The food and agricultural sector is one of the easiest sectors of any nation’s economy to disrupt and its disruption could have catastrophic consequences both nationally and regionally. Both developing and developed countries will be impacted by a disease outbreak or agroterrorism attack. For countries with agriculture as a significant portion of their gross domestic product, disruptions anywhere along the food chain could lead to food insecurity and national instability in addition to the direct and indirect economic impacts. Yet in the context of CBRNe planning, preparations for a major biological emergency, whether naturally occurring or intentional, are often given less attention and allocated fewer resources than chemical or radiological events due to the reduced potential for a significant human death toll. However there are steps—some easily accomplished, others more difficult—that can be taken to mitigate the impact of disease outbreaks and agroterrorism activities.
FEASIBILITY OF AN AGROTERRORISM ATTACK
A subset of bioterrorism, agroterrorism is the deliberate attempt to disrupt or destroy an agricultural industry or food supply by a variety of means including the introduction of a disease agent, either against livestock, crops or into the food chain, for the purposes of undermining stability and/or generating fear. Earlier this year, the Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense concluded that the U.S. is unprepared for a biological weapons attack and former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge said that, “our government is delusional to think we can get by without a strong biodefense policy.”
The history of bioterrorism confirms that naturally occurring disease agents such as plague, smallpox and anthrax are often used as weapons. Occurrences of reportable animal diseases published by the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) over the last 12-months include numerous disease events in the region including anthrax, low pathogenic avian influenza (LPAI), highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI), classical swine fever, foot and mouth disease (FMD), and Newcastle disease. The presence of these diseases increases the risk of an intentional introduction to an uninfected country or the unintentional introduction through a breach in biosecurity. Additionally, exploitable vulnerabilities exist throughout the entire food production system which can be difficult to manage. The vast nature of the food production system provides many opportunities for the introduction of disease agents. Other factors which make agriculture an attractive target include:
- Many highly contagious disease agents are endemic throughout the region
- Severe economic consequences of an attack
- Plant and animal pathogens are easier to acquire than human agents
- Little or no physical security at production facilities
- Farms are widely dispersed
- Disseminating plant or livestock pathogens presents less risk for the perpetrator
- The low cost and simplicity of delivery
- Incubations periods provide the opportunity for the disease to spread undetected and for the perpetrator to escape
HARDENING AGRICULTURAL TARGETS
Adequately addressing the threat of agroterrorism requires action at many different levels. In recent years significant progress has been made to address food defense at the international, regional, national, and provincial levels. Efforts by OIE and the World Health Organization (WHO) have resulted in significant improvements in disease surveillance and reporting. Efforts to control H5N1 in Vietnam have shown how vaccination programs, modern disease reporting systems, movement control and an aggressive public awareness campaign can limit disease spread and save lives. Malaysia’s efforts to control the Nipah virus demonstrated the value of designating specific farming areas and the establishment of a national zoonotic disease committee to coordinate human and animal health efforts.
Despite more than a decade of extraordinary effort by dedicated men and women focused on hardening agricultural and food production targets, there is one place where the level of preparedness remains virtually unchanged—the farm. A culture of independence, shrinking profits, limited organizational support and the vast number of individual farms have conspired to impede the implementation of key physical and biosecurity measures. Today the farm represents one of the greatest vulnerabilities in the entire food production system.
However there are steps—some easily accomplished, others more difficult to implement—that can be taken to prevent agroterrorism attacks on the farm. Simple measures include:
- Limit access with fencing and locks
- Post signs to designate restricted areas and farm policies
- Keep all buildings and gates lock when not in use
- Pre-screen new employees
- Improve facility lighting
- Park vehicles away from livestock areas
- Isolate new animals from the main herd
- Train personnel to recognize disease signs and implement appropriate biosecurity procedures
- Build relationships and maintain contact information for:
– Herd veterinarians
– Government veterinarians
– Local law enforcement
– Public health officials
- Maintain an inventory of all animals on the farm
- Document and safely dispose of all animal mortality
These are just a few of the simple measures that can be taken to mitigate an individual farm’s vulnerability to an agroterrorism attack. Because the effectiveness of local, national or regional efforts is hampered if these on-farm vulnerabilities are not addressed, it is incumbent on all partners in the counter-agroterrorism effort to support on-farm mitigation measures. Additional efforts in the area of education, resources, and coordination may be key to preventing the next devastating agroterrorism attack.