Risk of Terrorism to Nation's Food Supply ; New Research Shows How Easily Livestock and Crops Could Be Hit by 'Agroterrorists.'

Article excerpt

Terrorist attacks typically are thought of as coming in the form of high explosives or poisonous chemicals aimed at persons and symbols of power - military and government facilities, economic centerpieces.

But what if the targets were ranchers or farmers, those tending lonely herds of cattle or amber waves of grain? How vulnerable is the US to "agroterrorism," and what's being done to prevent it?

Experts say US crops and livestock - a $193 billion industry - could easily be attacked by devastating diseases.

"Biological agents that could be used to harm crops or livestock are widely available and pose a major threat to US agriculture," says Harley Moon, professor of veterinary medicine at Iowa State University and chair of the National Research Council (NRC) committee that wrote a recent report on the subject.

Many farmers are concerned as well.

"I am not worried about weapons of mass destruction," says Wayne Hooks, who raises cattle and sheep and grows tobacco, corn, soybeans and other crops near Myrtle Beach, S.C. "I am concerned about the vulnerability of our food supply to low-tech assaults."

Compared with airliners-turned-into-bombs or weapons of mass destruction, biological attacks on crops and farms animals would be easy to carry out.

Plant viruses, fungi, and bacteria are easier to obtain than, say, "weaponized" anthrax aimed at people, and they're easier to spread via winds and carrier insects. A few doses of foot-and-mouth disease could spread quickly, appearing as a natural occurrence and without the moral taint of attacking innocent civilians.

"Although an attack with such agents is highly unlikely to result in famine or malnutrition, the possible damage includes major direct and indirect costs to agricultural and national economy, adverse public-health effects ... loss of public confidence in the food system and in public officials, and widespread public concern and confusion," the NRC report concluded recently after two years of studying the issue.

There has been one case of bioterrorism in the US in recent years. In 1984, an outbreak of salmonella food poisoning at 10 salad bars in rural Oregon eventually was linked to cult leader Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh. The group had hoped to take over county government by preventing local citizens from voting.

The cost to society

Germany, Japan, Britain, the United States - all experimented with biological weapons aimed at crops and livestock during the world wars of the 20th century. More recently, the former Soviet Union had a large agroterrorism program, and some fear that Russian scientists - notoriously underpaid - may be tempted to share their knowledge with terrorist organizations.

The idea was to attack an enemy's food sources in wartime, but it proved difficult on a large scale. But it's easier when the goal is to terrorize a society by creating a health scare.

That was certainly the case with Britain's experience with foot- and-mouth disease (FMD), reports the NRC:

"The social and psychological effects of the FMD outbreak in Great Britain on farmers, rural communities, children, and the general public were traumatic. The stresses on individuals, families, and communities are both immediate and long-term and include the uncertainty and fear of what the future may bring, distrust of government and science, isolation . …