Rural America Vulnerable to Agro-Terrorism

3/16/2013 7:00 AM
By Laura Zoeller Southwestern Pa. Correspondent

ALTOONA, Pa. — If you want to destroy a nation, there are two ways to do it, according to an expert in agricultural emergencies. Option one is to damage the economic stability, and option two is to destroy its food supply.

Phillip Harchack, owner of Harchack LLC, an emergency planning service, who is also a former State Police sergeant and an ag emergencies instructor at Penn State University, spoke on the topic at the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau’s Young Farmers & Ranchers Leadership Conference last weekend.

“Agro-terrorism is defined as any deliberate introduction of an animal or plant disease for the purpose of generating fear, causing economic loss or undermining social stability,” Harchack said. “And the United States’ food supply is among the most vulnerable and least protected of all potential terrorism targets. We need to understand the risks.”

According to Harchack, outside groups should not be the nation’s only concern.

“While it is true that as far back as 2002, U.S. agricultural documents were found in al-Qaida sanctuaries along with training manuals on how to target agriculture, domestic terrorism is just as, or perhaps more likely, to occur,” Harchack said.

“Any group that is unhappy with your operation, be it an animal rights organization or a disgruntled employee, could introduce a pest or disease into your fields, livestock or milk supply that could bankrupt you in a short amount of time,” he said

Harchack said he believes that agro-terrorism prevention is the same, in many ways, as crime prevention.

“Know who is working for you,” he said. “Know who handles your pesticides, vaccinations, medicines, and limit the number of people who do. Lock things up so that random people can’t access them. Be vigilant and responsive while performing your normal daily activities.”

Harchack cited examples from all over the country, including a 1996 animal feed contamination that affected 4,000 farms across four states and cost more than $4 million in contaminated livestock and byproducts, including milk.

He also discussed a 2002 episode where someone put antibiotics into milk storage tanks and injected them into cattle at New York dairy farms, ruining 44,000 gallons of milk worth more than $49,000.

Harchack said those examples and others illustrate the continued vulnerability of the nation’s agriculture industry.

“It is nothing for us to leave our equipment in the field at night if we know we are going to be back the next day,” Harchack said. “What separates our spraying equipment from the road other than a few strands of fence?

“What is there to stop someone from putting Roundup in our fruit tree spray?” he said. “How many years would it take for a tree to recover from something like that? How long might a field need to remain fallow before it can be replanted? How long can you afford to lose money like that before you go bankrupt?”

Those are some of the questions farmers need to ask themselves, he said.

“Someone with an agenda could infect cattle or plants with a disease while driving down the road,” Harchack said. “If we can smuggle a 200 pound man into the country, what makes us think that an infected animal or plant couldn’t make it across the border?

“I believe that we have gone relatively unscathed thus far because we provide a lot of the food consumed around the world, but that won’t save us indefinitely,” he said.

Reporting suspicious activities and people to the authorities, paying attention to strange people who are watching the farm, and networking may assist in the prevention of a crime, or help law enforcement catch a perpetrator.

“Think about your farm from a criminal’s viewpoint,” Harchack said. “Try to figure out how someone could attack your farm. Try to find your weak links and fix them.

“I understand that people become complacent, because we want to believe that nothing like this could happen on our farm,” he said. “But to be perfectly honest, folks, complacency is a luxury we simply can’t afford.”

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