Civic News

Where Maryland’s agritech and cybersecurity intersect, DEI must be prioritized

Former acting USDA info chief and current ICIT executive director Joyce Hunter explains why Maryland's cybersecurity workforce — particularly its under-researched intersections with agriculture and food — needs to be as diverse as possible.

Chino Farms in Queen Anne's County, on Maryland's largely rural Eastern Shore.

(Photo by Flickr user Chesapeake Bay Program, used via a Creative Commons license)

This is a guest post by Joyce Hunter, the executive director of the Institute for Critical Infrastructure Technology. The DC-based think tank focuses on the resilience of the United States' 16 critical infrastructure sectors. Hunter also chairs the board of CyberAg, the Eastern Shore Entrepreneurship Center's cybersecurity arm, and is a former acting and deputy CIO of the US Department of Agriculture.
Update: A previous version of this article described Joyce Hunter as a former "info chief" for the US Department of Agriculture. She is a former acting CIO and deputy CIO for the department, not a former CIO. (7/11/22, 2:12 p.m.)
Due to the presence of historically Black colleges and universities (HCBUs), Maryland is often hailed as a national leader in the advancement of diversity, inclusion and equity efforts.

Yet despite these institutions’ achievements, recent employment data reveals a less flattering reality. The 2020 Census estimated that Marylanders were approximately 31% Black, 49% percent white, 11% Hispanic, 7% Asian, and 2% multiracial. The Bureau of Labor Statistics puts Maryland’s estimated unemployment rate at 5%. The white population only has an estimated 4.4% rate, however, while 5.5% of the Black population experiences unemployment. This 1.1% disparity may seem insignificant on the surface because the numbers appear small on their own, but it is a 20% difference in employment rates.

Scaled to the Census’s population data, this means that the white population accounts for 2.15% of the state unemployment rate, while the black population — only about a third of the state’s population, compared to white residents’ near-half  — accounts for 1.71%.

In other words: data indicates that racial and socioeconomic biases that disproportionately impact Black Marylanders remain in force.

One opportunity to increase equity and improve the socioeconomic opportunities in disenfranchised communities is to invest in K-12 STEM education, including computer science and cybersecurity programs, and subsidize higher education for minorities. The cyber talent shortage is a national talking point that impacts every industry and sector. At the time of this writing, there are an estimated 714,548 open cybersecurity positions in the United States, including about 23,252 in Maryland.

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Moreover, as the former deputy CIO of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the current executive director of the Institute for Critical Infrastructure Technology (ICIT), I know that many future cybersecurity positions will exist in roles we are only beginning to anticipate — such as those at the intersection between cybersecurity and agriculture. If we do not prepare a workforce now, we will not have one for the future.

This is particularly significant to Maryland, which constitutes about 9% percent of the total value of agricultural products sold.

Despite being classified as a critical infrastructure sector, food and agriculture’s experiences with cybersecurity applications remain severely understudied. As a result, the businesses that America depends on to feed its citizens and livestock, manufacture its goods and support every other sector may be woefully vulnerable. The FBI already anticipates ransomware attacks against agricultural cooperatives during critical growth seasons. The scale, sophistication and propensity of those attacks will likely increase as international conflicts and climate change impact annual yields, populations continue increasing and agriculture technology becomes more automated and networked.

Joyce Hunter. (Courtesy photo)

Diversity, equity and inclusion efforts increase organizational resilience, financial dividends, and innovation. To fulfill our purpose of improving the health of the United States’ people, environment, and agricultural economy, agritech needs to be more diligent and foster a diverse workforce. We recognize that many people and perspectives have been excluded from agriculture and academia — and that public and private organizations can only be leaders in innovation and development by including and incorporating the ideas, innovations and voices of people from all genders, backgrounds, races, ethnicities and religious beliefs.

In agritech, cybersecurity or any other sector, companies that actively develop programs and policies for diverse populations to grow and lead will scale to greater heights. Cybersecurity, perhaps more so than other areas of technology, is one requiring a multidisciplinary approach to a problem. The field is one where problem-solving skills and a holistic view of a challenge are key to resolving an issue. Having a team made up of diverse individuals can only improve that team’s outcome.

In this country, as our understanding of sustainable agriculture grows, we have realized that holistic solutions cannot rest on science alone. To create thriving food systems for everyone, our research and outreach initiatives must be communicated in ways that are relevant and responsive to the cultural needs of all researchers, farmers and consumers.

Sufficient resources, accommodations and biodiversity are all essential to ensuring a regular and progressively stronger annual yield. Similarly, if we want to grow and strengthen a workforce for the future, we need to ensure sufficient diversity, opportunities and resources. It is incumbent upon us in the agriculture and cybersecurity industry to commit to growing diversity, inclusivity and equitable treatment of all, both within our community and in the communities we serve.

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