March 19, 2003
Farmers stew over need to guard crops, livestock
By MARK I. JOHNSON | News-Journal Staff Writer
SAMSULA — Frank Benedict doesn't see himself as a target of terrorism.
"It is not even on my radar," the third-generation farmer said. "We don't even talk about it."
But agriculture experts say the Samsula vegetable grower and his counterparts are on the front lines.
"We are vulnerable. Our borders are leaky and our fields and feed lots are unprotected," University of Florida entomologist Mary Hoy said. "A determined bioterrorist could bring in an agent and release it."
Those concerns are heightened across the country as war with Iraq approaches. A key element of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's national plan, released Tuesday and known as "Operation Liberty Shield," deals with protections for imported food and domestic agricultural operations.
Precautions began much earlier. Hoy recently participated in a National Academies' National Research Council study on the vulnerability of U.S. agricultural interests to potential bio-terror attacks. The report, completed in September and funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, concluded farmers and cattlemen could be a target for someone bent on economic chaos by infecting crops or livestock with pests, bacteria or a virus.
Such an attack could generate concern about the safety of the nation's food supply as well as affect both international and state-to-state trade in agricultural products, according to the report.
To illustrate the point, Hoy said one only has to look at the impact of an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in England in 2001. While it was a natural occurrence and only infected a small number of livestock, the British government had to kill more than a million animals to stop the illness. The fallout was felt in tourism and other industries, she said.
"If something like that happened in the U.S., it could cause very serious economic harm," she said. "The agriculture department is very concerned and on alert against such outbreaks."
Steve Crump of Vo-Lasalle Farms in DeLeon Springs believes there is reason to be concerned.
"Anyone can carry a vial in their back pocket, drive down the road and spread (a disease)," said the citrus grower and cattle rancher. "It does not take a lot of rocket science. How do we protect ourselves?"
Crump said he does what he can to safeguard his cattle and citrus from existing natural problems, such as canker, by undertaking decontamination procedures. But he believes if someone wants to spread a disease, it would be difficult to stop because of the vast amounts of property involved.
"We are not talking about a small building that you can put guards all the way around," he said. "We are very vulnerable to someone who intentionally wants to do ill."
The Florida Department of Agriculture is taking possible terrorism threats very seriously, said spokesman Terence McElroy.
Commissioner Charles Bronson "regards homeland security and the protection of our food supply as the top priority of his administration." McElroy said.
Since 9/11, the agency has built a bio-security lab in Kissimmee to deal with animal disease testing and upgraded its food safety lab to the highest infection level, McElroy said. In addition, it has purchased gamma-ray imaging systems that can look inside truck containers to detect possible weapons and hired six canine teams to sniff out contaminated or illegal food items coming into the state.
Such precautions are key to stemming the impact of a bioterrorist attack on agriculture, Hoy said.
But, the study said, more needs to be done. It calls for better communication between local, state and federal agencies and addresses the need to disseminate a single message to the public rather than having numerous people saying different things about the same subject.
Even with these dire warnings, Flagler County farmer Albert Johnston is not convinced area farmers are at risk.
He said to make such an attack effective, a terrorist would have to distribute a biological agent widely, such as with an aircraft. And with increased inspections on farm operations since 9/11, that would be almost impossible to accomplish.
"It would be an arduous task," said the third-generation grower who raises potatoes, cabbage, melons and other vegetables on 1,400 acres of land. "I do not see how they could do it. For someone to arbitrarily fly across a field, that would be immediately suspect."
Johnston and other area farmers believe a more likely target for a bioterror attack would be the water supply.
"If you want panic and major fear, hit a small community in middle America," Johnston said.
In Volusia County, there are:
In Flagler County, there are: