A Biological Terror Attack in Agriculture

Introduction

Food production or the agricultural industry is vital to the US economy. It contributes approximately seventeen percent of the country’s Domestic product but most importantly, its commodities are essential raw materials in other industries. The world is slowly becoming susceptible to new forms of terror attacks as advancements in technology and stringent antiterrorism efforts are pushing terrorists to reconsider other options. Bioterrorism and suicide air attacks form part of these new approaches. Terrorists who engage in such acts often do so with the hope of minimizing US defense capabilities as well as undermining government authority in these respective areas. The paper shall argue that a biological terror attack vulnerable to the agricultural system on US soil must be curbed by the Department of Homeland security.

Vulnerability of the US to biological terror attacks based in agriculture

Experts have identified five major areas that may be targets for biological attacks in the country’s agricultural system and they include: animal husbandry, field crops, distribution of agricultural commodities or their manufacturing process, marketing and sale of processed or ready to eat foods and lastly agricultural facilities that engage in the transport and wholesale creation of products. (McNair, 2006)

Studies estimate that vulnerability of the US to terror attacks of this nature is quite high. Some reasons are related to the very nature of the agricultural industry while others are linked to the objectives and goals of perpetrators. First of all, the US agricultural industry is very large and immensely complex. This means that interference can be done with relative ease. Secondly, US citizens have become accustomed to a fast and efficient food production sector that promptly delivers. The possibility of failure in this industry is rarely taken seriously yet it is real. A quick analysis of major agricultural farms shows why there may be cause for alarm. Most industries are heavily dependent on a few farms to provide them with raw agricultural goods and this implies that people with ill intentions can easily affect the entire country by attacking these relatively few farms. This problem is replicated in manufacturing processes as vertical integration is quite common. One company may be responsible for every aspect of production such as plant growth, collection, transportation, processing and distribution. In the event that a terrorist gets hold of one such firm, then the country will be left exceedingly vulnerable. Another alarming issue that presents immense vulnerabilities for the US is generic modifications. One can engage in production of genetic mutant weeds that can destroy crops with relative ease since minimal resources or technology is required. Most pathogens that are used in propagating agricultural diseases are readily available and this makes their use quite possible. One who chooses to carry out malicious and dangerous acts of terror may not easily be traced as results of pathogenic usage usually occur over time. Getting proof to criminalize such individuals is immensely difficult and this means that most would get away with it. Additionally, smuggling biological pathogens into the United States is also relatively easily; therefore biological terrorism within the agricultural system is a real threat to the entire population. Lastly, the agricultural industry is a very attractive area of biological terrorism owing to the fact that it can impose minimal destruction on perpetrators; suicide attacks are not needed here. (McNair, 2006)

Animal keeping makes it relatively easy for wrongdoers as well. For instance, most animal farm activities tend to create potential loopholes such as branding, dehorning or castration. In these practices, animals are normally placed close together and the transmittance of biological agents can therefore be easily done.

In the marketing and food sale sector, a series of gaps can provide potential terrorists with opportunities of infecting the commodities. When dealing with customers, it is exceedingly difficult to halt the process and check for contamination; most companies place more emphasis on profit making rather than on biological terror attacks. This is especially common in fast food restaurants. On top of the latter, it is particularly intricate to assess whether certain pathogens were unintentional i.e. that they were naturally occurring or whether they were introduced by terrorists prior to sale of the products.

Hazards or possible risks that may arise out of biological terror in the US

If the country is attacked by biological agents in the agricultural system, agricultural goods would be destroyed; this would translate to food shortage for the population and loss of profits for companies. The country would have to spend immense amounts of money on diagnosis of the biological agents. In the event that the attack was carried out against livestock then chances are that carcasses would have to be disposed or plants would have to be eliminated if the attack was against field crops. Declining availability of commodity foods to consumers may result in waning confidence and this is definitely undesirable. All these problems would be spread to the macro economic sector in the form of fewer exports thus undermining trade within the country. In other words, a biological attack on the agricultural system would have reverberating effects on the entire economy hence leading to the term econoterrorism. (US department of homeland security and the National academies, n.d.)

History of biological attacks in the agricultural system

It is essential to examine what has happened around the world in order to determine the possibility of occurrence in the US or to analyze possible damages that may emanate out of such terror attacks. One of the most recent biological attacks in agricultural systems was that of mad cow disease. This occurred in Britain in the nineteen nineties. It was estimated that approximately fourteen billion dollars was spent by the British government in order to mitigate the effects of mad cow; such losses came in the form of export bans and waning confidence in British beef products. As if that was not enough, the process of dealing with mad cow necessitated quarantine in some areas. As a result, social and political activities could were halted as the British government decided to postpone its election. Vast army resources were also dedicated to this exercise and this definitely pulled the country back. (Weijden, n.d)

In 1997, Taiwan was forced to cope with Foot and Mouth disease. Although it was not confirmed, Taiwan’s government asserted that the pig that led to this disease emanated from China and this was therefore an act of biological terror. The country lost eight million pigs and hence subsequent exports associated with pork products from those pigs. (Weijden, n.d) The US could possibly be confronted with losses of this nature if nothing is currently done to prevent such acts.

