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INTERVIEW: Agro-Terrorism - Animal Nutrition Sector Needs to Be Prepared
Source: Feedinfo News Service
(dated 05/04/2017)

5 April 2017 - In late-March, the U.S. House passed the “Securing our Agriculture and Food Act”, a piece of agro-terrorism preparedness legislation which will be up for a vote in the U.S. Senate. In the words of Iowa Republican Representative David Young, the legislation is a step “towards protecting America and consumers from agro-terrorism, and other high-risk events that pose serious threats to our food, agriculture and livestock industries.”

The Act requires the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), through the assistant secretary for Health Affairs, to elevate preparedness of America’s food, agriculture and veterinary systems against terrorism and high-risk events. It also authorizes DHS to collaborate with other agencies to ensure food, agriculture and animal and human health sectors receive attention and are integrated into the department’s domestic preparedness policy initiatives.

Senator Pat Roberts, a Kansas Republican and chairman of the Senate Agriculture committee, commented: "I have introduced this legislation in the Senate because it reiterates the important and necessary role of the DHS in the agro-terrorism space. As former Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, I understand the unique threat our farmers and ranchers face. As the backbone of the U.S. economy, the spread of any deadly pathogen among our livestock and plant population would cause irreparable damage. I look forward to continuing to work with DHS and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which play equally important roles, in protecting our homeland’s food supply”.

It is almost certain that any attack on the US food supply (or on any other national food supply for that matter) would have devastating consequences on the global economy and global communities.

Feedinfo News Service turns to Dr. Richard Byrne from the Centre for Rural Security at Harper Adams University in the UK and author of ‘Agro-terrorism and bio-security, threat, response and industry communication’ (Harper Adams University, 2009) to get a better understanding of the threat of agro-terrorism for the animal nutrition industry and what can be done to combat it.

Dr. Byrne has travelled to the agricultural heartland of the eastern United States- Georgia. From there he travelled to Washington DC to meet with key agencies and agricultural bodies. Returning to Atlanta, Georgia via Virginia he went on a road trip across Georgia, to Alabama and Florida. The information and perceptions gathered during this period was used to contextualize the UK situation and consider the threat and the UK’s degree of preparedness for an agro-terrorism incident.

[Feedinfo News Service] Dr. Byrne, terrorism has changed the world and caused shifts in mindsets. Could agro-terrorism also become a threat to society as an economic impact weapon?

[Richard Byrne] We have already seen the economic damage FMD, BSE and bird flu has done and is doing to agriculture. The true economic costs lie beyond the farm gate. Beyond the direct costs to agriculture, there are social costs – health, mental health and costs to the wider industry; transport, veterinary, processing and, of course, there are the long term issues with consumer confidence. In Europe with the Horsegate scandal, we saw how consumers shifted their buying power in response to food safety concerns. The real impact of agro-terrorism lies in its wide and deep economic impacts. Nothing illustrates this greater than the 2001 UK FMD outbreak. GBP 1.1 billion in farmer compensation, GBP 375 million on haulage and carcass disposal alone. The Government’s bill was around GBP 3 billion and the private sector around GBP 5 billion. Much of the latter fell on rural businesses not directly affected by the disease but reliant on an open rural economy – leisure, tourism, industry etc.

[Feedinfo News Service] What is your understanding of the global agro-terrorism threat today? The US has invested significant resources in response plans but how prepared is the rest of the world?

[Richard Byrne] It’s very hard to identify the threat or even rank it. What we are aware of is that the nature of terror is changing – we have seen this in Europe over the last few months, a shift to low tech. Arguably, focusing on the population rather than institutions and infrastructure has a wider economic impact. We are therefore seeing a shift to terror acts that are seen as having wider impacts and possibly longer-term ones. Agro-terrorism fits into this model. Terror acts today are about creating fear, uncertainly, splits in society and distrust in authority and governance.

The US has, since the Presidential Directive 9, put not just money but real effort into preparation across the industry, first responders and law enforcement. For me what is most interesting is how this information has cascaded down to the grass roots agricultural community – and empowered them to consider risk. Similarly many of the big buyers and processors have adopted ‘Carver+Shock’ type methodologies to look at their whole value chain and acted accordingly. Outside the US, Australia similarly has adopted high levels of biosecurity and disease surveillance. I think the EU has got better – mainly as a result of bird flu but I believe there is a lack of specific awareness of agro-terrorism and acts against the food sector as a whole. This is changing though with the increased threat of extortion aimed at the food industry.

