane is many times more potent than carbon dioxide, and overall, cattle and other livestock account for more damage to the climate than all global tailpipe emissions from plane, train, car, bus and boat travel combined. The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says the world must reduce its consumption of meat products by at least thirty percent in order to limit sea level rise, protect food production and save lives, and Forbes no less remarks that “switching to a plant-based diet can reduce the methane output of cattle and help reclaim land that would be better used for capturing carbon.”

To be sure, the so-called Green New Deal specifically addresses the issue of climate change and the need to refashion the food system, though the congressional resolution stands little chance of being passed into law. Amidst rancorous culture wars which politicize virtually everything, including food, change seems unlikely to occur at the federal level, though perhaps we can expect more movement at the local and municipal level. Take, for example, the case of Berkeley, California, which passed a resolution slashing the amount of meat the city purchases by fifty percent by 2024. Under the measure, the city will provide more plant-based meals at the local jail, senior centers and summer camps.

In the long-term, Berkeley envisions phasing out all purchases of animal products, to be replaced with plant-based foods. While political happenings in Berkeley may elicit eye rolls from the rest of the country, campaigners hope the example will inspire other cities to make similar changes. Just across the bay, Oakland’s local school district was able to decrease its carbon footprint when meat and dairy purchases were reduced, and officials were also able to save tens of thousands of dollars in the process, since plant-based foods are less expensive. San Francisco, meanwhile, passed a partial resolution last year to divest from animal agriculture.

High Profile Vegan Politician

In order to really make a difference, however, larger cities will have to take action. Ever since Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams won New York’s democratic primary, which in turn virtually assures the politician will be elected mayor in November, progressives have been fretting. To be sure, Adams was in some respects the least liberal candidate in the field when it came to important issues. Instead of wringing their hands, however, progressives should try to find common ground with Adams, who interestingly enough is a zealous vegan intent on transforming the food system. Indeed, as I noted in a previous column, the politician even criticized JBS, no less, for being one of the main culprits behind Amazonian deforestation. Adams moreover sponsored a resolution calling on municipal agencies and the private sector to cut ties with food companies associated with such deforestation.

As Adams has noted himself, “cities are centers of consumption [and] government must …look at the foods it purchases for schools, prisons and hospitals as another way to address climate change.” The politician favors the reallocation of procurement dollars, so that the school system will purchase food that is actually healthy. Adams adds that, “if New York City public schools swapped out a beef burger for a plant-based protein, such as lentils, once a month to feed our youngsters, the city would emit significantly less carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.”

Adams, who is African-American, became vegan due to his own underlying health conditions, and has sought to promote a plant-based diet to his constituents and people of color. A supporter of New York’s foie gras ban, he published a book documenting his own personal story accompanied by dozens of vegan recipes, and the politician has often talked about how racism, diet, and poverty are inter-related. As Brooklyn Borough President, he spearheaded a measure which banned processed meats from schools. Since the latter serve 950,000 meals a day to students, the resolution exerted a substantial impact on children’s health, thousands of animals and the environment.

The Case of New York

If he is elected mayor, Adams has pledged to reduce meat consumption, particularly in regard to government-provided food, while favoring plant-based options and urban agriculture. Following the lead of Berkeley, the politician has favored so-called Meatless Mondays, which encourage people to remove all animal products from their plates once per week. As Brooklyn Borough President, Adams promoted the initiative in his borough, and the pilot program was later expanded to encompass all city schools. Adams’ campaigning has led to similarly positive result within the city’s jails and hospitals, which have taken to Meatless Mondays with gusto.

If there weren’t enough reasons to be concerned about the meat-processing industry prior to COVID-19, including animal rights as well as climate change, the pandemic has certainly added to such fears. Over the past year and a half, consumers have moreover become aware of the “oligopolistic” nature of the food industry, as well as key vulnerabilities within the supply chain. Amidst short-sighted debates over cyber-security, perhaps it will fall to local cities to set an example. Hoping to spark a more broad-based conversation, Adams has lobbied Washington to promote both plant-based diets and markets. “Switching to a whole-food, plant-based diet taught me about the transformative power of what’s on our dinner plate,” he remarked.  “With the new Biden-Harris Administration in office, it’s time we take this conversation nationally.”

Nikolas Kozloff is the author of No Rain in the Amazon: How South America’s Climate Change Affects the Entire Planet, as well as more than fifty articles on the environment and climate change.

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