Terrorism via Agriculture

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Dear Dr. Whelan,

As a member of the ACSH Board of Science and Policy Advisors, I read with great interest the recent A Citizen's Guide to Terrorism and Response book. I found the publication filled with a great deal of good information, well thought out, and comprehensive. Although I think the publication did a good job addressing responses to WMDs, I also believe that the publication may have slighted other aspects of terrorism that might contribute significantly to instilling fear and creating significant health risks for Americans.

What I am suggesting is that terrorists learn over time and adapt their methods to both the political and logistical landscape. Although terrorists "like the dramatic," as indicated in the introduction to the Citizen's Guide, they are also very capable of using less direct methods of creating fear and panic. In fact, there is a fair amount of evidence to suggest that the "selection pressure" brought about by the concerted efforts of both the public and private sectors to prevent large-scale operations may soon result in a shift in terrorist tactics to the less dramatic. Not only do smaller, less complex operations provide the possibility of continuing a campaign of significant impact, but it is possible to do so with less risk of discovery and retribution.

With an eye toward the history of terrorism, terrorism experts have said that we can expect to see violent, small-scale attacks against malls, schools, churches, hospitals and other "soft" targets. The means of such attacks could be as simple as a bomb, a semi-automatic weapon, or the distribution of an insecticide through an air circulation system. Bringing this kind of terror to the U.S. mainland would not be difficult. Although addressed in an oblique fashion in the ACSH publication, it may be good to further consider the stresses and responses to such "localized" acts of terror.

From my own perspective as an agronomist, the greatest weakness I perceive is in the nature of the U.S. food distribution system. Although the Citizen's Guide addressed some food contamination issues, it overlooked the contamination (or threat of contamination) of a few bulk commodities used in the manufacture of thousands of common food items. I live only a few miles from the one of the largest distribution centers for soybean oil and corn syrup/sweetener. It is not difficult for me to imagine a scenario where bulk quantities of corn syrup or soybean oil are contaminated and the event is not discovered until the products are on the shelves. Although such an event is not likely to cause many deaths, the loss of faith in our food production system and behavioral changes that would result would be enormous. Imagine going into a store and trying to find food items without soybean oil or corn syrup/sweetener as one of the ingredients. A similar scenario could also be drawn for wheat, white corn, eggs, meat, and some milk products. Yes, there are procedures in place for detecting some contaminants in the food processing chain, but there is currently no way testing can evaluate more than a handful of possible offending compounds.

I have been working with a small group of industry and academic specialists on issues of this sort and we have discovered that it is perhaps all too easy for this type of contamination event to take place. Almost as disconcerting is the impact a threat (alone) of bulk commodity contamination would have on people. Nor is this the only way in which our nation's food supply could be seriously disrupted. A widespread power outage or disruption in the transportation network could have nearly the same effect. Affecting the nation's food supply may create a sense of disorder and panic and a loss of faith in the government, or it may simply be a preliminary step to more overt attacks via the Internet, contagious human disease, or other methods.

There is also an ever-growing number of individuals and groups that would seek to capitalize on disorder from any quarter. These parties may be motivated by political, religious, or environmental factors. The ease with which agricultural resources may be compromised makes them attractive to anyone feeling disaffected who wants to "get in the game."

Although some authors have pointed out that the diversity and wide distribution of agricultural production regions in the U.S. insulates and protects the industry, it is also true that our population's reliance on processed and transported foods makes many commodities particularly susceptible. Minor crops, such as sorghum, canola, asparagus, and beets are neither staples of the American diet nor commodities upon which we trade widely with other countries. Many other crops fall into such categories and are therefore have a low risk of being targeted by terrorists.

However, commodities such as soybeans, corn, eggs, poultry, or livestock are not only traded widely but are ingredients in thousands of different whole or processed foods. A threat to the supply, or risk of contamination of any of these "staples" could drastically affect consumer confidence in the entire food distribution chain. A serious threat would be unlikely to be overcome for several years after such an event. The foot and mouth outbreak in Great Britain in 2001 was estimated to cost livestock producers the equivalent of $5 billion with another $3+ billion dollars lost due to reduced tourist revenue. (See "After Foot and Mouth," The Economist, May 3, 2001.) Producers accrue additional losses in subsequent years by holding farms out of production during the period required to re-establish sanitary conditions (one to two years), and then rebuild their herds from existing stocks of clean animals (which are high-priced).

The concentration of the production of these "staple" commodities in the Midwestern states presents another risk. An event that affects any one commodity for even a single season would have drastic affects, not only on production and marketing of the remaining commodities but also on the regional economy. Both corn and soy products are used as poultry and livestock feed. Should either feed grain be the target of an attack, livestock production and markets would suffer. Should livestock or poultry be targeted for attack, the markets for grains would be negatively impacted.

Without alarming people or going into details, I do think it is appropriate to start a serious dialogue about ways to encourage families to store enough food to address a prolonged "event." By this I am suggesting enough dry or canned food for a period to cover several weeks. I am not so naive as to think that such advice would be easily taken. When Americans aren't buying their lunch and dinner at the nearest fast food joint, they are selecting it from the frozen food display at the grocery market. And if eating habits aren't hard enough to address, trying to get people to think in terms of food storage instead of convenience food runs against the direction the food industry is taking as well.

To be thoroughly prepared a population must be vigilant before an event and be resilient after. Although some of our food industries are entering into discussions that would help them increase their vigilance, I see little effort by the general population to improve their resilience. Storing food and water and learning to handle the stress of a protracted event could help prevent chaos in our communities. At the least it would help people feel engaged and perhaps more confident irrespective of whether an event takes place.

Preparation may be the best defense. Recognition that a resource is protected, or at a minimum that a coordinated response has been prepared in case of an event, is a deterrent in itself. Although it may not prevent established terrorists groups from making attempts, it may very well deter rogue individuals and start-up groups from taking spontaneous or opportunistic action.

Best Regards,

David R. Pike, Ph.D.
University of Illinois (retired)
AIRS-Inc Consulting