Impact of Bioterrorism on Agriculture in the U.S.

Terry Etherton

The vulnerability of agriculture in the United States to attack has been the subject of numerous reviews, especially since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

However, a large proportion of the public remains unaware of the complexities and scale of agriculture from “farm to fork” in the U.S., and clearly does not appreciate the vulnerability of our agricultural assets. Agriculture in the U.S. is remarkably robust from a standpoint of productivity and efficiency in the food distribution chain but dangerously fragile because of countless vulnerabilities that could be exploited. There are few events that would cause more economic damage than a widespread attack on the agriculture infrastructure in the U.S. This article will address some of those vulnerabilities and provide a brief overview of the impact that a targeted bioterrorism act(s) might have that exploits those vulnerabilities in agriculture.

Nature as a Terrorist

Nature acts in a reoccurring way as a “terrorist”. There are numerous examples throughout recorded history that have involved an array of human, animal and plant diseases. An example to illustrate the point is the foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) outbreak in the United Kingdom in 2001 which had an economic impact of over £8 billion (about $10 billion); more than six million animals were slaughtered: four million for disease control and over two million for welfare reasons. An outbreak of FMD in the pig population in Taiwan in 1997 resulted in the virtual depopulation of domestic pigs on the island with huge economic costs including the loss of an estimated 50,000 job. A part of the economic impact is that Taiwan no longer has a viable pork export business. The economic impact of a positive diagnosis of BSE in a single cow in Washington in December 2003 impacted exports by about $2 billion. An outbreak of Nipah virus among pigs in Southeast Asia during 1999 resulted in large scale slaughter of animals to control disease spread. Nipah is a zoonotic disease that can be spread from pigs to humans. In humans, Nipha infection causes severe encephalitis. There was a 40% mortality rate among infected patients in Malaysia and Singapore with at least 109 fatalities. The virulent H5N1 avian influenza strain circulating in Asia and Central Europe has potential to create a $5 billion impact should this pathogen enter the U.S. poultry production environment, independent of the potential as a human disease pandemic pathogen. A significant portion of the impact would result from the collapse of export trade. Based on the foregoing brief overview, it must be emphasized that a bioterrorism attack on agriculture in the U.S. would have catastrophic impacts.

Foreign Animal Diseases (FAD)

Diseases and biological toxins have been used as weapons of war throughout recorded history. Several diseases of livestock species are so dangerous to the economy of disease–free trading partners as to warrant extraordinary measures. Among these diseases are the familiar names: Foot and Mouth Disease, African Swine Fever, Bovine Spongioform Encephalopathy, Rinderpest, Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza and many others (a detailed list can be found at the Select Agent and Toxin List maintained by APHIS). Use of any of these causative agents for these diseases represents a serious threat to livestock populations as the result of an asymmetric biological attack.

Asymmetric Biological Attack on Agricultural Assets

The Department of Defense defines asymmetric strategies as attacks on vulnerabilities not appreciated by the target or that capitalize on limited preparation against the threat. Intended introduction of a biological agent(s) that targets food production in the U.S. is designed to create fear, societal chaos, and have a destabilizing effect on the economy and the functionality of government. No elaborate delivery technology would be needed for such an attack. Samples of infectious material obtained or cultured from infected animals or carcasses are all that would be required. Virulent contagious diseases are still common in a number of countries and accessible. There is evidence that terrorist groups have given strong consideration to this strategy. A document captured at Tarnak Farms in Afghanistan in 2001 revealed that al Q’aida aspired to develop biological agents as weapons to advance their agenda. Apparent in reviewing this document is that the food supply was envisioned as a delivery mechanism. This example is significant because awareness to this level of detail is indicative of sophisticated program planning. It is evident that the intentional introduction of a disease pathogen that targets animal agriculture and the subsequent effects on food production systems and export trade could be devastating. More important is that attribution would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to prove.

A recent example of an asymmetric attack occurred in New Zealand where a small group of farmers intentionally introduced a virulent rabbit pathogen (rabbit calicivirus disease) as a strategy to control the population of wild rabbits. This introduction was so effective that the disease is epizootic in New Zealand and threatens to spread beyond Oceana. The significance of this event is that a group of motivated individuals without much scientific training managed to research, acquire a source of the pathogen, and penetrate one of the best biosecurity systems in the world to unleash a hemorrhagic disease virus on the rabbit population in New Zealand.


The use of foreign animal disease pathogens to inflict economic damage to an adversary’s agricultural productivity, either through a State-sponsored initiative (biological warfare) or through several terrorism models would have potentially catastrophic effects. The possibility of preventing an asymmetric attack(s) is at best daunting. Regional and local consequences would have Katrina-like similarities; large numbers of individuals applying for unemployment insurance, rise in health care costs due to treatment for mental illness, inability to meet mortgage payments, possibly closing of all public services and facilities due to movement restrictions, and the news media broadcasting to the entire U.S. population in near real-time every detail and attempt at disaster plan execution including large scale slaughter of animals to control disease spread. It is not easy to answer the questions of how bad an agricultural bioterrorist event would be in the U.S. However, the preponderance of evidence is that it would be potentially devastating to agribusiness and likely challenging to national security. A huge challenge will be to find ways to reduce the likelihood of an attack and the subsequent impact on society.

One thought on “Impact of Bioterrorism on Agriculture in the U.S.

  1. There is another danger that is perhaps more frightening. We do not have enough USDA inspectors or any other type of inspector to check more than a tiny fraction of the imports into this country. Either a direct attack or a more covert one could be introduced this way.

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