around an area who's not supposed to be there, and are pretty quick to pick up and call whoever's farm it is."

Another concern, according to Howard van Dijk, emergency preparedness coordinator of Clemson University's Cooperative Extension Service, is the spread of contagious diseases that could threaten food safety or cripple agricultural production.

"Foot-and-mouth disease - that's the big one that really has us worried because that would hit cattle of all sorts, and other kinds of hoofed animals," he said. "It's highly contagious, and it would be very difficult to manage, to control, to get on top of."

Because foot-and-mouth disease is a pandemic in certain parts of the world, van Dijk said, all someone would have to do is bring a sample into the U.S. and release it in farms.

In 2002, Tom McGinn, assistant state veterinarian for North Carolina at the time, showed a computer simulation of what would happen if foot-and-mouth disease were deliberately and simultaneously released in five different sites across the country - within two weeks, the disease would have spread to 44 states and destroyed 48.5 million animals.

Also in 2001, McGinn said the United States collected intelligence data in Afghanistan that al Qaeda operatives explored ways of damaging the U.S. food supply.

"There were plans ongoing within those folks about seeing where agriculture of the U.S. was vulnerable," van Dijk said. "They had information there that was wide-open material. It would be knowledge that wouldn't be that hard to acquire."

Taking Responsibility

Knowing this, van Dijk urged farmers and ranchers to take action.

"Install gates to your facility, put up those signs, restricting gates, know who's visiting your farm, be observant, see if there are people you don't know or strange folks coming by asking questions that don't really apply to day-to-day activities," van Dijk said. "Try to upgrade security for everybody - that goes for the whole process, up and down the whole food chain from the producer to the grocery store. The whole system needs to have tightened security everywhere."

Government agencies also must do their part to safeguard food production, Gillespie said.

"Certainly industry has to have a major role because they control [more than] 90 percent of the resources that go into our food systems," he added, "but they can't really do that without support from local, state and federal government agencies. Most certainly that's true as we begin to have a more global food supply. Now it's imperative that our federal, state and local agencies step up and try to improve security for the imported foods and food products."

Finch said he believes it's ultimately agriculture's responsibility to work closely with the state commissioners of agriculture or their counterparts across the nation.

But Jason Moats, program coordinator for the Fire Protection Training Division at Texas A&M's Extension Service, disagreed. Moats, who wrote Agroterrorism: A Guide for First Responders, said an agroterrorism event almost immediately becomes a national-level event.

"It's not accurate to say that it's a farmer or rancher issue. It's going to involve everyone in the community, from the local elected official, to the state veterinarian, to the animal, plant and health inspection service to deal with this," he said. "It's a national-level emergency. That's on the grandest scale."

If, for example, foot-and-mouth disease were introduced into the agriculture system, the disease would affect cattle, sheep, goats, pigs and other animals. International markets would quickly stop receiving food products from the entire U.S., said Moats, because blocking shipments on a regional basis would be difficult.

"The problem is, we have such a highly mobile animal population here in the U.S. that that may not be reasonable," he

Jessica Jones  |  Editor