U.S. Agriculture Not Immune To Terrorist Threat, Experts Say

Although U.S. agriculture is not likely to rate high on a terrorist's hit list, farmers shouldn't grow complacent, Purdue University experts say.

The industry is too large and geographically decentralized to take down, and an attack on agriculture probably wouldn't provide terrorists the shocking images Americans witnessed a year ago on Sept. 11. However, intentionally contaminating even a part of the nation's food supply could have serious economic repercussions.

"Most of the people that I talk to in the industry believe agriculture is not the sexy target a terrorist group would want to go after," says Steve Cain, a Purdue extension communications specialist. "Flying a plane into a building, a dirty bomb in a city, destroying a nuclear power plant – those are the kinds of things that people tend to say a terrorist would want to go after.

"But strategists also look at the fact that if a country were going to declare war on the United States it would go for those high-profile targets and, at the same time, go after the economy. And affecting agriculture in the United States is a big part of our economy."

The numbers are staggering. According to USDA, there are more than 2.16 million farms in the U.S., representing 941.2 million acres. Annual U.S. farm cash receipts top $193 billion.

Despite the size and scope of the industry, farmers and those who work with them understand the terrorist threat exists, says Cain, who heads Purdue's involvement in a nationwide extension program to prepare agriculture for disasters, including those caused by terrorists.

The Extension Disaster Education Network, or EDEN, is currently conducting an online survey to gauge farmers' opinions on biosecurity issues and educational needs.

EDEN recently completed a homeland security survey of 1,200 Extension educators across the country. More than 85% say they expect a terrorist attack on some segment of agriculture, while 77% say their counties either were not prepared to respond or they weren't sure.

"The two biggest areas of concern were the contamination of municipal water supplies and food safety," Cain says. "In production agriculture, the survey indicated people believe more needs to be done to prepare farmers for possible terrorist attacks."

Food security was considered an "urgent" area of concern by 64% of extension educators polled. Fifty percent say animal biosecurity preparedness was an "urgent" need in their communities, while farm security and plant/crop biosecurity was considered "urgent" by 45% and 37%, respectively. Only 16% say plant/crop biosecurity was "not urgent," with all other agricultural categories at 12% or less.

Terrorist threats against agriculture are possible, but the odds of destroying the industry are remote, say Otto Doering and Ken Foster, Purdue agricultural economists who have consulted with federal agriculture officials in Washington, D.C.

"The geographical dispersion of the system makes if very difficult for a terrorist to make a big impact," Doering says. "You can get people upset and scared, as in the E. coli outbreak at Jack in the Box did some years ago on the West Coast. And you will see hamburger consumption drop a little bit across the country. But it is just very difficult to make this happen all over at the same time."

Foster agrees. "Certainly somebody could tamper with one segment or one product and might cause a disruption, but are we going to go hungry because of that? Probably not, because consumers will quickly substitute away from those products," Foster says.

"Think of some of the food scares that we've had for pesticide reasons. Alar in apples, for instance. Certainly that hit the apple industry hard, but it didn't hit agriculture as a rule. In fact, there might be some spillover benefits for some sectors of agriculture if an attack happens on another. If an attack were focused on the supply of meat, then we would expect consumers to substitute away to other sources of protein. They'd start eating fish, beans and other legumes. In the short run there would be benefits to the producers of those other proteins."

Because of highly transmissible diseases, such as foot and mouth, the livestock sector might be more vulnerable to terrorism than the crop sector, Foster says.

"There could be effects on meat demand," he adds. "There is no human toll associated with foot and mouth, but people have an aversion to eating meat from infected livestock. But those are probably lesser targets for the type of terrorism we're talking about and seeing in the news, where the real goal is to use loss of human life to intimidate us."

To its credit, the food industry has made great strides in tightening processing methods and shipping standards in the past 12 months, Doering says. More companies are pursuing certification through the International Standards Organization and demanding their suppliers do the same. In time, those ISO standards could trickle all the way down to individual farm operations.

Biosecurity is a hot topic on Capitol Hill, Doering says. A debate already is raging over how much of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's existing food safety responsibilities will be shifted to the new Office of Homeland Security.

The debate, Doering says, centers on the question of whether it is wise to take resources and manpower away from farm-level threats like foot and mouth disease, which can occur domestically without terrorist involvement, and focus those resources on other activities to protect agriculture from external threats.

"There is a fairly large segment of livestock producers concerned that the animal health and services provided through the USDA will be focused on the 'border fringe,' to keep this stuff out," Doering says. "This is going to be a big battle in Congress in the next few months."

Although the biosecurity effort continues to experience growing pains, Cain says he's encouraged how far the movement has advanced in a year.

"The USDA, state departments of agriculture and all the agencies associated with agriculture, are doing a pretty good job getting themselves geared up planning for disaster if it were to happen, and having the right response in place," Cain points out. "I think we've done a phenomenal job of that in the last year.

"I believe what hasn't happened is direct communication with the farmer/producer. We need to be answering questions like, 'What should you do if a disaster happens?' That's what EDEN hopes to be doing – generating a database of information farmers can go to if they have a question, so that they can go to their extension office and get it or get it on the Internet."

The online EDEN survey runs through November. To participate, log onto www.agctr.lsu.edu/eden and then click on "Homeland Security." The survey is anonymous and takes less than 10 minutes to complete.