An attack against the agricultural industry is a multidimensional threat that would have impacts that far exceed the death or destruction of plants and animals. The agricultural industry is very broad and diverse and can encompass the production of animals, plants, fish, forestry products, fertilizer production and a host of other activities. An attack against the industry would impact the economy of the United States and the rest of the world. The introduction of a food-borne illness into the food supply that affects many of the nation’s citizenry would create mass panic and result in losses in revenue for producers and retailers.
The financial impact of the introduction of an animal or plant disease into the agricultural infrastructure would not only result in the loss of agricultural products, it would also disrupt trade and employment. Terrorists search for areas of vulnerability and targets that are easy to exploit. The failure to recognize the threat posed by agroterrorism, and the lack of adequate policies and programs to educate the agricultural industry, will leave the nation weak and vulnerable to an attack.
The consequence of an attack
The United States relies heavily on the trade of goods; an introduction of a disease agent into the agricultural industry would create a loss of confidence with trade partners and result in exorbitant losses of income for the nation. Americans spend a significantly smaller portion of their income on food products, 11 percent, as opposed to the global average of 20 to 30 percent. The nation’s agricultural industry contributes significantly to its economic prosperity. The United States is the world’s leading exporter of agricultural products, making the industry the largest single sector in our economy.
Large concentrations of animals provide for an ideal situation to introduce disease that would result in the rapid spread of illness. Such large concentrations also inhibit the ability to closely monitor the animals on an individual basis, which would likely result in overlooking signs and symptoms of disease. Farms are geographically dispersed, and animals are concentrated into confined areas that are minimally secured. The current trend in animal production is the increased number of animals in a smaller area, which is an ideal situation for the introduction of disease.
The majority of swine production in the United States is concentrated in three states–North Carolina, Iowa and Minnesota–where 53 percent of the nation’s hogs are produced. The top three poultry-producing states are Arkansas, Georgia and Alabama, where 41 percent of the nation’s poultry is produced. Cattle are more geographically dispersed than swine and poultry due to smaller cow-calf operations scattered throughout the country. Many of these operations sell calves after weaning and ship to large feedlots in the Midwest. Just two percent of the feedlots in the US handle 78 percent of the nation’s cattle. The introduction of a biological agent into one of these facilities would result in the rapid spread of disease, requiring government depopulation of potentially thousands of animals.
The confined areas where animals are held would allow for the rapid spread of disease before symptoms are detected. Many animal diseases, such as Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD), classical swine fever, highly pathogenic avian influenza and Newcastle disease (ND), are highly contagious and are easily spread. An animal infected with FMD can transmit the disease to other animals when it coughs, sneezes or exhales. Once aerosolized, the disease can be transmitted more than 170 miles from its source. FMD can spread from its origin to 23 other states in five days. This would potentially allow the disease to spread nationwide by the time symptoms were discovered and largescale vaccination efforts implemented. Three days after a FMD outbreak in France in 1981, the disease was detected across the English Channel on the Isle of Wight. It is hypothesized that the airborne aerosol was carried via wind for 175 miles.
Read the complete report in the Feb/March issue of Homeland Security Today.