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Remerging threat of Biological Weapons attack against Agricultural Targets and Agrobioterrorism, with advances in Gene editing, synthetic biology, and improved delivery systems

Food and agriculture are key elements of the critical infrastructure of every country because they provide products that are essential for life. The United States is a country with a highly developed agricultural sector. Food and agriculture constitute a sixth of the U.S. gross domestic product, totaling more than a trillion dollars per year, and exports of agricultural products make the largest positive contribution to the nation’s trade balance. Should biological warfare commence, food and agriculture will be targets because they are foundational to America’s health, welfare, and economy.


Yet, in this modern age of biological weapons, agriculture and agricultural products have been targeted by various nation states as viable strategic targets as well as targeted by terrorists (aka non-state actors) for acts of bioterrorism. The US Department of Agriculture in July 2020 warned residents against planting unsolicited packages of seeds arriving from China because they could harm the environment. At least eight states, from Washington to Ohio, have also told residents in recent days not to put the seeds in the ground, after they arrived apparently from China in the mailboxes of people who did not order them. Officials said the seeds could be invasive species that could threaten crops or livestock.


The USDA said it is “aware that people across the country have received unsolicited packages of seed from China in recent days.” The agency is working with the Department of Homeland Security and states to protect U.S. agriculture and prevent the unlawful entry of prohibited seeds, according to a statement.


There is long history of Biological Weapons Development or Attacks against Agricultural Targets. During World War II, the United States, Britain, and Canada were actively engaged in research and development of BW and eagerly exchanged technical information and research results. Japan, well known for the brutal use of BW against civilians and prisoners in China, was also actively researching and developing anti-crop and livestock BW. France anti-crop program was mostly directed at Germany. The former Soviet Union was known to have one of the most innovative and broad anti-crop and anti-livestock programs.


Number of analysts have pointed out that terrorist attacks on livestock or crops, although unlikely to cause terror, are also a concern because they could be executed much more easily and could have serious economic consequences. Parker describes five potential targets of agricultural bioterrorism: field crops; farm animals; food items in the processing or distribution chain; market-ready foods at the wholesale or retail level; and agricultural facilities that include processing plants, storage facilities, and components of the transportation sector as well as research laboratories.


Bioterrorists (aka non-state actors) might use agricultural BW in the following methods: multiple attacks with the pathogen at sites of high concentration of crops or livestock using contaminated animals (e.g. animals smuggled into the country with Avian influenza); pathogen aerosols (Karnal bunt teliospores for wheat crops or FMD in an aerosol for cattle); vectors carrying the pathogen (such as ticks with Heart water); or fruit bats or pigs (domesticated or feral) infected with Nipah virus.


Hickson describes the Fabian strategy (named after the Roman general Quintus Fabius Maximus, who defeated Hannibal by avoiding direct conflict) as a strategy of indirect actions used to weaken the resistance of an opposing force. This strategy could include BW directed at agricultural targets with the resultant effects of reduced export trade of agricultural commodities, food shortages, reduced employment for workers in agricultural and food related industries, reduced biofuels productivity (if the targets include biofuels crops), and due to the multiplier effects, overall decreased economic vigor of the nation. This could result in a subsequent cascade of socio-economic effects, including distrust and resistance to state or federal government authority; greater social dissent exemplified by public protests over food or fuel shortages and spiking food prices; riots over unemployment or food shortages. These final actions could indicate to an aggressor that the enemy is now weakened sufficiently so that a quick invasion and defeat is possible.


The threat is greater in developing  nations that  experience food and water insecurity on a higher scale than developed nations because of irresponsible or malicious government policies, the effects of climate change, and rising food prices. National security can be quickly jeopardized by naturally occurring threats to the crop system, including pathogens, drought, flooding, and frost, but especially by threats introduced by state or non-state actors.


India has so far not had any major bioweapons attack on its territory. However, the consequences to India if a threat emerges are higher because not only is Indian weather suitable for multiple organisms to grow, the paucity of good primary healthcare leaves populations at a high risk of epidemics. India is a large land mass, making effective implementation of anti-disease treatments cumbersome and difficult. Further India remains accessible through multiple fronts with air, sea, and land connectivity making it easy to transport biological agents. The instability of political connections in the neighbouring region and ongoing conflicts raise the threat of a potential bioweapons attack from across India’s borders, writes Shambhavi Naik in  Takshashila Discussion Document.