Back in the nineteen seventies; specifically 1977, an outbreak of swine fever arose in the Netherlands. Several carcasses had to be eliminated by digging mass graves. Additionally, it caused substantial portions of the country to be sealed off and this definitely created a range of social and economic repercussions. (Weijden, n.d)

Studies also show that there have been approximately twenty four incidences of biological attacks on agriculture over the past century. Over sixty seven percent of these cases occurred in the nineteen nineties thus indicating that the possibility of their reoccurrence in the future is rife. Most historical reports assert that common targets have been commercial pants and animals as well as restaurants through the use of food poisoning. (US department of homeland security and the National academies, n.d.)

Possible perpetrators of biological attacks in agricultural systems

Agro terrorism can be done first and foremost by religious fundamentalists. Past events indicate that the latter group is responsible for the largest share of terror attacks against the United States and the same can be said for biological terror in agriculture. However, because of the unique nature of the agricultural system it is possible to find some unique groups that target this industry; they include animal rights activities. Although technically speaking, animal rights activities may not be using biological agents, their acts, goals and intentions cause them to be placed in this category. Between the nineteen seventies and the nineteen nineties, it was reported that approximately three hundred and thirteen incidences of animal rights extremists arose with most of them targeting medial laboratories, research centers, cooperatives as well as restaurants. Usually, these groups of terrorists can carry out their threats through extreme methods such as burning meat production facilities or vandalizing lorries that do so. A third category of terrorists are supporters of nationalist movement who may want to propagate a right or left wing agenda. Fourth, agro terrorism can be instigated by loners anywhere in the United States. (Mcnair, 2006)

Level of preparedness by the US in the event of an attack

Reports show that the US is not adequately prepared for a biological attack based in agriculture. In order to assess the situation, it is essential to look at what the country is doing or has done in the past. The government uses a three tier system to defend the country against bioterrorism in agricultural systems and these are: natural resistance, disease control and hygiene. When plants or animals are brought into the country, they are immediately checked for any pests or diseases. If they are found to be infected, then they are immediately sent back to their country of origin or placed under quarantine. These actions constitute the hygiene aspect of defense. The problem with its use arises in its vulnerability to economic and trade developments. Currently, most countries are embracing the possibilities of trade globalization. Consequently, this makes it very difficult for the US to heighten its defense efforts with regard to hygiene.

Alternatively, the US has been defending its populace against agroterrorism through the use of vaccinations or resilience strategies. Here, the country prepares its livestock to resist diseases through vaccination. The problem with such a method is that it contravenes most international regulations especially those stipulated by the World Trade Organization. This stance has been taken because many vaccinated animal species are strikingly similar to sick ones and there is therefore no need to carry these out. Exports can also been banned if it has been found that animals have been vaccinated. Economic growth can therefore be impeded if the US over relies on this method. In the crop sector, defense takes the form of growing disease resistant crops and encouraging crop diversity. However, very minimal research and development has been directed to this sector yet it shows a lot of promise for the country’s defense system. (Dunn, 2006)

The other method that the country is using for curbing biological terror attacks is a reactive one i.e. the use of pesticides ad antibiotics. In case plants or animals are found to be infected or contaminated, these methods may be used. However, if cases are too intense, then quarantine and even mass slaughter may be necessary. The problem with such an approach is that it occurs after an attack and this can never really protect the country from all the effects that disease or pest attacks can cause in plant and animal husbandry. Additionally, many environmental groups openly oppose application of pesticides that are considered dangerous to the environment. Consequently, choosing to use such methods would be an open defiance against such regulations or food regulations in general. On top of these, opting to slaughter animals on a large scale may spark of a lot of resistance from animal rights activists who may then be motivated to engage in extreme acts. All in all, it can be said that there are minimal practical efforts being carried out to deal with large scale biological attacks in agriculture. If such attacks were to occur, the country would be caught off guard. (Weijden, n.d)

Nonetheless, the United States has a directive for the Defense of food and agriculture. Its purpose is to protect the food and agricultural systems against possible emergencies, disasters as well as terrorist attacks. In the directive, Homeland security requires federal departments to ensure that they instill recovery and response procedures for protecting agriculture against terror attacks. They are also required to identify infrastructure that will need protection. Vulnerabilities at processing points must be mitigated and screening procedures for imported as well as domestically produced products need to be protected as well. In this directive, a series of Homeland security personnel and partners have been given a general responsibility. For instance, coordination of these efforts is placed under the homeland security secretary while the health and human services (HHS), environmental protection agency (EPA) and agriculture secretaries are to carry out recovery and response functions mentioned earlier. Intelligence capabilities are to be carried out by the attorney general in collusion with the EPA, HHS, Agriculture (USDA) and central intelligence agencies. Vulnerability assessments are also to be carried out after two years and mitigation strategies are also being developed. (Homeland security, 2008)

The existence of a national policy directive by the Homeland security signifies acknowledgement by the latter body that biological threats in agriculture are a critical aspect of the infrastructure. Besides creating a directive, there have been few practical actions that indicate some positive outcomes. For instance, research agencies together with the Department of Agriculture are working hand in hand to create plans centered on mapping, identifying and hence controlling biological agents that have been introduced into the country deliberately.

