Reaping What You Sow: The Case for Better Agroterrorism Preparedness

By Stevie Kiesel, MS

For years, interest groups, academics, and policymakers have sounded the alarm on the vulnerability of U.S. crops to a terrorist attack. This article briefly reviews the history, risks, and consequences of agroterrorism attacks targeting crop yields and suggests how the recently established DHS Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction Office could play a role in countering this threat.

Infecting a plant with disease is not always a technically challenging operation, and there are examples of this throughout history. In Alabama in the 1970s, the Ku Klux Klan poisoned black Muslim farmers’ water supplies for their cattle. Also, in the U.S., in 1989 a group calling themselves The Breeders spread medflies (an invasive species of fruit fly that has destructive effects on 22 different crops grown in California) in the Los Angeles area to protest aerial pesticide practices. Although medfly infestations are not abnormal in California, the numbers and patterns of this particular infestation raised red flags. Law enforcement also received several letters signed by The Breeders claiming responsibility for the medflies’ intentional release. A few months later, California stopped its aerial pesticide program. Elsewhere in the world, in 1978 the Arab Revolutionary Council poisoned citruses that were being exported from Israel to Europe with liquid mercury as a means of harming Israel’s economy. In 1997, Israel sprayed a chemical on grapevines in Palestinian territory, destroying hundreds of vines and nearly 17,000 metric tons of grapes.

In addition to these attacks on agriculture, other groups have threatened to conduct such an attack and/or researched agroterrorism methods. An attack on the food supply gives the perpetrating group several benefits. First, the psychological and economic effect of targeting food supplies would be substantial. Such an effect could have a powerful pull with a group such as al Qaeda, who has shown interest in biological weapons and in targeting US economic strength. Second, and related, this type of attack would be relatively low cost when compared to the economic effects it could cause. Third, similar to other forms of terrorism, agroterrorism can allow a weaker group to lessen the power imbalance between themselves and the state they are targeting. Fourth, some groups may turn to agroterrorist tactics because these attacks “do not harm humans directly and may therefore be more easily justified.” And finally, the nature of agroterrorism makes attribution difficult—this is particularly appealing to groups that want to evade detection. The effects of an attack on crops would not be immediately apparent but would vary based on a number of factors, such as the time lapse between exposure to the agent and the onset of symptoms. Economic impacts would also not be instantaneous, but a longer-term negative effect of such an attack. Conversely, though, this characteristic may make agroterrorism unsuitable for other groups because they place a high value on more immediate, kinetic effects such as those achieved by explosives.

While agroterrorism has advantages for terrorist groups, what level of technical proficiency would be required to successfully conduct such an attack? Although more complicated than acquiring guns or building crude bombs, agroterrorism should not be considered beyond the capabilities of a well-organized terrorist group. While technical skill is often cited as a barrier to weaponization of biological agents that would be used against humans, plant pathogens are simpler to weaponize. The plant pathogens could be acquired from nature (from plants already infected with a naturally occurring disease) or obtained more easily than human pathogens because they are generally not as tightly controlled. Basic understanding of plant pathogens would be necessary, but this information is available in open sources. Working with biological agents generally requires specialized equipment, personal protective gear, and a controlled environment; however, plant pathogens do not pose the same caliber of challenges. Because plant pathogens are not contagious to humans, the attackers would not be concerned about the risk to their own health.

The US is moderately vulnerable to an agroterrorist attack, largely because of the logistics of US farms and weaknesses in surveillance and detection. US crops are vulnerable because they’re grown over a wide area, and generally these areas aren’t heavily protected. Because it’s not feasible to secure all areas of the US where crops are grown, this point of vulnerability will remain a factor. Conversely, even as these plants take up a lot of space, many crops are clustered together—therefore, if terrorists wanted to target one particular crop, it would be relatively easy to wipe out a massive yield with one attack. For example, a few counties in California produces over 70 percent of the U.S.’s lettuce, and Arizona produces nearly 30 percent.  According to the USDA, three-fourths of the U.S.’s vegetables are grown in just three states. Another major point of vulnerability concerns US surveillance and detection capabilities. Security on farms is generally lax, with little surveillance equipment trained on the crops to detect intruders—logistically, this would be overwhelming. The US government has only a moderate capability for detecting illicit plant pathogens coming into the country; it would be impossible to detect all biological materials, especially plant pathogens that can be easily hidden. Improving surveillance and detection capabilities would not only interrupt or mitigate the effects of an agroterrorism event, but would also improve detection of naturally occurring pathogens that were not intentionally released.

Although scholars and policymakers largely agree that agroterrorism has much lower costs and technical barriers than bioterrorism with a human pathogen, there is a disagreement over whether an attack of any significant scale is technically feasible for terrorist groups. I argue that an attack on the food supply as a psychological mechanism of terror, coupled with the effects that would have on the US and global economy, merits taking the issue of agroterrorism seriously. To get an accurate and timely assessment of US prevention and response capabilities, all agencies responsible for preparedness and response to agroterrorism should conduct a tabletop exercise wherein they respond to an agroterrorism attack. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) recently established a Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction (CWMD) Office, whose mission is “to counter attempts by terrorists or other threat actors to carry out an attack against the United States or its interests using a weapon of mass destruction.” As the CWMD Office merges extant DHS offices that deal with WMD, leaders have an opportunity to consider agroterrorism as it relates to their mission space. The CWMD Office should sponsor the suggested tabletop exercise and use its findings to identify gaps in existing capabilities. These gaps should be shared with the affected stakeholders, and the CWMD Office can provide support and expertise in closing these gaps.

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