November 2006
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Agroterrorism: A Deadly Serious Problem

Concerns Grow Over Possible Attacks on Food Supply

By Alvin Benn

 
  The Alabama Department of Agriculture has purchased several mobile units that can be dispatched quickly to help in the case of emergencies.
Americans are still trying to shake the images of jetliners crashing into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon five years ago, but an even worse disaster could be around the corner if terrorists ever find a way to infect the country’s food supply.

That possibility has created a 13-letter word that likely will show up in new editions of dictionaries. It’s called “agroterrorism” and it describes a deadly serious subject.

Alabama farmers are becoming more aware of the word every day, especially when they are told that they and their veterinarians represent the first line of defense against accidental or deliberate agricultural invasions.

“Agriculture is vulnerable to terrorists because we can’t put a 12-foot chain link fence around every farm in Alabama and the rest of America,” said Brad Fields, a veterinarian who is director of Emergency Programs with the state Department of Agriculture and Industries.

Fields and Joe Davis, assistant director of the Alabama Department of Homeland Security, spoke recently at the 7th Annual Biomedical Research Symposium at Tuskegee University and focused on farm security.

 
Dr. Brad Fields of the Alabama Department of Agriculture inspects equipment inside one of the agency’s new mobile units.  
They didn’t pull any punches during their presentations. What they said about Alabama is being repeated throughout the country as concerns grow over possible attacks on America’s food supply by terrorists.

“From a preparedness and preventive standpoint, it is important for all farmers in Alabama to better understand what we’re dealing with,” Fields said during an interview with Cooperative Farming News after his presentation.

Fields has been spending as much time as he can in the fields, meeting with farmers and farm organizations as he tries to drive home the importance of vigilance and awareness.

“We’re ranked in the top five percent of any program in the country, but we can’t just sit back,” he said. “We have to stay committed to improving our farm security efforts.”

The state Department of Homeland Security has issued a statement saying Alabama farms could become targets of terrorists because the state is a leading producer of broilers and continues to maintain a respectable cattle industry.

“Extremists looking to disrupt the American economy and way of life may turn to agricultural terrorism because of the low technology nature of the threat,” the Homeland Security statement said. “Most diseases are easy to introduce and transmission is easy because there is no need for weaponization of diseases.”

Importation of foreign animals infected with lethal diseases is a major concern of agricultural experts around the country and that is why farmers are being called on to report anything suspicious in their herds or fields.

In early 2005, an Alabama farmer noticed that one of his cows had been acting strangely. The animal was unable to stand and when it could, it would stagger. The farmer called his veterinarian and the diagnosis determined it had been infected by Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy—also known as “Mad Cow Disease.”

Tests later showed that the animal was at least 10 years old, meaning it was probably born before the U.S. Department of Agriculture 1997 feed ban. The USDA said older animals are more likely to have been exposed to contaminated feed circulating before its ban on certain feeding practices.

Alabama was one of only two states to record a case of BSE in 2005, but there was no reason to suspect the animals had been deliberately infected by anyone with evil intentions.

Since Sept. 11, 2001, however, national attention has been focused on a variety of ways that terrorists might try to disrupt American commerce, agriculture, banking and other vital entities.

Two years after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, U.S. Senators were told that a simple handkerchief wielded by a “resourceful terrorist” could cause billions of dollars of damage to the American food system and untold terror in the nation’s kitchens.

The Associated Press reported that food experts were pleading that more attention be paid to the country’s food supply.

Dr. Tom McGinn of the North Carolina Department of Agriculture told the Senate group that “we have become a nation concerned about receiving anthrax in our mailboxes.” He followed with an admonition that diseases just as deadly as anthrax could, one day, wind up in refrigerators from coast to coast.

The Senate group also learned that a terrorist could easily find ways to spread foot and mouth disease and other infectious illnesses.

U.S. Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois said, “If you exposed livestock before they were being shipped back to the farm from a state fair, you would have dispersed the disease across the state, frankly, in a saddeningly efficient way.”

Peter Chalk, a Rand Corp. analyst, said agroterrorism could have a “devastating effect” on the U.S. economy since food production accounts for about 10 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product.

“It could have severe repercussions in terms of galvanizing a mass public scare throughout the country, particularly if human deaths actually occurred,” Chalk said. “Terrorists could use this to their advantage, allowing them to create a general atmosphere of fear and anxiety without actually having to carry out indiscriminate civilian-oriented attacks.”

Fields said any deliberate assault on Alabama agriculture should produce “obvious signs” along the way including “abortion storms” caused by diseases.

He said “common clinical signs” should be evident to farmers. If not, their veterinarians will have the answers when contacted.

“Neurological diseases can cause ‘abortion storms’ and mouth blisters on cattle are clear signs of trouble,” Fields said. “That’s why I spend so much time in the fields when I’m not speaking to farm groups around the state.”

Three components of homeland security are prevention, protection and response/recovery. Obviously, those in charge of the new program would rather prevent terrorism from happening that try and recover from it.

The state’s emergency operations center is located at the Richard Beard Building in Montgomery, but several mobile units have been purchased to help serve as the eyes and ears of Alabama agriculture. The units can respond to problems anywhere in the state and Fields proudly showed off one of them during the Tuskegee University conference.

The Alabama Department of Homeland Security is working hard to inform farmers of the need to be prepared and not to take anything for granted. The department uses cattle and poultry as examples of two of the state’s most vulnerable agricultural industries.

“Producers in each area must become aware of foreign animal diseases and emerging diseases that may be used as a tool to attack Alabama’s largest industry,” the department said recently in a statement.

In addition to awareness, farmers also are being asked to begin using basic biosecurity practices to lessen the chance of a disease outbreak.

American agriculture represents a multi-billion dollar industry with millions of people employed directly or indirectly in farming. That is why federal and state officials are concerned about the possibility of a terrorist attack on food supplies.

Viral outbreaks in recent years have claimed lives as well as livestock. The number of farms in America may be dwindling, but the number of animals is growing in concentrated areas—perhaps providing easy targets.

Problems don’t necessarily have to be caused by agroterrorists, Fields said. It could result from infections totally unrelated to foreign enemies.

The most recent examples have been scares over spinach and lettuce in western states. At least two deaths have been reported and spinach sales virtually disappeared overnight once word began to spread around the country. There is no reason to suspect leafy sabotage, but health officials aren’t taking anything for granted these days.

Fields said he and other agriculture officials concerned about potential danger to Alabama farmers will continue to travel the state—sounding the alarm when appropriate.

“We’re doing a good job,” he said, “but we need to get better.”

Alvin Benn is a freelance writer from Selma.