The world we live in has been dealt with key security challenges for years and it seems that nowadays, human security as well as national security level interchangeable.  Terrorism by itself is a shadow in almost every part of our lives; however, it is also a reason for all of us to work on preventing and preempting possible consequences of its strike. That could be done through addressing the threat and forming responsible policy regarding it on a timely basis.

Cow and calf Image/Agricultural Research Services
Cow and calf
Image/Agricultural Research Services

Agro-terrorism is a new term for one kind of ecological terrorism, which means terrorists attempts to destroy or damage agriculture in a country by misusing plant or animal pathogens to cause disruption in affected field. However, the term is relatively new, while the practice is not.

Attack on food was recorded earlier in history, especially in World War I when German troops used the bacterium that causes glanders  against the horses, mules and donkeys of allied armies. In addition, years later in 1984,  a bio-incident occurred in the US when the Rajneeshee cult poisoned 751 individuals in The Dalles, Oregon, by infecting salad bars in 10 restaurants with salmonella.

The main goal was to achieve political success in the local county elections.  The agro-terrorism is an intentional biocriminal act against food supply industry of the chosen target so it can lead to some inland health crisis or to devastate economical possibilities. In both ways, it is a very serious security threat which shouldn’t be buried into everyday political struggles.

Mr. Tommy Thompson, former secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, commented the following in 2004: “For the life of me, I cannot understand why the terrorists have not attacked our food supply, because it is so easy to do.” This sentence opened many discussions in America and in Europe, because the agriculture sector is very vulnerable and that organ is one of the weakest in the organism which we call the state.

Governments worldwide are aware of this problem but it takes lot of financial means to deal with this kind of risk. The agricultural industry in the United States contributes 12.9% to the GDP which further means about $789 billion, according to official data for 2013 made by United States Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service. On the other side, the EU is the world’s largest producer of food and beverages with production estimated at about EUR 675 billion.

These numbers demonstrate the importance of the agricultural industry in the US and the EU and their economic prosperity; however, the main question here is –How secure is this sector and what strategies could be use to improve the food safety during a time when safety is endangered at every step?   Security experts came up with a hundred ideas long list on how microbes, biological toxins, chemical and radiological agents could be misused in the food supply chain in any moment.

Terrorists could put botulism into a tanker of milk for schools, some deadly plant germs could be sprayed over crops field, the Foot-and-mouth fatal viral disease could be used to infect beef farms or the pathogens like E.coli, listeria and salmonella simply could be introduced in the food processing with the terrible outcomes.  It is a fact that some pathogens may occur on the crops by natural outbreaks and also cause devastation to the economy expatiation as well as zoonotic infectious diseases can come silently to the farms and make tragically changes in economical statistic.  The worst example of how natural outbreak can cause the economical losses is from 2001, when the United Kingdom faced a Foot-and-mouth disease outbreak.

It is estimated that about 3.90 million animals were eliminated and cost of it exceeded $ 6.5 billion.  If we have the similar problem caused by activities of terrorists, we will deal with even worse scenario because today, possibilities for agro-terrorism aren’t only limited to professionals with the “bugs” but are also very available to those aggressive amateurs who are interested in fighting against the system.  The weak agricultural industry safety in the US and in the EU doesn’t mean that agro-terrorism could happen easily and so simply. It only means that agricultural sector security should be improved and empowered by functional and updated defense.

After the 9/11 attack, the project Bio Shield was launched to work on biological terrorism prevention and the agricultural part of it was also analyzed.  Mr. David Goldenberg, skilled program manager at the Western Center for Food Safety and Security at the University of California was sponsored by Department of Homeland Security and also by the U.S.Department of Agriculture to organize courses and to increase agroterrorism prevention efforts through the Rural Domestic Preparedness Consortium.  The main task was to educate early emergency responders in the case of domestic food supply terrorist attack but also to work on preventing it through the permanent control of food safety in hot zones.

One of American “hot zones” for sure is the Salinas Valley, the most productive agricultural region in California, also known as “The Salad Bowl of the World”. The mentioned agro-terrorism expert introduces farmers with all potential risks and informs them how to protect their land and their farm the best way they can. The official government service through the Salinas Valley Water Project does the rest. The professionals all over the US are aware that they must have agro-terrorism prevention policy prepared on time rather than instruction guide post attack. But this is one field where policy makers and people must work together on. It is not only the problem of the government but it is also the problem of the people who have the farm and the people who consume the products from the farm. This potential problem is everyone’s. The policy of prevention and preemption must be applied everywhere where it is necessary.

The key is in the education and information about the measures which could be taken and implemented by workers in food supply industry.  They are the first keepers and first responders and focus must be on them.  That is also an idea of the public health professor, David Dausey, who thinks that we should be worried because of the fact that the international food supply chain could be a target for terrorists to intentionally contaminate the food and indicate the global chaos.  It is not anymore about risks and threats; it is about smart policy of reducing the risks and security challenges.

The EU made the project under the name PLANTFOODSEC, in 2011 which consists of epidemiology and crop biosecurity, food biosecurity, Analyzes of risks to European food systems and society from the intentional introduction of new pest and disease agents.  Training for plant and food biosecurity, responders system, diagnostic, detection and monitoring are mandatory fields in the new European agro-terrorism strategy.  The adequate strategies depend on financial capability of the country so we cannot expect that each one of them will be 100 % successful but what is more important is to be made and implemented as the part of national security.  Food security is the security which can hit us all, no matter where we are and who we are…at the end of the day, we will eat the same.

Related articles: 

Dark Biology: When microbes become the ultimate weapon 

Germ Bank Security: Safeguards for a new age of challenges 

Medical Martial Law: Somewhere between biosafety and freedom


Sandra Maksimovic-Sara, has an MA in Biological  Counter Terrorism Studies, with special interests of researching and writing about  Biological Weapons, Biosecurity and Biodefense. Sandra hails from Serbia.