When US troops stormed Al Qaeda’s Afghan caves after September 11, 2001, they stumbled onto sobering evidence that the terrorists were thinking of more than flying airplanes into skyscrapers. Hundreds of documents weredevoted to one subject: American agriculture.
When investigators also learned that the terrorists might have received their flight instruction at schools that trained crop dusters, a grim possibility loomed: Our countryside was no safer than our cities, and our very food supply was at risk.
The federal government acted immediately, twice grounding all crop-dusters. Federal and state agencies began cooperating with each other, and with universities and the private sector, to an unprecedented degree. More than $6 billion became available for preventing an attack on our food production system and for dealing with one should it take place. In addition, more than $20 million of the original US Department of Homeland Security budget established new national laboratories for diagnosing plant and animal diseases.
Millions more in federal and state funds have bolstered existing programs to prevent, detect and contain threats to crops and livestock and to create new programs and even new technologies. Scientists and public officials today express optimism about their ability to deter an attack; should one occur, they say, it will be contained quickly and efficiently, without catastrophic loss of life.
But for all this activity and optimism, we may be only minimally safer than we were when the Twin Towers and the Pentagon were attacked. This fact was driven home with rare candor by US Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson when he announced his resignation on December 3, 2004.
“For the life of me,” Thompson said, “I cannot understand why the terrorists have not attacked our food supply because it is so easy to do.”
Millions of Targets
On that fact, virtually all experts agree. “American agriculture and the food that it produces is a huge target, with millions of farms, thousands of feedlots and processing plants, and untold numbers of groceries, restaurants and convenience stores,” sums up J. C. Hunter-Cevera, PhD, president of the University of Maryland’s Biotechnology Institute.
“Introducing disease into crops, livestock or food products in such a decentralized industry is a cheap form of terrorism, much simpler than flying planes into buildings or sabotaging bridges or power plants.”
The risks are real and frightening:
?Pathogens—microbes that can cause disease—can be introduced just by walking on farmland with contaminated shoes. The effect could destroy entire harvests.
?Farm animals could be infected with illnesses such as footand- mouth disease, killing millions of cattle, pigs and sheep and wiping out the farming communities that raise them.
?Food could be deliberately contaminated with anthrax, botulism, E. coli and salmonella. This would cost billions of dollars to remedy—even if only a few people were sickened or died from it.
“Our borders are almost completely open, and we trade freely with other countries, so people and food are constantly moving about,” says Caroline Anderson Rydell of the American Farm Bureau. “From the farm to the processing plant to the retailer or restaurant, a lot of people handle our food.” All of these people and all of these steps in the process add up to “many points of vulnerability to sabotage,” according to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Perhaps the respected Rand Corporation’s National Security Research Division put the problem most concisely and most chillingly: “The food chain offers a low-tech mechanism for achieving human deaths.”
But are human deaths what terrorists really seek? And is that the most likely outcome of an “agriterrorist” act?
Bugs, not bombs
“Because agricultural terrorism would involve microbes and not planes or bombs, it’s in some ways scarier than more familiar terrorist acts,” Hunter-Cevera says. “Also, people think in terms of widespread disease and starvation.
But that’s probably not what food terrorists would want to achieve through sabotage of food, even if they could— which most scientists doubt.”
What is more likely, Hunter-Cevera says, is a small, isolated outbreak of disease that could be readily detected and quickly contained. “But it would wreak havoc by inducing fear, which is what terrorism really seeks to do. Even one incident could mean billions of dollars in losses—as mad cow disease caused in Canada—and devastate whole segments of the economy.”
It could also destroy Americans’ confidence in the food supply. R. James Cook, PhD, a professor in Washington State University’s Department of Crop & Soil Sciences, agrees that the financial losses could be horrendous. “The government began studying these possibilities long before 9/11. Nothing that has happened since challenges the belief that—if the long-term goal of terrorists is to cause economic turmoil— such an attack makes perfect sense,” Cook says. “But for now, it seems clear that they prefer grislier, more spectacular events. And contaminating a farm field—no matter how costly it might be to the economy—is anything but spectacular. In an event like that, we might not even know we’d been hit for days. With the Twin Towers, we knew we’d been attacked.”
With the introduction of a plant pathogen, which can also occur totally by accident, terrorists might not even get credit for the harm. “Plus, widespread disease or mass starvation would be extremely unlikely,” Cook says. But the impact could still be devastating, here and abroad. America exports 22 percent of its agricultural products, including nearly half of its soybeans, 40 percent of its corn and 8 percent of its wheat, so millions of people in other countries who rely on our agricultural bounty would also suffer from any disruption.
prevent, detect, contain
No one doubts that more needs to be done on many fronts. “The key to protecting ourselves, in health as well as in financial terms, is early detection, accurate diagnosis and prompt containment,” Cook says. “For that, I think we ultimately need the equivalent of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—but for plants.”
Also, efforts remain spread across several agencies, with duplications and inefficiencies. To fix that, US Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) and US Representative Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) have proposed the creation of a new federal department, the Food Safety Administration, to combine the functions of 12 different agencies, which might help.
However, the first line of defense must always be at the lowest levels, which troubles Cook. “While we’re making real progress on the scientific front, especially in the genome mapping of plants, I still worry about the lack of training of ‘first-line responders,’” he says. “Farmers and veterinarians— who aren’t likely to recognize exotic diseases brought in from other countries—need more education. We need winter schools for farmers to educate them to recognize threats to their plants and animals.”
With proper training, the first line of defense—food handlers at all points on the food chain—could also be the best. “Agriculture is vulnerable precisely because there are so many points of contact, from planting to harvest, processing, packing, shipping, preparing and serving the food,” Hunter-
Cevera says. “All of these are places where problems can be introduced, but they are also places where problems can be detected and fixed.”
Huge vulnerabilities will remain, however, until American agribusiness reforms itself. “Growing the same crops with very little genetic diversity over millions of acres makes them highly susceptible to disease, whether the pathogens causing the disease are introduced by terrorists or blown in by a hurricane,” Cook says. Farm animals are at risk for similar reasons. The bipartisan Congressional Research Service notes that “feedlots with thousands of cattle in open-air pens, farms with tens of thousands of pigs, or barns with hundreds of thousands of poultry” mean an outbreak of a contagious disease would be very difficult to contain. Even the Farm Bureau, no critic of factory farming, acknowledges the risk. “Under these conditions, foot-and-mouth disease could infect multiple herds in hours,” Rydell says.
Considering the jeopardy in which American agriculture finds itself, it may be no surprise that the FDA, in a recently declassified report, failed to distinguish between the threat of a terrorist attack on our food supply and accidental contamination. There is “a high likelihood, over the course of a year, that a significant number of people will be affected by an act of food terrorism or by an incident of unintentional food contamination that results in a serious food-borne illness,” the FDA warned.
That report was issued on October 13, 2003, meaning we’ve escaped the fate predicted in it by two years. How much longer we’ll be this fortunate is anybody’s guess. In Alan Crawford’s years on Capitol Hill, he worked for US Congressmen serving on the House Foreign Affairs Committee and the House Agriculture Committee—both critical to protecting us from agriterrorism.