Thwarting the threat of agroterrorism

The role of higher education on the frontline
By: | Issue: January, 2015
December 15, 2014

At the drop of a hat, we run down to the grocery store to grab food and water – never thinking these consumables are actually vulnerable to the threat of agroterrorism. Former U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services, Tommy Thompson, put it this way “For the life of me, I cannot understand why the terrorists have not attacked our food supply, because it is so easy to do.”

Even before Secretary Thompson’s 2004 pronouncement, Congress recognized the devastating impact of these potential strikes and enacted the Agricultural Bioterrorism Protection Act. This enactment registers and regulates farmers, among others, who use biological elements or toxins – all of this to promote the likelihood that our agricultural resources remain safe. Within this regulatory framework, agroterrorism is defined as “the deliberate introduction of an animal or plant disease for the purpose of generating fear, causing economic losses or undermining social stability”.

Proactive vigilance

If one listens to the bioterrorism experts and food security commentators, the threat of agroterrorism must be met with proactive vigilance. This thinking recognizes that hazards to our food chain rank among the most market rich targets for terrorists around the world. Indeed, we live in an age when the agroterrorism peril knows no boundaries, extending from America’s heartland to every corner of the globe. Importantly, our regulatory, military, and intelligence agencies are perpetually monitoring the likelihoods of future attacks and continuously formulating anticipatory catastrophe prevention measures in the event of a toxic strike to our nation’s food sources and water supply.

Naturally, America’s agricultural research universities play a crucial role in spearheading the protection of our nation’s precious food and water resources. Early on in our biosecurity literature search, we learned from Professor David Marrison at the Ohio State Extension School that “Farmers are prepared to respond to natural disasters, but in an age where the risk of human-caused disasters such as agroterrorism is an issue, farmers must be vigilant and know what to look out for.” This is where higher education can play a vital role in educating farmers and regulators in the best practices for defending our agricultural capital. In point of fact, our agricultural universities are already fully engaged in research and training at extension centers, small organic farms, and large multi-national agricultural conglomerates as well.

American higher ed’s unique response is also embedded in agroterrorism curriculum frameworks, better detection and diagnostic techniques, model mitigation measures, and civil defense preparedness. For their part, U.S. military and intelligence agencies take an interdisciplinary and interprofessional approach by co-joining a broad spectrum of allied academic disciplines – including agro-sciences and technologies, water quality control, forensic disaster investigation, and first responder emergency management capacity.

Higher ed responds

Recognizing that our nation’s colleges and universities don’t have to go it alone – the University of Tennessee, Iowa State University, Michigan State University, Louisiana State University, Wright State University, University of Hawaii, and Mississippi State University have teamed up to create the Food and Agriculture Protection Training Consortium. Elsewhere, the University of Minnesota Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, UC Davis Western Center for Food Safety, and the University of Nebraska at Lincoln’s Agricultural Research Division are collaborating on major food and water preservation research initiatives.

At the end of our agroterrorism journey we asked for a more strategic perspective from UMASS Amherst Dean of Natural Sciences Dr. Steven Goodwin and this is what we learned: “The public land-grant universities have an important role to play in the quest to insure food security. Research and outreach focused on the local ability to provide a significant proportion of the food consumed regionally is particularly important in the northeast. Recent efforts to develop urban agricultural activities have begun to complement the wider efforts to promote local food production.” So goes the role of American colleges and universities – thinking globally, yet acting locally.

James Martin and James E. Samels, Future Shock columnists, are authors of The Sustainable University (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012). Martin is a professor of English at Mount Ida College (Mass.) and Samels is president and CEO of The Education Alliance.