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The Rising Threat of Agroterrorism

The recent pattern of terrorist attacks remind us that terrorists are constantly looking for new ways to cause destruction to people and property, generate fear among the masses, and undermine the economy. In response to this threat the “war on terror” is being waged at enormous cost through pitched battles, intelligence gathering, and covert operations all over the world. The overall objective of these activities is to prevent or minimize the capability of terrorists to take or threaten the lives of civilians and damage property.

One of the many ways in which terror might be created is through the deliberate infection of animals with pathogenic microorganisms or contamination of foods of animal origin with toxic chemicals that could be introduced in the feed (agroterrorism). Agroterrorism as a subset of bioterrorism can be defined as the malicious introduction of an animal or plant disease or pests to damage the agriculture and food supply industry of a nation with the aim of generating fear, causing economic losses and undermining social stability.

The effects of an act of agroterrorism might include animal suffering, loss of valuable animals, cost of containment of outbreaks and disposal of carcasses, lost trade, and other economic effects involving suppliers, transporters, distributors, and restaurants. The $1 billion price tag on the dioxin contaminated animal feed in the Netherlands in 2006 and the $21 billion cost of the UK foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) outbreak in 2001 illustrate the potential economic impact of chemical contamination or infectious disease affecting animals. It has been suggested that strategic contamination or infection could create damage far more severe than that which occurs in accidental contamination or natural outbreaks.

There are several features of agroterrorism that are considered attractive for terrorists. Many of the infectious agents can be obtained quite easily and require little expertise to infect animals. Concentrated and intensive contemporary farming practices may facilitate the rapid spread of contagious agents. It has also been suggested that an emphasis on large herds at the expense of individual animals may delay recognition of signs of illness. Agroterrorism may be a means of using low-tech inexpensive methods to create havoc. It is estimated that a strong biological weapons arsenal could be developed at a cost of about $10 million, compared with $1 billion for a nuclear weapon. Although genetically altered insects that spread pathogens to infest crops is considered a more likely approach, use of infectious agents that attack animals is also a real possibility.

Agents that have been used in threats or reported to have been deployed include Bacillus anthracis, Burkholderia, mallei, fleas infected with the plague bacillus, Newcastle disease virus, African swine fever virus and FMD virus. A number of the viral agents cause diseases that are foreign to North America.

We need to be prepared for the possibility of an attack. Indications are that Defence Research and Development Canada and the CFIA have taken many steps to ensure that Canada is in a good position to deal with the most important foreign animal diseases — FMD, highly pathogenic avian influenza, classical swine fever, and Nipah virus. Their preparedness includes having tests for screening and rapidly identifying infected animals, continuing research on and development of rapid tests, ensuring that there is coordination among federal and provincial laboratories that are equipped to conduct the tests, establishing communication links and collaboration with our US colleagues. Other critical elements in preparation are surveillance and having vaccines available in the event of an outbreak. Having in place a well-publicized and effective program for agricultural indemnity would encourage livestock producers to quickly report unusual signs of disease.

Prevention is the best approach to being prepared; biosecurity is a major part of a good prevention strategy and has benefits that extend well beyond agroterrorism. Veterinarians are a central part of preparedness and it is well recognized that there is a need for an adequate number of veterinarians who can recognize and respond to foreign livestock diseases, educate producers, and promote adoption of biosecurity measures.