Threats to America’s Economy and Food Supply

By Dean Olson, M.A. 
A row of cows eating hay in a barn. ©


The United States enjoys a safe, plentiful, and inexpensive food supply. Americans spend only 11 percent of their income on food compared with the global average of 20 to 30 percent.1 The nation’s agricultural abundance helps drive its economic prosperity. As many as 1 of 6 jobs are linked to agriculture, a trillion-dollar industry. Agriculture-related products comprise nearly 10 percent of all U.S. exports, amounting to nearly $68 billion in 2006.2

Terrorists consider America’s agriculture and food production tempting targets. They have noticed that its food supply is among the most vulnerable and least protected of all potential targets of attack. When American and allied forces overran al Qaeda sanctuaries in the caves of eastern Afghanistan in 2002, among the thousands of documents they discovered were U.S. agricultural documents and al Qaeda training manuals targeting agriculture.

A subset of bioterrorism, agroterrorism is defined as “the deliberate introduction of an animal or plant disease for the purpose of generating fear, causing economic losses, or undermining social stability.”3 It represents a tactic to attack the economic stability of the United States. Killing livestock and plants or contaminating food can help terrorists cause economic crises in the agriculture and food industries. Secondary goals include social unrest and loss of confidence in government. 


Serious Concern

Agroterrorism is not new. The Assyrians poisoned enemy wells with rye ergot during the 6th century B.C. During World War I, German agents in the United States infected horses and cattle in transit across the Atlantic to France. In 1994, in The Dalles, Oregon, a religious cult intentionally contaminated 10 restaurant salad bars with salmonella, sickening more than 750 people in an attempt to influence the outcome of a local election. Since 1912, 12 documented cases have involved the substate use of pathogenic agents to infect livestock or contaminate food.4 

The agroterrorism threat emanates from four categories of perpetrators. The foremost threat is posed by transnational groups, like al Qaeda—widely believed to present the most probable threat of inflicting economic harm on the United States.

The second group is comprised of economic opportunists tempted to manipulate markets. They understand that a foot and mouth disease (FMD) outbreak, for example, would have a dramatic impact on markets. By introducing the virus, they could exploit the markets for personal economic gain.

Captain Olson serves with the Douglas County, Nebraska Sheriff’s Department.
Captain Olson serves with the Douglas County, Nebraska, Sheriff’s Department


The third category includes domestic terrorists who may view the introduction of FMD as a blow against the federal government. As an outlier of this category, the unbalanced individual or disgruntled employee may perpetrate an attack for a variety of idiosyncratic or narcissistic motivations.

Finally, militant animal rights or environmental activists pose a threat because they consider immoral the use of animals for food. Groups, such as the Animal Liberation Front and its sister organization, the Earth Liberation Front, could view an attack on the animal food industry a positive event.5

Threat Environment

Because it lacks the drama and spectacle of more common terrorist violence, such as bombings and murders, agroterrorism has remained a secondary consideration, and no documented attacks in the homeland have occurred since 9/11. Several recent factors may have made agroterrorism a more attractive tactic.

First, the threat environment has changed dramatically. America has had recent successes against al Qaeda’s leadership. These victories have forced the group to morph in both structure and tactics. The increasingly dangerous environment it now must operate in has prevented it from mounting catastrophic terrorist attacks on the scale of 9/11. Now, al Qaeda places its emphasis on smaller, independent attacks following a “death by a thousand cuts” strategy to exhaust, overwhelm, and distract U.S. Department of Homeland Security forces. The group seeks to flood America’s already information overloaded intelligence systems with myriad threats and “background noise.”6 Agroterrorism also may serve as a way to magnify the social upheaval caused by smaller, independent attacks, like bombings.

Second, Usama Bin Ladin consistently had argued that attacking the U.S. economy represented the best way to destroy America’s ability to project military power abroad. Underpinning this view is al Qaeda’s historical narrative that jihad against the Soviets following the invasion of Afghanistan led not only to the defeat of the Red Army but, ultimately, to the demise of the U.S.S.R.7 As divorced from reality as this view seems, economic harm remains one of the pillars of al Qaeda’s terror strategy against the United States. In a video broadcast before the 2004 U.S. presidential elections, Usama Bin Ladin bragged that his organization “…bled Russia for 10 years until it went bankrupt and was forced to withdraw in defeat…. We are continuing in the same policy to make America bleed profusely to the point of bankruptcy….” He boasted that the 9/11 attacks had cost al Qaeda $500,000 while inflicting a staggering $500 billion in economic losses to America.8 According to Bin Ladin, “every dollar of al Qaeda defeated a million dollars [of America]...besides the loss of a huge number of jobs.”

