Attack Fear Bugs U.S. Agriculture : LUSENET : Grassroots Information Coordination Center (GICC) : One Thread

Attack Fear Bugs U.S. Agriculture

By BRAD SMITH Published: Nov 8, 2001

TAMPA - Meet the newest terrorist threat: bugs. Florida, pathway for 11 million international air passengers a year and tons of shipping before Sept. 11, is one of the nation's most vulnerable areas for agricultural bioterrorism, experts say.

So far, there never has been an attack on U.S. agriculture - though intelligence reports say scientists in Iraq and the former Soviet Union have studied ways to infect plants and animals with damaging pathogens and bugs that could cause havoc with the food supply.

But concern is growing that it might. U.S. officials say terrorists would face few obstacles in spreading foreign insects that destroy plants or diseases that afflict domestic livestock and, potentially, humans.

Florida, which produces much of the nation's citrus, fruits and vegetables, is a potential bull's-eye, experts say.

``Unless you can see a problem from a distance, from a plane or a road, you won't detect it until it's far along,'' said Laurence Madden, an Ohio State University professor who studies agricultural bioterrorism.

Federal and state inspectors are trained to watch airports and shipping ports for potentially harmful insects and diseases. And a small percentage of overseas mail is inspected for banned foods or germ-bearing items. Yet, every year, pests slip through.

The medfly and the West Nile virus are examples of a pest and a disease that infected Florida despite the state's best defenses.

The leaky detection system, built around X-ray machines, questionnaires and scent-trained dogs, is geared mainly to stop accidents without costing much money. Violators rarely are caught and prosecuted.

``Watching for the deviousness of a sophisticated terrorist wasn't part of the design, so I think we're vulnerable,'' said Harley Moon, an Iowa State University professor who chairs a government committee on how to thwart biological attacks on the nation's food.

And the proof of that, critics say, is in the sluggish way government experts reacted to the recent anthrax outbreak in places such as Boca Raton, New York and Washington.

A stealth attack on food could be under way without anyone realizing it, experts say. Worse still, it could devastate agriculture for years and could wreak untold economic damage in every realm of farming.

Tampa and Miami, sites of major Florida shipping ports, particularly are porous to potential criminal introduction of foreign pests and afflictions such as foot-and-mouth disease, said Marjorie Hoy, an entomology professor at the University of Florida.

Tampa, Miami Are Gateways

``We have the species of the month invade Florida, and most come in through Miami or Tampa,'' said Hoy, Florida's representative on the 12-member national Committee on Biological Threats to Agricultural Plants and Animals. ``When we get a new pest or disease, like leaf canker or leaf miners, most always [enter] right there.''

Formed last March by the National Academy of Sciences, Hoy's panel is evaluating U.S. preparedness for an attack using insects and farm diseases. A report is expected by June.

``As far as I'm concerned, we've got a real moving target now because everything is changing so quickly,'' said Hoy, an expert on biological control of citrus pests.

``These pests would be unlikely to throw the U.S. into a situation where we were lacking food, but they could certainly have a dramatic economic impact,'' Hoy said. ``If we keep getting more and more new pests and diseases that attack agriculture, the effectiveness of our agricultural production is very much threatened.''

Airport Protection Spotty

One area of special concern - airport security, which Hoy calls ``lousy.''

The reviews of Florida's pre-Sept. 11 defenses weren't good, either.

The Pest Exclusion Advisory Committee sent the Florida Legislature a report last spring on the state's pest exclusion defenses. It was uniformly negative, citing systems that are inadequate and fail routinely.

``The frequency at which exotic organisms entered Florida via the plant and animal material brought in by tourists, smugglers and cargo grew exponentially during the 1990s,'' the report said.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, meanwhile, is reviewing its pest and disease prevention and eradication programs. That task began before Sept. 11 and was sparked in part by concern from an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in the United Kingdom and Europe - already jittery from an earlier outbreak in Britain of mad-cow disease.

A similar outbreak in this country or an infestation of vegetables or fruit could cripple the domestic export business.

``If foot-and-mouth disease were found in this country, nobody would take our meat until it was declared eradicated,'' Hoy said.

Japan refuses to accept imported grapefruit from Florida unless produced in a Carib fruit fly-free zone. Japanese inspectors closely monitor fruit produced here to prevent accidentally introducing the fly to Japan.

To help keep bugs and diseases out, the USDA plans to boost its 5,000 inspectors at ports of entry by 40 percent and to double inspection-dog teams from levels two years ago.

In addition, President Bush sent an emergency funding measure to Congress after Sept. 11 seeking $45.2 million for the USDA to strengthen programs related to biosecurity.

And Florida got a share of $2 million in USDA grants to 32 states to bolster emergency animal-disease prevention, preparedness, response and recovery systems.

Early Detection Is Important

But are the safeguards enough?

Much as an effective anthrax attack requires a high degree of scientific competence, Madden said agricultural bioterrorism would be difficult, even for someone with expertise.

``A successful attack against crops would have to involve a lot of work to prepare spores or bacteria cells,'' Madden said. ``It's not trivial.''

But catching an attack early enough to prevent casualties would be no trivial task, either.

``You see that playing out right now with anthrax,'' Madden said. ``It's the responsibility of the federal government to be on the lookout and be prepared.''

Is more money for inspections the answer?

``I doubt if it would be as simple as that,'' Moon said. ``We need a change in mind-set. We need to think this through.''

Hoy says a system is needed to detect and to prevent new infections by bugs and germs.

``We only find them by accident,'' she said. ``We don't have trapping routines. We don't know until a pest is established in a large geographical area. Then we frequently don't have many management tools to work with.''

Reporter Brad Smith can be reached at (813) 259-7365.

-- Martin Thompson (, November 08, 2001


Economic terrorism is SO easy that it happens by ACCIDENT! Talk about HYPER-vulnerable! And there is NO stopping this class of terrorism, without adverse economic effects that would rival the results of the terrorism itself --- other than reducing the motivation to commit it. Bush, are you listening? "Be not deceived, for whatsoever a man sows, that is exactly what he shall reap." The Law of Karma although imprecise, is nevertheless immutable.

-- Robert Riggs (, November 08, 2001.

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