With less than a million people scattered over more than 145,000 square miles and a ratio of livestock to humans of four to one, Montana seems an unlikely target for terrorist attacks. Hijacked airliners and envelopes laced with anthrax are a concern for all Americans, but those threats belong more to Wall Street and Pennsylvania Avenue than to Main Street, Montana. But consider Montana’s exposure to an altogether different threat: agroterrorism. An inexpensive, relatively low-tech bioterrorist attack could wipe out Montana’s largest industry, agriculture, in a matter of weeks, given the right conditions.
Agriculture accounts for nearly one-third of the state’s basic employment, gross income and sales, according to the Montana Department of Agriculture. Last year, the state’s 2.5 million cattle and half a million sheep accounted for more than $1 billion in gross income. The sale of crops contributes nearly another billion dollars to the state’s economy. Agroterrorism, an attack on crops or livestock, could bring Montana’s agriculture industry to its knees, taking the rest of the state down with it.
An agroterrorist attack, either foreign or domestic, could be highly effective for many reasons. Viruses affecting crops or animals are readily available. They are easy to transport and disperse, and can be carried in something as small as an aerosol container. And there is little risk to anyone carrying the viruses, as most biological agents used in agroterrorism are not harmful to humans. But such an attack could wreak a catastrophic amount of financial and psychological damage to everyone in the country, not just those who are employed in agriculture.
Montana’s wheat crop could be the target of an attack by adding a chemical agent to fertilizer or seeds, but a more effective target would be Montana’s livestock industry. The spread of anthrax or brucellosis would be efficient and devastating, and both diseases can be transmitted to humans. Anthrax is not contagious, but the spores that infect animals can be absorbed by humans. Brucellosis is contagious and can be spread through direct contact with infected animals or by consuming unpasteurized dairy products. It causes flu-like symptoms in humans and can require long-term therapy.
The most potentially devastating virus to the livestock industry is Foot-and-Mouth Disease (FMD). FMD is a highly-contagious virus that affects cattle, horses, hogs, and sheep. Once released, the virus incubates for seven to 14 days before symptoms appear. According to the Montana Department of Livestock, “Blisters followed by erosions in the mouth or on the feet and the resulting slobbering or lameness are the best known signs of the disease. Many animals recover from the acute phase of the disease, but the disease may leave them debilitated. It causes severe losses in the production of meat and milk.” There are vaccines available, but these stop the spread of FMD rather than curing the disease. Most infected animals are “depopulated,” or destroyed, and even healthy animals in an infected herd are often slaughtered in an effort to stop the disease. FMD is easily spread among animals that are in contact with each other, and it can also be spread by the wind or by birds, and also on the clothing or shoes of humans. The United States has been free of FMD since 1929, and Montana has had no incidence of it since the inception of record keeping in 1907.
“Although there is no human health risk involved, everyone should be aware of the seriousness of Foot-and-Mouth Disease, and the devastating impact it would have on our livestock industry if it is brought into the United States or North America,” says Montana State Veterinarian Dr. Arnold Gertonson. Most health officials familiar with FMD say the disease poses no risk to humans, but this point has been contested. Some experts feel that FMD can be transmitted through unpasteurized dairy products or through contact with infected animals. During last year’s outbreak of FMD in the United Kingdom, one man came down with symptoms of the disease, which include headaches, fever, shivering, thirst, and blisters on the hands and feet. While there have been no reported deaths of humans infected with FMD, last year’s naturally-occurring outbreak in the United Kingdom showed the power of the disease, which left in its wake more than 2.5 million dead animals and spelled the death of a way of life for countless UK farmers.
“Depending on the severity and incidence of such an attack, beef producers could be devastated,” says Beth Emter, communications coordinator for the Montana Stockgrowers Association. “Producers spend generations and literally hundreds of thousands of dollars on genetics, management, and feed to build a quality cattle herd. That cannot be recovered overnight, and certainly not without significant time and money. This would also affect the average consumer if the attack were to wipe out significant numbers of animals, making beef supplies tighter and prices higher.”
Montana has a protocol in place for controlling an outbreak of FMD, a 13-step program that involves shutting down transportation of livestock across borders and the establishment of a 20-mile radius quarantine area around each infected farm. The border that Montana shares with three Canadian provinces does not add any significant risk to the state’s agriculture. Ralph Peck, director of the Montana Department of Agriculture, says “Canada is the best neighbor a country could hope to have. The cooperative effort between our borders will allow the link between our two countries to remain open, but secure. We all have a strong interest in preventing terrorism from settling in North America.”
On the federal level, legislation introduced last month in the Senate proposes the allocation of funds to prevent agroterrorist attacks. The bill, sponsored by Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), asks for $1.1 billion next year and $270 million for each of the following 10 years, to be spent on research and prevention. Federal laws call for penalties of up to life in prison for anyone found guilty of using disease to infect humans, plants or animals.
“Awareness on the part of producers and others involved in the livestock industry will play a large part in keeping any potential agroterrorist threat from becoming ‘the worst possible scenario,’” says Peck, summing up Montana’s best defense against agroterrorism. “Awareness, and acknowledgement of the possibility of danger from terrorists will allow Montana’s agriculture industry to recognize and avert terrorist activities as early as possible.”