Analysts believe that al Qaeda’s evolving tactics increasingly will “focus on targets that will yield the most economic damage.”9 Terrorist leaders realize that America’s strength stems largely from its economic vitality. They pursue an overarching strategy that all attacks should focus on weakening America’s economic strength, especially through protracted guerilla warfare. In their view, as the United States loses its standing in the Middle East, groups, like al Qaeda, can gain ground and remove from power regimes they view as corrupt and illegitimate.10

Terrorists know that a successful agroterrorism incident threatens America’s economic welfare and its standing as a leading exporter of agricultural products to the world. A significant disruption in agricultural exports caused by such an attack would have ripple effects in the United States’ and global economies. This economic disruption would occur on three levels.

The first involves direct losses due to containment measures, such as stop-movement orders (SMOs) or quarantines of suspected stock. Additional costs would arise from the culling and destruction of disease-ridden livestock.11 Second, indirect multiplier effects, such as compensation to farmers for destruction of agricultural commodities and losses suffered by directly and indirectly related industries, would arise.12 And, third, international costs would result from protective trade embargoes. Less measurable consequences would include the undermining of confidence in and support of government, creation of social panic, and threat to public health on the national and global levels.

Given its ease of execution and low cost to high benefit ratio, agroterrorism fits the evolving strategy of al Qaeda that focuses on inexpensive but highly disruptive attacks in lieu of monumental ones. Agroterrorism could exacerbate the social upheaval caused by random bombings. The ability to employ cheap and unsophisticated means to undermine America’s economic base, combined with the added payoff to potentially overwhelm its counterterrorism resources, makes livestock- and food-related attacks increasingly attractive.13

Foot and Mouth Disease

Attacks directed against the cattle, swine, or poultry industries or via the food chain pose the most serious danger for latent, ongoing effects and general socioeconomic and political disruption. Experts agree that FMD presents the most ominous threat.14 Eradicated in the United States in 1929, FMD remains endemic in South America, Africa, and Asia.15 An especially contagious virus 20 times more infectious than smallpox, FMD causes painful blisters on the tongues, hooves, and teats of cloven-hoofed animals, including cattle, hogs, sheep, goats, and deer, rendering them unable to walk, give milk, eat, or drink. Although people generally cannot contract the disease, they can carry the virus in their lungs for up to 48 hours and transmit it to animals. The animal-to-animal airborne transmission range is 50 miles.16 An infected animal can shred the virus in large quantities from its upper respiratory tract via drooling, coughing, and discharging mucus. Extremely stable, FMD can survive in straw or clothing for one month and spread up to 100 kilometers via the wind. Because herds exist as highly crowded populations bred and reared in extremely close proximity to one another, a significant risk exists that such pathogenic agents as FMD will spread well beyond the locus of a specific outbreak before health officials become aware of a problem. An FMD outbreak could spread to as many as 25 states in as little as 5 days simply through the regulated movement of animals from farm to market.17

From a tactical perspective, an FMD attack holds appeal for several reasons. First, unlike biological warfare directed against humans, no issue of weaponization exists. In an FMD attack, the animals themselves serve as the primary medium for pathogenic transmission, and countries as close as those in South America offer a ready source of the virus. As one analyst described it, the virus “can be spread by simply wiping the mucus from an infected animal on a handkerchief and then transferring the virus to healthy animals by wiping their noses…by stopping on a highway in rural America and releasing the virus among curious livestock an outbreak could be initiated.”18

Second, FMD is nonzoonotic, presenting no risk of accidental human infection. There exists no need for elaborate personal protective equipment or an advanced understanding of animal disease science. In a biowarfare attack targeting people, the deadly pathogen poses a threat to the perpetrators, as well as their intended victims. Preparing the pathogen so that terrorists can handle it safely yet disseminate it effectively to intended victims can prove difficult. For instance, the Aum Shinrikyo sarin gas attacks on the Tokyo subway in 1994 largely failed to kill the number of people intended due to the crude method of dissemination.

