Agroterrorism: What It Is and Why It Should Matter to You

Agroterrorism is a type of bioterrorism used to attack an element of a nation's or region's agriculture with the primary goal of causing economic disruption, hardship and fear. A state sponsor of terrorism can use agroterrorism to weaken an enemy's economy or soften its resolve. A group that employs agroterrorism as a tactic can\ further its goals and punish an adversary by causing fear and economic hardship without killing people.

Department of Agriculture officials said today that the current quarantine on all beef and pork products will continue for the foreseeable future. Officials continue to destroy hundreds of thousands of cattle and pigs daily. “I have lost everything I own,” said the feedlot owner. “I sure hope they catch the people that did this.”

Far-fetched? Not at all.

Agroterrorism is a type of bioterrorism used to attack an element of a nation’s or region’s agriculture with the primary goal of causing economic disruption, hardship and fear. A state sponsor of terrorism can use agroterrorism to weaken an enemy’s economy or soften its resolve. A group that employs agroterrorism as a tactic can\ further its goals and punish an adversary by causing fear and economic hardship without killing people.

A widespread attack on agriculture would affect us all, no matter where we live or work. An agroterrorism event would likely result in travel restrictions on humans and animals, and preventive destruction of crops and herds in the affected area. The impact on banks, supply houses and the transportation industry, as well as landowners, could be devastating.

The impact on animals would not be limited to farm animals. Innocent household pets and wild animals would also fall victim to the attack and to the public health response dictated by such an event.

Weird Words and Bad Bugs

Agroterrorism employs “pathogens” (disease-causing agents) as a weapon against target crops or animal populations, as opposed to directly against humans. Some agroterrorism pathogens attack animals, and some attack crops.

An anti-crop pathogen might be intended to destroy or taint the nation’s corn, soybean, wheat or cotton crops. An anti-livestock pathogen could decimate our beef cattle, dairy, swine or poultry industries. The goal of agroterrorism is largely economic, but the fear caused in the public is a terrorist goal as well. Some pathogens are “zoonotic” (transferable between humans and animals) and some are not. There is an incentive for terrorists to use non-zoonotic pathogens because attackers do not have to be concerned with infecting themselves while processing or deploying the weapon.

Agroterrorism Tools and Tactics

Prior to President Nixon unilaterally banning biological warfare weapons in November 1969, the U.S. military strategy for launching such an attack against an enemy’s food supply was to cause many localized “hotspots” over a wide area instead of attacking large geographic areas at once. Causing infection in even a small number of cattle in a feedlot of 500,000 animals or a poultry farm with three million birds will effectively shut down the operation. Doing so in five or six locations simultaneously (or within the incubation period for the pathogen) would be devastating.

Terrorists could be expected to use the same tactic. In fact, the scenario for one recent nationwide bioweapons exercise was the simultaneous release of foot-and-mouth disease at feedlots in California, Minnesota and Florida. Such an attack would be expected to spread the illness not only to the cattle industry but also to deer, elk and wild hog populations, requiring the depopulation of those animals as well.

There are many diseases that can be weaponized to use in an attack on livestock or crops. Foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) is widely thought to be a likely pathogen for use in an agroterrorism weapon. Air Force Major Michael Peterson has described why FMD is so attractive as a weapons agent. Basically, although FMD has been eradicated from the U.S. since 1929, it is still found occurring in dozens of countries worldwide, so FMD is available to terrorists. FMD is quite hearty and can survive for extended periods in carcasses, animal byproducts, water, straw, shavings and the soil of pastureland. FMD is highly contagious and can be spread for dozens of miles in the wind. Another benefit to using FMD as a weapon is that the incubation period is three to eight days on average, so an animal can be infected and passed through an auction barn or placed in a feedlot to infect other animals even before the index animal is symptomatic. Also, FMD is not zoonotic so it can be safely handled by humans without concern. Infecting a large population of animals is as simple as placing a body part from a symptomatic animal into a farm ventilation or water system. FMD would also be spread by scavengers feeding on dead wild deer, elk, moose and hogs.

Impact on the Economy

Agroterrorism is attractive because it does not directly target humans. Therefore, fear of massive retaliation is reduced. At the same time, agroterrorism causes direct losses in responding to the attack, multiplier effects to affiliated industries, and compensation payments (where available) and losses due to domestic and international trade embargoes. Roughly one in eight Americans works in an occupation related to the food industry. Fifteen percent of U.S. workers are employed in agriculture, which accounts for about 13 percent of the U.S. gross domestic product. In his congressional testimony in 1999, veterinarian Dr. Corrie Brown said that “[a] terrorist wishing to cause severe reverberating financial consequences could simply introduce a foreign disease into American livestock, which would set off a chain reaction touching virtually every citizen’s pocketbook.” Restaurants, grocery stores, trucking, airline and rail carriers, landowners, insurance carriers and the tourist industry would all feel significant effects.

Steps Taken in Response

State and federal officials would have to act quickly and decisively to contain an agroterrorism attack. Agroterrorism will look like a natural disease outbreak at first, according to Risk Assessment for Food Terrorism and Other Food Safety Concerns (2003), published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). The USDA plan involves placing a quarantine zone and a movement control zone around all farms where an outbreak is suspected. The size of the movement control zone will depend on circumstances but will be a minimum radius of six miles around the infected zone. No animals or animal products would be allowed to leave the zone, and vehicles, people and equipment could only leave the zone after decontamination using “strict biosecurity procedures.” These procedures would include cleaning and disinfecting cars, trucks and cargo. People would be required to shower. Clothing would be destroyed or decontaminated.

Depending on circumstances, the movement of animals within the state where the farm is located may be prohibited. Animals suspected or confirmed to be infected would be euthanized and buried. All other animals would be quarantined and immunized.

As Major Peterson notes, “With some of the largest feedlots today holding between three hundred thousand and eight hundred thousand cattle, an intentional introduction of foot-and-mouth disease would be catastrophic.” In 2001, thousands and thousands of cloven-hoofed animals (cattle and pigs) had to be depopulated and burned in the United Kingdom because of a limited FMD outbreak. Here in the U.S., the USDA’s National Emergency Response to a Highly Contagious Animal Disease (2001) states that the preferred method for disposal of depopulated livestock is burial, as opposed to cremation. For staffing purposes, USDA plans for a depopulation and disposal crew of five to be able to process 40 animals per eight-hour shift with each cow requiring 42 cubic feet of burial space. The prospect of dealing with hundreds of thousands of animals in dozens of separate locations is daunting.

. . . The attack near New Jersey’s Short Hills Mall has shut down commuting in the metropolitan New York area due to the large deer population. Officials are attempting to contain the spread of foot-and-mouth disease west of the Hudson River. As the disease has spread, travel restrictions have halted workers from getting into New York. …

Vigilance Required

Animal illnesses plague humans and animals alike. Pathogens occur naturally and cause many disease outbreaks annually. Agroterrorism exploits this fact to attack an element of a nation’s or region’s agriculture. The primary goal of agroterrorism is to cause economic disruption without the risk to the attacker incumbent in killing large numbers of people. Agroterrorism is a fairly simple tactic to employ and has the potential to do widespread damage. An attack on livestock or crops in the U.S. would have devastating effects in many diverse industries.

What is to be done about the threat? International, federal and state officials monitor disease outbreaks. The intelligence and military communities monitor communications and the movement of key people and technology. We, as citizens, can be vigilant, too. There is a middle ground between “spying” on others and reporting suspicious activities. Finally, business owners need to include bioterrorism in their business continuity plans. By working together and becoming educated, we can mitigate the threat and speed recovery if an attack occurs.

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