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Archive for Thursday, April 3, 2003

Agroterrorism’ still a concern for farmers

April 3, 2003

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— More than a year after the terrorist attacks made the word "agroterrorism" part of the language, Kansas agriculture has never been so well prepared to deal with the threat.

At the same time, the state's farms remain frighteningly vulnerable, Kansas agriculture officials say.

Limited state resources, great distances, unguarded crops and herds and the ease of a deliberate infection make American agriculture an easy target for agroterrorism.

"Agriculture is so vast it is not like you can put a fence around it," said Lisa Taylor, spokeswoman for the Kansas Department of Agriculture.

Only one Kansas county even has a written, tested plan to deal with an agroterrorism attack -- a prospect that worries state animal health officials who see the initial county response in the first day or two as critical to containing a biological attack on crops or livestock.

When the homeland security alert was raised to orange level in February, the state's livestock commissioner warned cattlemen that their herds were possible targets -- marking the first time livestock was specifically named as a potential source of trouble.

Jerry Jaax, associate vice provost for research compliance at Kansas State University, led a biohazard mission when he was in the U.S. Army that visited Siberia to witness weapons factories that produced smallpox and the plague. His experiences were detailed in the 1995 best-selling book, "The Hot Zone."

Jaax said one of the government's major concerns when the Soviet Union fell apart was what would happened to the people who worked in the weapons programs. He said there was some anecdotal evidence that Middle Eastern countries recruited them heavily.

In high gear after 9-11

Agroterrorism received a lot of attention in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the anthrax mailings and growing fears of an assault on the nation's food supply.

A long-proposed biosecurity research facility at K-State got a boost with last year's announcement of a $3 million research project on foot-and-mouth disease. The project is a joint effort by K-State, Texas A&M University and Purdue University.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced last year the state would get $1.67 million to protect agriculture against terrorism. About $900,000 will go to K-State for a rapid detection network focused on plant diseases, and the rest will go to state health agencies.

"We are a long ways down the road from where we were 18 or 20 months ago," Jaax said. "Are we ready? Certainly not. ... But we are far past where we where when Sept. 11 occurred. The fact is we will never be completely ready. You can't prepare or predict all potential threats or circumstances."

Shortcomings

Despite the progress, problems remain.

The state's animal health agency has only three state veterinarians and five livestock inspectors on staff, while the USDA has seven veterinarians and one livestock inspector in Kansas.

K-State has not yet started its $3 million research project into foot-and-mouth disease. The university did not actually receive the funds until last month, said Curtis Kastner, director of the Food Science Institute at K-State.

The university will study the outbreak in Great Britain, potential ways the disease might enter the United States and best way to dispose of the thousands of animals that would have to be destroyed here.

Farm industry groups are also urging producers to be vigilant.

In December 2001, the Kansas Farm Bureau hired a retired agent for the Kansas Bureau of Investigation to study Kansas farms and put together a plan that producers can use to protect themselves.

However, the former KBI agent has so far worked only on crime issues -- not agroterrorism, said Farm Bureau spokesman Mike Matson.

Only livestock-dependent Ford County has a tested, written disaster plan tailored to deal with foot-and-mouth disease or other animal disease, said George Teagarden, Kansas animal health commissioner.

"They realize without agriculture that county would not have much left -- they have a big stake," he said.

The state's disaster response plan to an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease calls for animals within a mile and a half of the infected premises to be destroyed and a quarantine for the surrounding 6 miles.

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