Published on 05/29/02

Conference Focuses on Preventing Terrorism in Agriculture

But participants at the Agrosecurity Work Conference here May 23 said a deliberate attack on this complex, widespread and diverse part of the U.S. economy could be catastrophic.

Emergency, security, environmental and farm experts met at the University of Georgia to discuss what can be done to prevent a terrorist attack and what will have to be done if one happens. The conference was hosted by the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

Jeff Fisher, chairman of the CAES agrosecurity task force, said an important goal was to set up avenues of communications between agencies and organizations directly and indirectly related to agriculture security in Georgia and around the country.

"People are talking now that were not talking before," said Fisher, head of the CAES department of environmental health science.

The conference could set the guidelines for other such discussions across the country to address this critical issue, Fisher said.

It's Happened Before

During the past century there were several attacks against the food and fiber supplies of a country, said Lee Myers, state veterinarian and assistant commissioner of agriculture in Georgia.

Though not believed to be related to terrorism, the 2001 foot-and-mouth disease outbreak in the United Kingdom caused the slaughter of 8 million animals and more than $25 billion in economic damage, she said.

A similar outbreak in the United States, intentional or not, would cause about $60 billion in economic damage. "There is a significant economic value with U.S. agriculture," she said.

In 1997, agriculture provided 13 percent of the U.S. gross domestic product and about 17 percent of U.S. employment.

Most U.S. cities have only a five-day supply of food on grocery store shelves, Myers said.

Agriculture is Georgia's No. 1 industry, worth about $5.7 billion annually.

"An agroterror attack could quickly devastate trade, induce social instability and erode public confidence," she said.

Michael McLendon, deputy director of the Center for Crisis Management at UGA, said the probability of a terrorist attack on U.S. agriculture is low. "But it will be high consequences if it does (happen)," he said. "And it's never a good time for it to happen."

Disaster Prepared

Weather is agriculture's most significant disaster threat, he said. Since 1991, Georgia has faced 16 presidential disaster declarations and 66 state disaster declarations.

Every county in the state has been under at least one emergency declaration. This experience with natural disaster gives Georgia an advantage to guard against and react to a terrorist attack.

He says a "First Responder" force for Georgia agriculture is already in place. The force consists of the 50,000 farms, the 730,000 people the industry employees, the Cooperative Extension Service, state veterinarians and other state and federal organizations.

Mike Sherberger, assistant director of the Georgia Emergency Management Agency, agreed. He said as much as 80 percent of agrosecurity intelligence will come from "regular, everyday folks."

Georgia will be getting $100 million to fight terrorism as part of the Presidential 2003 budget, he said. Most of this money is earmarked for local governments.

CAES Dean and Director Gale Buchanan charged the formation of the UGA agrosecurity task force in December 2001.

Brad Haire is the former news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.