Bookmark and Share

Agricultural Bioterrorism

Radford G. Davis


Agricultural bioterrorism can be as devastating as other forms of terrorism because it:

  • cripples the economy of a nation
  • can destroy the livelihood of many people
  • puts food supply at risk, perhaps for a long time
  • may not be detected before it reaches difficult-to-control levels

October 2001

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.
America is a world leader in food production.
  • 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.

A terrorist attack on U.S. agricultural products would be disastrous.

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.

The economy would suffer greatly from agroterrorism.
Determining if nature or terrorists caused a disaster is difficult.

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
  • producers
  • grain elevators
  • ships
  • food handlers
  • restaurants
  • grocery stores
  • and more
Farms have meager security measures.

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.

Agroterrorist agents

An effective agent to be used against animals will be

  • highly contagious
  • virulent
  • able to survive well in the environment
  • result in economic hardship and an import ban by other countries
Animal diseases could cost America billions.

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.

Crops can also be targeted.

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:

The easiest way to spread agents is by air.
  • 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.

Being prepared

Veterinarians are the front-line response people.

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.

Government has created agencies to deal with agroterrorism.
  • 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.
Conclusion: Now is the time to plan for a rapid response to potential agroterrorist attacks.
  • 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.

Radford G. Davis, DVM, is an assistant professor of Public Health at Iowa State University, College of Veterinary Medicine, Department of Veterinary Microbiology and Preventive Medicine. He manages the college’s web site and writes many of the site’s articles. Dr. Davis received his Master of Public Health from the University of Arizona and his Doctor of Veterinary Medicine from Colorado State University. As the first public veterinary school in the United States, the college at Iowa State University has a long history of advancing animal and public health and providing professional and educational leadership. Its ultimate objective is to provide outstanding animal health care based on the integration of clinical practice, teaching, research, and service.

Agricultural Bioterrorism

Understanding Biosecurity: Protecting against the misuse of science in today’s world

Free booklet published by the National Research Council “…to illuminate the importance of biosecurity, and to explore how scientists, organizations, and governments at many levels can work together to minimize the threat.”


Read an interview on this site with Joseph Henderson of the Centers for Disease Control discussing chemical and biological agents of terror.

Overview of agroterrorism

Lt. Col. Robert P. Kadlec, US Air Force, presents an overview, possible scenarios, and comments about how well the U.S. is prepared for agricultural bioterrorism.

James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies

The Center, part of the Monterey Institute of International Studies, provides information on agro-terrorism and links to additional resources.

Nuclear, Biological & Chemical Warfare

This site aims to be “the most comprehensive” links site on the the subject.

EPA Counter-Terrorism Unit

Information about the EPA’s role in counter-terrorism activities.

US National Disaster Medical System (NDMS)

“Whether you are a disaster responder, public health official, emergency manager, practitioner, or just passing through our site,” you will find bioterrorism information, including emergency protocols.

Domestic preparedness and security

Information from the Red Cross includes suggestions on how you can build a “disaster resistant neighborhood” and develop an emergency management disaster plan at your workplace.

Bioterrorism: Becoming an Informed Citizen

Students will work in groups of 6-7 to investigate six of the most common biological weapons and create a new section to the student’s textbooks on them.

Preparing for Bioterror

This lesson plan focuses on how America is preparing to respond to a potential bioterrorist attack.

General References:

  • » Roger, Paul; Whitby, Simon; Dando, Malcom. “Biological warfare against crops.” Scientific American. June. 1999; 280:70-75.
  • » Frazier, TW; Richardson, DC., eds. “Food and agriculture security.” Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. 1999; 894:1-233.
  • » Mangold, Tom, and Goldberg, Jeff. Plague Wars. St. Martins Press; 2000.
  • » Lockwood, Jeffrey, “Entomological warfare: history of the use of insects as weapons of war.” Bulletin of the ESA. 1987.
  • » Torok, TJ; et al. “A large community outbreak of salmonellosis caused by intentional contamination of restaurant salad bars.” JAMA. 1997; 278:389-395.
  • » Gordon, John C; Bech-Nielsen, Steen. “Biological terrorism: a direct threat to our livestock industry.” Military Medicine. 1986; 151:357-363.
  • » Wilson, T. M., L. Logan-Henfrey, R. Weller, and B. Kellman. 2000. “Agroterrorism, biological crimes, and biological warfare targeting animal agriculture,” p. 23-57. In C. Brown and C. Bolin (ed.), Emerging Diseases of Animals. ASM Press, Washington, D.C.


Understanding Science