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The Nation

Farmlands Seen as Fertile for Terrorism

August 22, 2004|Charles Piller | Times Staff Writer

GREELEY, Colo. — The teeming Swift & Co. slaughterhouse on the edge of town has the feel of a military base lately. Security cars cruise the fenced compound, and periodic drills are run to prepare for any attack.

At the Wayne Farms poultry plant in Decatur, Ala., armed guards patrol the grounds, searching for any threat to the tens of thousands of chickens.

In Porterville, Calif., dairy farmer Tom Barcellos recently installed video cameras in his milking barns to keep watch over his 1,200 cows.

Nothing seems farther from the front lines of terrorism than the vast American hinterlands, yet since the Sept. 11attacks, they have been drawn into the amorphous battle.

The threat is agroterrorism -- the use of microbes and poisons to shake confidence in the U.S. food supply and devastate the $201-billion farm economy.

Diseases such as swine fever or citrus greening can spread across the land silently. A single outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease could require the destruction of millions of cows and result in a worldwide ban of U.S. cattle exports for years.

"The animal becomes a weapon," said Peter Chalk, an agroterrorism expert at Rand Corp., the Santa Monica-based think tank.

Unlike the most feared bioterrorism threats, such as smallpox or anthrax -- the latter of which was used with chilling effect in the aftermath of Sept. 11 -- some virulent agricultural diseases are easily handled because they are harmless to humans. The microbes can be obtained from infected crops and animals worldwide.

No known specific intelligence has linked terrorists to attempts to compromise the food supply, federal officials said, but concerns were sparked after investigators discovered that the Sept. 11 hijackers had explored the use of crop dusters. Last year, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), chairwoman of the Governmental Affairs Committee, said U.S. forces found "hundreds of pages of U.S. agricultural documents" in caves in Afghanistan once occupied by Al Qaeda militants.

"The expertise needed to mount a serious attack is quite small," said UC Davis microbiologist Mark Wheelis. "The amount of material needed -- you could hold it in a ballpoint pen."

To meet the threat, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is building or modernizing two dozen laboratories to quickly screen disease samples from around the country. It has created rapid response teams of plant and animal pathologists in each region to respond to outbreaks and is proposing to spend $381 million on biodefense in 2005.

"We're looking at what changes are needed," said Jeremy Stump, the USDA's domestic security director, whose office is dedicated to the agroterrorism threat. "We may need to harden targets."

Yet the efficiencies of the world's most productive farm system -- vast tracts of single-crop fields and factory farms that crowd thousands of animals in tightly packed pens -- make agriculture impossible to secure.

For agroterrorists, the target blankets hundreds of thousands of square miles and is in every section of the country -- from remote rural enclaves to the edges of large cities.

The biggest problem may be combating farmers' widespread complacency -- the tacit sense that the chances of being hit by an attack are remote and that their lands are too vast to protect anyway.

"Naturally, when there's never been a Noah-like flood, people don't want to prepare for it," said Roger Breeze, an agroterrorism expert who recently retired from a top USDA post.

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Warning Bells Go Off

The first alarms about mysteriously sick animals began to leak out in June 2002 -- the first phase of an elaborate war game staged by Defense Department counterterrorism planners. In prime farm states, including North Carolina, California and Kansas, agricultural inspectors identified the infections as foot-and-mouth disease.

Participants looked on with alarm as the simulated virus raced across America. Within weeks, only portions of New England, Hawaii and Alaska were unaffected. After 45 days, 20 million imaginary animals had been destroyed. Losses totaled in the tens of billions of dollars, and public panic was leading to calls for martial law.

Efforts to police state borders and contain the simulated outbreak fell short even after the armed forces were called in.

"It was absolutely devastating and shocking to me that a handful of agricultural terrorism incidents led to the devastation of our economy," said Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.), who helped direct the response.

The events were part of a series of Defense Department exercises -- codenamed Silent Prairie and Crimson Sky -- conducted to test the abilities of government, military and agriculture officials to deal with a simulated agroterrorism attack.

"In our scenario, we had people in different towns shooting each other," Israel said. "We had state governors ordering that people crossing state lines be shot on sight."

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