Editorial

Mental Wellbeing

06/03/2021

The topic of mental wellbeing in the agricultural sector is highlighted by recent anecdotal reports and statistical evidence for suicide among U.S. farmers.  Based on 2017 data, the Centers for Disease Control has determined that death by suicide among farmers attained 43 per 100,000 population compared to 27 per 100,000 for all occupations.  The death rate by suicide in the U.S. population was 14 per 100,000 in 2017  with 11,600 in 2021 to date.  In the U.S. firearms are used in approximately half of all suicides.  Farmers invariably either own or have access to guns that are too frequently involved in loss of life.

 

The disparity in suicide among farmers was recently the topic of an informative interview with Adrienne DeSutter, a counselor and farmer in Illinois.  Interviewed by Tiffany Dowell Lashment of the Texas Agricultural Law Blog, Adrienne discussed factors contributing to suicide, prevention and resources to prevent deaths.  DeSutter pointed to a combination of factors that are contributing to stress that may result in depression and ultimately, in the most severe cases, contributes to suicide.  Individual farmers frequently work in isolation and feel that they face a variety of challenges on their own.

 Mental health is essentially a taboo topic in agriculture and farmers and workers who are depressed have difficulty in expressing their fears and conflicts with those who may be willing to listen or to counsel.  It is estimated that there are 63 mental health professionals per 100,000 population in rural areas compared to 146 per 100,000 in metropolitan locations.

 

Farmers are exposed to a number of stress factors which are basically out of their individual control.  These include weather, livestock and plant diseases, pests, market fluctuation, and in some cases restrictions imposed by federal or state mandates.  Farm debt is at an all-time high at approximately $400 billion of which $150 billion is represented by real estate.  In 2017, commodity prices were impacted by the trade war with China, contributing further to debt despite Federal relief programs. It is estimated that in 2019 almost 40 percent of farm revenue was derived from government disbursements. In 2020, the farming community, along with the remainder of the U.S., faced COVID that resulted in disruption in livestock processing, financial losses that complicated farm operations.  Despite the approximately $28 billion in compensation for the trade war and additional funding as a result of COVID, many farmers suffered losses. 

 

With a rise in commodity prices during the past six months, there has been some measure of improvement although inflation in labor, energy, and other inputs have increased production costs.  Psychologists point to farmers losing a sense of self-worth as a result of financial stress despite the fact that factors contributing to reduced earnings have been in large measure been beyond their control.

 

DeSutter, through her professional training and experience in rural Illinois, advises her clients and those in the farming community to recognize limitations and to adjust to the realities of their situation.  She advises farmers to alleviate worry by talking to a sensitive listener, either a family member, a minister, a friend or a professional.  She emphasizes the need to focus on the positive, and in many cases, to simplify lifestyle.  She advocates a regular pattern of eating, sleeping and exercise, to plan activities and to address individual problems that can be solved in order to avoid an overwhelming sense of despair.  To maintain a sense of self-esteem, DeSutter advises that self-worth is not measured by assets but by achievements.  Adrienne notes the additive effect of individual stress factors that tend to accumulate.  This requires resolution of individual problems on a continual basis.

 

As depression intensifies, those afflicted should investigate resources to reestablish a sense of wellbeing to avoid depression and suicide.  Physicians, especially in farming areas, are sensitive to the stressors to which their patients are subjected and can refer to available local resources.  In an emergency a 911 call is justified and may save a life.  The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255) and the Crisis Text Line (Hello to 741741) are valuable resources and should be accessed with any indication of despondency.

 

The discussion on suicide with DeSutter involved crop farmers and those with mixed animal and row-crop operations.  Contractors in the broiler and turkey industries have a more favorable situation in that integrators provide chicks, poults or started pullets, feed and assume the financial risks associated with inflation and the markets.  Contractors are however subject to the stresses associated with achieving performance standards either self-derived or imposed through a tournament system. The threat of termination with a resulting obligation represented by loans on capital investment in housing and equipment may be a source of ongoing concern to contractors.  It is questioned whether service people following standard company operating procedures can diagnose stress and depression in an under-performing contractor in order to refer the farmer to appropriate counseling.

 

As we progress from the restraints and impacts of COVID, we should address the issue of farmer suicide and the even greater problems of sress and depression.  The emergence of any disease causing an annual fatality rate of 43 per 100,000 would result in immediate action by health authorities with epidemiologic investigation and remedial action.  We appear to tolerate an ongoing problem that is depriving farmers of their lives and creating grief, guilt and remorse among family members and survivors of a suicide victim.

 


 

JBS USA Pays $11 Million to Cyber Criminals

06/14/2021

In a June 9th release, JBS USA admitted to paying $11 million in ransom in the form of Bitcoin as a result of the cyber attack mounted against the company IT system on Sunday June 6th. According to preliminary reports issued on Monday June 7th the company confirmed the attack and announced a temporary closure of plants in the U.S. and Australia but indicated that there was no release of information relating to employees, suppliers or customers. The CEO Andre Nogueira noted that backup systems and the actions of IT professionals would reestablish operations the following day.


