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|Al-Qaida is after our livestock||Views: 1482|
|Jan 22, 2008 11:15 am||Al-Qaida is after our livestock||#|
|Keeping Cows Safe From Terrorism|
Noah Shachtman Email 12.15.03 | 2:00 AM
Al-Qaida is after our cows.
That's the concern of the Department of Homeland Security, which announced Friday a $33 million plan for a pair of academic centers to combat possible terrorist attacks on America's livestock and food supply.
The department contends that so-called "agroterrorism" is a "top priority for university research." But outside homeland security and biological defense circles, experts are deeply divided over how realistic the threat actually is.
Some see America's farms as tempting morsels for evildoers looking to sow economic chaos. Others think terrorists are much more likely to stick to their usual diet of exploding trucks, shoulder-fired missiles and suicide bombs.
"I'm not sure how attractive this is to the bad guy," said Phil Anderson, a homeland security analyst at the Center for Strategic & International Studies. "He likes body bags, explosions, things that look good on CNN. So I'm not that worried about the food chain."
On Friday, the Department of Homeland Security said it intends to set up two university-run research hubs, or "centers of excellence," for food-chain defense. One will spend $15 million over three years studying "post-harvest food protection and defense," focusing on how to keep food from being poisoned. The other, with a slightly larger, $18 million budget, will examine "foreign animal and zoonotic disease defense," or how to keep farm animals safe.
Top priorities will include developing a better understanding of how animal pathogens spread and improving animal disease detection techniques, according to the Department of Homeland Defense's announcement about the centers. The department will decide in February which universities qualify for the research grants.
If there is an agricultural attack, experts agree, it's most likely to hit America's increasingly centralized livestock supply. Nature-made assailants, like "mad cow disease," have shown how vulnerable our animals can be, noted David Heymann, Anderson's colleague at the Center for Strategic & International Studies. Moreover, groups like al-Qaida have shown an interest in biological assaults. And animal ailments are much easier to handle and spread than plant diseases.
"There are five major feed lots in the U.S. and a pound each of FMD (foot and mouth disease) sprinkled close to them destroys the cattle industry. You'd have 40-foot-wide trenches 50 miles long to bury all the cattle," Anderson said.
Such a move could have a profound economic impact. The beef business alone generates more than $30 billion annually, according to the National Cattlemen's Beef Association.
And there could be major psychological consequences, as well. The reactions to naturally occurring problems, like E. coli food poisoning and mad cow outbreaks, have been irrational enough. The hysteria likely would be much more intense if such incidents were intentionally caused.
"Any major attack could undermine faith in the safety of the entire food supply," warned Calvin Chue, a research scientist at Johns Hopkins University's School of Public Health.
All true, Barbara Hatch Rosenberg, who chairs the Federation of American Scientists' working group on biological weapons, wrote in an e-mail. "But I fail to see why it is necessary or desirable to classify food safety or animal health as a terrorism issue."
There are already established agencies in the Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services to deal with food-safety threats -- including agroterror, she noted. Why not just give them more money?
"Instead," she wrote, the Department of Homeland Defense "seems intent on militarizing research and focusing it on hypothetical problems that may have as much basis as the WMD (weapons of mass destruction) in Iraq."
Poisoned larders are at least a 100-year-old concern, according to the Center for Nonproliferation Studies. The Germans were accused in World War I of spreading anthrax to kill livestock, and in World War II of dropping cardboard boxes of Colorado potato beetles on England to wipe out crops. During the Cold War, Cuba charged the American government with poisoning the island's plants or animals on no fewer than 21 separate occasions. None of these "strikes" were ever confirmed.
In 1984, the Rajneeshee cult infected salad bars in Oregon with salmonella. Afterward, 751 people got sick; no one died. The incident wasn't made public until a year later, when the cult's leader confessed.
With this less-than-impressive track record of terror, John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, is hard pressed to understand why agro-attacks are generating so much concern.
"Why are we getting around to that one, but we're dragging our heels on protecting passenger planes from shoulder-fired missiles?" he asked. "We're spending a couple of hundred million dollars over the next couple of years thinking about it. And that's a proven threat."
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