The fear that biological weapons of warfare might be used against U.S citizens has been a source of considerable concern among politicians as well as public health officials. Media coverage concerning the issue has also risen to such an enormous that it has been a cause of panic among the U.S public. Since the 2001 anthrax mailings that led to the death of five people in the U.S and cause the illness of 17 the anxiety caused by threat of biological warfare has become real. This type of anxiety cost the U.S government approximately USD 315 million in provision of security during the 2002 Winter Olympic Games that took place in Utah. Volumes of information have been written concerning biological programs developed by various nations; the threat to human life; as well as the U.S government unpreparedness towards such threat; yet, it is not until recently that the vulnerability of U.S agriculture to biological attacks and the implications for the same has attracted considerable attention. Lately, agricultural bioterrorism which is also sometimes referred to as agro-terrorism has attracted so much media coverage and political attention that the issue has been thrust into the public’s eyes than it ever was before. The need to protect crops, water, stock and food within U.S territory against biological warfare has become a reality.
Impact and Effects of Bioterrorism on the U.S Agriculture System
The term bioterrorism has several definitions depending upon the origin of the attack but in general terms, it refers to any form of terrorist attack that in one way or other uses biological agents such as bacteria, fungi, protozoa, rickettsia and viruses. But classification of the various uses that these biological agents are put into; whether it is a bio-criminal event or bioterrorist attack makes the whole issue very debatable. This is because criminals especially those operating under organized groups can opt for biological solutions to conduct their criminal acts, or be involved in brokerage of biological agents for purposes of making profit. Criminal activity and intent have been the motive behind most attacks where biological agents have been used in the past. Bioterrorism is also defined depending on the motivations, goals, results sought, as well as the persons committing the incident.
For over 2000 years, biological agents have been used in warfare although attacks recorded in the 20th Century were directed towards animals rather than human beings. As early as 1915, German Secret Service Agents used anthrax and glanders, a very infectious horse disease, on U.S soil by infecting horses and mules as well as other animals bought by allied forces from the U.S. With the possibility that biological agents can still be intentionally released against crops or livestock in the U.S, both the federal government and U.S public must be able to make very decisive responses. Considering that the U.S is a large nation and that any attack directed towards it would be of high magnitude, solutions must be at hand before any attack can take place although this has often been easier said than done. Two federal agencies responsible for plant and quarantine protection, the USDA-APHIS and PPQ (Plant Protection and Quarantine) respectively, both have an Emergency Programs (EP) division to provide training and preparedness towards outbreaks of newly emerging or foreign diseases.
Agriculture forms the backbone of the U.S economy. Besides producing food for the population, it also contributes tremendously to the nation’s Gross National Product (GDP) as well as its foreign trade. Corn, wheat, beef, eggs and pork are some of the major export commodities produced through agriculture. The U.S export industry is highly dependant upon agriculture and lack of exports from agricultural produce would lead to loss of capital, jobs, farms and international recognition. Agriculture is so interwoven into U.S society and the existence of her people that any attack towards the same can immeasurably be very devastating.
Approximately 13% of America’s GDP is derived from the agricultural sector which also provides direct employment to 2% of her population. Being a leading producer in corn, soybeans, cattle and poultry, any attack on this sector affect the nation’s food supply. Those in agriculture and related businesses would also be affected, eventually leading to potential disintegration of small towns. Agro-terrorism poses a major threat to the American food security because the agri-food system forms the basis of U.S food security. Any agro-terrorist attack would create a significant disturbance on the system leading to loss of jobs and export markets, increased food prices as well as spillover effects in agriculture related industries.
Depending on the magnitude of the attack, morbidity or mortality of crop plants and animals can lead to direct financial loss especially on the farm. Such losses can however be kept modest if an attack is identified early enough. Financial loss can also result from destruction of all healthy host organisms that are considered to be potentially exposed to the contagious plant or animal diseases. Animals are slaughtered before they can be disposed, while affected crop plants are destroyed inorder to curb further spread of the infection. Such destruction of all exposed hosts is usually very expensive but the only reliable option of disease control especially if the agent is viral or bacterial. Fungal agents are normally destroyed by use of fungicides, a process that can be equally very expensive and one that may also lead to environmental damage. Insect pests used for attack on crop plants are destroyed by use of pesticides, a process that can also very expensive and environmentally hazardous. Widespread broadcast of pesticides can be quite expensive and damaging to human health as well as the environment.
World Trade Organization (WTO) regulations allow member states to impose restrictions on the importation of any agricultural products from affected nations as one way of controlling the importation of disease agents or pests. These trade restrictions can last for one to two months if the outbreak is rapidly controlled or may take much longer in cases where the control of infection proves to be very difficult or slow. The U.S is a leading exporter of agricultural products and any trade restrictions towards her would lead to lost trade revenues to the tune of billions of dollars. An outbreak that in any way affects international trade can give rise to secondary effects such as loss of revenue to processers and shippers, and shareholder losses to name but a few. In extreme cases where losses are very huge and where such losses are likely to spread out over a long period, investor panic may occur resulting in market destabilization. For a country like the U.S to suffer trade restrictions, the outcome would be disastrous not only to her economy but also to her international image.
Although the overall impact of bioterrorist attack is yet to be realized and would differ according to different variables, any attack on the U.S agriculture sector has the potential to heavily weaken her workforce and subsequently destabilize the government. A small attack is capable of creating panic, loss of consumer confidence and serious economic hardship. The U.S holds a leading position in world food production and has been holding the status of a superpower for a long time and a lot of vigilance and preparedness is necessary inorder to avert any such attack. This will greatly aid in preserving her image both locally and internationally.
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