Nation Current Affairs 11 Nov 2019 The threat of agrote ...

The threat of agroterrorism

Published Nov 11, 2019, 2:06 am IST
Updated Nov 11, 2019, 2:06 am IST
Agro-terrorism is an issue that compels considerable attention than it is being allotted at present.
Agro-terrorism is a deliberate introduction of an animal or plant disease with an aim to generate fear, cause economic losses, and/or undermine social stability.
 Agro-terrorism is a deliberate introduction of an animal or plant disease with an aim to generate fear, cause economic losses, and/or undermine social stability.

Describing real-life scenes from Bengal famine, Brigg's, a British United Press New Delhi correspondent in a newspaper in September 1942 wrote: "At least 150 people are dying daily in Calcutta from starvation and the accompanying diseases of cholera and dysentery, “In a sunrise walk, I found people dead on the pavement by the dozens. Thousands more may die before they gather the harvest in. I saw children with bloated, empty stomachs, mothers whose breasts had collapsed, men wailing the one word that means the unattainable - rice. I saw scenes of slow death.”

Crop diseases have been deemed to rival an Agro-terrorism event or military action and the example of Bengal brown spot disease of rice in India, in 1942-1943, serves as an illustration of how similar and devastating an Agro terror event could be if it were to be unleashed.


Agro-terrorism is a deliberate introduction of an animal or plant disease with an aim to generate fear, cause economic losses, and/or undermine social stability. Terrorists know of the ease of creating serious economic insecurity through intentional introduction of these diseases.

Agro-terrorism is an issue that compels considerable attention than it is being allotted at present.  A low-cost agro terror attack could be an extremely devastating way of destroying our economy. Agro terrorism is an aspect of bioterrorism whose goal is agricultural sabotage.

Compared to bioterror, agroterror is appallingly easy. Access to these hazardous pathogens is straightforward, as we can get them from infected animals in many parts of the world, and agent dissemination is simple and could take place in a variety of venues.

Terrorists have a vast choice of the bioagents, bulk of which are environmentally sturdy and which can easily be smuggled into any country with no vaccination programs being focussed on them. The food chain offers an excellent route for inflicting human casualties. Most animal and plant pathogens are non infectious to humans, which makes it easier for terrorists to handle and work with. Livestock is the primary vector for pathogenic transmission; there being no weaponisation impediment to overcome.

Terrorists or even lone wolves could, in theory, acquire and use this kind of agent more easily than other biological agents that are pathogenic to humans. A group or an individual may not need laboratories to acquire these agents. Many of these are non-pathogenic to human beings. We do not have a strategy in case of an act of agroterrorism because we do not seem to expect one despite facing a significant threat we are still to take suitable action.

Agriculture, with its allied sectors, is the biggest source of employment in India - 70 percent of its rural homes still depend chiefly on agriculture for their livelihood, with 82 percent of farmers being small and marginal. In 2017-18, total food grain production was assessed at 275 million tonnes. India is the largest producer (25% of global production), the consumer (27% of world consumption) and importer (14%) of pulses in the world. An assault on our food supply, for example, would lead not only to direct fallouts on human and animal health but also inflict a startling long-term psychological and economic effect on the nation's farming community.

India has 6 to 7 million tons of food supplies, but these would be wiped out by two or three consecutive crop losses in different parts of the country, tilting the equilibrium from self-sufficiency to inadequacy. An attack during a lean period could exacerbate the problem beyond repair.

An important plant pathogen Cochliobolus miyabeanus was a significant cause of Bengal famine of 1943, where the crop yield declined by 40% to 90%, and it documented the death of 2 million people. It is a tool for agroterrorism. This pathogen causes rice seedling mortality rate up to 60% in the Philippines and India and Nigeria; it can reduce total crop yield by up to 40%. The USA used this as a bio-weapon when attacking Japan during the World War II.

Potato blight gave rise to a terrible famine in Ireland in 1845. The corn leaf blight of 1970 cost the United States an estimated $1 billion. An attack of avian influenza of foreign origin cost Pennsylvania $86 million. In contrast, some 639 acts of terror by the Earth Liberation Front and the Animal Liberation Front since 1996 caused “only” $40 million in property damage according to Federal Bureau of Investigation estimates.

Mycotoxins are toxic metabolites secreted by certain fungi naturally which contaminate many crop plants. For instance, at least 15 different Fusarium species colonise small grain cereals including wheat, barley, oats and maize, producing important mycotoxins such as aflatoxin and T2 toxin. These are desirable agents in a bioterrorist attack, leading to loss of both harvest and quality. T2 toxin, sometimes known as “yellow rain,” is believed to have been put to use during the Vietnam war.
Agroterrorism has existed throughout history. In 1952, Mau Mau poisoned cattle in Kenya by employing a plant toxin from the African milk bush plant; in 1985, the USDA contended that Mexican contract workers were involved in deliberately dispersing screwworm (Cochliomyia hominivorax) among livestock; In 2000, Palestinian media reported that Israeli settlers released sewer water into Palestinian agricultural fields; In 2011, the court sentenced a person to prison after endangering US and UK livestock with the deliberate spread of foot-and-mouth disease virus.

