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College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences


Agriculture Attractive But Not So Convenient Terrorist Target

March 27, 2003

COLUMBUS, Ohio — U.S. agriculture may be an attractive target for terrorist groups, but the system’s structure makes it difficult to generate the type of one-time damage seen in the World Trade Center attack. “Terrorist groups could find agriculture very attractive because it is so vulnerable. The system is so dispersed that you can’t watch everything, and there are so many targets of opportunity in the food and water provision system that it makes food very vulnerable,” said Luther Tweeten, an Ohio State University professor emeritus of agricultural trade and policy. “On the other hand, agriculture is not an easy target for the same reason. Any one point is not going to do the kind of damage terrorists are looking for. An attack on one farmer’s livestock or crop is not going to have a very big impact, and terrorists are looking for things with a huge psychological impact.” Tweeten, who just published a book on domestic and international terrorism called “Terrorism, Radicalism, and Populism in Agriculture” (Iowa State Press, 2003), said that the threat of agri-terrorism, nonetheless, is real and people should be aware of some of the potential dangers. “There’s no question that the war in Iraq has heightened awareness of this issue. No one knows for sure if it’s going to make terrorism more or less frequent, but it’s a concern that everybody should be more aware of,” he said. Some areas of agriculture Tweeten considers to be targets of opportunity include chemicals such as fertilizers or pesticides that could be developed into explosives; spray planes or light planes that could be easily stolen and used to disperse chemical or biological agents; agribusinesses that stockpile chemicals or equipment; farmers with large feedlots or confinement operations that could be a source for spreading animal diseases, like foot and mouth; and food processing facilities and packing plants that could be infiltrated and a potential toxin introduced into the food supply. “One gram of botoxin (the organism that cause botulism) can kill hundreds of thousands of people. We know how devastating foot and mouth disease can be to the animal population,” said Tweeten. “These are just some of the things that terrorists would go for. The important thing to stopping things like this from happening is to be observant. Vigilance can be one of the most effective deterrents.” He said that people should be more aware of what’s going on around them and report any suspicious activity. “Terrorist groups usually do something before an attack that’s a little odd. They case the places they are going to attack. They may plant a worker to learn the routines and learn how to get in and out. They might be watching with binoculars from close proximity,” said Tweeten. “That means there are strangers in the neighborhood and suspicious activity. Think of the kinds of things they might engage in and anticipate the kinds of things they might do to attack these places of opportunity.” Farmers and agribusinesses can also do their share of cutting the odds of a potential terrorist attack by locking up buildings and securing chemicals, aircraft and farm equipment. “There’s no fool proof system and any kind of a fool proof system would be too costly. We wouldn’t be able to afford it,” said Tweeten. “So it’s up to the people to be vigilant and be aware of what is going on around them.” Tweeten said that since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and subsequent potential threats, Americans appear to be grasping a better understanding of what terrorism is. “I define terrorism as political acts involving either destruction of property or people or both. People don’t realize that the overwhelming sources of terrorism in agriculture have been domestic — not international, not al-Qaeda — primarily engaged in terrorism relating to animal feeding operations, environmental targets, GMOs, test plots. And because these mainly deal with the destruction of property many people don’t consider them terrorist acts,” said Tweeten. “Since 9/11, I think many are looking at these acts with more scrutiny and security has tightened up.” Within the past six years, there have been 600 incidents of domestic terrorism acts in agriculture, from the destruction of scientific labs, experimental test plots and offices to the targeting of farming operations. “The weird part about this is these acts of violence and intimidation often hurt the very people that these protestors say they are trying to help. Agricultural technology has done a great service to consumers and to mankind and it’s had a magnificent economic payoff,” said Tweeten. “The battle to feed humanity is not over and when we destroy technology we are slowing that process and it can be damaging often to the people that protestors are trying to serve.”

Candace Pollock
Luther Tweeten