Third, terrorists could introduce and subsequently disperse the virus throughout the American food production system through multiple carriers, including animals carrying and introducing it into susceptible herds; animals exposed to contraband materials, such as contaminated food, hay, feedstuffs, hides, or biologics; people wearing clothing or using equipment, including tractors and trucks, to transmit the virus to uninfected animals; and contaminated facilities, such as feed yards, sale barns, and trucks that commonly hold or transport susceptible animals.19

The same factors that yield inexpensive and plentiful food by promoting maximum production efficiency also make American agricultural systems inherently vulnerable. The highly concentrated and intensive nature of livestock production encourages the rapid spread of contagious pathogens.20 Most dairies house at least 1,500 cows, with the largest facilities containing 10,000. Animals often are born on breeding farms and then transported to another state for slaughtering and processing. Otherwise isolated and widely dispersed farms often share equipment, vehicles, and veterinary instruments. Feedlots and auctions routinely intermingle animals from a wide geographic area. On average, a pound of meat travels 1,000 miles before it reaches the consumer’s table.21

Shows the food process moving from the farm, to coop/buyer elevator, to storage elevator, and to the mill/processing facility. From the mill/processing facility, it can move either to human foodstuffs/wholesaler/retailer/consumers/table or to animal feed or to exports/whole grain (either ship or rail) or to exports (either ship or rail). © Mary Ann Liebert, Inc./Photo from

The introduction of FMD would require the mass slaughter and disposal of infected animals. An outbreak could halt the domestic and international sale of meat and meat products for years. In this regard, in 2001, FMD in the United Kingdom affected 9,000 farms and required the destruction of more than 4,000,000 animals. Researchers believe that a similar outbreak in the United States would cost taxpayers up to $60 billion.22 An FMD attack could result in massive herd culling, the need to destroy processed goods, and extensive decontamination efforts of production and livestock-containment facilities. Most Americans have not witnessed the intense media coverage of high-volume culling operations involving the destruction and disposal of tens of thousands of animals. Large-scale eradication and disposal of livestock likely would be especially controversial as it affects farmers and ranchers and offends the sensibilities of animal rights activists and environmental organizations.

Food Production and Distribution

If terrorists strive for human deaths, the food production and distribution chain offers a low-tech but effective mechanism for disseminating toxins and bacteria, such as botulism, E. coli, and salmonella. Developments in the farm-to-table continuum greatly have increased the number of entry points for these agents. Many food processing and packing plants employ large, unscreened seasonal workforces. They commonly operate uneven standards of internal quality and inadequate biosurveillance control to detect adulteration.23 These vulnerabilities, combined with the lack of security at many processing and packing plants, contribute to the ease of perpetrating a food-borne attack.

Beyond the economic and political impact, low-tech bioterrorist assaults against the food chain have the potential to create social panic as people lose confidence in the safety of the food supply. A large-scale attack potentially could undermine the public’s confidence in its government. Because most processed food travels to distribution centers within a matter of hours, a single case of chemical or biological adulteration could have significant latent ongoing effects, particularly if the source of the contamination is not immediately apparent and there are acute ailments or deaths.24 Supermarkets in major American cities stock only a 7-day supply of food; therefore, any significant and continuing disruption in supply quickly will lead to severe shortages.

Experts believe that fruit- and vegetable-packing plants are among the most vulnerable venues for food-borne attacks. Many represent small-scale manufacturers that specialize in ready-to-eat meats or aggregated foodstuffs. They do not practice uniform biosecurity methods, and they do not use heat, an effective front-end barrier against pathogens, in food processing. Also, because they deal in already-prepared produce that does not require cooking—a good back-end defense against microbial introduction—they provide a viable portal to introduce pathogens.

Law Enforcement Preparedness

Farms, ranches, and feedlots in America are dispersed, open, and generally unprotected. The majority of state and local law enforcement agencies face financial and strategic challenges when responding to agroterrorism, yet the laws of many states treat agroterrorism as a crime investigation, giving local law enforcement agencies primary responsibility.

