- The Washington Times - Monday, August 12, 2002

BLACKSBURG, Va. Livestock and crops are an easy target for terrorists, and a successful attack would have a major economic and psychological impact on Virginia and the nation, agriculture specialists told the state's anti-terrorism panel Friday.
"If you were a terrorist and you wanted to cause significant economic damage to this country, you would attack the country's agriculture system," Bruno Sobral, director of the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute at Virginia Tech, told the Secure Virginia Panel.
"It's easy to acquire dangerous diseases overseas and bring them into the U.S.," Mr. Sobral said. "Infecting animals requires no device or skills."
Mr. Sobral is developing a computer system that would integrate scientific research and biological information to rapidly detect specific diseases.
He said farm animals in the United States are highly susceptible to ailments such as mad cow disease, foot and mouth disease and avian flu. Britain has spent $6 billion to fight mad cow disease and experienced "dozens of billions in losses" after tourism dried up because of the disease, he said.
The United States should "attack [animal] pathogens before they ever reach our borders," Mr. Sobral said. "Let's be prepared."
Frank Gwazdauskas, a professor of dairy science at Virginia Tech, told the panel that foot and mouth disease spreads more rapidly in animals than highly communicable smallpox does in humans.
"Foot and mouth or mad cow disease in the U.S. can have a substantial impact on our standard of living" because Americans spend 10 cents of every dollar on food, Mr. Gwazdauskas said.
It would be easy for extremists to infect a herd of cows at the thousands of unprotected livestock markets and farms around the country, he said. Mr. Gwazdauskas said the greatest risk, however, is introducing a sick animal into a new herd. He said farmers should routinely isolate and observe any new animal brought onto a farm.
Farm visitors also should be monitored, he said. "Foot and mouth and [avian] influenza can be transmitted by visitors wearing clothing or boots contaminated with manure from sick animals," he said.
Introduction of an animal disease whether accidentally or by terrorists must be countered by early detection and rapid intervention, Mr. Gwazdauskas said.

Gerald L. Jubb, assistant dean of Virginia Tech's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, said animal science laboratories and agriculture research centers around the country have lax security that makes them easy targets for theft. He cited a news report about the theft of 100 vials and tubes from an animal science lab at Cornell University.
The introduction of exotic threats such as maize streak virus could cause major damage to Virginia's corn crop, Mr. Jubb said, noting that the African virus has turned up in Arizona.
Crop blights could be brought into the country by terrorists or arrive naturally on insects, Mr. Jubb said.
"We must be vigilant," he said. That includes keeping an eye out for unusual activity like strangers wandering around a farm, limiting access to labs to essential personnel, establishing tight inventory controls and even hiring security guards at laboratories.
Former Lt. Gov. John Hager, chairman of the Secure Virginia Panel, said in an interview that an attack on the nation's agribusiness system would drive up food prices and make people afraid to eat or drink. Such an attack is personal because it "impacts the individual," he said.
After the presentations, the panel went into closed session to consider recommendations for protecting Virginia's crops and livestock.
"It's up to us to make intelligent moves to protect the safety and security of the food chain," Mr. Hager said. But he cautioned that any plan "will never be perfect."
The meeting was hosted by Virginia Tech President Charles Steger, who serves as chairman of the SVP's agriculture subcommittee.

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