Rising threat of  Biological Weapons attack on Agriculture, and Agrobioterrorism:

Most countries that had biowarfare programs have developed weapons to target crops and farm animals, with the aim of denying food to the enemy, causing economic damage, and sapping public morale. During World War I, German saboteurs in the United States used anthrax and glanders to sicken more than 3,500 horses before they were shipped from U.S. ports to the British and French armies. When the animals arrived in Europe, they were unfit for wartime service. Other German sabotage operations targeted French cavalry horses, Romanian sheep, and Argentinian livestock intended for the Allied forces.


During World War II, the United States and Canada secretly developed anti-livestock agents such as rinderpest, a highly lethal disease of cattle. Between 1951 and 1969, the United States also produced and stockpiled three anti-crop agents: stem rust of wheat, stem rust of rye, and rice blast. From the 1960s through the early 1990s, the Soviet Union’s anti-agricultural warfare program (which had the ironic cover-name “Ecology”) employed some 10,000 people and targeted poultry, livestock, and crops. During the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq developed a variety of fungal agents to attack Iran’s staple food crops. In 1985 and 1988, Iraq conducted field tests of wheat cover smut to demonstrate its effectiveness as an anti-crop agent. Iraq also produced canisters designed to disperse the fungal agent over Iranian wheat fields.


The agriculture sector is always under threat from terrorists and biowarfare. In March 2011, for example, a calf’s leg was found in silage being used to feed a group of heifers on a farm in County Armagh in Northern Ireland, an apparent attempt to deliberately infect the cattle herd with brucellosis, a serious veterinary disease.


Although foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) virus does not infect humans, veterinarians consider it the most dangerous livestock pathogen that could be introduced into the United States, either inadvertently or deliberately. The disease is caused by a virus that affects only ruminant animals with cloven hooves, including cattle, swine, sheep, and goats, as well as more than 70 species of wild animals, such as deer and wild boar.


Outbreaks of FMD have occurred in every livestock-raising region of the world except New Zealand. Although FMD has been eliminated from North and Central America, Chile, Russia, the Philippines, and Australia and New Zealand, it is present on a permanent or sporadic basis in most other regions.


Karnal bunt of wheat, caused by the fungus Tilletia indica, provides another example of severe economic consequences caused by agricultural disease. About 80 countries ban wheat imports from regions with karnal bunt infections, even though the disease does not have a large direct effect on crop yield. Possible targets include field crops and livestock, processing and distribution facilities, food products at the wholesale and retail levels, and elements of the transportation infrastructure.


Material to initiate an outbreak of plant or animal disease therefore does not have to be prepared in large quantity—a few milligrams could be sufficient to initiate multiple outbreaks in widely separated locations—if the goal is to disrupt international trade, or if the terrorists are sufficiently patient to allow a crop disease to develop over several months by transmission from individual to individual. And the agent does not necessarily have to be grown in the laboratory or otherwise manipulated—a small amount of natural material taken from a diseased animal or plant can serve without any additional manipulation. For instance, a few hundred microliters of scrapings from the blistered mucosa of an FMD-infected animal, or blood from an animal hemorrhaging from ASF, or a handful of wheat tillers heavily infected by the stem rust pathogen can provide more than enough agent to initiate an epidemic.


Such materials are readily available in many places in the world where the diseases of concern are endemic, and they can be obtained and transported without any particular expertise other than what is necessary to recognize the disease symptoms with confidence. Since only small amounts are needed, they can be easily smuggled into the country with essentially no chance of detection.


Under some circumstances, a pathogen could be effectively introduced without the perpetrators entering the country. This is, of course, true of crops planted on both sides of an international border, such as sorghum along the Mexican border or wheat and barley along the Canadian and Mexican borders.


Biological weapons have been easy to make and store – yet their delivery is not easy. The high temperatures of missile explosions will typically kill any biological agent transported with it. This restricts the use of biological weapons depending on human transportation and presence behind enemy lines. Delivery systems remain a constraint, but technology is evolving rapidly. The nation faces the very real possibility of threat vectors merging within the next few years, with a biological weapon dispersed using drones.


The technical ease of introducing many agricultural pathogens makes it more likely that terrorists or criminals would release pathogens in several locations in an attempt to initiate multiple, simultaneous outbreaks. This would ensure that trade sanctions would be imposed, because it would undermine any argument that the outbreaks are localized and do not jeopardize importing countries. It would also be more likely to overwhelm the response capacity and lead to the uncontrollable spread of disease. This is the principal way in which a bioterrorist attack would differ from a natural disease introduction, and it raises the question whether a system designed to respond to natural introductions can deal effectively with sudden, multifocal outbreaks.


