June 2006
From the State Vet's Office

Agroterrorism: Keeping Our Guard Up

by Dr. Terry Slaten, Associate State Veterinarian

I do not watch many game shows, but it is always interesting to hear the introduction of the contestants. "Let’s welcome Jane Doe to our show. Jane hails from Anywhere, USA where she teaches kindergarten for the intellectually gifted. She holds dual doctorate degrees in physics and chemistry. She is married to Joe, her wonderful husband of 15 years, and has two beautiful children. In her spare time she takes food to the homeless and is working on a way to use atmospheric air to power our automobiles."

While terrorists probably do not participate in television game shows, it would likely be difficult to distinguish them from your average person on the street, other than an introduction that would go like this, "Let’s welcome John Doe to our show tonight. He hails from Amarillo, Texas. John has hated the United States since he was eight-years-old when he did not get the pony for Christmas he had asked for. John dropped out of medical school after his third year and has no visible means of income. He holds a PhD in genetic virology and hopes someday to introduce a virus that will devastate agriculture. He lives alone and he has not communicated with his family in 6 years."

Obviously, we will never hear an introduction such as that for a game show contestant; however, the fact remains that there are those whose main goal in life is to disrupt our way of life in this country. For whatever reason, there are those who hate the prosperity we enjoy here in America.

One of the areas that sets us apart from the rest of the world is our abundant, inexpensive, and safe food supply. Not only do we feed ourselves, but we also feed a good portion of the rest of the world. In my lifetime, I cannot remember food being in short supply (other than a few times when, at the end of a quarter in college, I was down to a jar of dill pickles and a box of crackers).

The point I am making is that production agriculture has, probably more than anything, contributed to our prosperity and success as a nation. Because of that fact, there are certain people who think of ways to disrupt our ways of life by disrupting agriculture. Evidence of this can be found on the al-Quida computers in Afghanistan. The computers had many USDA documents that had been translated into Arabic. Those documents explained how we, the United States, would deal with a Foreign Animal Disease outbreak. Furthermore, it is not only people from another country that would seek to do agriculture harm, but also citizens of our own country with a different agenda have already been involved in terrorist activities that sabotage agricultural research and development.

I am occasionally told by someone that foot and mouth disease is not something we should worry about since it has not been found in the United States for over seventy years. That is precisely the reason we should be concerned about such diseases. Our animal population has no natural immunity to diseases such as Foot and Mouth Disease, Rift Valley Fever, Nipah Virus, Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza, and a number of other diseases that could not only affect animals, but also human health. With no natural immunity in our animals, a disease could spread like gossip at a church picnic (sorry). The old cliché, "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure" has never been truer.

We have been actively encouraging awareness to potential terrorism since the tragedy of 9-11. Awareness involves paying attention to what goes on around us. Ignoring things that do not seem exactly right certainly opens the door to terrorist acts. We need to not only notice, but also report actions such as an unusual vehicle parking on or near a farm. If a stranger is asking a lot of questions about a farm or agricultural operation, it could be someone who wishes to make an offer to buy the place—but it could be someone with bad intentions. If you think something doesn’t seem right, report it to the authorities. Don’t be the person who, after the event says, "I saw that strange truck parked at the chicken houses and I thought something wasn’t right. I guess I should have reported it."

Whether intentional or by accident, we must be vigilant about the introduction of foreign animal diseases into our country. There are certain occurrences that should be reported to someone, either your local veterinarian or to our office. If you experience larger than normal die-offs, it should be reported. If you have six adult cows that were fine yesterday and today you find them dead, that should be reported and investigated. Other events that should send up a red flag are neurological problems, abortion storms, a large percentage of animals becoming sick, and any disease in which the animal has vesicles (blisters) around the mouth or feet.

Through a partnership between the Alabama Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries, we have enhanced our laboratory capabilities for early detection and are working on response plans should an agro-terrorism event occur. We are very appreciative of the fact that the Alabama DHS recognizes the importance of agriculture in our state and has become a strong supporter in our efforts. We are acquiring equipment, developing emergency plans, exercising our plans, and working to get the National Animal Identification System implemented. All of this will help us in the event of an act of agroterrism.

We are more prepared today than we were yesterday and will be more prepared tomorrow than we are today, but we continue to ask you to keep your guard up. If it looks like a duck, if it walks like a duck, and if it quacks like a duck, then it’s probably a duck…..just make sure the feathers are real. If you have questions or need to report anything, my number is 334-240-7253.