OT: Experts Warn of 'Agroterrorism'

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Albuquerque Journal, Sunday, November 28, 1999

Experts Warn of 'Agroterrorism' By Fritz Thompson Journal Staff Writer

Picture a surreptitious character lugging a lunch cooler and skulking about in the darkness near a giant Midwestern feedlot.

He slips into a pen and swiftly swabs the muzzles of a dozen steers with the contagious foot and mouth disease he scraped from the blistered tongue of some Third World bovine.

Within days, the airborne disease has raged through the feedlot, along with all the other feedlots the sneaky character has gotten into. The epidemic is so virulent that it forces feedlots to destroy hundreds of thousands of animals.

Ranchers are left with no markets. Retail meat prices soar. Exports plummet. Dairy farms are hit.

No one will starve to death, but the resulting economic chaos in the cattle business will last for years. There almost certainly will be a psychological effect on the populace at large. And the damage done to the U.S. reputation for raising disease-free animals will be long-lasting and incalculable.

That's the picture being painted these days for people such as U.S. Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., and state Land Commissioner Ray Powell. Both have been surprised in recent weeks by agricultural experts who are officially telling them it's only a matter of time before terrorists try to wreck the country's food and fiber business.

There's a newly coined word for the threat: agroterrorism.

It's not characterized by exploding bombs and bodies in the street. Armed terrorists don't burst into the feedlot or auction barn. Cattle don't blow up in the corral, wheat fields don't go up in smoke.

Agroterroists would instead strike silently at the food supply. They wouldn't expect widespread starvation. They would expect widespread economic turmoil.

And while it hasn't happened in New Mexico or anywhere else in the country, experts already are calling it an insidious and subtle form of terrorism.

"When we heard about this it just scared the bejabbers out of us," said Powell, recently returned from the Foreign Animal and Poultry Disease Advisory Committee's annual meeting. "I was unaware of the severity of the threat, or of the potential for this happening."

Bingaman was told about agroterrorism by the Central Intelligence Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Defense Intelligence Agency. The three agencies held a closed-door hearing on the subject late last month.

Despite the high-security meeting, Bingaman said he's not unduly alarmed.

"The testimony raised a lot of questions in my mind about how real the threat is," Bingaman said in a telephone interview. "It was interesting, but I don't think the answers we got were conclusive."

Bingaman's word carries weight; he's ranking member for the Democrats on the Senate Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities, which conducted the hearing.

"We need to continue research on the subject, particularly with regard to what the Russians are doing," he said. "We should have collaborative programs to learn what they have developed."

One could suspect Bingaman mentioned Russia for a reason. Agroterrorism experts have advanced a favorite scenario involving Russia.

That scenario: Russia has a large arsenal of experimental agricultural diseases, but the scientists who concocted those disease over the past 30 years haven't been paid in months. A number of nations unfriendly to the United States could invite the Russians to come set up shop in their country.

Countering such threats isn't easy.

The New Mexico Livestock Board has been talking about a livestock epidemic with other agencies, and it thinks it has a plan. State Veterinarian Steve England said it's miraculous that some act of agroterrorism hasn't happened already.

"A few years ago, we didn't talk about this at all," he said. "Now we're deciding what we're going to do about it -- how we can stop the outbreak and get the disease under control, and who's going to be involved in the problem."

The plan identifies a dozen agencies -- ranging from the National Guard to the Attorney General's Office -- to be notified if a disease breaks out.

The Livestock Board has designated itself the lead agency. It expects to hear about problems from a number of sources, such as practicing veterinarians, diagnostic labs, the state Department of Game and Fish or the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

A string of things would become priorities in an outbreak. The State Police would set up roadblocks, the National Guard would prepare burial sites for dead animals, the game department would look for signs of the disease in wildlife, the health department would determine whether the disease poses a threat to people in the area.

Where the disease comes from is not as important as how to stop it, England said.

