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On Point

The Danger of Agro-terror


by Austin Bay
July 14, 2004

Does "agricultural terrorism" pose a real threat?

The answer is yes, and not only to the United States and the rest of North America, but to the entire planet.

Agro-terror, closely associated with other forms of "bio-terror," illustrates just how difficult it is to passively defend against terror assaults.

Terror attacks on food resources and production obviously threaten farm animals, plants and the food supply chain, but agro-terror is also economic terror.

Britain's bout with Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD), which began in February 2001, pre-dated 9-11, but it's an object lesson for Al Qaeda. FMD attacks hooved animals (it used to be known as Hoof and Mouth disease). Ultimately, Britain had a few thousand confirmed FMD cases, but nearly 3 million animals were destroyed in an effort to contain the epidemic.

Texas Commissioner of Agriculture Susan Combs told me she knows the livestock sector is particularly vulnerable to terrorists spreading a disease like FMD. "An attack like that," Combs said, "is an economic catastrophe. Like the situation in Britain, it's not just the individual infected animal you have to slaughter. There's a ripple effect, from the threat of the epidemic." Combs said sheep and pigs, as well as cattle, are vulnerable. "These are huge industries in this country."

Combs and other ag experts have participated in exercises -- "wargames," she said -- that have examined potential biological and economic effects. "At first there's a direct impact on the immediate region, where the disease is first detected, even in one animal." But, the gaming indicated "in a matter of several days we could have breakouts of virus (like FMD), over a multi-state area."

As for economic damage: "One outbreak we wargamed began in a tiny Texas town. Given the ripple effect, the initial economic cost was 50 to 100 million dollars. I don't think that figure captured real costs. In reality, it would be much higher."

I have to note that one of Combs' three sons deploys to Iraq late this summer with his Marine Corps Reserve unit, 1st Battalion/23rd Marines.

One cost of agro-terror that is difficult to estimate in dollars is loss of public confidence in the food supply. Panic occurs, prices spike, fear spreads.

Attacks on crops are as old as war itself -- Romans salted Carthaginian fields. The United States researched pathogens in World War II that would wither Japanese rice fields (no, they were never used). The Soviet Union had several bio-weapon programs specifically aimed at food crops. Ken Alibek, a Russian scientist who has written extensively about Soviet programs, documented research into bacteria and viruses "designed" to attack wheat, rice and corn. Here's the scenario, straight out of a bad spy thriller, but one that occupies the very real world minds of counter-terror cops tasked with thwarting bio-attacks: an out of work ex-Soviet scientist sells a virus to an Al Qaeda operative.

For economic, political and social advantage, people, cash and information flow more freely over contemporary borders -- but so can microbes. It's ironic: The speed of modern transport and the breadth of trade increases the threat of an ancient scourge, epidemic disease. Cattle feedlots, with up to 10,000 animals packed into a small space, are undeniably a target.

At a homeland defense conference held in February 2000 --another example of pre-9/11 insight -- RAND scholar Dr. Peter Chalk argued that the possibility that a "highly valuable commodity might somehow be deliberately sabotaged ... is something that the majority of people simply do not consider, let alone demand action against. ... It is only in those rare cases where the daily lives of individuals have been directly affected by crop and livestock disasters ... that we begin to see the stirrings of any public appreciation for the susceptibility of agricultural produce."

Chalk added: "Weaponizing" biological agents to destroy agricultural animals is a far easier process than creating munitions designed to kill hundreds of people." Bio-warfare "against human beings requires at least a limited knowledge of microbiology. However, this is not the case with livestock-disease delivery, which is, by comparison, relatively low tech."

Regulatory inspections of ag products entering the United States offers the slimmest of protections against agro-terror. Preventing agro-terror requires an in-depth police effort that has not yet begun.

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