|Producers urged to remain vigilant|
|Producers urged to remain vigilant|
Government and Industry Focus on Agriterrorism
by Alvin Benn
Those days ended four years ago this month when Islamic terrorists did to American peace of mind what the Japanese did on Dec. 7, 1941.
Today, instead of facing a well-armed enemy on a huge battlefield, America is trying to defend against fanatics in civilian clothes—men and women bent on destroying as many innocent lives as possible as they prepare for their own versions of the hereafter.
Because of that threat we’ve become more vigilant than ever since Sept. 11, 2001 and it applies to rural as well as urban areas of the country.
Homeland Security offices have been established in every state as well as on the national level, but the bulk of the burden has been left up to individual farmers and ranchers.
"Our main deterrent to agriterrorism in Alabama is preparation to prevent it and to have a quick response should it ever happen," said Frazier. "We are working hard with producers as well as law enforcement."
The size of America’s farming operations makes blanket protection from agriterrorists almost impossible, but it hasn’t kept those in charge from preparing to combat it just the same.
Alabama may not be one of America’s largest states, but it has resources that might entice terrorists. The state has one of the country’s busiest ports at Mobile, two international airports and an interstate road system that links the Gulf of Mexico to the Great Lakes.
In addition to that, Alabama ranks third in the nation
in broiler chicken production, 15th in beef cattle inventory with more than a million head and 10th in the country in the number of farms with beef cattle.
"As producers, we, like many others in the country, are aware that terrorism is here and we know it could happen," said Dr. Billy Powell, executive vice president of the Alabama Cattlemen’s Association.
Powell said he believes Alabama’s cattle industry would most likely be a "low risk" target when compared with the state’s poultry industry. He said one farm with just eight poultry houses would have 500,000 birds at any one time.
He said Alabama cattle producers have been told to stay in touch with the state’s emergency management office, which in addition to natural disaster concerns, also is involved with possible agriterrorism activities.
"One of our goals is to educate people involved in agriculture as to possible terrorism and diseases," he said. "One of the keys is knowing who to call if our farmers spot something. In that case, the State Veterinarian’s office is the place."
Perry Mobley, who works at the Alabama Farmers Federation (ALFA) and also is a cattleman, said he believes domestic terrorism poses a greater risk than the foreign variety which has seen hijacked jetliners flown into the World Trade Center in New York City and subway stations blown up in Madrid and London.
"In some cases, these groups are responsible for letting cattle and horses out of pastures, cutting fences or burning barns," Mobley said. "With a small herd, it’s tough to keep track of everything."
By that, he said it would be too costly to install surveillance equipment at most Alabama farming operations. Instead, Mobley said "people helping people" is a good way to uncover questionable activities around their farms.
"The hot spots right now are in California, but, slowly and surely, it will creep up on us," said Mobley, who is ALFA’s beef, dairy, hay and forage commodities director. "Insertion of foreign animal diseases is a big concern."
Frazier and Mobley recently visited Stan Hollon, who has a small cattle operation in the Pine Level community near Prattville, and discussed farm security with him.
"It’s a big concern for all farmers and cattlemen," said Hollon, who works at International Paper Co.’s Prattville plant when he’s not looking after his cattle. "Terrorism could ruin not just farmers, but the American economy."
Auburn University College of Veterinary Medicine professor Ken Nusbaum couldn’t agree more with Hollon. He’s also worried that many involved in Alabama agriculture may not be properly prepared for agriterrorism.
"I’m afraid that, right now, we’re not in good shape in that area," Nusbaum said. "The poultry industry has a good set of biosecurity principles, but how widely are they being applied? That’s a big question."
Nusbaum said that his "professional goal" at the moment is to encourage veterinarians to thoroughly understand the importance of biosecurity. He said he has presented a paper on the subject at a conference.
"We need to take more preventive steps," he said. "We are training a cadre to recognize foreign animal diseases, but the numbers being trained are tiny. Our level of surveillance is just not adequate."
Nusbaum pointed to Alabama’s international port at Mobile along with the state’s proximity to Hartsfield International Airport in Atlanta—one of the busiest in the world.
He also noted that Alabama has five interstate systems "crossing each other" and "we have commerce connections with states and import grains to feed the cattle, goats and other animals we have here."
Nusbaum said dangers to America’s farming community wouldn’t necessarily have to come from terrorists. He said natural disasters in the form of animal diseases could arrive when least expected.
As in anything related to security, it takes money to provide a good defense and Nusbaum is concerned that it could pose another problem in Alabama and around the country.
"We all know that farmers are strapped for cash and that we are in a country that values inexpensive food," Nusbaum said. "So, profitability is not always there to provide for biosecurity efforts."
He said double fences, locked gates, truck washing stations and inspection of dead animals are just a few steps that can be taken to protect farming operations. But, Nusbaum adds, they can be expensive, especially double fencing a huge pasture.
Agricultural terrorism is not new, said Barry Zellen, editorial director of TechnologyInnovator.com. He said it’s been around for a long time. Case in point was Sherman’s march to the sea in the Civil War and the Soviet decision to burn all agriculture products to keep them from falling into German hands during World War II.
"With over half a million farms and 57,000 food processing facilities spread across the vast continental U.S., the challenge is huge," Zellen wrote. "New policies and inter-agency cooperation is one key, spreading the burden across various governmental departments is another."
The problem is so big, in fact, that Nusbaum said, "I try not to think about it," especially the possible challenges of dealing with deadly viruses that could wind up in America’s food supplies.
He said some could occur without insertion by foreign or domestic terrorists, including Avian influenza.
"If something like that gets into this country, it could cause disease not only to poultry, but also humans and other animals such as dogs and cats," he said. "Avian flu is something that is capable of spreading far."
The Associated Press reported after a hearing in the U.S. Senate two years ago that "a simple handkerchief wielded by a resourceful terrorist could cause billions of dollars of damage to America’s food system and untold terror in the nation’s kitchens."
U.S. Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois said if livestock were exposed before they were being shipped back to a farm from a state fair, "you would have dispersed the disease across the state, frankly, in a saddeningly efficient way," the AP reported.
In the same article, the wire service quoted Peter Chalk of the Rand Corp. as saying a bioterrorist attack on the country’s food supply network could have a "devastating effect on the American economy."
"It could have severe repercussions in terms of galvanizing a mass public scare throughout the country, particularly if human deaths occurred," Chalk said. "Terrorists could use this to their advantage, allowing them to create a general atmosphere of fear and anxiety without actually having to carry out indiscriminate civilian-oriented attacks."
The Alabama Homeland Security office has released a list of suggestions on how best to mitigate possible terrorism as it might apply to the state’s farming industry.
The department focused a spot-light on Alabama’s poultry industry which has a production capacity of nearly $2 billion annually.
"Terrorists who aim to cause economic damage, disrupt the food supply and trigger public panic may consider implementing a coordinated attack on the poultry industry," the department statement said.
Alvin Benn is a freelance writer from Selma.