Food (In)security: Are Farms The Next Terrorist Target?

Photography by Mark Peterson

An insecure food supply is an alarming prospect. Are we doing enough to defend American farms from acts of terror? Or spending billions on pork barrel projects to defend a few cows?

In early 2002, United States Navy SEAL Team 3 stormed a cluster of caves in eastern Afghanistan. It was a known Al Qaeda storehouse; they expected guns, explosives, maybe even Osama bin Laden.

Instead, the team found documents, hundreds of them, all planning a terrorist attack on the United States food supply.

There were agriculture articles from American science journals, translated into Arabic. There were USDA documents. There was a comprehensive list of the most devastating livestock pathogens — foot-and-mouth disease (FMD), hog cholera, rinderpest. There was a separate rundown of crop diseases like soybean rust and rice blight. And, most alarmingly, there were training documents, detailing how to deploy these pathogens on farms.

In the decade since the raid, this scare story has spread far and wide — in FBI trainings, at Congressional hearings on homeland security, in hawkish punditry. The details vary — sometimes it’s a small Navy SEAL team, other times it’s a full deployment of coalition forces. In some versions, the soldiers raided caves; in others it was an underground bunker or an Al Qaeda training camp. The document list varies, as does the year of the raid. But no matter the details, the takeaway message is the same: Our farms are targets.

The building site of the $1.2 billion National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility. It is slated to be the world’s most ambitious facility for combating agroterrorism.

An insecure food supply is an alarming prospect. Far from our urban congestion, from our military strongholds, from our political and financial centers, farms seem like cushy targets for acts of terror (“Hitting America’s Soft Underbelly” is the evocative title of one agroterror report from the RAND Corporation). The economic disruption would be huge. The symbolic impact would be profound. And, perhaps more importantly, it would be fairly simple to pull off.

“For the life of me, I cannot understand why the terrorists have not attacked our food supply, because it is so easy to do,” said Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson in 2004.

Is it only a matter of time?

Prepping for the Worst

It’s lunchtime at the Sale Barn Cafe in Manhattan, Kansas. The mood is mellow — just cattle ranchers and friends, chatting idly about feed prices and the October sunshine. When Fox News comes on the TV, detailing a local salmonella outbreak, the room briefly goes quiet; all cowboy hats tilt toward the screen. Then the segment ends, and everyone returns to their burgers and eggs.

At this same moment, a crisis is unfolding a couple miles away. Manhattan’s Biosecurity Research Institute (BRI) has entered full-on emergency mode. Earlier that day, someone from the Kansas Department of Agriculture (KDA) fielded a grim call: A cow infected with foot-and-mouth disease was discovered at a cattle auction, the source unknown. Soon an infected bull turned up at Kansas State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine. Government agencies were frantically coordinating their response, ordering large-scale quarantines, planning the euthanasia of thousands of cows, a stop-movement order and state border checkpoints.

Attacking America’s food supply would be devastating — and simple.

It should be noted: The crisis is total fiction. It’s a dress rehearsal for an actual FMD attack, bankrolled by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). More than 200 staffers from dozens of government agencies have come together to stage this elaborate exercise. In the past, drills have included the FBI, DHS and the USDA.

Foot-and-mouth disease is the cattle rancher’s bogeyman, a grim specter that hasn’t emerged since 1929 in the mainland U.S. It is devastating, its levels of contagion staggering.

“Let me compare it to a common cold,” says Kansas Animal Health Commissioner Bill Brown. “To catch a cold, you need thousands of virus particles to be present; with FMD, you need one or two.”

When FMD broke out in the United Kingdom in 2001, the cause was presumed to be accidental. Still, the incident stirred up some dark fears. Happening almost concurrently with 9/11, a time when the world was braced for new modes of attack, it seemed pretty obvious — FMD would make a killer weapon.

In 2002, the USDA staged a drill in D.C. called “Crimson Sky.” In this grisly simulation, FMD was intentionally released by terrorists, leading National Guardsmen to slaughter tens of thousands of livestock at gunpoint (no cattle were actually harmed).

The term agroterrorism emerged around this time, though it didn’t make it into the Oxford New American Dictionary until 2010: “Terrorist acts intended to disrupt or damage a country’s agriculture, especially the use of a biological agent against crops or livestock.”

As a concept, it’s largely theoretical — only a few examples exist from the last 50 years. In 1970, 63 cows were poisoned at a Black Muslim farm in Alabama; the Ku Klux Klan was widely suspected. Palestinian sympathizers injected mercury into a handful of Jaffa oranges in 1978 to disrupt international trade with Israel. And in 1989, a rebel farmer group called the Breeders claimed responsibility for releasing crop-eating medflies in California, as retaliation for state-mandated pesticide spraying.

