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As planning for our Christmas feasts enters the home straight, we perhaps should ask ourselves just how secure is our food supply. Could we literally be carving out our demise with every slice of the ham? How worried should we be about agroterrorism? Is our food supply vulnerable to targeted pathogen or radiation exposure, simple manipulation or even a cyber breach or EMP attack? We have a tendency to think two dimensionally when assessing risk, ignoring the threat, literally in our own backyards.
Agroterrorists have access to animal based bio-agents, which are easy to transport and simple to conceal. Just as ramming a speeding truck into a crowd is low-tech, an attack via the food chain has a low barrier to entry and little skill needed to execute. Weaponizing livestock is as simple as tending the flock or feeding the cattle. There is little expertise or special equipment required and given most animal borne pathogens are not communicable to humans, the logistics are easy. It really is farm to table pathogen delivery.
Food manufactures and agriculture writ large is dangerously ill equipped to deal with a premeditated attack. As equipment manufactures and food production companies become more reliant on automated, interconnected processes and manufacturing, the potential of a hacker breaching the production process increases drastically.
Picture this. antifa infiltrates a production facility and manipulates the readouts for a pasteurizer designed to decrease the risk of foodborne illness. If undetected, the delivered, consumed product would gravely endanger consumer safety. Under-processed food could be the delivery vehicle for dangerous human pathogens such as E. coli O157:H7, Listeria monocytogenes, and Salmonella spp. This is especially true for canned goods, where inadequate processing would increase the risk of botulism poisoning.
The neurotoxin produced from Clostridium botulinum is the deadliest, naturally occurring acute toxin on the planet and results in visual and respiratory impairment and the loss of muscle control. Death by asphyxiation usually results three to six days after symptoms begin. There is an antiserum for the botulism neurotoxin, however the mortality rate with treatment is still between 5-15 percent.
In his prescient book One Second After, William R. Forstchen gives us a glimpse into the potential impact an EMP attack would have on the United States. The country effectively falls apart once the power grid is disabled. Experts predict that after a single year without power, nearly 80 percent of American’s would be dead from simple starvation.
An EMP attack would affect the entire food supply chain from farm to table. Modern farm equipment would be offline, leaving thousands of acres of crops unharvested. Temperature controlled distribution warehouses would be offline, leaving thousands of pounds of food to perish. An almost instant food shortage would sweep the country. The agriculture and food industry is one of the 16 core planks of survival determined by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Yet the sector receives scant attention.
An increasingly common practice in the agricultural sector is a process known as food irradiation, a form, and source of radiation. Producers introduce radiation into their produce, to extend the shelf life of food. These radiating facilities are automated. Suppose a bad actor altered the algorithms, drastically spiking radiation levels?Vast swathes of produce and food stores could be irradiated to dangerous levels. Worse, equipment could be manipulated to trigger a meltdown — an F&B dirty bomb. Additionally under-exposing the food would result in distribution of harmful, contaminated produce. Is there a viable solution for mass population radiation poisoning? The simple answer is no.
A recent example of the vulnerability of the food supply chain is Puerto Rico. Hurricane Maria devastated the island’s agriculture infrastructure overnight. The water supply is now contaminated with sewer and chemical runoff along with agricultural waste products. The Island’s farmers estimate it will take more than a year for farms to even begin production, let alone harvest.
More must be done to gird the nation against agroterrorism in both pre- and post-event scenarios. The resources that ISIS or antifa would need to attack the food supply chain are by no means prohibitive. The agricultural and food industries are vulnerable. A major agroterrorist attack on the sector would deal a devastating blow, not only to the food supply but the confidence of the United States.
Kyle Landry is a lecturer in the Department of Health Sciences at Boston University and research fellow in the Department of Genetics at Harvard University. LCDR Greg Keeley USN (ret.) is a national security consultant, former senior congressional aide, and combat veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan.