By DOUG GRAVES
COLUMBUS, Ohio — The horrific events involving the World Trade Center in New York was a wakeup call for the United States in 2001 that terrorism had crossed the nation’s borders. The bombing at this month’s Boston Marathon is further proof that Americans, especially those in populated urban areas, need to remain vigilant.
But what about rural communities – are farms ever a target, and is the food system safe from acts of terrorism? Not really, says Joe Donnermeyer, professor of rural sociology at Ohio State University’s School of Environment and Natural Resources.
Soon after Sept. 11, 2001, Donnermeyer conducted a study titled State and Local Preparedness for Agricultural Terrorism, with the purpose of bringing together representatives from all walks of agricultural life to discuss targets for potential terrorism, and the appropriate responses to those threats or attacks at the local and state levels.
“Agricultural terrorism can have many sources, not only outside this country but inside as well,” he said. “Agriculture is the state’s largest industry and any attack on the industry would be economically damaging.
“We must not only think about threats to our livestock but to all aspects of the food and fiber system. Huge areas like water safety, field crops, retail and wholesale food process must be considered as targets of terrorism.”
Donnermeyer’s study involved a series of forums or focus groups with representatives from OSU, the Ohio Department of Agriculture, Ohio Farm Bureau, the Ohio Emergency Management Agency, Ohio Veterinary Medical Assoc., police and fire personnel, farmers and people in the restaurant and food processing industries.
“The groups agreed that it is extremely easy to commit an act of terrorism against animals and plants,” he said. “Farmers were coming up with all kinds of scenarios highlighting their own vulnerability to terrorism, even though they recognized that the probability of an incident is very, very low.”
Donnermeyer says preparation for an agri-terrorism attack begins with local communities, and response to any attack on agriculture begins at the local level.
“Everyone in the groups recognized that most preparedness is done at the state level but not at the local level,” he explained. “Problem is, you can’t have a great state program if there is no preparation at the local level.”
Donnermeyer says a dedicated terrorist could find agriculture an easy target for a variety of reasons. First, there are more than 40,000 farms operating in the state, so the targets are many. Second, the layout of farms makes it impossible to maintain surveillance and physical protection is nearly impossible.
Third, a terrorism attack on agriculture could come from multiple sources, and could include radical environmentalists and militia groups. And finally, there is no tight control over supply, making it easy to find the germ or herbicide that a terrorist would want to use to create a dangerous situation.
“There are some common-sense things farmers can do, like secure buildings, lock up chemicals and watch their neighbors, but it’s difficult to secure a farm, so prevention is not the real answer,” he said. “The real key is rapid response in the event of an incident and that’s where local communities play a crucial role in combating terrorism.”
According to Donnermeyer, focus groups, determined state agencies need to create regional-level demonstration sites for all first responders for a variety of agricultural hazards; and that first responders need additional training about agriculture and its industry.
“Police and fire officials receive all kinds of simulation, onsite and cross-training for a variety of community situations, but there is little training available to them for responding to specific incidents involving agriculture and agribusiness,” he said. “Less than 2 percent of our population grew up on a farm and many first responders are simply not familiar with agriculture.
“Other incidents involving victims are much more likely to happen than that of terrorism, but let’s use terrorism as a reason to improve public services in rural communities so that we are better prepared for a variety of disasters.”