Every day, England summons up on his computer screen a random list of countries and the livestock diseases they are battling. He spends a good deal of time tracking those maladies, trying to figure out whether they pose a danger to the United States.

Foot and mouth disease was eradicated from the United States in 1929, but it continues unchecked in Nicaragua, Guatemala, China and most African countries. There's a ready supply for a terrorist.

Agroterrorism expert and veterinary pathologist Corrie Brown of the University of Georgia testified during the open section of the subcommittee hearing Bingaman attended. She is far from comfortable with the state of readiness.

"We are sitting ducks for agricultural terrorism," she said.

For starters, Brown said, an outbreak of foot and mouth disease in the United States could cost an estimated $27 billion in lost exports. Even if the prognosis for halting the disease was good, foreign countries would quickly slam the door on imports. Likewise for other diseases not frequently found in the United States -- African Swine Fever, avian influenza, sheep and goat pox, anthrax, bovine brucellosis.

Getting access to the animals, she said, hardly seems a problem for terrorists. Cattle feedlots hold 150,000 to 300,000 animals at a time. Some hog farms have a population of 10,000. The nation has 7 billion chickens, many of them concentrated in a handful of places.

Terrorists might target farm crops as well.

One scenario being advanced by a number of agroterrorism authorities has airliners -- perhaps from a competitor country in the foreign food market -- carrying pods of corn seed blight.

They fly over the nation's corn belt, spraying spores across wide swaths of countryside. The blight is present in the soil when spring planting occurs.

The resulting harvest is 30 percent below expected levels -- so low that the United States is forced to import corn for the first time. Food prices rise sharply and cause inflation. The U.S. agricultural reputation is seriously damaged, and consumers complain that the price of all kinds of corn-enhanced products in the grocery store has gone up. Jeff Witte, assistant director for the New Mexico Department of Agriculture, said the response to such an attack on state crops would likely be led by the USDA.

The state agriculture department has not drawn up an emergency response.

"Crops are different from livestock," Witte said. "Any disease that shows up would probably be handled by the plant protection and quarantine division of USDA."

-- anon (anon@anon.com), November 30, 1999


I don't work in the industry, but I do have some experience with feedlots. Many feedlots are much smaller than 150,000 animals. Also, while a terrorist may be able to get away with infecting a few feedlots, guards would be out when everyone realized what was going on. Because most feedlots in the midwest are in relatively open areas, sneaking up on one would be very difficult. Besides, most people working in feedlots could probably shoot a stinkbug off of a twig at 300 yards. Give 'em a night scope and an intruder wouldn't have a chance.

-- impala (impala@wild.com), November 30, 1999.

---well, our chickens are coming home to roost. we infected cuba with tobacco mosaic(thank you, see III A). We're spraying legal hemp in canada (and getting away with it, too), and there's been talk of a biobug to do the same (kill hemp and ganga), not sure of the outcome on that yet. Probably a bunch more. Only a matter of time before it happens here, if it's not already. Aren't we having all those dead birds and sick people in new york with west nile like fever, and now all those peach trees in pennsylvania with some new out of the blue disease? Also, out west, isn't there some spreading wheat blight, and aren't spuds really endangered now, too, from some almost untreatable disease? think so, anyway.....makes ya stop and think....

-- zog (zzoggy@yahoo.com), November 30, 1999.

Yep, 100 miles north of New York City we've had a couple of crows who flew here and dropped dead of West Nile. Damn crows decided they'd head for the hills, like some folks. Must remember to take the screen door in for repairs before Y2k, I think I don't want any holes next summer.

-- Firemouse (firemouse@fcmail.com), November 30, 1999.

you would think those idiots would keep thier mouths shut and not broadcast all these ideas. The media twists and obsures all kinds of things regularly, so why should they be broadcasting these ideas to potential nutcases to act on? sheesh

-- billburke (bburke@yahoo.com), November 30, 1999.

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