Crops may be susceptible to terrorist attacks.(Photo: USBR.gov)
When the recent outbreak of E.coli in spinach sickened people, some suspected an act of agroterrorism. Host Jeff Young talks to Peter Chalk, terrorism analyst at the Rand Corporation, about the food supply’s vulnerability to attack.
YOUNG: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts - this is Living on Earth. I’m Jeff Young, sitting in for Steve Curwood.
Recent headlines about contaminated food might make you think twice about a trip through the produce aisle. Botulism in carrot juice paralyzed two people. E. Coli in spinach killed three and sickened hundreds more. The safety of our food is in question. In this segment of the program we’ll explore the problem and possible solutions.
We now know that cow manure in water was to blame for that tainted spinach. But back when people started getting sick some suspected an act of terrorism.
The officials on alert for terror attacks don’t just watch airports and skyscrapers. They also watch farms and food. A recent Congressional hearing focused on what Georgia representative John Barrow called "agro-terrorism"—an attack on the food supply.
BARROW: We have evidence that agriculture and food are potential Al Qaeda targets since 2002.
YOUNG: It’s a growing concern. This year’s FBI symposium on agro-terrorism attracted three times as many people as last year’s. Dr. Peter Chalk was a featured speaker at that FBI symposium. He’s a terrorism analyst at the Rand Corporation. Chalk says the U.S. food system is highly vulnerable. But he doubts that terrorism is the real threat.
CHALK: Well, the argument goes that if you were going to attack U.S. agriculture, it would be primarily a form of economic aggression, simply designed to cripple what is a very lucrative industrial sector. The primary motivating agenda of terrorism still remains to shock, to kill en masse, to kill with highly shocking attacks. That is necessary for publicity. It is necessary for mobilizing recruits, radicalizing existing supporters. It’s also necessary to imbue a targeted society with the type of terror and fear that extremists strive to attain.
YOUNG: So, it could really hurt us in an economic sense and could bring about deaths. But they wouldn’t be high profile, televised, really terrorizing kinds of deaths. Therefore, terrorists might not be that interested?
CHALK: Yes. I mean the impact would be significant but it would be delayed and it would lack an immediate point of contact for the media to pick up on. So that’s the first point. And merely sickening cows doesn’t really satisfy the blood lust, in my opinion, that terrorists strive to achieve.
YOUNG: So, what is it that makes us vulnerable? What are the weak points?
CHALK: If you look at the inherent nature of agriculture it is large scale and intensive, a typical dairy, at least 1500 lactating cows. They’re concentrated as herds that live in close proximity towards one another which means that diseases will quickly spread. And, in many cases, the smaller or medium scale food processing facilities often employ transient, unscreened work forces. And even basic security procedures, such as padlocking of warehouses, may not be in place.
You need to go beyond the vulnerabilities, though, if one is looking at a deliberately orchestrated attack to look at capabilities. And it’s certainly very easy to harm agriculture. Many disease agents are not infectious to humans. Which means that a perpetrator or a terrorist could handle them without any fear of accidental infection. And then because the animal itself is the weapon, in the sense that the animal would distribute the disease, there is no problem of weaponization to overcome.
YOUNG: It sounds like there are lots of points of vulnerability. Do we have any evidence that anyone has intentionally taken advantage of this? In other words, have there ever been agro-terror attacks?
CHALK: I think I’m correct in saying that since 1912 there have only been a dozen or so documented cases of the deliberate introduction of a disease agent against the food chain, of which only a handful would be termed "terroristic." I mean the best one in the U.S. context would be the introduction of salmonella by the Rajneeshi cult in Oregon in 1984, which was an attempt to influence local voter patterns.
YOUNG: They spread salmonella on salad bars, right?
CHALK: That’s correct, yeah. But beyond that there is no evidence that this has been a major focus of terrorist activity. Which goes back to my questioning this supposed Al Qaeda interest. They’re going for soft targets. They’re going for strikes that can be carried out cheaply and which offer a high degree of success. And, certainly, attacking agriculture would meet those requirements. But, for me, it doesn’t meet the requirement of shock value.
YOUNG: How do we then put this threat into context here? I mean, is the real threat here Al Qaeda getting into the food supply, or cow manure accidentally getting into the food supply?
CHALK: I think the real threat is cow manure. The real threat lies with the naturally occurring outbreak. That is what the track record has shown across the world. There have been numerous outbreaks of diseases, such as FMD, that have been naturally occurring.
YOUNG: And that’s Foot and Mouth Disease, FMD?
CHALK: Yes, it is. I mean everywhere from Taiwan right through to the UK. Other potentially worrisome diseases would be Rift Valley Fever or Exotic New Castle Disease. I think really when we’re looking at protecting agriculture I don’t think it helps to always place this in the context of terrorism. Homeland security should be viewed in much more holistic terms, it’s not necessarily only about terrorism. It’s about safeguarding critical infrastructure against all types of threats. And naturally-occurring diseases vis a vis agriculture I think are the greatest threat as opposed to a terrorist deliberately attacking that sector.
YOUNG: Dr. Peter Chalk is a terrorism analyst at the Rand Corporation. Thanks for talking with us.
CHALK: Thank you very much for having me.
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