America’s Fragile Food Supply Chain, Part III


Part III: The Food Production System

The food production level is America’s farmlands including croplands, aquaculture, pastures, feedlots, and stockyards. The United States is home to over 2 million individual farms, 900,000 agribusiness firms, 4,700 grain elevators, and 1,600 animal feed mills. Agriculture represents 1/5 of U.S. economic activity. Food production is all around us. The below chart depicts cattle concentrations in the U.S. as of 2007.

An Agroterror attack against crops is less likely than one targeting animals for reasons having to do with characteristics of plant specific biological agents. Plant pathogens are highly sensitive to temperature, humidity, and sunlight, they do not travel far or fast through the air, and they would be more difficult for a potential terrorist to produce and effectively disperse. However, crop attacks have indeed occurred throughout history and could be attempted again. Saddam Hussein’s bioweapons program of the 1980s and 90s was developing fungi diseases, including rusts, blasts, and smuts, which would affect cereal crops such as wheat. There are many of the same naturally occurring diseases farmers and governments fight every day, though weaponized for intentional attacks designed to decimate a rival nations agriculture industry or starve a rival nations populace.

While an intentional attack is a possibility the real threat to crops are the naturally occurring pests and diseases the industry fights every day. In 1970 an outbreak of Leaf Blight in U.S. corn caused $1 billion in damage. In 1990 Karnal Blunt in U.S. wheat killed exports. Damages caused by the same outbreak today would top $100 billion in losses. Florida and California have both battled Mediterranean fruit fly (MedFly) outbreaks. USDA estimates peg damages at $1.5 billion per year if Med Fly became established in the U.S. California is infested with crop ruining pests such as the brown garden snail and cannot seem to get rid of them despite all the best efforts. Florida battled citrus canker for decades with costs totalling nearly $1 billion before determining it could not be eradicated.

The food chain is a system. Actually it is a system of systems. The food production chain is the system by which food is grown, raised, cultivated, or produced, then collected, processed, shipped, marketed, and finally bought and consumed by you. Within this system are dozens if not hundreds of other systems working within the larger system. To take one example from the food chain system for discussion, the below chart depicts the system which starts with a beef cow and ends with a steak on your dinner plate.

Within this system at the very beginning is the beef cow and revolving around that cow there is a system. This is the system by which that cow is raised and ultimately harvested known as the beef supply chain (depicted below left). There are multiple nodes within that system which pose potential weakness and vulnerability. There are the feed mills that supply

the grain to the feed lots, wells and water systems that provide drinking water, the feed lots themselves that tend to be unprotected and open to easy access, stockyards where up to 30,000 animals are packed together and vulnerable to easy disease exchange, auction houses, slaughter and packing houses, and the transportation systems whereby every component of the system is shipped.

The beef cattle system has been discussed at great length because the experts all seem to agree a bioterror attack against animal herds is the most likely Agroterrorism scenario. Of all the nodes found in the beef cattle system the most vulnerable node is the animals themselves being used as a vector by which to spread disease. Livestock are easy to infect with the right bioagent and once infected the animal becomes the disease vector continuing to transmit the disease and requiring no further action by the perpetrator. Many animal diseases are zoonotic with the potential to infect and kill humans. It should be considered that infectious diseases are now the 3rd leading cause of death in the U.S. and 75% of emerging human pathogens are zoonotic. Zoonotic diseases are those animal diseases that are transmissible and harmful to humans. Many of these diseases also have a the potential to result in tremendous economic damage.

Foot-in-mouth disease was discussed briefly in Part II of this series and is considered to be the most deadly and most likely biological agent in an Agroterrorism scenario. FMD is easily transmissible and spreads rapidly in the air. In the 1981 outbreak in France the disease traveled and infected animals 175 miles away across the English Channel in 3 days. There are several FMD exercise and training scenarios available that illustrate the ease in which a terrorist could intentionally infect and spread FMD to livestock in an Agroterror attack. While the U.S. is currently free of this disease, FMD remains endemic in Africa, Asia, and South America. The disease can be spread as easily as taking a mucus sample from an infected animal, soaking a handkerchief with the mucus, and then either wiping on another animal or just tossing it on the ground in a feedlot.

Consider a hypothetical scenario of an Agroterror attack on the U.S. using FMD against livestock. We know that FMD has an incubation period of about 3 to 8 days after exposure. We know the animal will excrete the virus for 1 to 10 days before it ever shows symptoms of being sick. We know FMD is highly contagious, highly transmissible, and travels easily by air. The below model simulates how a single FMD infection in the Midwest could potentially spread during a 50 day period. An outbreak of this type would effectively lock up the beef industry in this country and cause untold billions in damage and losses.

Skeptics will say this is all wild speculation and conjecture about potential disease outbreaks and the effects of an Agroterrorism attack. Unfortunately, there are plenty of real-life naturally occurring animal disease outbreaks to study. Some of the worst include the 1997 FMD outbreak in Taiwan traced back to a single pig from China and resulting in the destruction of 8 million hogs and economic losses of $19 billion. The 2001 FMD outbreak in the

United Kingdom where 3.9 million animals were destroyed to stop the disease spread resulting in direct economic losses of $1.6 billion and total indirect losses of $6.5 billion. The United States has not been immune to agro-disasters. In 2003 a single cow in Washington State was found infected with bovine spongiform encephalapothy (BSE), also called “mad cow”. When the U.S. announced the discovery 30 major export customers including Canada, Mexico, Japan and Korea immediately suspended shipments. Total estimated losses just for beef exports to those countries in 2004 reached $4.7 billion.

The real- life examples of agriculture disease outbreaks given in this chapter have all been of naturally occurring events, but are they? The 1997 Taiwan FMD outbreak was thought by some to be an intentional act of Agroterrorism perpetrated by China. This was never proven. The MedFly pest infestation of crops in California in the 1980s was claimed as an intentional act by an extremist environmentalist group called The Breeders as retaliation for government spraying the pesticide malathian. An FBI investigation could not identify the group nor find evidence of the act. Florida has suffered several canker outbreaks in the citrus crop and one of these in the 1990s was rumored to have been an act of terrorism by Cuba. This was never proven. These all could have been acts of Agroterrorism, but we’ll never know. In the end perhaps it doesn’t even matter. Whether naturally occurring or terrorism the results were the same and the effects just as devastating.

In the next installment, Part IV The Food Delivery System, we will examine the part of the food chain most Americans are more familiar with including the system of food processing, transportation, and delivery to the restaurants, grocers, and retail outlets.

Links to previous posts in this series, Parts I and II

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