Andre Norgueira
CEO JBS USA

CHICK-NEWS as with other media dutifully reported on the situation quoting the press release authorized by the CEO.  On Wednesday June 9th the Company issued a statement confirming it had paid the equivalent of $11 million in ransom, a fact that was known previously to officers of the Company but not revealed.

 

The June 9th statement raises more questions than were settled by the bland and reassuring content:

 

  • Why if the company apparently spends more than $200 million annually on IT and employs more than 850 IT professionals was a group of admittedly sophisticated hackers able to penetrate security and literally close down company operations?

 

  • The CEO stated, “We felt the decision (to pay ransom) had to be made to prevent any potential risks for our customers.”  This is gaslighting.  The primary concerns were partly restoration of company function, given the potential losses involved and preservation of Company documentation.

 

  • But why pay the $11 million ransom after the company ascertained that it could operate plants?

 

The June 9th statement was somewhat self-congratulatory in that it attributes resolution to “cyber security protocols, redundant systems and encrypted backup service.”  If these had been effective the Company would not have been impacted in the first instance and would most certainly have detected attempts at infiltration and not have had to pay $11 million.

 

The magnitude of the ransom and the circumstances and timing of the $11 million payment has elicited a response from Congress. Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) Chair of the House Oversight Committee has requested all relevant documents and information relating to the decision made by JBS USA to pay the ransom.

 

A tactic of ransomware hackers has been to not only lock computer systems but also to threaten to release company data and documents.  It is possible that JBS could have restarted operations using their claimed redundant systems and encrypted backup servers but feared the release of memos, internal documents and financial data. This would have been embarrassing to JBS USA and JBS S.A the holding company, given many aspects of recent history and the ultimate intention to file for an IPO on the NYSE.

 

Cooperation between the Colonial Pipeline Company and the FBI resulted in clawing back the 69 Bitcoin that comprised the ransom.  It will be interesting to determine whether JBS USA presses forward with an attempt to reclaim the ransom or whether the $11 million was a justifiable expense to maintain confidentiality and avoid release of documents. They are obviously aware of the 2016 case involving Mossack Fonesca, a legal firm in Panama representing shady oligarchs and politicians who were hiding money offshore and also the politically calamitous hack of the Democratic National Committee in 2016.

 

A higher level of transparency would be beneficial to the image of the holding company and its U.S. subsidiary. Congress is entitled to learn the circumstances of this attack, why such a large ransom was handed over to criminals so quickly and whether the Company cooperated with appropriate Federal agencies.


 

The Need to Fund and Support Science

06/03/2021

The proposed budget presented by the President includes large increases for federal agencies involved in aspects of science and the environment.  Generally Presidential budgets represent a wish list and are subject to political winds blowing in Congress.  The proposed budget does however address priorities including health, the environment, competition with China, and job creation.  Science represents the common theme through these areas of concern. 

U.S. dominance in space, engineering, health and computer innovation are all attributed to advances in both basic and applied science. The U.S. has successively benefited from investments in the Land Grant University System post-civil war, from endowments to colleges, the influx of European refugee scientists in the 1930s and the broad advancement in science and technology as result of the post-WW II GI bill.  The space race stimulated by advances made by Russia placed the U.S. at the forefront of both instrument and human exploration of the moon and the planets of our solar system.  The achievements of science are clearly indicated by the volume of Nobel Prize awards to U.S. scientists, both immigrant and native born.

 

More recently we have become aware of shortfalls in our responses to structural and societal challenges.  The fact that the U.S. with 4.5 percent of the world’s population recorded close to 20 percent of the world’s confirmed fatalities due to COVID and in addition Mars currently has rovers landed by the U.S. and the People’s Republic of China both represent “Sputnik Moments”.

 

U.S. peeminence in agricultural production is attributed not only to the efforts of farmers, but to the resources they have available.  Science has created GMO cultivars, our research institutions and universities have developed vaccines to suppress livestock disease, have devised advanced methods of housing and nutrition to complement progress in genetic selection of livestock.  Unless we continue to invest in both basic and applied science, we will inevitably fall behind our more progressive competitors.

 

The proposed budget for Fiscal 2022 includes the following budget increases for federal agencies involved in aspects of Science: -

  • Environmental Protection Agency; 21 percent
  • National Institutes of Health; 21 percent
  • National Science Foundation;  20 percent
  • Department of Agriculture R & D Programs; 19 percent
  • Department of Energy; 10 percent
  • NASA; 6 percent

 

It is noted that these increases are required to offset reductions in budget allocations in recent years.  For example the Environmental Protection Agency was subjected to a 32 percent cut  in 2021compared to the 21 percent increase suggested by the current Administration. 

