National Academy of Sciences report: Thoughts on bioterror, U.S. agriculture

Much has been made of the United States' vulnerability to terrorist attack since the horrific acts of September 11. There have been many legitimate concerns raised in subsequent months about the methods and means of possible ongoing terrorism, ranging from suicide bombers to radiological weapons of mass destruction.

One very real threat, however, has been largely overlooked — until now.

The National Academy of Sciences has just released Making the Nation Safer: The Role of Science and Technology in Countering Terrorism. This comprehensive report underscores the fact that U.S. agriculture and food supply are very susceptible to terrorist attack.

The report comes on the heels of a June 17, 2002, article in the Washington Post that noted that the Soviet Union had developed a large-scale “anti-livestock” and “anti-agriculture” bio-weapons program in the 1970s. Unlike the post-Soviet nuclear program, however, authorities have not closely monitored the pathogens and chemicals developed as part of this bio-weapons program.

Initially, one might immediately think of “hoof and mouth” and “mad cow” diseases as possible pathogens that could be introduced by terrorists into American livestock.

While the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) report addresses the issue of livestock disease, it notes that crops are potentially more vulnerable.

Why is this? As the NAS report outlines, there are several factors. First of all, selective growing has reduced the genetic diversity of major crops such as corn and wheat, making them more susceptible to disease.

Second, there are countless foreign crop pathogens that have never been seen here that could be easily introduced into the United States.

Third, much of our seed comes from overseas, providing terrorists an opportunity to impregnate crops with pathogens or toxins before germination.

Finally, our croplands are so vast that they are not easy to monitor.

The insidious aspect of this form of terrorism is that it is not readily recognizable. While an attempt to blow up an airliner or breach a nuclear power plant is quickly seen as a terrorist act, the introduction of pathogens or toxins into our food supply may not become obvious until billions of dollars of crops are lost or until countless people are sick from something they have eaten.

Even if terrorists are only moderately successful at attacking our crops, the residual fear of tainted food could have vast economic implications for U.S. agriculture.

The point of the Academy report, however, is not to raise concerns for the sake of raising concerns. The report suggests using expertise outside of the Department of Homeland Security, such as at USDA, to identify risks that may exist within the agriculture sector.

We are aware that USDA has been actively analyzing new technologies in an effort to develop the most comprehensive and integrated programs possible.

In addition, by the USDA working in tandem with the commercial sector, farmers and universities, as well as with state and local governments and other federal agencies, effective partnerships can keep an eye out for terrorist activity on the ground, in the air and from space.

Informal groups composed of business and academia, such as the Partnership for Agricultural Security (PAS), are already here and ready to help. The report makes several well-informed recommendations regarding proper courses of action.

For example, it suggests the use of satellite-based remote sensing, similar to technology used for weather satellites, to monitor crops for possible pathogen outbreaks and toxin exposure. PAS sees this technology as the crucial link to allow the government to routinely monitor wide expanses of cropland in a cost-effective manner.

More importantly, this technology would help our nation's farmers and crop consultants to better monitor their own fields for any natural or manmade outbreaks. However, the key to this technology's effectiveness is based on satellites capable of providing wide-area coverage with high resolution and frequent flyovers.

American companies are beginning to have success with high-resolution commercial satellite systems, but these systems do not yet have the re-visits needed to monitor crops.

While new commercial systems are coming on line to fill this need, we can use existing government-owned satellites, such as Landsat 7, to begin addressing this threat today. Though we could obtain imagery from foreign sources, reliance on foreign-owned satellites will not provide the national security our homeland defense requires.

To meet the needs outlined in the NAS report, it is prudent that commercial ventures be given leeway by the federal government to move forward aggressively in the development of these new and vital technologies.

The NAS report contains sound analysis and recommendations, but informed proposals are not enough. While we are starting to see movement at the state and federal levels to address these issues, much more needs to be done. Like transportation before it, agriculture has an Achilles' heel.

If we choose to ignore it, as we did with transportation, it could be lethal. However, if we are serious and proactive, we can take our food supply off of the terrorists' menu of options. Our very means of life depend on it.

Dennis Dunivan is director of the Partnership for Agricultural Security (PAS), an ad hoc group committed to promoting the use of technology for a safer food supply. E-mail at [email protected].

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