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
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 . …