 

The proposed budget increases will allow for targeted restoration of programs constrained by previous policy.  The proposal increases allocations to the National Institute of Standards and Technology allowing for two new manufacturing innovation institutes.  Based on experience with COVID, Congress will be asked to fund an Advanced Research Project Agency for health within the National Institutes of Health that would deal with pandemic preparedness and would hopefully improve detection and response to any future outbreak.  Advanced Research Project Agencies would be created for climate research within the Department of Energy and also the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Scientists in these agencies will play important roles in developing science-based programs to both monitor and generate policy to offset climate change.

 

To maintain our current preeminent position in agriculture and to enhance productivity necessary to feed a burgeoning population, we will require pivotal accomplishments such as the Norman Borlaug Green Revolution and the Manhattan Project.  We can aspire to achieve the unattainable if we strengthen our scientific capability and adequately fund our scientific institutions and scientists.  Hopefully with additional resources and appropriate coordination and management we will surpass the achievements of the previous generation.


 

Cyber Attacks Threaten Supply Chains and National Security

06/05/2021

For the past five years, cyber attacks have impacted government agencies and businesses worldwide.  Intrusions into computer systems are designed to either elicit information either as an act of espionage or to acquire intellectual property or are intended to paralyze operations against payment of ransom.  State-sponsored cyber attacks are conducted on an ongoing basis with the U.S. experiencing intrusion into the computer systems of numerous federal agencies.  Hacking of banks and financial institutions in addition to the databases of private companies has yielded personal information used for fraud.

 

The most recent iteration of cybercrime involves encryption of data with demands for ransom to release a digital key to unlock files.  The side bar indicates the extent of malicious ransom attacks over the past two years.  It is obvious that many companies pay ransom without publicity, and it is difficult to access the magnitude of the problem.  It is estimated that R-Evil a Russian-affiliated criminal gang has gained more than $100 million in ransom from impacted companies.
 

In May, Colonial Pipeline was affected by a group self-named the DarkSide resulting in payment of a multimillion dollar ransom following a shutdown of refinery operations on the eastern seaboard.  The most recent serious attack occurred on Sunday, May 30th involving JBS USA affecting their operations in Australia, the U.S. and Canada.  JBS and their chicken counterpart Pilgrim’s Pride Corp. processes 200,000 cattle, 500,000 hogs and 45 million chickens each week and is one of the world's major protein suppliers.  According to information released, the company ceased operation in many facilities over two days until computer function was restored.  JBS cooperated with relevant government agencies and with the assistance of IT specialists apparently responded t0 the attack. The company maintained that backup systems allowed recovery without paying ransom and that data relating to suppliers, employees and customers was not compromised. In the event cooperation between JBS and government cyberagencies allowed the FBI to access the electronic wallet of the perpetrators and claw back 69 Bitcoin representing the ransom paid.

 

Those responsible for ransomware attacks appear to be of Russian origin either operating in the Russian Federation or in a nation previously part of the Soviet Union.  The possible involvement of state agencies in Russia in "commercial hacking" and manipulation of social media is currently not public knowledge but is possibly under scrutiny by government counter-cyber agencies.

 

It is difficult to accept that Russian cyber criminals could function without the awareness or even tacit acceptance of state agencies.  Accordingly, the Administration in concert with EU governments should apply appropriate pressure to convince the Government of Russia to stop harboring or tolerating cyber criminals. This subject will be raised in mid-June at a meeting between Presidents Biden and Putin.

 

Known Companies and Agencies Impacted by Ransomware

  • Norsk Hydro, Norway.
  • Reckitt-Benckiser, U.K.
  • Merck Inc., U.S.
  • Molson Coors, U.S.
  • Siegfried Drugs, Switzerland.
  • Brenntag Chemicals, Switzerland.
  • Symrise Flavors, Switzerland
  • Colonial Pipeline Co., U.S.
  • JBS USA, U.S.
  • Martha's Vineyard Ferry Service, U.S.
  • FedEx, U.S.
  • Hospital systems in the U.K., Ireland, and U.S.
  • Various government agencies  and municipalities in the U.S. Ukraine and U.K.

 

Appropriate responses to ransomware attacks include strengthening protection and incorporating redundancy and backup in systems.  The question of banning payoffs that only embolden criminals has been considered.  Since organizations such as DarkSide and R-Evil are now targeting supply chains, hospitals and multinational companies, it is frequently more expedient to pay a ransom then suffer the disruptions as evidenced by the Colonial Pipeline event.  Central to the entire "business" of ransom attacks is payment in the form of cryptocurrency.  Governments must develop programs to limit the use of non-traditional payments to deprive cyber criminals of the means to generate income from their activities.

 

Cybercrime has extended from hacking companies for personal information and intellectual property to disruption of supply chains on a multinational level.  Whether the phase shift is or is not sanctioned by the government of the Russian Federation has yet to be determined. It is self- evident that appropriate pressure should be brought to bear on the Government of Russia to eliminate this scourge. Failure to do so should result in extreme sanctions and counter-cyber measures raising the spectre of an electronic cold war or worse.

 


 
 
Copyright © 2021 Simon M. Shane