Why Would Agriculture be a Target?

There are numerous reasons why a terrorist or other individual might want to target agriculture. Some reasons often cited include:

  • To instill fear or loss of confidence in the food supply
  • To create chaos and social unrest
  • To damage the economy

Agriculture and the larger food and fiber system have many characteristics that make them vulnerable to bioterrorism. First, everyone needs to eat, meaning that an attack on our food supply has the potential to affect a large portion of the population. An intentional effort to introduce contaminants into our food supply or an interruption in the flow or availability of food products would instill fear and could be very disruptive. Second, our agricultural system is large making the task of providing complete control and protection very difficult. Finally, the food and fiber system has many global connections making US agriculture vulnerable to attack from abroad.

William Edmondson of the USDA-ERS has written extensively about the wide-reaching impact of agriculture as part of the nation’s and the world’s economy. Edmondson cites that in 2001, the U.S. food and fiber industry employed nearly 24 million people and generated $1.24 trillion – an estimated 12.3 percent of the nation’s total gross domestic product. About 16.7 percent of American workers are employed in the food and fiber system. An intentional attack on this industry would certainly have wide-reaching impacts that would ripple through America’s and the world’s economy.

For more information, and to learn more about the importance of agriculture at a national level, or within your state, check out the USDA’s Economic Research Service (ERS) website.

Categories of Threats

There is currently no standardized definition of agroterrorism. Iowa State University’s Center for Food Security and Public Health has used the following definition in its educational materials: “The use of biological (to include toxins), chemical, or radiological agents against some component of agriculture in such a way as to adversely impact the agriculture industry or any component thereof, the economy, or the consuming public.”

Agroterrorism can take many forms as described by John Shutske, University of Wisconsin-Madison Division of Extension:

  1. The intentional introduction of an animal or plant disease such as Foot and Mouth Disease virus within livestock herds or various pathogens which affect growing crops.
  2. The intentional biological or chemical contamination or adulteration of farm inputs (such as water or feed) or of food products and ingredients anywhere within the production process, from farm to table. Note that “agroterrorism” and general food system terrorism lines blur as agriculture becomes increasingly vertically integrated from the farm through product processing and packaging.
  3. The use, misuse, or contamination of an agricultural input product in a destructive manner – such as using agricultural fertilizer to produce explosives or methamphetamine; or the use of pesticides as a chemical contaminant in feed, food, water, or other targets.
  4. The use of an agricultural technology for illicit purposes – including use of aerial application equipment to spread biological/chemical agents, or using shipping containers normally used to transport agricultural commodities and food products to smuggle hazardous items/substances.
  • Journal Citation – Describing the threat of intentional disease spread: Alibek, K. 1999. “The Soviet Union’s Anti-Agricultural Biological Weapons” Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 894: 18-19.
  • Journal Citation – Describing the threat of farm input contamination: Neher, N. 1999. “The need for coordinated response to food terrorism” Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences,894: 181-183.
  • NBC News story – Describing use of farm product for illicit purposes

A Bit of History

The threats to agriculture and our food system are not just theoretical. Several web pages describe the history of warfare and other more isolated incidents where agriculture was a target. The Monterey Institute of International Studies Center for Nonproliferation Studies offers a chronology of historical incidents in which agriculture and food systems were targets in times of war, by terrorists, and in other situations where the attack was intentional.

Another historical reference, developed by Anne Kohnen Of Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, is titled: “Responding to the Threat of Agroterrorism: Specific Recommendations for the United States Department of Agriculture.” (PDF)