The first documented agroterrorism event occurred in the 6th century B.C. when the Assyrians poisoned the enemies’ wells with a toxic fungus. Today, agroterrorism is a ‘fungus among us,’ a real 21st century threat that warrants essential planning by Western farmers and ranchers.

“Agroterrorism is a malicious attempt to disrupt or destroy the agricultural industry and food supply systems including processing, storage and transportation,” said John Alden, food biosecurity specialist with the Yuma County (Ariz.) Public Health Services District. “Fresh produce is a good target of terrorists because it has a short shelf life, it’s ready to eat with no heat process to destroy microbiological contamination and it’s highly assessable to high-risk populations like infants, children and senior citizens.

Speaking to vegetable growers in Yuma, Alden said terrorists in 2006 can be anyone with domestic or foreign ties, a disgruntled employee, hate group members and radical political groups. The reason for the crime is to cause terror and create shock value. Other reasons include revenge, plus political and financial gains.

Areas of potential contamination include the farm, processor, retail and food preparation areas like restaurants. Biological and chemical agents pose the major threat.

Alden encouraged farmers to create an anti-agroterrorism environment by developing and implementing related preparedness plans.

The first step is to conduct a vulnerability assessment, he said. Producers should conduct a self-assessment of the entire operation and clearly identify what needs to be protected. It’s a good idea to look for potential signs of pest and plant diseases in fields, monitor water quality and runoff, check on off-road vehicles driving through fields and record the names of vendors and visitors.

Producers should maintain accurate inventories of pesticides, fertilizers and chemicals – plus routinely monitor tanks for potential theft and investigate any missing stock. It’s a good idea to keep an accurate log of loaned equipment and trucks, and lock application equipment not in use. For personnel, have a regular interview process, keep a daily roster of each day’s working employees and have a system to handle disgruntled employees.

The second way to create agroterrosim awareness is to implement security procedures. Alden said assign responsibilities only to qualified employees, and encourage staff to always be alert. Producers should have procedures in place for harvesting, storage, shipping and receiving plus water and ice.

The third piece of the puzzle is creating an emergency response plan. Know whom to call, he said, and establish official notification procedures in the event a potential problem is discovered. Also, the knowledge to launch containment activities is key to halt the spread of a potential risk until an official diagnosis is made. Alden recommended working with specialists in the event that authorities officially diagnose a plant biosecurity concern.

Assistance to create similar pro-active plans is available from the Arizona Department of Agriculture, the Yuma County Public Health Services District, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, the University of Arizona’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, and the University of California at Davis.

e-mail: cblake@farmpress.com