The United States’ response to the devastating attacks of September 11th demonstrated a simple message: America will not be destroyed by brute force. The United States’ vast resources and responsive resiliency make it difficult for terrorist organizations to attack the country with conventional means. However, an attack on US agriculture could elicit fear, anxiety, loss of faith in government, and psychological trauma amongst the general public, all of which could threaten the country in profound ways.
The US government is not prepared for such an attack, despite the obvious vulnerabilities lurking within our grocery stores, local farms, and favorite snacks.
Agroterrorism is defined as the introduction of an animal or plant disease with the intent of jeopardizing food safety. It may be attractive to terrorists because it not only causes death, but also substantially affects the economy and interferes in citizens’ relationships with their local, state, and federal governments. Distribution centers, crop fields, and meat packaging plants are increasingly vulnerable targets due to lax security and few mandatory clearances. The US government is not distributing its resources properly to prioritize this threat – we must be proactive, not reactive.
Currently, the United States enjoys a safe, plentiful, and relatively inexpensive food supply. Americans only spend approximately 6.4 percent of their income on food, compared to almost 40 percent in various other countries, such as Guatemala and Nigeria. The United States’ food supply services not only its domestic population but the entire world. In 2017, the US exported $139.8 billion worth of agriculture.
This global market system is vibrant but highly threatened by disease. According to the World Health Organization, 75 percent of the world’s new and emerging diseases are zoonotic, meaning they can be transferred from animals to humans, and the number is only increasing.
Agriculture is much more than the local corn maze explored in the fall or beautiful strawberry patch visited in spring; it is the backbone of the US economy. One in six jobs are linked to agriculture, and it is a trillion-dollar industry in the United States. An attack would not only devastate a critical economic engine but destroy the US economy as a whole. More importantly, food security is closely tied to faith in the government. A disease outbreak or food shortage would quickly be blamed on the government, disrupting the public’s faith and eroding general law and order. Additionally, an attack on the United States would increase food prices worldwide as other countries were forced to seek new sources of agriculture, spreading the crisis globally, even to those who do not import food from the United States.
Terrorists, eco-radicals, economic opportunists, and competitors are the most likely perpetrators to commit an agroterrorist attack. Unfortunately, a variety of diseases are at their disposal. Pathogens can be stolen from a laboratory or taken from the natural environment. Unlike nuclear weapons, biological weapons do not take the same amount of people, money, expertise, or time to create or disseminate. If high death counts are the primary goal of the perpetrator, food production and the distribution chain offer a low-tech and highly effective apparatus to circulate bacteria and toxins. Globalization, ease of access to information, and the proliferation of technology have all increased the possibility of an agroterrorist attack.
There’s no quick fix for securing the entire US agriculture system. Rather, it will require a long step-by-step process. There are four policies that would address some of the key vulnerabilities: First, oversight and security should increase on all farms, barns, food processing plants, and food packaging offices. Currently, a terrorist could easily slip onto a farm and distribute a pathogen throughout a crop without anyone knowing. Farms are typically large, rural, and isolated, creating an easy target. Second, the USDA must require more staff to hold security clearances, especially management. Without clearances, terrorists can recruit insider threats through bribes, threats, and even radicalization. Clearances cannot prevent insider threats, but they can significantly decrease the chances. Third, the breeding of livestock should not take place within crowded environments in order to reduce the spread of disease. Fourth, increasing globalization creates vulnerabilities for both agricultural imports and exports. Globalization cannot be controlled, but US ports, airports, and borders can be safer and more efficient.
US biodefense efforts have been neglected for decades according to the Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) Proliferation and Terrorism, as well as the bipartisan Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense. The 2015 Blue Ribbon report highlighted three major shortcomings: no national leader, no strategic plan, and no dedicated budget. Despite the attention, nothing has been done since the report’s release. Unfortunately, the threat has only increased amid the lack of progress. The National Bio-defense and Agriculture Facility (NBAF) is currently under construction in Manhattan, Kansas with a completion date of 2022. But it will only replace the facility recently closed on Plum Island, rather than adding new capacity. NBAF’s mission will be focused on biodefense, as well as pathogens related to agriculture and US security.
The United States’ focus on agroterrorism and food security must be proactive, not reactive. Unlike conventional warfare and terrorist attacks, this type of incident could cripple the government and economy due to its multidimensional effects. Agencies, such as the USDA, CDC, DHS, DOJ, and FBI, must work to prepare program responses for a variety of attacks on US soil. The FBI should be working to educate farmers, managers of food packaging plants, as well as local police and fusion centers, informing them of possible dangers, vulnerabilities, as well as signs of an attack. Preventive communication keeps all involved calm during a crisis.
Only proactive, not reactive, measures can create a safer and more secure future for the United States.
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