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Farmers prepare for terrorism

The agricultural community is exploring ways to prevent and prepare for a terrorist attack.

BY SUSAN KIM | BALTIMORE | January 8, 2003

"If we are concerned about America we should also be concerned about our plants and animals."

—John Hager

If moving to rural America seems like a way to escape preparing for a terrorist attack, think again.

Far from hiding away in less populated areas, the agricultural community is exploring ways to prevent and prepare for a terrorist attack.

"The goal of terrorism is to undermine our faith, economy, government and confidence in our food supply," explained John Hager, assistant to the Virginia governor for commonwealth preparedness.

That's why more farmers and producers are sharing information on farm security, vigilance and preparedness.

Even before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, farmers learned anti-terrorism measures because of the risk of attacks from various violent domestic groups opposed to everything from drinking milk to growing genetically modified corn, said Spencer Neale of the Virginia Farm Bureau Federation. Though some groups are able to voice their opposition peacefully, others destroy crops and fences, burn research laboratories, and threaten farmers.

Agro-terrorism is perhaps one of the oldest forms of terrorism. According to the Monterey Institute of International Studies, the German secret service conducted a covert biological campaign during World War I, using anthrax and other substances to infect draft animals, horses and mules used by the Allies. Germans also attempted to use a wheat fungus to ruin crops.

By World War II, some British naturalists believed that Germany dropped Colorado Potato Beetles on Britain, using "bombs" made of cardboard that contained 50-100 crop-ruining beetles. In 1950, East Germany accused the U.S. of using the same tactic.

In 1970 in Ashville, Ala., the water supply of a 1,000-acre farm owned by a group of Muslims was poisoned, killing 30 cows. A local veterinarian identified the poison as cyanide. Reports indicate that a local white supremacist group may have been responsible.

"Certainly, we have always had risks and concerns," said Hager. "After Sept. 11 this concern was about organized, foreign-based or malicious terrorism."

But Neale said farmers should be aware that "agro-terrorism" could take many forms. "Since Sept. 11, we have been more focused on foreign terrorism," he said. "But terrorism can be an outbreak of food poisoning that's intentional in a restaurant."

Farmers are also preparing for a domestic or foreign terrorist who might intentionally spread damaging agricultural illnesses such as foot-and-mouth disease or avian flu.

When looking at the risks surrounding farmers, it's hard to put together a profile of a domestic or international terrorist. And these days the risk may seem blown out of proportion. But so-called "agro-terrorism" could have a huge monetary impact for the nation.

"Economic impacts would be tremendous," said Neale. "The U.S. exports one-third of its beef."

"We are all affected by agriculture and its safety," added Hager. "If we are concerned about America we should also be concerned about our plants and animals."

A terrorist attack would also disrupt individual farmer's lives in more personal ways, explained Neale.

"We are talking about people not being allowed to leave their farms if we were to have an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease," he said.

It's hard to understand why some farmers simply haven't been very vigilant, he added. "Any number of people could have access to their properties."

It's very difficult to have complete security on a farm, acknowledged Neale, but it's becoming more of a reality as both farmers and government officials become more aware of its importance.

"Most state governments are looking at agriculture as part of their preparedness plans," said Neale.

U.S. officials are also considering a national requirement to electronically identify all commodity-related animals.

"Electronic identification of all animals is probably coming in 3-4 years," said Neale. "Some U.S. animals are already identified with a plastic tag in their ear. Work is being done with microchips implanted in animals' necks."

Currently between 40 and 48 percent of U.S. animals are electronically identified.

Electronic identification of such animals is already mandatory in Canada, Neale added. "Within 48 hours, you can trace everywhere an animal has been through its life."

That could help track animals not only in the event of a terrorist attack but also in the wake of a natural disaster. "After a tornado, for example, horses might be running loose. Then there's a big chance of theft," said Neale.

Farmers and producers know electronic identification regulations are coming, he added, and most acknowledge they're necessary, but there is some reluctance to adopt them across the country, said Neale.

"We've got a history of not having stuff mandated by the federal government," he said. "There will be a reluctance that I would attribute to the independence of agricultural producers."

FBI officials also urged farmers to try to stay aware of terrorist threats and risks in other parts of the country, as well as in urban and suburban areas.

"You might have one piece of the puzzle that could solve the case," said Jerry Lyons, FBI special agent.

Farm Security Tips

(adapted from the Virginia Cooperative Extension)

1. Identify animals, electronically or through other means.

2. Post signs telling visitors where to report.

3. Maintain a record of visitors' names and companies, as well as their arrival and departure times, and their reason for visiting.

4. Use visitor badges or identification cards.

5. Explain disease control procedures to visitors.

6. Ask local law enforcement to patrol a farm's perimeter at irregular times.

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