U.S. agriculture may not be high on the probability list for a terrorist attack, but the threat is real and farmers shouldn't grow complacent.

A realworld, widespread attack on agriculture would be difficult, but the impact would be huge from the standpoint of scaring the public. Intentionally contaminating even a part of the nation's food supply could have serious economic repercussions.

"Most people believe agriculture is not the sexy target a terrorist group would want to go after," says Steve Cain, a Purdue Extension communication specialist. Strategists also say that high-profile targets are more appealing, but the economic impact that agriculture offers would be attractive to terrorists.

According to USDA there are more than 2.16 million farms in the United States, representing 941.2 million acres. Annual U.S. farm cash receipts top $193 billion. That doesn't even account for industry segments associated with on-farm production and off-farm processing. The numbers quickly become staggering.

Cain Purdue's involvement in a nationwide Extension program to prepare agriculture for disasters, including those caused by terrorists. The Extension Disaster Education Network, or EDEN, is currently conducting an online survey (http://www.agctr.lsu.edu/eden) to gauge farmers' opinions on biosecurity issues and educational needs.

EDEN has already surveyed 1,200 Extension educators nationwide on the topic. More than 85 percent said they expect a terrorist attack on some segment of agriculture. Asked whether their county was prepared to respond to such an emergency, 77 percent said "no it was not" or they weren't sure.

Food security was considered an "urgent" area of concern by 64 percent of
Extension educators polled. Fifty percent said animal biosecurity
preparedness was an "urgent" need in their communities. Farm security
and plant/crop biosecurity was considered "urgent" by 45 percent and 37
percent, respectively. Only 16 percent said plant/crop biosecurity was "not
urgent," with all other agricultural categories at 12 percent or less.

Terrorist threats against agriculture are possible, but the odds of destroying the industry are remote, say Otto Doering and Ken Foster, Purdue agricultural economists, who have consulted with Washington, D.C., offiicals.

"Certainly somebody could tamper with one segment or one product and cause a disruption, but are we going to go hungry because of that? Probably not, because consumers will quickly substitute away from those products," says Foster.

Because of highly transmissible diseases, such as foot and mouth, the livestock sector might be more vulnerable to terrorism than the crop sector, he adds.

The food industry has made progress in tightening processing methods and shipping standards in the past 12 months, notes Doering. More companies are pursuing certification through the International Standards Organization and demanding their suppliers do the same. In time, those ISO standards could trickle down to individual farm operations.

Biosecurity is a hot topic on Capitol Hill, starting with the debate over how much of USDA's existing food-safety responsibilities will shift to the Office of Homeland Security.

At issue is whether it is wise to take resources and manpower away from farm-level threats like foot-and-mouth disease that can occur without terrorist involvement, and focus instead on protecting agriculture from external threats. "This is going to be a big battle in Congress in the next few months," says Doering.

"USDA, state departments of agriculture and all agencies associated with agriculture, are doing a good job gearing up to have the right response in place if a disaster were to happen," says Cain.

"What hasn't happened is direct communication with the producer. We need to be answering questions like, 'What should you do if a disaster happens?', says Cain. "Through EDEN we hope to generate an information database that farmers can access through their Extension office or on the Internet."

The online EDEN survey runs through November. To participate, log onto
http://www.agctr.lsu.edu/eden and then click on "Homeland Security." The survey is anonymous and takes less than 10 minutes to complete.