You can never be too safe — ever. And that's especially true in today's biological era. If you want to protect your crops, experts say it's time to become “biosecure” from both natural and man-made events.

While there's concern about an international terrorist attack on U.S. agriculture, domestic bioterrorism and accidental pest introduction are bigger, more likely threats to farms across the country.

To help deal with biosecurity issues, Purdue University has created the Purdue Center for Crop Biosecurity. Its goal is to identify plant pests and pathogens, determine how they might be introduced and develop technology for early detection and diagnosis.

“Present technology typically doesn't allow us to detect a disease in a large field until it's probably been there for a number of days or perhaps even weeks,” says Purdue's Ray Martyn, head of the new center. “If a pathogen or disease has gotten started and has already been in a field for some time, it's tantamount to closing the barn door after the horses got out. The earlier you can detect a disease, the more likely you'll be able to do something about it.”

This approach — early detection and diagnosis — would be effective for any type of threat, whether accidental or an act of terrorism. Although accidental introduction has been the most common way pests or pathogens have come into the U.S., the potential for a terrorist attack is certainly there, says Steve Cain, Homeland Security project director for the Extension Disaster Education Network (EDEN).

Agroterrorism is defined as “the act of any person knowingly or maliciously using biological, chemical or other agents as weapons against the agricultural industry and the food supply.”

This kind of attack could come from any number of groups or individuals. Cain says there are three kinds of agroterrorists: political, economic and international.

Domestic terrorism, or the political and economic terrorists, is probably a bigger threat than are international terrorists, say Cain and Martyn. These are people with access to your farm — disgruntled employees, protest groups or people with a personal grudge.

Regardless of origin, quick detection speeds control of the problem.

“USDA takes bioterrorism seriously,” says Bill Hoffman, National Program Leader, Plant and Animal Systems with USDA's Cooperative State Research, Education and Extension Service (CSREES) in Washington, D.C. “But to say that this is the biggest biosecurity threat faced by corn and soybean growers would shortchange the threat of accidental introduction. Trade, travel and weather movement of plant diseases and insect pests have introduced several invasive species in the past and remain a significant concern for the future.”

John Shutske, professor and Extension safety and health specialist with the University of Minnesota agrees. There's always the chance someone could intentionally affect a field, and it would “have the potential to be catastrophic with large scale economic impact and ripple effects,” he explains.

However, Shutske says, “it would have little effect on public health, would take a long time to play out and might lack the symbolism that is the hallmark of many intentional attacks.” He believes Mother Nature is just as big of a threat to farms in the U.S.

So what can you do to create emergency management plans and improve security on your operation?

“There are no-cost, low-cost and high-cost things you can do to improve security,” says Purdue's Cain.

He suggests not taking nitrogen tanks on the same route every time and storing chemicals in secure buildings as easy ways to secure operations. Steps like these have been taken by farmers concerned about the growing methamphetamine problem in the U.S., which Cain says has prompted more increased security than the threat of terrorism on many farms.

Farmers can also access resources like EDEN and local Extension offices to keep up with potential threats and ways to protect their farms.

According to a 2002 EDEN survey, 80% of farmers say they'd turn to their local Extension service if they discovered a crop disease outbreak they didn't recognize on their farm. That's a good first step.

In the same survey, however, 51% of growers in 2002 said they didn't believe they were properly prepared for agroterrorism, and 76% said they hadn't made considerable investments to make their farms more secure.

With the introduction of Asian soybean rust to the U.S., the methamphetamine problem and heightened awareness of terrorism, those percentages seem to be changing.

“We have to be cognizant of the fact that you don't want to cry wolf,” says Purdue's Martyn. But, he says farmers should always be prepared for a new threat and not lose interest simply because it hasn't hit their farm yet.

“Know who your contacts are for help if you see a problem that you can't figure out,” Cain says.

Another way growers can be prepared is to check out the Plant Biosecurity Management Course, developed at the University of Missouri and offered on EDEN's Web site: www.eden.lsu.edu/LearningOps/PlantBio/. This course should help you prepare for, respond to and recover from a biosecurity event.

Cain encourages both educators and growers to take the course. “It can be a health department person or a local farmer who wants to volunteer in emergency management and become a liaison in their county,” he says.

A resource offered by Purdue is the Rural Security Planning publication. The publication is available online at www.btny.purdue.edu/Pubs/PPP/PPP-64.pdf or can be ordered for $1 through the Purdue Pesticide Programs. With it, farmers can create their own emergency preparedness plan.

With the creation of Purdue's new Center for Crop Biosecurity, and other agencies like CSREES, EDEN, local Extension services and the National Plant Diagnostic Network working together, the U.S. is becoming better prepared to deal with agroterrorism or the accidental introduction of a serious threat.

Despite public concern about terrorist attacks in the U.S., Martyn points out that, “we are much more likely to get many of these exotic pathogens through natural and accidental means. We can't focus all of our energy on worrying about a bioterrorist attack when we're getting these things in other ways.”

Resources For Growers

The Extension Disaster Education Network (EDEN) Web site: www.eden.lsu.edu.

6 Tips To Secure Your Farm

Here are tips to follow on how to create an emergency management plan from Purdue's Rural Security Planning publication:

  1. Create an emergency information mailbox. Provide first responders with emergency information in a strategically placed secure mailbox, including a detailed map of your farm, a list of emergency contact persons and locations of hazardous chemicals.

  2. Store all chemicals in one secure building, and mark the building on a farm map.

  3. Invite emergency managers and firemen to your farm and show them the layout, pointing out important areas like fuel and chemical supplies, livestock, the emergency mailbox and water mains.

  4. Know who or what are threats to your farm, including disgruntled employees, terrorists, extremists, protestors or thieves and take appropriate steps to protect your farm from them.

  5. Identify possible targets and protect your most important assets first.

  6. Where cost effective, use lighting, electronic sensors, gates and locks to physically secure your farm.