3 Things COVID-19 Teaches Us About Agroterrorism

This article by TechAccel President and CEO Michael Helmstetter, Ph.D., first appeared Sept. 8, 2020, in Forbes

Every so often, a transformative event tests a nation's ability to coordinate a response. The United States' encounter with SARS-CoV-2 virus causing the COVID-19 disease has left a lot to be desired. Its teachings act as fertile ground to improve next time. For there will be more adverse events, and an agroterrorism attack is a real possibility.

Agroterrorism is defined as "acts of terrorism intended to damage a country’s agricultural production or food supply." While hostile attacks on animals and crops have existed as long as humans have been farming, agroterrorism has been of particular national concern since 9/11. Troops discovered US agricultural documents in an Al Qaeda hideout in Afghanistan in 2002, including "ten pathogens [that] targeted food, six [that] targeted livestock and poultry, and four [that] targeted crops."

"At least twenty nations are suspected of pursuing offensive biological warfare capabilities with eight high-profile nations topping the list: Iran, Iraq, Israel, North Korea, China, Libya, Syria, and Taiwan. While these countries might not carry out an agroterrorist act against another nation, they could conceivably sponsor a terrorist organization," writes Major Michael E. Peterson in a 2019 US Air Force report. Naturally occurring outbreaks of avian flu, foot-and-mouth disease and African swine fever, which have collectively killed hundreds of millions of animals, demonstrate that pathogens wreak havoc.

As mentioned in my previous article, the US already has a strong biosecurity backbone, with modern tools available to fight pests and weeds, ample productive farmland, thorough sanitation regimens and more. Yet the immense size and complexity of our ag infrastructure, combined with the lack of coordination between agencies, leaves gaping holes in agroterrorism protection.

Some of these holes overlap with lessons taught by the slow national reaction to COVID-19. With the benefit of hindsight, what can we take with us to do better next time?


1. Heed the warnings

In addition to witnessing the SARS, MERS and H1N1 epidemics earlier this century, the national government had no fewer than four warnings from major institutions about its unpreparedness for a pandemic. Instead of coordinating a preventive national response, agencies prioritized matters that must have, at the time, seemed more immediate.

"Heeding warnings requires doing something, and the something is usually expensive or politically uncomfortable, or both," write former US National Intelligence Council Chair Gregory F. Treverton and Jahn Research Group Founding Principal Molly Jahn. Preparation, however, would have been far less expensive and politically uncomfortable than what is happening as I write this, when the U.S. is reporting more infections than any other nation in the world. 

Agroterrorism, too, has had its fair share of credible, specific warnings. “I, for the life of me, cannot understand why the terrorists have not attacked our food supply because it is so easy to do," said former Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson in December 2004.

Take foot-and-mouth disease, a highly infectious virus that quickly devastated the UK cattle supply in 2001. The Air Force and FBI alike have warned of deliberate introduction of the pathogen, which "might be the perfect weapon for an agroterrorism attack."

The U.S. beef industry was worth $69.2 billion in 2019, with more than 913,000 cattle and calf operations. Most of these cattle live in rural, dispersed areas. As Dean Olson describes in an FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin article, it makes them a widely available vector for a highly contagious, portable, destructive pathogen like foot-and-mouth disease. Dramatically reducing the nation's beef supply—with economic, political and social consequences to follow—could be as simple as a few visits to the pasture with a contaminated swab.

Unless, of course, there was a detailed, centralized database of potential agricultural pathogens that any of the three agencies in charge of national defense—the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the USDA and the FDA—could refer to. An early-warning system, a national coordinated quarantine response, and an agricultural version of contact tracing would also quell a bigger outbreak. The work, as the GAO reported in 2019, would have to be complex, interdisciplinary and enterprise-wide.