These examples may be small in scale, but they were highly effective: The Muslim farmers abandoned their farm, Israel suffered huge economic losses and California reversed its pesticide-spraying policy. As an agent of fear, of economic harm and even of political leverage, agroterrorism has proven results.

An Uneasy Mood

The Sale Barn Cafe is named literally — it’s in the same building as Manhattan Commission Company, a cattle auction house. Every Friday, thousands of cows change hands here, for transport all over the country. Were an auctioned cow to be infected with FMD, it could cross multiple state lines within 48 hours, intermingling with many different herds of livestock. This is why a cattle auction was selected as ground zero for the biosecurity drill.

Kansas cattle rancher Buck Gehrt (left) and Mervin Sexton, auction house co-owner. Both have concerns about farm security.

Don’t be fooled by the Sale Barn’s sleepy appearance. The farmers inside are vigilant. Case in point: When a Modern Farmer reporter and photographer linger outside the auction house, everyone goes on high alert. “We took down your license plate and physical descriptions,” says Manhattan Commission’s office manager, Carole Bremerman. “We were planning to call you in. Can’t be too safe.”

Bremerman’s suspicion indicates a prevailing mood of unease, in Manhattan and beyond. This summer, National Geographic photographer George Steinmetz was arrested in Garden City, Kansas, for taking aerial photos of a cattle feedlot. Prosecutors assert the arrest was an issue of biosecurity (not, as many suspected, related to the state’s “ag-gag” laws, designed to keep activists from documenting animal abuse).

To prepare for animal-based agroterrorist threats, the U.S. is building a $1.2 billion facility in the middle of Kansas.

Arresting a well-known photographer for taking pictures of farmland may seem silly. Still, take a minute to see things from the feedlot owners’ perspective. In addition to the escalating drumbeat against agroterrorism, cattle theft has been on the rise nationally. And animal rights groups like the Animal Liberation Front (ALF) have attacked large-scale livestock operations in recent years; in 2012, they blew up 14 tractor-trailers at California’s Harris Ranch (the government labeled this an act of ecoterrorism, distinguished from agroterrorism by its targets — people or property rather than livestock or crops).

But despite heightened vigilance, farms are still seen as a weak link in the “farm-to-table continuum,” according to the 184-page DHS report “Food and Agriculture Sector-Specific Plan,” published in 2010. Some larger farms have ramped up security — electronic alarms, security gate check-ins, et cetera — but that’s far from the industry standard. Many cattle ranchers still maintain pretty old-fashioned security: lock and key and a watchful eye.

And when it comes to slipping in an unknown pathogen, you wouldn’t need a huge security breach. A Kleenex tainted with FMD drifting into a dairy barn, or a dusting of wheat rust falling from the sky, could do the job.

Battleground: The Little Apple

The sign outside the Biosecurity Research Institute, home to infectious disease research on plant, animal and human health.

You’d be hard-pressed to find a more heartland city than Manhattan (nickname: the Little Apple). Population 56,000, it’s located a couple hours west of Kansas City. It’s both a hub of commerce for the region’s cattle and grain farmers, and a proud college town. Kansas State purple festoons car dealerships, porta-potties, tissue boxes at the bank — football is huge. In fact, one of the biggest choices in the FMD drill was the mock decision to cancel the weekend’s big game against Baylor. “Make sure you tell your audience this isn’t real,” KDA communications director Mary Soukup told media who observed the drill. “People will panic if they think the game is canceled.”

Over the last decade, Manhattan has become a key player in the national push to beef up farm security. This is due in no small part to the leverage of Senator Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), long vocal about the need to protect our agricultural systems. “We cannot let down our guard,” Roberts said at a 2011 agroterrorism symposium. “Experts in the field warn, this threat is not an ‘if’ but a ‘when.’ ”

Back in 2002, Roberts played the president in the Crimson Sky drill. But even earlier, he was instrumental in bringing the National Agricultural Biosecurity Center to Manhattan, a facility “dedicated to increasing public awareness of agroterrorism and developing solutions for improving agricultural and food production safeguards.” BRI, a facility for crops, livestock and food, was also a pet project (it’s housed in “Pat Roberts Hall”).

It doesn’t end there. Manhattan is the future home of the world’s most ambitious center for battling agroterrorism — the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility, or NBAF (pronounced en-baff). A joint venture of the USDA and the DHS, this $1.2 billion dollar facility is now under construction on the Kansas State campus. It’s intended to be the national hub for studying and responding to animal-based agroterror threats. At Biosafety Level 4, it will be a high-security science fortress — on par with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

Agroterrorism prep is largely a matter of research. The FMD virus, for instance, is forever evolving and mutating. Scientists have spent decades trying to develop a more effective means of combating the virus. Vaccines have been developed, but they only work on whatever highly specific strain is being studied at the time. This spring, British researchers developed a new methodology for producing FMD vaccines, though it will be years before it’s viable for controlling future outbreaks.