In addition to the political and religious ideological motivations for terrorism, agriculture provides some new ones. There is considerable opposition to the increasing use of genetically modified (GM) crop plants and domestic animals, which have been largely developed in the United States and are most widely used here. Opposition to the use of GM crops and animals has sometimes taken the form of vandalism and destruction (Greenstone 2001), and it is quite possible that some activists will at some point turn to diseases as weapons to attack GM organisms. Radical animal rights groups may wish to attack animal agriculture to prevent corporations from profiting from animal suffering.


Attacks on the agricultural sector could also be motivated by greed, properly termed “biocriminality” rather than bioterrorism. The major shifts in agricultural markets and commodity prices that could result from a successful attack could provide such economic motivation. Profit could be made by the manipulation of futures markets, selling short the stock of major agrochemical companies, or intentionally sabotaging overseas competitors to capture lost import markets. As threats and threat actors continue to evolve, the agriculture and food industries will have to come to terms with new realities, including biological weapons. Biological weapons are in many ways easier to produce than they were even a few decades ago.


Characteristics of agro-terrorism that might make it attractive to terrorists include its relative affordability and technical feasibility, the openness and vulnerability of farming operations, and the ability of agricultural attacks to cause severe disruption and economic damage. The food supply chain has multiple entry points at which terrorists could potentially introduce animal or plant pathogens or chemical contaminants. In this era of globalization, the U.S. food supply chain from “farm to fork” is extremely complex . It starts with the nation’s 2 million farms and passes through a total of 167,000 processing and manufacturing plants, warehouses, and distribution centers.


Gene editing, synthetic biology, and improved delivery systems have reinvigorated the attention to biological weapons. The advances in knowledge of human, plant, animal and microbial biology has also revealed vulnerable points that could be easily targeted using biological agents. Moreover, given the persistent threat of bio-weapons, countries have invested in bio-defence capabilities and continue to monitor possible deployment of biological agents.


Bioweapons may be tailored to impact specific varieties of crops or animals that provide sustenance to enemy forces – With increased understanding of how plant, animal and micro-organism genomes work and interact, it may now be possible to manipulate weapons that could target certain plant or animal species, crippling the country’s economy or depriving the population of food. The ecosystem devastation that such a move would cause is obviously dread-worthy.


Furthermore, the Biological Weapons Convention has repeatedly failed to agree to a verification mechanism, giving rise to suspicions that state actors may still be experimenting with biological weapons. Further, non-state actors have also dabbled with biological weapons, with isolated reports of incidences in recent decades.



Ever since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, western governments have become increasingly concerned that terrorists might launch attacks against agriculture or food-processing facilities, with the aim of causing economic damage, generating fear and panic, and undermining public trust in the food supply. The deliberate introduction of a plant or animal pathogen could result in crop failures or require the slaughter of millions of infected livestock, imposing serious hardships on farmers and downstream processors. Alternatively, toxic chemicals or radioactive isotopes might be used to contaminate food and beverages. Such incidents could result in increased food prices and trade embargoes, costing billions of dollars in lost revenue.


FMD has been called “the billion-dollar disease” because of its devastating financial consequences. Even a single case of the disease can trigger embargoes on trade in meat products and require the large-scale culling of herds. Between March and July 1997, FMD struck Taiwan for the first time in sixty years. The particular strain of the virus was “pig-adapted,” meaning that it contained genetic mutations that made it highly virulent in swine but much less so in other cloven hoofed species. The disease, which apparently originated on the Chinese mainland, spread like wildfire throughout Taiwan. Over a period of six weeks, FMD virus infected a total of 6,147 pig farms, decimating the country’s huge swine industry. The price of Taiwanese hogs dropped 60 percent within a week, and the export market to Japan collapsed. Bringing the epidemic under control required the slaughter of some 4 million pigs at a cost of more than $6 billion, and some 50,000 workers in the swine industry lost their jobs. The Taiwanese swine industry never recovered. Before the 1997 outbreak Taiwan was one the world’s leading pork exporters, but today it is a net importer.


The impact of a BW attack on agriculture was summarized by Chalk who writes that three major outcomes would result from a bioterrorism attack on agriculture. First, economic disruption would occur creating at least three levels of costs. Initially these costs come from eradication and containment measures. For example, during the 1997 outbreak of Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD) in Taiwan, the vaccination costs were $10 million, but the surveillance, cleaning, disinfection and related viral eradication costs were $4 billion. The next costs are the indirect multiplier effects that would accumulate from both compensations paid to farmers for destruction of agricultural commodities as well as the revenue losses by direct and indirectly related industries (e.g. dairy processors, bakeries, abattoirs, etc.). Finally, international trade costs would occur due to protective embargoes imposed by major export partners.


One example is the 1989 Chilean grape scare caused by anti-Pinochet extremists that laced fruit bound for the US with sodium cyanide. While only a small handful of grapes were contaminated, the resultant imports suspensions (imposed by such nations as Canada, United States, Denmark, Germany, and Hong Kong) cost Chile over US$200 million in lost earnings.


Bill Would Prompt USDA Intelligence Office to Probe Foreign Threats to America’s Agriculture

Agricultural Intelligence Measures, or AIM, Act introduced  by Rep. Rick Crawford, R-Ark., would create an office of intelligence within the Agriculture Department to keep tabs on foreign threats to America’s farms. It would establish a central hub of experts expected to keep the farm-focused department and its leadership fully tuned in to cyber threats, potential intellectual property theft and other risks posed by foreign actors to the U.S. agricultural landscape.


According to the AIM Act’s text viewed by Nextgov, the office would specifically hone in on pursuits and moves by foreign entities to steal U.S. agriculture knowledge or technology, as well as foreign-driven efforts to “implement biological warfare attacks, cyber or clandestine operations, or other means of sabotaging and disrupting” America’s agriculture.


“It’s the congressman’s belief that establishing this Intelligence Office inside the USDA will help synchronize the efforts of those who understand American agriculture with the mission of the Intelligence Community,” Crawford’s spokesperson Sara Robertson told Nextgov Wednesday. “This will help paint a better picture of any potential threats from foreign actors for the Secretary of Agriculture and better equip ourselves to think more holistically about U.S. national security.”


“With the recent pandemic that originated in China, legislators are beginning to see the importance of taking a stronger approach against Chinese espionage as well as thinking about how the United States can better secure our agriculture system moving forward,” said Robertson.  “There has been interest from other members who are cognizant of the need to take agricultural security more seriously, but the bill is still rather new.”


Mitigation Mesaures and technologies

Containment and eradication of exotic animal diseases is commonly done by culling all potentially exposed animals to break the chain of transmission. Thus, small numbers of infected animals can lead to the slaughter of large numbers of healthy ones. Many of the animal diseases that are potential bioterrorist threats are caused by viruses, for which there is no practical therapy once the animal is infected. Therefore, transmission cannot be interrupted by treatment, but only by culling diseased and exposed animals or by vaccination (when that is an option—see below). In contrast, about 75% of plant diseases are caused by fungi, and these can be controlled, with varying degrees of effectiveness, by the application of fungicides


Transmission of bacterial and viral crop diseases is difficult to control with chemical pesticides, unless such diseases are transmitted by insect vectors, in which case insecticides may be useful (Madden et al. 2000). Because of these difficulties, containment and eradication of bacterial pathogens depend heavily on quarantining infected areas and removing all infected and exposed plants. Aggressive counterterrorism measures and greater international intelligence sharing can be expected to reduce the likelihood of a bioterrorist attack on agriculture. Severe criminal penalties may also act as a deterrent.


Effective preparation for a bioterrorist attack has several components. Probably most important is early detection. However, US farmers, veterinarians, plant pathologists, and agricultural extension agents are generally not well prepared to rapidly identify exotic animal and plant diseases.


For crop diseases, there is an additional problem: Crops are grown over millions of acres, and there is no way of carefully observing a very large proportion of individual plants. The first plants with symptoms typically are observed only after substantial spread has already occurred; 0.1% or more of the plants in an area may need to be infected before symptoms are first noticed.


Confirmation of a diagnosis of most of the diseases of concern is done with accurate, sensitive molecular techniques, but samples may have to be shipped across the country, consequently delaying confirmation of a diagnosis for days. Expanded local capacity, at least at the state or regional level, to diagnose relevant exotic diseases is therefore important.


Probably the most important technical development for animal disease control would be to develop effective vaccines for all diseases of concern. FMD vaccines, for instance, are each protective against only one of the various strains of FMD virus, and they give only limited protection, requiring revaccination every six months or so. A polyvalent, long-lasting vaccine could provide valuable control options. Vaccines also need to be designed such that a vaccinated animal can be reliably distinguished from a previously infected animal, because seriological evidence is used to document disease-free status for the purpose of international trade. These vaccines could be donated to international efforts for disease control, thereby keeping stockpiles renewed, production capacity busy, and the risk of importation of disease low.


