WASHINGTON, D.C.—Senate Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Susan Collins (R-ME) today said that while the federal government is making progress in its efforts to protect America’s vast food and agriculture industry from terrorist attack, gaps in oversight, prevention and response remain, and interagency coordination is lacking.
During today’s Governmental Affairs Committee hearing on agroterrorism—the first hearing devoted to this issue since 1999—Senator Collins said, “An attack upon just one segment of our food supply could cripple our economy, require geographic quarantines, and cause massive social upheaval. It could, of course, also cause illness and death.”
A terrorist attack on America’s vast food and agriculture industry would cause enormous damage—the industry contributes $1.24 trillion to the U.S. economy each year and accounts for one in eight American jobs. Agriculture is the nation’s largest employment sector. Furthermore, agricultural exports exceed $50 billion a year, representing the largest positive contributor to the U.S. trade balance. Even the threat of attack could jeopardize consumer confidence, disrupt commodity markets, and wreak economic havoc.
“It is a sprawling industry that encompasses a half-billion acres of croplands, thousands of feedlots, countless processing plants, warehouses, research facilities, and factories for ingredients, ready-to-eat foods and packaging, and a distribution network that brings food from around the nation and around the world into neighborhood markets and restaurants via virtually every mode of transportation,” Senator Collins said.
Senator Collins pointed out that the threat of an agroterrorist attack may be more than hypothetical. A stated goal of the al Qaeda terrorist network is to cripple the American economy. Among the materials that have been recovered from al Qaeda caves and safe houses in Afghanistan are hundreds of U.S. agricultural documents that had been translated into Arabic. Moreover, al Qaeda in general, and Osama bin Laden in particular, have extensive firsthand knowledge of agricultural sectors.
“We know from experience that once al Qaeda has added a page to its playbook, at some point in the future, they are bound to use it. Because we know that agroterrorism is part of that book, we must make sure that our defenses are ready,” said Senator Collins.
According to a RAND report released at the hearing, the industry is particularly vulnerable because U.S. farming practices are concentrated; there is a lack of farm- and food-related security and surveillance; the disease reporting system is inefficient and passive; and veterinarian training tends not to emphasize foreign animal diseases.
“Our agricultural and food sectors offer targets too numerous to count, and vulnerabilities that can be readily exploited with relative ease,” Senator Collins said. “A CIA report in May confirmed that the September 11 hijackers expressed interest in crop-dusting aircraft, an effective and remarkably simple way to spread biological agents, including plant and animal diseases, over large areas.”
Senator Collins noted that the federal government must have an effective response mechanism in place. In the case of a foot and mouth outbreak, for example, more than 30 agencies may be involved in the responding to the event. “We must make sure that their efforts are effectively coordinated and that the federal government has a plan, because the impact of an ineffective federal response could be devastating.”