An Ancient Threat, Agroterrorism

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The tragic events of the past few days have shaped my thoughts and conversations both on the farm and off.  The use of terrorism is increasing and threats continue to sabotage the safety and viability of our Country.  We, being in the energy and food business, represent a very tangible and lucrative target for would-be disrupters.  The increasing consolidation of our food industries has made it easier to directly attack the nation’s agricultural system. It may not surprise you to learn that agriculture comprises the largest single sector in the U.S. economy.

This form of attack is known as agroterrorism and is defined as “the deliberate introduction of an animal or plant disease for the purpose of generating fear, causing economic losses, or undermining social stability.”  This is by no means a new concept as cultures have been using various forms of biological warfare to infect both humans and animals for millennia.  The difference in this day and age is our vulnerability.  Gone are the days of multiple dairies in each county, of your local pig or turkey specialist, and the times when every house had chickens in the backyard.  Our food is segregated and vulnerable in its concentration and confinement.

Of particular concern, and this may be news to you but this is most definitely not anything new would be terrorists, is foot and mouth disease. This virus affects cloven foot animals causing a high fever for approximately two to six days, followed by blisters inside the mouth and on the feet that may rupture and cause lameness.  The infection is highly contagious and can be spread through the air over many miles, by contact with on-farm materials such as tractors or milking coveralls, or by non-carrier animals that come into accidental contact with infected materials such as dogs playing with bones.  Making matters more complicated, there are currently 7 subtypes of this virus and our current vaccines can only protect against one of those at a time, and mutations are common, making vaccinations only effective from a few months to a year.

The virus itself is not fatal but can make animals lame, come off their feed, stop producing milk and generally drop in production value.  Beyond that, the threat to other non-infected animals is so great that entire lots of animals are generally culled and disposed of at a huge loss to the farms.  Here is where the real intent becomes clear.  The goal of this particular threat is to destroy not our animal numbers but our economic viability.

Fellow farmers, the purpose of this piece is not to scare you but provide some forethought on what we can do as producers to help prevent this type of attack.  Anne Kohnen, in her report for the National Public Policy Education Committee (NPPEC), provided recommendations to prevent, respond, and recover from an agroterrorist attack:

“First, the threat can be countered at the individual plant/animal level, by making each organism resistant to disease, through vaccination as an example.  Second, we can take action at the farm level, by making each farm resistant to disease introduction, by reducing the chance that a farm could spread disease, and by giving each farm the ability to eradicate and recover from diseases that do manage to infiltrate.  Actions at the farm level might include greater bio-security and better disease surveillance.  Third, we can take action at the agricultural sector level, by supporting our nation’s system of farms so they can respond to or recover from disease in a coordinated fashion.  For example, having professionals on hand with diagnostic experience and equipment would help the sector deploy resources to the most critical area.  Finally, we should take actions at the National level, by establishing plans and policies that keep exotic pathogens outside our borders, that keep overall health of farms high, and that would be able to coordinate a disease eradication and recovery effort at a national level.”

So how does this apply to our small farming communities?  Have you spoken to your vet to ensure that your animals are vaccinated against highly contagious diseases?  Do you have a bio-security plan in place that decreases the threat of outbreak or outlines how you will deal with the situation should it arise?  Do you know your fellow farmers that are in proximity to your operation and those that grow the same stock as you so that you can communicate quickly and honestly should something come up, and are you keeping up with the current situations regarding global agricultural restrictions?  In times like these you can’t be too careful.  We all love our animals and our lifestyle but we live in a time where there are certain entities that are trying to take that away from us.  The best way we can prevent this is to be prepared and be educated, to stay one step ahead of those that wish to do us harm, and to stand in solidarity with our fellow farmers and peacekeepers around the globe.  So insert secret farmer handshake here and enjoy the rest of the beautiful week; I have a feeling fall is just going to appear out of nowhere this year.

footnotes

1.  Jim Monke, Congressional Research Service Report for Congress, Agroterrorism: Threat and Preparedness; retrieved from http://www.fas.org/ sgp/crs/terror/RL32521.pdf (accessed May 25, 2011).
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