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Straight talk: K-State experts discuss agroterrorism and its financial implications

By Keener A. Tippin II

 

For terrorists looking to strike at the nerve center of the nation's financial and military power, New York and Washington, D.C., were obvious targets. Were a terrorist attack to occur on the heartland, such an attack need not be against humans, but where it could inflict the most harm -- against its agricultural-based economy. Such a strike could be devastating, crippling the agricultural economy of the region and creating a potential economic disaster.

Four of K-State's leading experts on the topic talk about what agroterrorism is, whether it is a real or perceived threat and its possible financial implications. Experts include Sean Fox, a professor of agricultural economics; Jerry Jaax, associate vice provost for research compliance and the university veterinarian; Curtis Kastner, professor of animal sciences and industry and director of the Food Science Institute; and Jackie McClaskey, assistant dean, academic programs, in the College of Agriculture.

Q. WHAT IS AGROTERRORISM?

Sean FoxSEAN FOX: Any attempt to shake the confidence of the U.S. consumer in the safety of their food supply. Any deliberate attempt to do that would be classified as agroterrorism. Fox is pictured at left.

JERRY JAAX: Agroterrorism is a subset of the greater threats of terrorism and bioterrorism. It would be loosely defined as a threat to our agricultural infrastructure. Certainly, when people consider agroterrorism, many are concerned about biological agents that would affect either plants, animals or foods.

CURTIS KASTNER: I would look at agroterrorism as the traditional terrorist assault against the agricultural and food delivery and service infrastructure. But it doesn't have to be just what we classify as the traditional terrorist, it could be a disgruntled employee.

JACKIE McCLASKEY: First let me start with agrosecurity, which is the concept of protecting America's food supply from its very basis in production agriculture all the way until it reaches the consumer's table. So when you think about agroterrorism, it is any intentional threat against any step in the food chain that is intended to cause damage against plants, animals, humans or the economy.

Q. IS IT A REAL OR PERCEIVED THREAT?

FOX: I'd say it is a real concern. It's something that is being taken very seriously. It's something that a lot of money and effort is being put into to design countermeasures against it happening and to deal with it if it does happen.

We really haven't had any instances of it yet. There probably is plenty of potential there for somebody to do something if they wanted to, but it hasn't happened yet.

Jerry JaaxJAAX: I think the potential is certainly real. There is ample evidence that state-sponsored offensive biowarfare programs flourished during the Cold War, and that agricultural agents were part of those programs. Can we say with certainty that something is going to happen? No, I don't think we can predict whether or not we're going to have a serious or significant agroterrorism event. I think it is virtually inevitable that we will have other bioterrorist events. Whether or not they would have more of an effect on public or human health rather than agricultural infrastructure is unpredictable. I don't think that there is any doubt that we are going to have continuing concerns about bio/agroterrorism. Jaax is pictured at right.

KASTNER: I think it is real and something that could happen; probably has and we may or may not have identified it as such. We've had salad bars tainted with salmonella, so that is a possibility. Can it happen? Yes it can happen. What would be the most logical outcome of it? It might be that if the infrastructure or the outputs of the food supply is attacked, it might result in a number of human casualties, but it doesn't have to have a significant impact. Because if the consumer no longer has confidence in the food supply then you don't sell your products and you don't export; you don't sell them domestically or internationally.

I think personally that the economic implications would be very significant and could happen very easily.

Some of those things can happen intentionally and we would classify that as an act of terrorism, but it could also happen accidentally. Foot and mouth disease could get here just by somebody making a mistake or we could have a natural disaster like hurricanes and that could significantly impact the livestock industry.

Fortunately we haven't had any really large outbreaks like we could -- for example, foot-and-mouth disease in the feedlots in Kansas. But it's something definitely that could happen.

MCCLASKEY: I think it is a real threat. I spent some time over the last year in a couple of on-line classes with the majority of the students not being from any agricultural background or having very little exposure to the Midwest. It is amazing to me how people will focus sometimes on these huge threats of things like small pox as a bioterrorism threat when actually doing that could be difficult -- getting your hands on the small pox virus and being able to disseminate it in a way that doesn't put you or the people you are involved with at risk.

Agricultural terrorism is totally different. Many of the agents that you might want to get your hands on are fairly easy to get across the world, they are fairly easy to disseminate and you can do it without risk to your own self or while being able to protect the people you represent or the group you are a part of.