During the  World War I, Germany attempted to attack draft horses utilising biological agents like Bacillus anthracis (anthrax) and Burkholderia mallei (glanders), and between the World Wars, both Germany and France researched agricultural pathogens such as rinderpest virus, Phytophthora infestans (causing late blight), Puccinia spp. (causing wheat rust), and numerous beetlepests. Various agroterrorism agents and diseases have been researched or weaponised in Russia (1935-1992), including African swine fever virus, avian influenza virus, B. anthracis, Brucella spp. (causing brucellosis), Burkholderia mallei, Chlamydophila psittaci (causing psittacosis), FMD virus, and the plant pathogenic viruses brown grass mosaic virus, potato virus Y, tobacco mosaic virus, Puccinia sorghi (causing maize rust), and Puccinia graminis (causing wheat stem rust).

In the US too different biological agroterrorism agents were investigated or weaponised from 1943 to 1969 such as avian influenza virus (causing fowl plague), B. anthracis, Brucella spp., B. mallei, Chlamydophila psittaci, and Phytophthora infestans and the causative agents of wheat blast, wheat stem rust, rice blast, and rice brown spot disease. In Iraq, aflatoxins and the causative agents of cover smut/bunt of wheat we're experimented or weaponised. After World War II, the research on plant pathogens and anticrop weapons progressed in several countries.

It is estimated that 75 percent of the diseases that have arisen in the last 25 years are zoonotic in their origin and around 80 percent of the top biological threat agents are zoonotic diseases. Zoonotic disease is an infectious disease that is transmitted between species from animals to humans or from humans to animals. Eleven of the last 12 outbreaks of global concern are zoonotic in inception. Some of these diseases, even if they do not make people sick, can present a challenge to the health and well-being of our human population. For example, foot and mouth disease or FMD affects only cows, swine, sheep, goats, deer and similar species. But the disease could have a very dramatic effect on our domestic and global economy. Should the disease stabilise itself in our wild species, such as feral swine, it would be almost impossible to eradicate.

Vectors, such as insects or ticks, are among the most common conduits for disease transmission from animals to humans. Diseases transmitted by vectors are especially difficult to control, as shown by the rapid spread of the West Nile virus, which has so far infected over 1.2 million Americans. Other examples of vector-borne diseases include plague, tularemia, and hemorrhagic viruses, like Rift Valley fever.

Current examples of this hazard are the epidemic of chikungunya virus in the Indian Ocean, the leap of Rift Valley fever from Africa to Saudi Arabia, and eruptions of dengue along the U.S.-Mexican border. While it is difficult to anticipate when and where the next zoonotic event will occur, all the crucial factors are in place to guarantee that this new era of emerging zoonoses-naturally or deliberately caused-will prevail or even speed up in the times to come.

Brucellosis, a zoonotic bacterial disease that devastates livestock worldwide is classifiable as a potential bioweapon. It causes substantial illness and death in animals and humans. We have made significant progress in eliminating brucellosis from cattle and swine populations over the past 50 years and in helping to control it in some wildlife species.

The Rift Valley fever virus transmitted by mosquitoes is a biological threat agent of high priority. Introduction of this pathogen, intentionally or even accidentally, would be catastrophic to the agricultural economy. The disease has already moved out of East Africa into Egypt, Yemen, and Saudi Arabia.

Bacillus anthracis is a spore-forming bacterium found in soil and can cause a disease known as anthrax - in livestock and other animals. We could use anthrax spores as an agroterrorism agent in several ways. Without treatment, the mortality rate for pulmonary anthrax is 70-80%. Most times, pulmonary and gastrointestinal anthrax is fatal if not treated immediately.

In the preceding five years, “food defence” has received increasing interest in the counterterrorism and bioterrorism communities. Laboratory and reaction capability are being boosted to deal with the reality of agroterrorism, and national response plans now integrate agroterror. The vigilance from our farmers will be crucial. We would expect farmers to perform as both first responders and first preventers. They would be the first to recognise the emergence of zoonotic disease, the first to report an agro terrorist attack and the first to respond to it.

Agroterrorism has never been extensively used because accomplishing a political shift through terrorism requires more than the destruction of food and livestock; it requires a shocking loss of lives to provoke a modification in government policy. While agriculture may not be a terrorist’s first choice because it lacks the “shock factor” of more traditional terrorist targets, many analysts consider it a reasonable secondary goal. Therefore, Agro-terror could, however, be a secondary Modus operandi to destabilise a society much more after a conventional attack.  As this type of attack is dirt cheap, this form of attack gives terrorists a high cost/benefit payoff to overcome high power asymmetry. Further, in cities, population density is high. Therefore, extremists find it ideal, but farming gets spread out, making it difficult for terrorists to infect crops in vast areas. Yet another drawback of Agroterrorism is its difficulty in gaining the attention of media due to its inadequate visibility

Thus, agroterrorism is much more preferable to animal activists and other radical groups who aspire to destroy property than to al-Qaeda or other international terrorists who aim to destroy lives.

Whether a terrorist or a terrorist group uses bio-agents or bombs do, they do so because they do not have an awareness of existence present everywhere, a sense of compassion or caring for the whole of humanity. Agro terrorism or terrorism in the name of religion or ideology exists because terrorists have not understood the spiritual dimension of their lives. Once they gain this consciousness, their awareness could become uplifted, leading to extinguishment of extremist tendencies.