An outbreak of FMD would exhaust law enforcement resources quickly. After recognition of the disease by state agriculture authorities, subsequent steps in the emergency response involve containment and eradication, often involving multiple herds and a large quarantine area that may encompass multiple counties. State agriculture authorities working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service have responsibility and authority for animal disease.25 Specially trained animal health officials make decisions on disease control, such as livestock quarantine and the timing and method of livestock depopulation—culling, destroying, and disposing of diseased animals from infected herds by burning or burial.

Following strict biosecurity measures can prevent the spread of disease. Local and state law enforcement would play a pivotal role in this effort by adhering to three primary responsibilities.

First, police officials would enforce quarantine orders given by state agriculture authorities. This involves isolating and containing infected stock to prevent the spread of disease. A quarantine area would comprise a 6-mile radius, approximately 113 square miles, surrounding the point of origin; numerous roadblocks would prevent vehicles, equipment, or persons from entering or leaving without detailed decontamination measures and authorization.26 Inside the quarantine area, officials would establish an “exposed zone” in which all cloven-hoofed animals would be destroyed. For effectiveness, quarantine of infected premises and SMOs would have to remain in effect for a minimum of 30 days.27

A quarantine area following an outbreak of foot and mouth disease would comprise a 6-mile radius, approximately 113 square miles, surrounding the point of origin; numerous roadblocks would prevent vehicles, equipment, or persons from entering or leaving without detailed decontamination measures and authorization. Inside the quarantine area, officials would establish an “exposed zone” in which all cloven-hoofed animals would be destroyed.

The second responsibility occurs in conjunction with quarantine. Officers would enforce SMOs issued by the state governor to prevent the spread of the disease.28 Initial biosecurity efforts could require placement of all animals under an SMO. Law enforcement may be empowered to restrict human and animal movement in and out of the quarantine zone. This authority would include all animals in transit within a wide geographic area until the investigation clarified the extent of the infection and determined which animals can move safely. Although FMD affects only cloven-hoofed animals, humans, horses, and other animals may carry the virus.

Enforcing an SMO would require care and shelter for animals in transit that must be temporarily unloaded and housed at local sites providing feed and water.29 During the SMO, law enforcement would interview drivers to determine points of origin and destinations of animals. Research indicates that officers would stop and evaluate an average of nearly 50 vehicles per hour in the first day of an SMO.

Third, the criminal investigation of the outbreak further would tax already strained law enforcement resources. The investigation would focus on identifying the source of the virus and the mechanism used to infect susceptible animals. The danger of additional infections by the perpetrators would make the criminal investigation time sensitive.

Many law enforcement agencies lack the sufficient resources and procedures to simultaneously cope with quarantines, SMOs, and criminal investigations while also staffing widely dispersed checkpoints around the clock for the duration of the emergency. When combined with the need also to deliver routine law enforcement services, most agencies would struggle to meet these demands, especially during the protracted nature of an FMD outbreak.


Agriculture may not represent terrorists’ first choice of targets because it lacks the shock factor of more traditional attacks; however, it comprises the largest single sector in the U.S. economy, making agroterrorism a viable primary aspiration. Such terrorist groups as al Qaeda have made economic and trade disruption key goals. They believe that by imposing economic hardship on America, its citizens will tire of the struggle and force their elected leaders to withdraw from commitments abroad.

Every level of the food chain, including farms, feedlots, chemical storage facilities, meatpacking plants, and distribution operations, remains vulnerable to agroterrorism. Because terrorists rely on a lack of preparedness, law enforcement agencies should develop a plan to prevent agroterrorism and minimize the results of an attack. Officers must investigate from an agroterrorism perspective thefts of livestock; a criminal organization may steal animals with the intent of infecting them and placing them back into the population. Thefts of vaccines, medicines, and livestock-related equipment should be of concern and carefully investigated. It also is vital that law enforcement officials forward reports of such incidents to their states’ intelligence-fusion centers, threat-integration centers, or law enforcement intelligence units or networks.


U.S. Census Bureau, Statistical Abstract of the United States: 2004-2005 (Washington, DC, 2004), 234.

U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service, Foreign Agricultural Trade of the United States (FATUS): Monthly Summary December 2006; retrieved from Data/FATUS/MonthlySummary.htm (accessed May 25, 2011).