Possible actions that can be taken in the future

In order to properly protect the country against biological terror attacks, current strategies need to be strengthened. For example, safety regulations and food standards need to be tightened in order to ensure that hygiene loopholes are completely eradicated. Alternatively, the US can collaborate with its trade partners to change trade policy in favor of vaccination. This should be the case for those countries with tests that help distinguish between vaccinated and sick animals. The country’s animals will be better prepared to handle various forms of infections. (Weijden, n.d)

In terms of the Homeland security and well as other federal agencies, it will be essential to strengthen cooperation between these groups. Role clarification and identification for coordinated efforts in the area of biological terror is needed as this would curve out a more strategic direction. To this end, the Department of agriculture, homeland security, central intelligence, EPA and the human and health services need to engage in more consultation so as to ascertain that all parties fully understand what they are expected to carry out. The need for stronger leadership from the homeland security department cannot be overemphasized as they have the capacity to link various capabilities and programs designed to deal with threats against agriculture or food production. It should be noted that the Department of Agriculture is a central part of these efforts; it must not be covered by other deferral antiterrorism efforts such as conventional threats or human health issues. Due precedence needs to be given to its capabilities and hence its functions. (Parker, 2003)

In line with the theme of interagency cooperation is the need to create links between the strategy for agriculture protection and national strategies for counterterrorism. When biological attack in agriculture is treated in isolation then it risks being underexploited. Strategic partners from the government as well as other non governmental associations and groups can make this platform much stronger than it currently is. By doing so then intelligence information can be shared. Additionally, gathering and assessing needs can also be done more efficiently through these collaborations. Research capabilities are likely to be expanded with regard to biological terror in agriculture. It should also be noted that the Federal bureau of investigation, The department of defense and the agriculture department have something in common. They all need to be able to carry out investigations and since this may not be a preserve for the USDA, then it can easily borrow ideas and capabilities from the Defense department or the FBI. (Parker, 2003)

The country currently does not have a strong response plan in the event of a biological attack on agriculture. This is an ironic fact because there is an elaborate plan to deal with introduction of pest and pathogens unintentionally into the country’s agricultural system. Consequently, it needs to curve this out through the homeland security department. However, the plan should not be merely restricted to theory; it needs to be made practical and roles must be clarified thoroughly. Currently, federal agencies have identified a list of possible biological agents that can pose a terror threat to the agricultural sector. They need to take this plan a step further by short listing some of the most notorious pathogens. Thereafter, they need to come up with counter responses to these agencies in case of an attack. Also, when an attack occurs, the country should support those companies affected by offering them some form of compensation.

Since terror attacks against agriculture have the potential to affect persons at the grassroots tremendously, then it is critical to involve them in the process as well. Persons in the agricultural industry or other related professions need to be aware of potential sources of entry of biological agents of terror. Also, they need to be given direction on how they ought to act in case of attack. (Parker, 2003)

It may be necessary to borrow a leaf from other federal agencies in terms of actions being undertaken. For instance, the center for disease control and prevention developed an effective communication system for detecting bioterror agents. The same can be done by the Department of agriculture with the only difference being that targets for these attacks are not human; they are agricultural goods.

Conclusion

The United States is highly vulnerable to terror attacks of a biological nature in agriculture yet such an occurrence can cripple the economy. This can be seen through lack of a comprehensive plan to deal with the occurrence and minimal resource deployment here. Possible strategies to curb these vulnerabilities and threats include: expanding interagency coordination, creating comprehensive plans for counterterrorism responses in the event of attack and strengthening food regulations.

References

Dunn, M. (2006). Food & agricultural security: guarding against terrorist and natural attacks. New York academy of science, 894(3), 184-188

Homeland security (2008). Homeland security directive: Defense of US Agriculture & Food. Web.

McNair (2006). An emerging threat to food security. Web.

National environment health association (2003). Better plan necessary for protecting US agriculture. Web.

Parker, H. (2003). Agricultural bioterrorism. McNair paper, 65. Web.

US department of homeland security and the National academies (n.d.) Biological attack- human pathogens. Agricultural threats and bio toxins. Web.

Weijden, W. Agriculture vulnerable to terrorist attack. NRC Handelsblad.

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