I think it's very real; I think the risk is more real than people think. However, at the same time I think we have to be careful not to make it sound like it's going to happen tomorrow; that every farm in the country is going to be impacted. I also think that that's probably unreal as well and that if we make it sound bigger than it is then no one is going to understand that it is a risk because they're just going to think it is blown out of proportion.

Q. HOW MUCH OF AN ECONOMIC IMPACT COULD AN ACT OF AGROTERRORISM HAVE?

FOX: That would depend on what happened. The agricultural industry is a multi-billion dollar industry so the financial impact on the U.S. agricultural industry could be tremendously large if something would happen. But it would depend on what the event would be.

We've already taken whatever hits we are going to take on BSE. U.S. domestic consumers seem to realize that the risk is incredibly low for BSE. There is nothing there to be concerned about. Their reactions to the first case that we had is proof of that. They realize that the risk is almost non-existent. The hits that we have taken have been a result of our export markets being shut off and we're still suffering the impacts there financially. BSE is probably not something that is going to be an agroterrorism issue. It could. It's certainly within the realm of possibility that someone could deliberately infect animals in the U.S. with BSE, but not likely.

JAAX: I think it is safe to say that an agroterrorism event, using the right kinds of organisms, could have a billion-dollar impact very, very quickly.

Several years ago there was a rumor of a foot-and-mouth disease outbreak in Holton, Kan., at a small sale operation there. It turned out that several cattle there had oral lesions that resulted in a federal veterinarian examining them. It turned out to be trauma from thorns that had been in their feed. But just the rumor that there was a foot-and-mouth disease outbreak cost the national markets $50 million. It was just a rumor.

I think that is a very significant example as to how vulnerable our markets would be.

Researchers at the University of California-Davis have done a study on the potential impact of foot-and-mouth disease and concluded that if foot-and-mouth disease broke out in the central valley in California, it would cost the state of California up to $13 billion because of the downstream impact. So we're talking about the potential for big dollars. I think it is important to consider that there would be extensive collateral effects to related industries.

Curtis KastnerKASTNER: Economists have said that if foot-and-mouth disease were introduced into the dairy industry in California, within just a matter of days it would be billions of dollars. So we're not talking millions, we're talking billions of dollars for just that industry alone. Kastner is pictured at left.

MCCLASKEY: The economic impact is the part that we sometimes have a tendency to overlook. My interest in biosecurity and agricultural terrorism stems from the concept that any aspect of agricultural security or agricultural terrorism is multi-pronged. There is the science impact, the public health impact, the animal health impact, the environmental impact and the economic impact. A lot of times when you see people look at these issues, they only look at one issue or another. They only look at what's the public health impact or what's the animal health impact or what's the economic impact.

I think it is really important that you lay all those together and really look at what are the issues and how should we be dealing with them, especially when it comes to the economy.

I think the ultimate goal of the terrorist is probably not so much about taking lives as it is undermining the government and its structure; making people question their government structure and question their government. There is no better way to do that than to pull the rug out from under the economy.

If you take out a number of feedlots or the beef processing industry, I think you immediately impact the economy. People think 'oh, I'm not a farmer; it's not going to hurt me,' but you eat and the entire world depends on an industry that is based on food and agricultural production. If you take that away, immediately people from New York to California are going to be saying, 'I don't know where my next meal is going to come from; what's going to happen to the price of my food?'

Everyone is going to be impacted the day it would happen because the prices in their supermarket are going to go up, the prices in their restaurants are going to go up, the availability of certain things is going to go up. At the same time you're suffering an economic chain reaction that will be tremendous.

Q. WHY SHOULD WE BE CONCERNED?

JAAX: I think it is fairly clear that we have opponents who have professed a desire to try and harm our country or even our people. When you look at our potential vulnerabilities in the agricultural arena, I think you have to look at what plausible weapons could be used against us. One of the things that makes agricultural bioterrorism especially interesting is that there are a variety of organisms that could pose a significant threat. The fact that there are several that would be easy to obtain, easy to deploy or use, and would have potentially dramatic effects all converge to make this a concern for us.

KASTNER: The economy of Kansas rides heavily on the livestock and meat industry and also wheat; those are a significant part of our economy. We do a lot of other things, but we do those really well. If something were to taint the livestock and meat industry's ability to sell their product or the wheat is contaminated with karnal bunt, accidentally or intentionally, it could have a significant impact on the economy of the state.

Even though there might not be a large number of people impacted from the standpoint of a public health issue, it could be an economic issue. Personally, I think that is probably, at least from the standpoint of the livestock and meat industry, the biggest vulnerability we have.

