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Terrorism a threat to agriculture, too

By Brooke Hatfield and Sharon Omahen
University of Georgia

While many know of the threat terrorism poses to Americans, few consider the hazards of agroterrorism.

"Agriculture is critical to the economic infrastructure of the United States," said Lynda Kelley, a researcher with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service.

"One-sixth of the gross domestic product is agriculture-related," Kelley said. "Yet the U.S. General Accounting Office's reports on terrorism fail to address threats to agriculture."

Agroterrorism is generally defined as maliciously using biological agents as weapons against the agricultural industry. An agroterrorist attack can use pathogens, pests or toxins, Kelley said.

Agroterrorism isn't new

It isn't a new concept, she said. Germans used anthrax against livestock in World War I. And every state with an offensive bio-weapons program has an anti-agriculture component. A covert offensive program in the former Soviet Union had a big anti-agriculture component.

The purpose of these attacks, she said, is the same as with any other form of terrorism: fear.

The costs would not be limited to the loss of farm products, Kelley said. They would include the cost of diagnosis, the required destruction of contaminated properties, the loss of exports and damage to consumer confidence.

Kelley has seen the toll on a nation's economic and psychological structure firsthand. She spent time in England during the foot-and-mouth disease outbreak there.

"The economic impact isn't just agricultural," she said. "The employment rate (in England) is the lowest it's been in 26 years. And tourism has dropped."

The environment was affected by the outbreak, too. Water tables were contaminated by buried animals.

Don't forget the psychological impact

But Kelley said the psychological impact affected her most. "Farming is a very social industry," she said. "People holed up. They didn't want to expose their herds."

Children were quarantined and their pets killed. Veterinarians and military personnel were the only ones allowed on and off farms. Many farmers went bankrupt. Some committed suicide.

"When I was over there, I decided I was not going through this again," she said. "I knew we had to find some other options."

In the United States, measures are in effect to counter an agroterrorist attack. A microbial defense initiative was formed in the wake of post-Sept. 11 anthrax attacks. "Our biggest ally in agriculture has been the Department of Defense," she said.

Methods for dealing with an attack, however, aren't perfected yet. Referring to her experience with foot-and-mouth disease, Kelley said, "We need to consider options other than mass slaughter."

UGA forms agrosecurity task force

In Georgia, the University of Georgia formed the UGA Agrosecurity Task Force shortly after 9/11.

"The task force's first major accomplishment was an agrosecurity conference last May which attracted over 400 people, including extension agents from across the state," said Jeff Fisher, the task force chair.

"Our goal was to get people on the same page as far as emergency situations go," said Fisher, a professor of environmental health at the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

UGA and Georgia Tech researchers teamed up with officials from the Georgia Emergency Management Agency, Georgia Agribusiness Council and Georgia Department of Agriculture to form CSAGE, the Center for the Security of Agriculture and the Environment, in December 2001.

Researchers with CSAGE are studying all areas of agriculture that terrorists could target.

"We just don't talk about the detailed specifics of our research," Fisher said. "We don't want to identify these areas. That would be like training terrorists. And we definitely don't want to do that."

(Brooke Hatfield is a student writer with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

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

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