Genomic technologies should also facilitate the development of a new generation of pesticides that combine high specificity, high effectiveness, and low environmental and health risks


Authors Mark Wheelis, Rocco Casagrande & Laurence V. Madden have suggested an aggressive scientific agenda: continuing education programs for farmers, veterinarians, and extension specialists; development of new diagnostics, vaccines, and pesticides; development of new sensing technologies for early identification of plant disease outbreaks; development of plant varieties resistant to diseases not yet endemic; and an increase in the number of outbreak control specialists assigned to international disease control efforts.


Conflicts and Food security

After steadily declining for over a decade, global hunger is on the rise again, affecting 815 million people in 2016, or 11 per cent of the global population, according to The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2017 report. Food being the basic need for life Food Insecurity has been the cause of concern for many countries of the world.


Conflict is a key driver of hunger—60 per cent of the world’s hungry live in conflict-affected areas. Hunger also drives conflict as it fuels longstanding grievances and disputes over land, livestock and other assets.


There are currently 20 million people across the globe who are hungry or face starvation due to man-made conflict. The long-drawn conflicts in Syria and Yemen have escalated the food insecurity.  In their report “Hunger As A Weapon Of War: How Food Insecurity Has Been Exacerbated In Syria And Yemen” authors have detailed how the sieges of places like Aleppo, Homs and Eastern Ghouta in Syria and the blockade of Yemeni ports has caused food insecurity and malnutrition to spiral out of control. They detail how forced starvation on a population can have devastating effects in the short, medium and long term and how it disproportionately harms vulnerable people such as children, the elderly and pregnant and lactating women. The war in Afghanistan has left many rural Afghans without access to food because of increases in staple food prices. Using a multivariate framework, D’Souza and Jolliffe (2013) found that provinces experiencing declines in food security have been active hotspots for violence.


Food Security in 2050

With the global population expected to touch 9.7 billion by 2050, there will be increasing pressure on our limited natural resources to produce more food. A new Food and Agriculture Organization report warns that the projected growth in world population is likely to be concentrated in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. This will pose immense problems, as expanding agriculture in these regions will be difficult because of scarcity of land and water resources. India, China and Indonesia will be home to three-quarters of the world’s population by 2030. The three countries will be home to half the world’s urban population. And this will have a significant impact on the demand and food production, as urban consumers have more diverse diets and convenience food.


According to the report, agriculture in 2050 will need to produce almost 50 per cent more food, feed and bio-fuel than it did in 2012. In sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, agricultural output would need to more than double by the middle of the century. Besides more output, dietary transition towards higher consumption of meat, fruits and vegetables will put additional pressure on natural resources.


Thus, the role of food security has vital and far-reaching impact on security. The Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community (2014) warned that “[l]ack of adequate food will be a destabilizing factor in countries important to US national security that do not have the financial or technical abilities to solve their internal food security problems.


Our food  security  depend on mitigating the threats to agriculture. The life of a plant that we depend on for food, clean air, and materials are challenged by myriad threats, natural and man-made including Viruses, pests, fungi, herbicides, drought, pollution, salinity, flooding, and frost. These rapid or unexpected emergence of these threats put human food security at risk and could lead to destabilization of the economy which depends a great deal on agriculture.


Climate Change

Climate change is food security’s biggest challenge.  Climate change results in weather patterns become erratic and more intense, rising or lowering temperatures, rising sea levels and drastic change of landscapes. For instance, climate change is projected to enhance the probability and severity of drought. Droughts that are 10-20% worse by mid-century would certainly represent an increased threat.


Agriculture takes a hit too because it depends so much on nature—on water, air, soil, and the weather.  Plants may refuse to flower because it’s too humid, pests abound because of hot temperatures, supertyphoons may destroy crops such as rice, and too-cold weather could freeze our vegetables.


Genetic engineering

Plant genetic engineering just might be able to address the global food insecurity problem we have. GMO scientifically alters the genetic makeup of the plant to enhance crop size, reduce a plant or animal’s resistance to pathogens, fungus, or disease, or to help crops become more drought-resistant as our climate becomes warmer and dryer.


Still, there are ethical and health safety issues to consider. In addition to the danger of accidental human ingestion of plants modified to include the Bt gene in their genome, there are some other concerns surrounding GMOs, as well. For instance, there are concerns that genetic modification of a plant can cause the development of diseases which are resistant to antibiotics. This is due to the possibility of viral resistance leading to new viruses and diseases.


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