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Agriculture as a terrorist target: Time to address vulnerabilities 

The lack of risk assessments in the agricultural and environmental systems sectors has undoubtedly allowed them to become vulnerable to terrorist attacks, says Christoph Schroth, in a blog that will be expanded in a more detailed article in our next printed edition.


The large nature of agricultural production plants mean that disease - whether intentionally or unintentionally released - can spread rapidly (Yadamons / 123rf)

Environmental and agricultural systems are the foundation of human existence on earth, as without the right environmental conditions, the effectiveness of agricultural endeavors would be minimal, thus putting global health and political stability into jeopardy. The majority of literature addresses the terrorist threat, its mitigation, preparedness and response but does not specifically address a significant sector of the US and global populations foundation: agriculture. This blog will examine the level of preparedness and most likely target of such an attack, as well as make recommendations to enhance preparedness and mitigation; the subject will be covered in more depth in the September 2016 edition of The Crisis Response Journal (12:1).

Agriculture as a target

The agricultural sector is made up of many direct and indirect components, such as plants, livestock, personnel, manufacturing and processing plants. National budgets on terrorism mitigation, preparedness and response have grown rapidly over the last decade and created a: “Well protected public infrastructure,” but, “agriculture is one are that has received very little attention in this regard,” according to Chalk. Not all aspects of agriculture are as vulnerable as others but Chalk (2001) says that livestock is the ideal target, for a variety of reasons.

The increased use of steroids to maximise meat production has led to increased stress levels and decreased resistance to infections, making livestock more susceptible to them. Vaccinations are not compulsory for many conditions; Chalk (2001) lists 22 conditions that this applies to. Owing to the large nature of the processing and food production facilities (eg dairy farms and their milking facilities) an outbreak at one facility could spread extremely quickly and would justify the mass slaughter of all animals within it, in order to minimise further spread of the disease/infection.

According to one model by the US Department of Agriculture, Foot and Mouth disease: “Could spread to as many as 25 states in as little as five days through regulated movement,” alone. The production and processing industry, according to Chalk would also not be particularly helpful in limiting the spread of contaminated products, as their security, product recall procedures and staff screening criteria are also inadequate.

Means and methods

The basis of any successful attack is the means and availability of the required knowledge, personnel, equipment and motivation to execute a planned attack. As discussed above, the agricultural sector has not been well prepared for a terrorist threat, reducing the amount of knowledge and resources required to initiate an attack, as there are less prevention measures in place.

Means to execute an attack can occur at multiple levels, depending on the attackers’ abilities. The simplest approach would start at the level of the farmer, who either personally or unknowingly through his or her staff, introduce a disease into livestock before it is sent to the processing facilities, either on or off site. Lack of monitoring and screening procedures at these facilities could lead to a quick spread and possibly undetected distribution, not just nationally but internationally.


Transportation and processing facilities of livestock present another vulnerable area (Jiri Foltyn / 123rf)


This has to start with an appropriate risk assessment of the entire industry to identify all potential origins of significant threats. These threats might only be the ones identified by Chalk (2001), but could already have been modified to meet the goals of the terrorist groups that are planning to use them. In the meantime, basic measures, such as increased regulations for employee screening, quality control and surveillance of facilities could help to eliminate the risk from ‘entry level’ criminals who are attempting to trial their attacks on a small scale experiment before targeting a larger facility/target demographic.

Updating of emergency response plans is also a key intervention and, while the National Incident Command System (NIMS) can be used for any type of event, without further allocation of resources and mitigation plans the incident commander will not have any means to effectively execute his/her duties in such a scenario.

Chalk (2001) also recommended the adjustment of the veterinary science curriculum to include: “A greater emphasis on large-scale animal husbandry and foreign/exotic disease recognition,” essentially increasing the chances of abnormal conditions to be recognised earlier. Should this threat be ignored, the likelihood exists that an attack could be launched undetected, leading to the death of a significant amount of citizens.

Still taking the US as an example, Chalk (2011) points out that the economy could become unstable as a consequence of an attack, owing to lost revenue and possible international trade restrictions, which would most likely result in loss of political support by the general population (ie the voters) and go as far leading to social instability because of resulting mass panic from these attacks.

Environmental targets

There is no doubt that the attack on an ecosystem, such as a dam, wetland or drinking water supply would have detrimental consequences but, in order to harm the most amounts of people, the method of targeting livestock appears to be the more likely of the two. Contamination of drinking water, for example, would probably only affect one or two regions, owing to the way that water is distributed. Targeting a farming community would spread the disease through the entire country within days, possibly even globally, before a potential attack on the livestock is detected.

The lack of risk assessments in the agricultural and environmental systems sector has undoubtedly allowed them to become vulnerable to terrorist attacks and care has to be taken not to focus only on prevention and preparedness in either of these sectors. Terrorists, like any other form of criminal, will always aim for the weak points in a system and a successful attack could result in consequences way beyond violent acts in public places, such as cinemas and colleges. This could bring the threat into every home in the United States. The public fears could become so immense that political instability becomes a strong possibility, ultimately playing right into the hands of terrorist groups around the world.

Christoph Schroth is Lecturer in Paramedic Science at the Faculty of Health & Social Sciences, Bournemouth University, UK

Source - Chalk, P (2001, October): Terrorism, infrastructure protection, and the US food and agricultural sector, RAND. Full document here  

Christoph Schroth, 05/07/2016
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