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Researchers prepare for agroterroristic attacks

By Sharon Omahen
University of Georgia

The U.S. food and water supply could become targets of terrorism, and scientists in Georgia are preparing for such attacks.

Center formed

Shortly after the events of 9/11, University of Georgia researchers teamed up with state officials to form an agroterrorism task force. The Georgia Emergency Management Association, Georgia Agribusiness Council and Georgia Department of Agriculture are partners.

Later, a joint venture between Georgia Tech Research Institute and University of Georgia led to establishing CSAGE, the Center for Security of Agriculture and the Environment.

"The focus of CSAGE research is to counteract the intentional use of pathogens and chemicals to create terror," said Jeff Fisher, co-director of CSAGE.

"Areas which could be targeted include areas where animals and food are produced and distributed, fields, water supplies and the atmosphere," said Fisher, a professor of environmental health at the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

Not just farmers' problem

The threat of agroterrorism isn't a problem just for farmers.

"If a disease was introduced into our animal populations, plant crops or food supply, the value of agriculture would plummet," Fisher said. "Our trading partners would refuse to buy from us, and the U.S. would head into a deep recession."

Introducing foreign animal diseases like foot-and-mouth disease could decimate the nation's livestock industry. And farmers wouldn't suffer alone, Fisher said. Every American would feel the pinch.

"We could lose up to $100 billion from our national economy from foot-and-mouth alone," he said. "Avian influenza or Newcastle disease, two devastating poultry diseases, would cripple the nation's poultry industry."

This would be a huge blow to Georgia, which many consider the poultry capital of the nation.

Georgia farmers constantly fight diseases and pests that pop up accidentally. Intentional introductions could have "a significant and long-lasting impact on agriculture in Georgia," he said.

Researchers at Georgia Tech are working to develop sensors that can detect and characterize contaminants in the food chain. "This sensor technology could be used for field detection, warning for food processing and laboratory analysis," Fisher said.

Models will assess risks

UGA scientists are working on mathematical models to help assess the risks that attacks could pose to crops, animals and humans. The success of these projects lies in awareness and education.

"The extension service at UGA will be used to disseminate agroterror information and educate agriculture personnel across the state," Fisher said. "Overall, the CSAGE plans to cover the gamut of activities involved in countering agricultural terrorism."

The group would like to present a mock agroterroristic scenario for FBI agents, GEMA officials and others to prepare for actual emergencies. But the group needs funding.

Fisher has applied for and hopes to get funding for the center through the president's homeland security program, he said.

(Sharon Omahen is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

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