Jim Monke, Congressional Research Service Report for Congress, Agroterrorism: Threat and Preparedness; retrieved from sgp/crs/terror/RL32521.pdf (accessed May 25, 2011).

Terry Knowles, James Lane, Gary Bayens, Nevil Speer, Jerry Jaax, David Carter, and Andra Bannister, Defining Law Enforcement’s Role in Protecting American Agriculture from Agroterrorism; retrieved from pdffiles1/nij/grants/212280.pdf (accessed May 25, 2011).

Knowles et al., Defining Law Enforcement’s Role in Protecting American Agriculture from Agroterrorism, 22.

Bruce Hoffman, “Al Qaeda Has a New Strategy. Obama Needs One, Too”; retrieved from wp-dyn/content/article/2010/01/08/AR2010010803555.html? sid=ST2010031703003 (accessed on May 25, 2011).

Bruce Hoffman and Gabriel Weimann, “Econo-Jihad”; retrieved from article/econo-jihad-3120 (accessed on May 25, 2011); and, “Jihadists Turning to Economic Terrorism”; retrieved from UPI-97581267548984/ (accessed on May 25, 2011).

8 Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, “Al Qaeda’s Oil Weapon”; retrieved from 000/000/006/163cchwz.asp (accessed on May 25, 2011).

Gabriel Weimann, “Jihadists Turning to Economic Terrorism”; retrieved from Top_News/US/2010/03/02/Jihadists-turning-to-economic-terrorism/ UPI-97581267548984/ (accessed on May 25, 2011).

10 Weimann, “Jihadists Turning to Economic Terrorism.”

11 Peter Chalk, “Hitting America’s Soft Underbelly: The Potential Threat of Deliberate Biological Attacks Against the U.S. Agricultural and Food Industry”; retrieved from pubs/monographs/2004/RAND_MG135.pdf (accessed on May 25, 2011).

12 Peter Chalk, “The U.S. Agricultural System: A Target for al Qaeda?” Terrorism Monitor 3, no. 5 (2005).

13 Chalk, “The U.S. Agricultural System: A Target for al Qaeda?”

14 Knowles et al., Defining Law Enforcement’s Role in Protecting American Agriculture from Agroterrorism, 3.

15 U.S. Department of Agriculture, Animal and Health Inspection Service, APHIS Factsheet: Foot-and-Mouth Disease; retrieved from publications/animal_health/content/ printable_version/fs_foot_mouth_disease07.pdf (accessed on May 25, 2011).

16 Glenn R. Schmitt, “Agroterrorism—Why We’re Not Ready: A Look at the Role of Law Enforcement”; retrieved from journals/257/agroterrorism.html (accessed on May 25, 2011).

17 Chalk, “The U.S. Agricultural System: A Target for al Qaeda?”

18 John Grote, Jr., “Agroterrorism: Preparedness and Response Challenges for the Departments of Defense and the Army”; retrieved from publications/sustainability/docs/ agroterror-prep-resp.pdf (accessed on May 25, 2011).

19 Knowles et al., Defining Law Enforcement’s Role in Protecting American Agriculture from Agroterrorism, 98.

20 Dean T. Olson, original research for the Center for Homeland Defense and Security (Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, CA, 2004).

21 Chalk, “Hitting America’s Soft Underbelly: The Potential Threat of Deliberate Biological Attacks Against the U.S. Agricultural and Food Industry,” 8.

22 U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Impact of a Foreign Animal Disease (FAD) Outbreak Across the United States (Washington, DC, 2004).

23 Chalk, “The U.S. Agricultural System: A Target for al Qaeda?”

24 Chalk, “The U.S. Agricultural System: A Target for al Qaeda?”

25 Janice P. Mogan, “Overview of a Foreign Animal Disease Response”; retrieved from division/bai/overview_foreign_animal_disease_response.pdf (accessed on May 25, 2011).

26 Knowles et al., Defining Law Enforcement’s Role in Protecting American Agriculture from Agroterrorism, 4.

27 Knowles et al., Defining Law Enforcement’s Role in Protecting American Agriculture from Agroterrorism, 92.

28 U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Impact of a Foreign Animal Disease (FAD) Outbreak Across the United States.

29 Knowles et al., Defining Law Enforcement’s Role in Protecting American Agriculture from Agroterrorism, 92.