THREAT: ANIMAL AND AGRICULTURE BIOTERRORISM
By Manuel Cereijo
Anti-agricultural and animal biowarfare differ from the same activities directed against humans. Also, attacks are substantially easier to do ; the agents aren't necessarily hazardous to humans; delivery systems are readily available and unsophisticated ; maximum effect may only require a few cases; delivery from outside the target country is possible; and an effective attack can be constructed to appear natural .Cuba has done extensive research and development in this field of agriculture and animal bioterrorism.
Agriculture is considered by many to be the perfect target for bioterrorism. Why? The agriculture industry is unmatched in revenue and scope. Food account for approximately 14% of the GDP and 25 million Americans are employed in agriculture directly, that is 2% of the population. In 1998, the agriculture industry generated over $1.5 trillion worth of business, a large portion of which was derived from export markets. If any of the many USA commodities were to be significantly impacted by bioterrorism the results could be catastrophic.
A widespread-epidemic, or any outbreak that triggered the imposition or relaxation of trade restrictions, could result in significant changes of supply of the affected plant or animal materials on domestic and international markets. In general, what goals might terrorists have in its readiness on this field?
The impact of a devastating attack on oyr food supply would not be limited just to the farmer. Businesses such as farm suppliers, transportation, grocery stores, restaurants, equipment distributors, and in the end consumers, all pay the price. Agricultural terrorism is not about killing animals, it is about crippling our economy. Once released, an agroterrorism event may go unnoticed for days to weeks and by then it may be nearly impossible to determine how the event occurred.
Countries might consider agricultural attack for military, political, ideological, or economic reasons. Since there could be quite severe consequences of being recognized as responsible for a biological attack, such efforts would likely be covert. This would entail an effort to make the outbreak appear natural (CANKER?)-most probably a point-source outbreak, or multiple outbreaks with an apparently natural common source. Intelligence sources suspect, for example, that Cuba and Iraq have developed wheat cover smut as a weapon.
Direct financial loss due to mortality or morbidity of domestic animals or crop plants can very from insignificant to catastrophic .In many cases the direct losses would be modest and would fall on a small number of farms. One of the major determinants of the magnitude of the direct losses will be the rapidity with which the disease is noticed and diagnosed.
Destruction of exposed hosts is often the only option when the agent is bacterial or viral. With plants, thousands of acres of crop plants may have to be destroyed to contain the outbreak. Thus, the losses attendant on outbreak control can exceed, often by several orders of magnitude, the direct losses due to the disease itself.
With the exception of a few agents of zoonotic disease, most of the diseases that are likely to be considered for an attack on the agricultural sector are completely harmless to humans. They are much less challenging to produce, stockpile, and disseminate than lethal human pathogens. Cuba has two main centers dedicated to this kind of research Iraq also has a few.
A military style attack by airplane on large acreage of crops would require crop dusters and large stockpiles of agent. Less ambitious attacks would require much less in the way of equipment or agent stockpiles. If the goal is to cause only a few cases in order to disrupt society, then no special equipment and only a few amount of agent are needed. And, as mentioned before, it is possible to introduce biological agents without even entering the target country. (West Nile virus?).
If the goal is to disrupt the dynamics of the United States by introducing a highly contagious disease into territory from which it is absent, then the attack does not have to be constructed to cause a large number of cases-a handful of cases may be sufficient.
The emerging sciences of genomics and proteomics, which Cuba has researched and developed extensively, are already beginning to transform biology. Agriculture has several properties that make it vulnerable to attack with genotype-specific weapons.
This constellation of characteristics presented here makes biological attacks on the agricultural and animal sectors of the United States a real threat, perhaps more so than attack on the civilian population. That is why Cuba, since 1992, has dedicated large efforts and funds on the development of these agents.
We have to be aware in the United States of a new wave of bioterror : agricultural and animal attacks. What types of agents might fulfill some of the bioweapons?
Foot and Mouth Disease, Hog CholeraVelogenic Newcastle Disease, African Swine Fever, Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza, and Rinderpest. For plants the list of agents that might be used is nearly endless, although some, such as Wheat Smut or Rice Blast, appear more harmful than others.
The route of introduction of these agents may vary, but aerosol, as mentioned above seems to be one of the most effective means.As with crops, this could be done in animals by crop dusters and hand spray pumps. Clever methods could include the coating of turkey feathers with thwe agent, filling small bomblets with the feathers, then exploding them over the target where they drift on the wind and contaminate a vast area.
Cuba has excelled in agricultural research and development since the early 1900s. Castro has outstanding scientist and excellent Centers in Cuba just dedicated to the research and development of bioagro weapons.
The threat to agriculture is real. We must become fully aware and be on the alert..
Biological Warfare against Crops; Paul Roger, Malcolm Dando. Scientific American, 1999