For those paranoid about the possibilities of agro-terrorism, the past 18 months have provided a banner demonstration of risk and consequence. Bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) was discovered in Canada and the U.S. Exotic Newcastle Disease in the U.S. disrupted all domestic livestock markets. And, most recently, avian influenza added to the export woes.

Though none of these came at the hands of terrorists, the “what-if” possibility is cause for rational concern.

Addressing the National Institute of Animal Agriculture in April, Col. Gary Vroegindewey, assistant chief, U.S. Army Veterinary Corps, explained, “Most feel agriculture and food are at risk [to agro-terrorism] due to the fact they are integral parts of the critical infrastructure. They're soft targets with multiple vulnerability gaps. The economic impact would be devastating and the psychological impact extraordinary.”

Similar concerns are echoed in the fifth annual and final report issued in December by the Advisory Panel to Assess Domestic Response Capabilities for Terrorism Involving Weapons of Mass Destruction (The Gilmore Commission). “To date, terrorists have not yet successfully carried out or even attempted (so far as we know) a large-scale agricultural attack. Yet, attacks against agriculture could emerge as a favored form of secondary aggression,” according to the report.

The report says a major attack on U.S. agriculture would have a serious economic impact and could undermine public confidence in government. It also said the ag sector is vulnerable to disease introductions, which is “all the more threatening because capabilities required for exploiting them are not significant.”

Since it began advising government in 1998, the Gilmore Commission has made 144 specific recommendations for shoring up the nation's defense against terrorism, some aimed at agriculture, specifically. All told, Congress and various government agencies have adopted about 125 of them.

When USDA Secretary Ann Veneman addressed the commission in September 2003, she said USDA's homeland security efforts were focused on three key areas: “agricultural production and the food supply, USDA facilities and USDA staff, and emergency preparedness.”

More specifically, Veneman outlined steps USDA has taken, especially since 9/11/2001. These include enhanced border security; regulations establishing new safeguards for the possession, use and transfer of certain toxins and biological agents, thereby reducing the opportunity for procurement by terrorists; increased USDA lab security; and the initiation of a pilot version of a National Animal Health Laboratory Network, a network of federal and state agencies designed to enable rapid response to animal health emergencies.

Possibly the most powerful tool at USDA's disposal came in the Homeland Security Presidential Directive/HSPD-9, which was issued in January. It established a national policy to defend the agriculture and food system against terrorist attacks, major disasters and other emergencies. Between this and the Animal Health Protection Act, USDA has broad authority to develop programs aimed at defending the nation's ag infrastructure. As an example, with this authority, USDA can mandate a national animal ID system if it deems necessary.

So, the risk still exists, as does the ag industry's vulnerability to the risks. In fact, according to the Gilmore Commission report, terrorist attacks worldwide are on the rise. From 1999 to 2003, not including the September 2001 attack on the U.S., 7,700 people have died and 19,100 injured by terrorism. But, progress continues to be made in establishing long-term defense.

Perhaps James Gilmore, III, chairman of the commission, summed it up best in the final report. He wrote, “There will never be an endpoint to American readiness. Enemies will change tactics, citizen's attitudes about what adjustments in their lives they are willing to accept will evolve, and leaders will be confronted with legitimate competing priorities that will demand attention. These are simply characteristics of our society that must be factored into our national efforts.

“In the end, America's response to the threat of terrorism will be measured in how we manage risk. There will never be a 100% guarantee of security for our people, the economy and our society. We must resist the urge to seek total security — it is not achievable and drains our attention from those things that can be accomplished.”