Agriculture is considered by many to be the perfect target for bioterrorism, also called agroterrorism. Why? A hard look at the data will show us that the agriculture industry is unmatched in revenue and scope.
Turkey farm. Methods to contaminate food supplies include the coating of turkey feathers with a biological agent. Photo: USDA-ARS.
- Food and fiber account for approximately 13% of the GDP and 24 million Americans are employed in agriculture directly — that’s 2% of the population.
In 1997, the agriculture industry generated over $1 trillion worth of business, a large portion (roughly $140 billion) of which was derived from export markets.
America has nearly 2 million farms where crops and animals are raised to provide the steady flow of high-quality, safe, and inexpensive foods to our tables and to those around the world.
America has become the world’s leader in food production. In 1997, corn generated nearly $20 billion in sales; soybeans $16 billion; cattle $40 billion; and poultry $22 billion. In Iowa alone there was over $3 billion in sales of corn; $2.7 billion in soybeans; and $3 billion in pigs in 1997.
If any one of these commodities were to be significantly impacted by a bioterrorist event the results could be catastrophic. But the impact of a devastating attack on our food supply would not be limited just to the farmer. Businesses such as farm suppliers, transportation, grocery stores, restaurants, equipment distributors, and in the end consumers, all pay the price. Small towns could potentially be wiped out and put the supply of our food in peril, perhaps for a long time.
Targeting the food supply
An attack against animals or crops is generally viewed as more benign and less offensive than if humans fell dead from a direct assault. Agricultural terrorism is not about killing animals; it is about crippling an economy. To that end agents foreign to U.S. livestock/poultry industries and crops would be preferred by terrorists.
For animals, there are many foreign agents readily available in nature, from low-security laboratories, even from commercial sources, that require little effort or risk to smuggle in. Most foreign animal agents pose no risk to human health, so the terrorist may feel some sense of security in handling and dispersing these pathogens. Once released, an agroterrorism event may go unnoticed for days to weeks and by then it may be nearly impossible to determine if the event was manmade or occurred naturally.
Agricultural targets [can be]:
- animals or plants
- the trucks and railroads that transport them
- water supplies
- farm workers
- grain elevators
- food handlers
- grocery stores
- and more
The poor level of biosecurity on the majority of farms today guarantees unchallenged and unhindered access to the determined, patient terrorist. Few farmers or producers quarantine their new animals — the same animals that were just purchased at a crowded sale barn.
An effective agent to be used against animals will be
- highly contagious
- able to survive well in the environment
- result in economic hardship and an import ban by other countries
What types of agents might fulfill some, if not most, of the above criteria? Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD), Hog Cholera, Velogenic Newcastle Disease, African Swine Fever, Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza, and Rinderpest. It is estimated that if FMD became established within the U.S. that it would cost our nation over $27 billion in trade losses alone each year. Add to this the costs of depopulating infected herds, disinfecting premises, quarantines, surveillance, higher prices of meat-it all adds up to a heavy price.
For plants the list of agents that might be used is nearly endless, although some, such as Wheat Smut or Rice Blast, appear more harmful than others. Here weather, season, and growth stage all play an important role in the effectiveness of the agent employed.
The route of introduction of these agents may vary:
- aerosol seems to be one of the most effective means [and] as with crops, this could be done in animals by crop duster and hand spray pumps
- clever methods have included the coating of turkey feathers with the agent, filling small bomblets with the feathers, then exploding them over the target where they drift on the wind and contaminate a vast area
- simpler methods are also very effective: introducing an infected animal to the herd, or walking onto the farm with contaminated shoes or clothes would be an inconspicuous, but less reliable, means of infecting animals.
Reaction to an agricultural bioterrorist event in animals depends on the rapidity with which the disease is discovered. It makes no difference at the early stages of an outbreak as to whether the agent was released by man or nature as it will be treated the same.
- Today there are over 350 veterinarians trained as Foreign Animal Diseases Diagnosticians.
- This does not include the thousands of veterinarians in private practice and in state and federal positions that are also in touch with the livestock and poultry industries.
It is at the farm level where astute veterinarians play a crucial role in this country’s effort to combat agroterrorism, for they are the ones talking to the owners, seeing the animals, and taking the samples each and every day.
The response to a biological incident in agriculture will involve several government agencies in addition to those individuals listed above.
- The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is the lead agency in protecting America’s agriculture and is continually working hard at this task through the surveillance of animals and crops for foreign diseases, operation of quarantine stations, and the implementation of response plans should a foreign agent be found.
The USDA has dedicated teams under its Regional Emergency Animal Disease Eradication Organization that are able to travel to any site for the purpose of implementing control and eradication measures.
But included in a significant incident should be other agencies as well: law enforcement, HAZMAT, and fire departments. These agencies may be called upon to assist the USDA, Department of Defense, or other federal agencies in coordinating efforts, maintaining public order, providing decontamination/slaughter/disposal efforts, communications, and other needs.
The threat to agriculture is real and the U.S. is now beginning to address it. It is prudent for [farmers, veterinarians, and other agricultural professionals] to become familiar with the issues and details surrounding agricultural bioterrorism and make plans now.
© 2001, Iowa State University. Reprinted with permission. See reprint policy.