U.S. AGRICULTURE COULD BE VULNERABLE TO TERRORISTS



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Last Updated

21 Feb 2003

Source: Kansas City Star, February 21, 2003

U.S. agriculture could be vulnerable to terrorists

By CHRIS ROBERTS, Associated Press Writer

LAS CRUCES, N.M. - Could terrorists be lurking in fields and behind barns, ready to poison the plants and animals that provide the source of the nation's food?

It's not an impossible scenario, says Michael Harrington, executive director of the Western Association of Agricultural Experiment Station Directors.

"Nobody thought anybody would crash a plane into the World Trade Center, either," Harrington said. "If someone were intent on attacking the agricultural and food system it could be done."

Agri-terrorism could damage the economy, kill people or make them sick, and cause the kind of upheaval the nation went through when anthrax was found circulating through the mail, he said.

"You don't have to be a rocket scientist," said Harrington, who gave the keynote address recently at the 2003 International Chile Conference in Las Cruces. "You don't have to have access to nuclear materials."

Harrington said there have been at least five acts of agri-terrorism in the United States and 17 worldwide.

In one attack, he said, a radical group claimed responsibility for releasing Mediterranean fruit flies in California. The quarter-inch Medfly attacks more than 250 varieties of fruits, nuts and vegetables.

In 1997, a Medfly infestation threatened Florida's nearly $7 billion agricultural industry.

Agriculture accounts for about $1 trillion in economic activity each year in the United States, he said. As an example, he said, destruction of New Mexico's chili industry could cause a local economic impact of at least $250 million.

Arturo Jurado, a Las Cruces pepper farmer who is chairman of the New Mexico Chile Commission, said the long-term impact would be at least 10 times greater.

"We have to be prepared for it," he said. "The best thing is information ... knowing neighbors, know what they're doing and when they're doing it."

Other vulnerable areas include processing and transportation of food, Harrington said.

"The United States has had and continues to have the safest food supply in the world, so people are a little nervous talking about this, including myself," he said.

Concern over terrorist acts has caused the U.S. Agriculture Department to invest $328 million in agri-security, he said.

Researchers are developing animal vaccines and looking at breeding animals and plants with resistance to some toxic agents. Agricultural extension service agents are developing emergency plans and educating themselves about potential risks.

Harrington said the USDA and state agricultural schools are forming another emergency response network.

Some see endless possibilities for farm- and food-related terrorist acts.

"I think one of the biggest places to start is the international foods coming in," said Wes Eaton, who works at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces and attended the conference. "We need to guarantee that it's not laced with something."