Jackie McClaskeyMCCLASKEY: Especially if you're a Kansan you should care. The airline industry and the agricultural industry go head-to-head as the No. 1 industries in the state. But without question, rural communities, which make up the majority of our state, will be devastated.

If the beef industry or the grain industry is severely impacted, that's going to stretch into towns the size of Manhattan to Kansas City to Wichita and everyplace in between because everybody is impacted by the agricultural industry.

Let's say it is foot-and-mouth disease. Traffic is going to be stopped. You're not going to be moving people in and out of communities where foot-and-mouth disease has potentially impacted a feedyard that is 3 or 4 miles from that community.

It's not just the livestock industry that is going to be stopped, but the food industry, the feed industry; traffic moving through that county could be stopped. There will be immediate day-to-day impact on people but then that economic impact will remain for a long time. McClaskey is pictured at right.

Q. WHAT DO WE NEED TO DO TO PREPARE FOR OR PREVENT ATTACKS?

KASTNER: We need to be as prepared as we can to prevent attacks, but it is difficult in our very accessible production and processing infrastructure. Something could happen. Therefore, you've got to be ready to respond to contain whatever it is as rapidly as possible and get back to business as quickly as you can.

Basically, we need to take what could be a chaotic situation and make it less chaotic. Under any circumstances it is not going to be good, but aside from a standpoint of determining what it is, responding to it and recovering from it is a critical part. You'd like to prevent it, but that probably won't be able to be done in all cases. However, from a prevention standpoint, the more people are aware about the potential and where things might happen, the more they become observant; they see the world in a different way and we need to train as many people as we can to be aware to see their production and processing operations in a different way. It's not just one or two people there; it's a whole host of people that would be looking for things that look a bit different and might be a problem.

So, besides in-depth training in a variety of ways, we are putting together a series of overview modules that will cover a host of food safety and security topics that will enhance people's thought processes, whether they are graduate veterinarians or food scientists or CEOs or public health nurses. Whoever they are, they should see food safety and security in a different light and would be more aware and more vigilant about addressing the things they see as potential issues.

Q. ARE THERE ANY SIDE BENEFITS FROM THIS INCREASED VIGILANCE?

JAAX: One of the benefits of our concern about protecting ourselves against bioterrorism subsequent to the 9/11 terrorist attacks has been the significant benefit gained for dealing with naturally emerging diseases.

The fact is that we have a very significant resurgence of naturally occurring or emerging infectious disease. Certainly in the United States, our public health infrastructure deteriorated because infectious disease was thought to be irrelevant. Antibiotics, vaccines and improved nutrition and sanitation had been so successful that we moved to other conditions like heart disease, obesity and things that are more lifestyle or genetic issues than infectious disease. And of course we found out that we were exceptionally premature in discounting infectious disease.

Now with increasing populations, exceptional mobility, antibiotic resistance and emergence of new pathogens, diseases have made a spectacular comeback.

All of the things that we are doing to help protect us against bioterrorism have played a tremendously beneficial role in preparing us to deal with naturally emerging and re-emerging diseases, such as SARS and highly pathogenic avian or pandemic influenza.

Q. HOW MUCH ARE THE AMERICAN CONSUMERS WILLING TO PAY FOR THEIR SAFETY AS FAR AS THEIR FOOD PRODUCTS ARE CONCERNED?

FOX: It depends on the threat; on the risk. In work I've done over the years we often find various amounts ranging from 30 to 70 cents per meal if you were to eliminate some of the risks that might be involved. The amount that they are willing to pay would depend on what risks you're talking about and how much of a risk reduction you are talking about. The food supply right now is very, very safe, so additional risk reductions come at a higher costs.

There does seem to be some evidence to suggest that consumers are willing to pay more for further enhancements to food safety. It is very difficult to put a number on it.

Q. WHAT IS THE NEXT MAJOR ISSUE?

FOX: The next major food safety issue is probably going to be avian influenza -- bird flu. That seems to be spreading very rapidly around the world right now. It hasn't reached the U.S. yet but people think it is definitely coming here. It will be interesting to see how U.S. consumers react .

Again, it's something that the risk to individual consumers eating poultry products is very, very low. But certainly the poultry industry is doing a lot to put some safeguards in place and to reassure consumers that this is not going to be a threat to their health.

Certainly compared to a lot of Far Eastern, Middle Eastern and African countries, our poultry industry is pretty well protected.

One thing I like to see is these risks to U.S. consumers, whether it is BSE, avian influenza or agroterrorism, those risks are tremendously low as far.

 

Summer 2006