And in some ways, the agencies in charge would be starting from scratch. There is no centralized, cohesive strategy to guide national agro-defense. In fact, the current approach is so fragmented that it doesn't even have common data analysis standards. The agencies must begin coordinating now; otherwise, the nation will face rapid spread when pathogens are introduced. That is not something anyone wants to see repeated.


2. Protect the initiatives already in place

Despite worrisome coordination gaps, the U.S. biosecurity infrastructure does have some effective, necessary initiatives in place. Continuing to hire the best people to run these organizations, and ensuring they are adequately funded and completely independent will be a strong catalyst for agro-protection.

The $1.25B National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility (NBAF) being constructed on the Kansas State University campus in Manhattan, Kansas is perhaps one of the biggest such efforts and a strong step in the right direction in terms of biodefense research. I was fortunate to be on the very first call (and many to follow) of the Kansas team vying for the facility site competition and was fortunate to participate as the comprehensive strategy between K-State, USDA, DHS, and many others emerged. For this advanced institution to truly protect the nation's food supply, it must be operated independently. Close ties to the agriculture and animal-health industries are a given, but it cannot be beholden to profit motives. Science must be elevated, so facts, rather than politics, drive policy.

Similar independence must be practiced with the Economic Research Agency and the National Institute for Food and Agriculture, which were recently uprooted from Washington, DC to Kansas City. These agencies should be advancing science, publishing new papers and driving scientific innovations to market. That each agency is currently understaffed is reminiscent of the underfunding of public health in the U.S. in recent years, with an estimated 2.5% of national health care spending dedicated to public health. The CDC's budget, adjusted for inflation, fell by 10% between 2010-2019. "Since 2010, spending for state public health departments has dropped by 16% per capita and spending for local health departments has fallen by 18%,"a recent AP/KHN analysis found. "At least 38,000 state and local public health jobs have disappeared since the 2008 recession, leaving a skeletal workforce in some places."

At the time of writing, the U.S. Treasury has contributed to $3 trillion in rescue money, a move that arguably would not have been necessary – at least at that scale - if public health agencies had been properly resourced, funded and prepared in the first place. Applying this lesson to the nation's agroterrorism response could save millions of lives—human, animal and plant—in the future, and trillions of dollars.


3. Replenish national stockpiles

Just as the nation ran out of masks and other PPE after COVID-19 hit—and again four months later—there are things we need to stockpile or have in place now to help citizens protect from agroterrorism attacks.

Created in 1999, the Strategic National Stockpile bolsters state and local public health supplies during emergencies. This national buffer includes anything from vaccines and treatments to gowns and masks, to be delivered in a timely fashion to areas in need to fill the gap while manufacturers ramp up production.

If the nation's COVID supply response is any indication, revisiting when and how to restock the Strategic National Stockpile will be crucial for future response success. When this was written, there is another COVID-19 PPE shortage, despite manufacturers producing at full capacity. Importing a similar scenario to an agroterrorism attack and then reverse-engineering how to avoid shortages will be a crucial safeguard for the future. Vaccines, diagnostics, treatments, medical supplies and even food reserves should be kept in storage for humans and animals, and updated regularly to avoid expiration and keep pace with evolving threats. All distribution efforts should be done by an independent agency to avoid any politicization or favors. Otherwise, as we are seeing this year, avoidable shortages can result in infections and fatalities. 


Think beyond partisanship

In order to prevent more death, social and economic fallout, the nation needs a new kind of infrastructure project: Congressional leadership in biosecurity preparedness. With dedicated focus, a non-partisan agency, separate from the White House administration, would have the power to implement food-supply-chain monitoring, which is now more available than ever, thanks to technological advances like blockchain. This agency could knit together coordination between the major stakeholders, ensure the funding for medical countermeasures and reserves, and implement an early warning system, among other needs.

If we're learning anything from the current pandemic, it's that the human fallout wasn't necessary, and was preventable. Policymakers and voters must pay attention to the lessons from 2020, because it was an unprepared year that we can't afford to repeat.

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