[Feedinfo News Service] According to you why haven't terrorists yet attacked the global food supply (considered an easy target)?

[Richard Byrne] At present there are many other opportunities to ferment fear and hatred and agro-terrorism, while high impact, is technically quite difficult to enact for the lay person, and the current trend appears to be lone wolf type attacks using vehicles and knives which keeps the perpetrator very much off the radar.

[Feedinfo News Service] Besides a deliberate introduction of an animal or plant disease (radiological agents or biological agents), do you see any other forms of agro-terrorism taking shape?

[Richard Byrne] My personal opinion is animal disease would be the most potentially likely scenario. Plant disease has many variables – especially the weather. Contamination of feed, water/ irrigation water by biological, radiological or industrial chemicals is possible.

[Feedinfo News Service] The European livestock sector is highly dependent on inputs, particularly of feed. Animal feed has been determined as a potential route for contamination. What would you advocate here?

[Richard Byrne] A whole system understanding of vulnerability – e.g. employ a system like Carver+Shock to identify all the stages the product goes through from the seed to the customer. Create operating systems which protect those vulnerable areas e.g. no lone working, CCTV, off limits areas to all but essential employees. Encourage employees to report suspicious behavior or flaws in the system – Carver+Shock works well when employees are part of the system and it’s not imposed. Look to good examples - some of the ‘fast food’ producers have effective systems across vast and complex production – at the end of the day it’s about protecting the economy and our livelihoods.

[Feedinfo News Service] In the 2015 movie "Blackhat" (by Michael Mann) an cyber-villain/genius hacker sabotages the world soybean market by manipulating prices. A dangerous cyber-attack would undoubtedly create a situation of extreme price volatility in commodity markets and food prices. Could this scenario realistically happen?

[Richard Byrne] I have not seen the movie and I wouldn’t like to comment directly. But we have seen extreme volatility in the last 10 years and anything that contributes to that whether it be wildfires or El Niño is incredibly damaging to personal and national economies.

[Feedinfo News Service] The world will be faced with some inevitable surprises (a term coined by Peter Schwartz - a futurist, author, and co-founder of Global Business Network): future trends we can see coming, but still surprise us when they happen. Terrorist acts are one of them. How can companies in our industry be best-prepared for the eventuality of an agro terrorist act?

[Richard Byrne] Firstly look at what they are doing. Increase their resilience. Where can things fail, how can it be mitigated against. We leant with swine flu that the human element of industry is very vulnerable – could your business cope with 25% absenteeism through sickness? So plan, plan for eventualities which you can envisage and that will help you with those that come as complete curve balls. Communicate your plan. I have seen many great resilience plans which are shut in the CEO’s office – key staff need to know, they need to be able to communicate to their teams and to clients. Have a social media/media policy. Have a single point of contact. This is not about control it’s about being able to respond accurately. Preserve evidence. The FBI has protocols for agro-terrorism – they need to have access and data – an incident can only be dealt with if law enforcement is helped.

[Feedinfo News Service] What does the animal nutrition sector need to know about current and future environmental protestors and international terrorist actors?

[Richard Byrne] Well some of the threats we have seen in relation to FMD infection have come from animal rights and extortionists – let’s not forget those individuals. They are motivated and resourced and have been an on-going threat for years. With international organizations info coming out of places like Syria and Iraq show clearly that food has become a weapon and control of agriculture has been part of that. Whether it’s burning wheat fields or poisoning wells with gasoline. There is clearly corporate knowledge there of how populations and economies react. The difference is we in the EU/US are not in ungoverned space. 

[Feedinfo News Service] The FBI in the US has issued an agro-terrorism handbook. What would be your recommendations to European governments and Europe's agricultural sectors moving forward?

[Richard Byrne] We need to have a grown up conversation about it. We need trans-border planning and we need a framework to monitor, intelligence share and communicate and we need to educate the industry and the community at large and encourage people to voice genuine concerns. Tommy Thompson was right when he commented on milk tankers being left unlocked. We have to challenge our own behaviors and recognize the threat – and also take advice. There’s no point attending a seminar if you don’t take up the advice, or let it lapse. I think Australia is a real model for biosecurity awareness from the moment you enter the country and it’s not just the industries’ responsibility, it’s shared.


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