Lab wheat at Kansas Wheat Innovation Center, where virulent crop diseases are studied.

NBAF will focus its research exclusively on livestock diseases. Some of these, like Nipah and Hendra, are potentially contagious — and lethal — to humans. This doesn’t sit well with some Manhattanites. Cathy Dawes, news director at local radio station KMAN, heard from multiple listeners worried about tornadoes hitting the new facility. As one op-ed from May 2013 put it, “Building it in Kansas is the equivalent of playing Russian roulette with Mother Nature.” (The facility has since upgraded its tornado preparedness, adding half a billion dollars to its price tag.)

NBAF’s still-operational predecessor, the Plum Island Animal Disease Center, is housed on a remote island off the coast of New York. It was built during the Cold War, both to research livestock disease and to experiment with biological weapons (the second mission was allegedly phased out decades ago). In 1978, an accidental outbreak of FMD on Plum Island led to the slaughter of the island’s cattle; there have been other, lesser breaches since then. Homeland Security eventually determined Plum Island was not secure enough. Instead of upgrading, they opted to build a new facility in Kansas. (Midwest residents should feel good that Plum Island hasn’t been deemed too toxic to develop: Donald Trump has put in a bid to convert the property to a golf course.)

Still, some farmers feel uneasy about the decision to locate NBAF in the heart of Kansas, the nation’s third-biggest cattle producer. “Every country in the world puts their disease facilities on islands,” says Donn Teske, president of the Kansas Farmers Union. “We’re putting ours right in the middle of cattle country. You tell me: Does that make sense?”

Wait and See

A view into Kansas State’s simulated outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease.

But still, is agroterrorism a real threat? When we ask Dr. Stephen Higgs, director of the BRI, if he expects to see an agroterrorism attack in his lifetime, he pauses. “I could tell you no, but that would make all our work pointless, wouldn’t it?” he says. “It’s better to prepare for the worst, than to ignore it and say, ‘What the heck it’ll never happen.’”

Distributing pathogens that kill plants and animals certainly has advantages over attacks on humans. The penalties for getting caught are much less severe, it’s easier to make agroterrorism look like an act of nature and obtaining plant and animal pathogens is a breeze compared to, say, getting your hands on a batch of ricin. Also, there are fewer ethical roadblocks to killing livestock. “Someone who would never kill a human being might not think twice about killing a cow,” says Rocco Casagrande, author of the 2000 report “Biological Terrorism Targeted at Agriculture.” “Kill it now or send it to the slaughterhouse; it’s pretty much already dead.”

But the very reasons that make agroterrorism so accessible also reduce its impact. Simply put: Killing a few thousand cattle in Manhattan, Kansas, is never going to create the same panic as killing a few thousand people in Manhattan, New York.

To some farmers, the notion of farms as terrorist targets is absurd. “Why in the world would terrorists attack my feedlot?” laughs Teske, whose farm is just north of Manhattan. “I’ve certainly got a lot more things to keep me up at night worrying.”

Teske thinks NBAF has the whiff of a pork barrel project — a billion dollars spent on an issue that most farmers are unconcerned with. “[Agroterrorism] is a hot topic for politicians right now,” he says. “As long as that’s true, those dollars are going to keep flowing.”

Cattle frolic in front of the construction site for the new national agroterrorism center, NBAF. When completed, it will be Biosafety Level 4, indicating presence of lethal agents able to pass from livestock to humans.

As it is with many matters of defense and security, the U.S. is leading the world in agroterrorism preparedness. Other countries have NBAF-level facilities to study livestock disease (see sidebar on p. 42), but few countries are girding for intentional farm attacks. For a 2006 BBC story on agroterrorism, the reporter couldn’t even find someone in British government who was familiar with the concept.

Distributing pathogens that kill plants and animals certainly has advantages over attacks on humans.

The fact remains that the urgent rhetoric voiced by U.S. politicians and academics has largely failed to bear out in the real world. Attacks on livestock and crops have been spotty and isolated, and besides those alleged cave documents found in 2002 (or 2004, depending on whom you ask), there is little proof that groups are actually interested in agroterrorism.

Of course, hard evidence isn’t really necessary. Whether or not we discover proof of agroterror plots, a vulnerability exists. Our large-scale, consolidated farms are ripe for the spread of pathogens, intentionally released or otherwise.

Mervin Sexton, co-owner of the Manhattan Commission Company, takes a measured approach toward the idea of an attack. He’s never seen any infectious disease at his auction house, and panic isn’t in his nature. Sexton isn’t even sure what a terrorist might gain from attacking his business. Still, you won’t catch him letting his guard down.

“There is no such thing as 100 percent safe,” he says. “I’ve always believed that the biggest threat — the place where you’re the most vulnerable — is the place you feel the safest.”

Food (In)security: Are Farms The Next Terrorist Target?