New York and Washington, D.C., were obvious targets for terrorists looking to strike at the nerve center of the nation's financial and military power. Were a terrorist attack to occur on the heartland, though, it probably wouldn’t be against humans, but where it could inflict the most harm — against the agricultural-based economy. Such a strike could be devastating, crippling the region’s agricultural economy and creating a potential economic disaster for the whole country.

Four of KansasStateUniversity’s leading experts on the topic discuss what agroterrorism is, whether it is a real or perceived threat and its possible financial implications. The panel includes: Sean Fox, a professor of agricultural economics; Jerry Jaax, associate vice provost for research compliance and the university veterinarian; Curtis Kastner, professor of animal sciences and industry and director of the Food Science Institute; and Jackie McClaskey, assistant dean, academic programs, the College of Agriculture.


Q. What is agroterrorism?  Any attempt to shake the confidence of the U.S. consumer in the safety of their food supply, says Fox. Any deliberate attempt to do that would be classified as agroterrorism.

Agroterrorism is a subset of the greater threats of terrorism and bioterrorism, adds Jaxx. “It would be loosely defined as a threat to our agricultural infrastructure.” Certainly, when people consider agroterrorism, many are concerned about biological agents that would affect either plants, animals or foods.

“I would look at agroterrorism as the traditional terrorist assault against the agricultural and food delivery and service infrastructure,” notes Kastner. But it doesn't have to be just what would be classified as the traditional terrorist, it could be a disgruntled employee.

“First let me start with agrosecurity, which is the concept of protecting America's food supply from its very basis in production agriculture all the way until it reaches the consumer's table,” explains McClaskey. So when you think about agroterrorism, it is any intentional threat against any step in the food chain that is intended to cause damage against plants, animals, humans or the economy.

Q. Is it a real or perceived threat?  “I'd say it is a real concern,” says Fox. It's something that is being taken very seriously. It's something that a lot of money and effort is being put into to design countermeasures against it happening and to deal with it if it does happen. The country really hasn't had any instances of it yet. There probably is plenty of potential there for somebody to do something if they wanted to, but it hasn't happened yet.

“I think the potential is certainly real,” Jaax says. There is ample evidence that state-sponsored offensive biowarfare programs flourished during the Cold War, and that agricultural agents were part of those programs. “Can we say with certainty that something is going to happen?” he asks? “No, I don't think we can predict whether or not we're going to have a serious or significant agroterrorism event. I think it is virtually inevitable that we will have other bioterrorist events.” Whether or not they would have more of an effect on public or human health rather than agricultural infrastructure is unpredictable. “I don't think that there is any doubt that we are going to have continuing concerns about bio/agroterrorism,” he adds

“I think it is real and something that could happen; probably has and we may or may not have identified it as such,” notes Kastner. “We've had salad bars tainted with salmonella, so that is a possibility. Can it happen?

“Yes it can happen,” he adds. What would be the most logical outcome of it? It might be that if the infrastructure or the outputs of the food supply is attacked, it might result in a number of human casualties, but it doesn't have to have a significant impact. Because if the consumer no longer has confidence in the food supply then you don't sell your products and you don't export; you don't sell them domestically or internationally.

“I think personally that the economic implications would be very significant and could happen very easily,” Kastner continues.

Some of those things can happen intentionally and they would be classified as an act of terrorism, but it could also happen accidentally. Foot and mouth disease could get here just by somebody making a mistake or we could have a natural disaster like hurricanes and that could significantly impact the livestock industry.

Fortunately the U.S. hasn’t had any really large outbreaks like it could — for example, foot-and-mouth disease in the feedlots in Kansas. But it's something definitely that could happen.

“I think it is a real threat,” says McClaskey. “I spent some time over the last year in a couple of on-line classes with the majority of the students not being from any agricultural background or having very little exposure to the Midwest. It is amazing to me how people will focus sometimes on these huge threats of things like small pox as a bioterrorism threat when actually doing that could be difficult — getting your hands on the small pox virus and being able to disseminate it in a way that doesn't put you or the people you are involved with at risk.”

Agricultural terrorism is totally different. Many of the agents that you might want to get your hands on are fairly easy to get across the world, they are fairly easy to disseminate and you can do it without risk to your own self or while being able to protect the people you represent or the group you are a part of.

“I think it's very real; I think the risk is more real than people think,” McClaskey says.  “However, at the same time I think we have to be careful not to make it sound like it's going to happen tomorrow; that every farm in the country is going to be impacted. I also think that that's probably unreal as well and that if we make it sound bigger than it is then no one is going to understand that it is a risk because they're just going to think it is blown out of proportion.”

Q. How much of an economic impact could an act of agroterrorism have?  That would depend on what happened, says Fox. The agricultural industry is a multi-billion dollar industry so the financial impact on the U.S. agricultural industry could be tremendously large if something would happen. But it would depend on what the event would be.

“We've already taken whatever hits we are going to take on bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE),” he adds. U.S. domestic consumers seem to realize that the risk is incredibly low for BSE. There is nothing there to be concerned about. Their reaction to the first case that we had is proof of that. They realize that the risk is almost non-existent. The hits that we have taken have been a result of our export markets being shut off and we're still suffering the impacts there financially. BSE is probably not something that is going to be an agroterrorism issue. It could. It's certainly within the realm of possibility that someone could deliberately infect animals in the U.S. with BSE, but not likely.

I think it is safe to say that an agroterrorism event, using the right kinds of organisms, could have a billion-dollar impact very, very quickly, agrees Jaax

Several years ago there was a rumor of a foot-and-mouth disease outbreak in Holton, Kan., at a small sale operation there, Jaax continues. It turned out that several cattle there had oral lesions that resulted in a federal veterinarian examining them. It turned out to be trauma from thorns that had been in their feed. But just the rumor that there was a foot-and-mouth disease outbreak cost the national markets $50 million. It was just a rumor.

“I think that is a very significant example as to how vulnerable our markets would be,” he adds.

Researchers at the University of California-Davis have done a study on the potential impact of foot-and-mouth disease and concluded that if foot-and-mouth disease broke out in the central valley in California, it would cost the state of California up to $13 billion because of the downstream impact. “So we're talking about the potential for big dollars,” Jaax says. “I think it is important to consider that there would be extensive collateral effects to related industries.”

Economists have said that if foot-and-mouth disease were introduced into the dairy industry in California, within just a matter of days it would be billions of dollars. “So we're not talking millions, we're talking billions of dollars for just that industry alone,” asserts Kastner.

The economic impact is the part that we sometimes have a tendency to overlook, concludes McClaskey. “My interest in biosecurity and agricultural terrorism stems from the concept that any aspect of agricultural security or agricultural terrorism is multi-pronged. There is the science impact, the public health impact, the animal health impact, the environmental impact and the economic impact. A lot of times when you see people look at these issues, they only look at one issue or another. They only look at what's the public health impact or what's the animal health impact or what's the economic impact.”

Source: U.S. Newswire