Bill Would Prompt USDA Intelligence Office to Probe Foreign Threats to America’s Agriculture

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The legislation comes amid reports of Americans receiving and planting unsolicited “mystery seeds” reportedly arriving from China.

Legislation put forth in the House of Representatives this week would create an office of intelligence within the Agriculture Department to keep tabs on foreign threats to America’s farms.

If passed, the Agricultural Intelligence Measures, or AIM, Act introduced Monday by Rep. Rick Crawford, R-Ark., would establish a central hub of experts expected to keep the farm-focused department and its leadership fully tuned in to cyber threats, potential intellectual property theft and other risks posed by foreign actors to the U.S. agricultural landscape. 

“It’s the congressman’s belief that establishing this Intelligence Office inside the USDA will help synchronize the efforts of those who understand American agriculture with the mission of the Intelligence Community,” Crawford’s spokesperson Sara Robertson told Nextgov Wednesday. “This will help paint a better picture of any potential threats from foreign actors for the Secretary of Agriculture and better equip ourselves to think more holistically about U.S. national security.”

The legislation would authorize $970,000 to run the office for fiscal 2021.

According to the AIM Act’s text viewed by Nextgov, the office would specifically hone in on pursuits and moves by foreign entities to steal U.S. agriculture knowledge or technology, as well as foreign-driven efforts to “implement biological warfare attacks, cyber or clandestine operations, or other means of sabotaging and disrupting” America’s agriculture. 

The office’s director would be appointed by the secretary, and the work renders significant experience within the intelligence community, the bill notes. That person would be able to staff the office as they deem appropriate but appoint no more than five full-time equivalent positions at pay rates equal to or above the maximum rate of basic pay for GS–15 of the General Schedule. Additionally, personnel from the IC may also be detailed to the office.

Based on their research and work, those officials will steer intelligence briefings for the secretary and other appropriate officials, act collectively as a liaison between the agency and the IC—and more. According to the act, the office “shall be under the National Intelligence Program.”

The bill was referred to the House Committees on Agriculture and Intelligence the day it was introduced. It comes as farm-related risks and threats from foreign actors surface as more mainstream and grow in sophistication. As the agency and America’s producers embrace and adopt methods of precision agriculture, for instance, new threat vectors and vulnerabilities might be introduced that can be exploited by the nation’s adversaries.

In perhaps a more tangible example that recently captured the nation’s attention, a range of reports are circulating of people across America receiving unsolicited “mystery seeds” in the mail—which apparently arrive from China. Despite warnings released by USDA, some individuals have planted the mostly unidentified kernels in U.S. soil. 

Robertson said the unprompted seeds (which the agency is still investigating) can be considered “a prime example of the vulnerabilities in our agriculture system today.” The spokesperson added that beyond those reports, the bill also confronts an issue that hits close to home for Crawford.

The lawmaker represents a “very rural district where agriculture is both a way of life and a major portion of the local economy,” Robertson explained, emphasizing that Crawford’s seen all that goes into researching, growing and processing agriculture products. Several years ago, two researchers from China were charged with conspiracy to steal rice production technology from a research center in the congressman’s district.

“While the effects on the community could have been astronomical if these researchers succeeded in getting this technology to China, the incident exposes an even greater issue in the security and vulnerability of our agriculture system,” Robertson said. “Not only is our technology at risk, but any threat to our agriculture industry is a threat to the lifeline of the United States.” 

A companion measure to the bill has not yet been introduced in the Senate.

“With the recent pandemic that originated in China, legislators are beginning to see the importance of taking a stronger approach against Chinese espionage as well as thinking about how the United States can better secure our agriculture system moving forward,” Robertson said. “There has been interest from other members who are cognizant of the need to take agricultural security more seriously, but the bill is still rather new.”

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