I'd never had to show my driver's license to speak at a conference before, but not being the type to seek out trouble—especially at this conference—I obediently handed the card over to the woman at the registration desk. She ran it through a scanner, looked at her screen, paused, and, for the first time, smiled. "It's real!" she announced. "Now put your license in the clear pocket below your namecard and keep it visible at all times." She pointed to the big black pouch I was to hang around my neck. It read, "FBI —Third Annual International Symposium on Agroterrorism."
For the third year in a row, the attendees at this Kansas City event were all dressed up with no place to go to encounter a real bioterror attack. One PowerPoint slide after another, in endless progression, focused on the threats that everyday world commerce, with an assist from Mother Nature, poses to foods, crops and animals. There were plenty of dark predictions, and plenty of ideas about how to set things right. All it will take, it seems, is more government intrusion in your life and more corporate control over your food.
"How Do We Know What We Don't Know?"
The symposium is held each year in Kansas City. This year, I found myself substituting for a colleague as an invited speaker, to discuss the impact of biofuels on global food supplies. If my subject seemed somewhat far off the topic of agroterrorism, I was not alone. With no actual incidents to deal with, the government's anti-agroterror troops have set out on other missions.
The core mission seems to involve compiling as much data as possible—data covering a lot more than foot-and-mouth disease in cattle or plans for making pesticide bombs. Agencies from the FBI to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to Interpol want to assemble a data bank filled with the most intimate details of human life: what we buy, what we eat, and when and why we go to the doctor or hospital.
Speaker John Hoffman of DHS, for example, described a National Biosurveillance Integration System that shares "crossdomain data with the private sector" and monitors pharmacy records and emergency room admissions, ostensibly to get early warnings of "bioevents." Through a "Biosurveillance Common Operating Picture," law enforcement agencies around the country will get information about suspected "bioevents," but, noted Hoffman, "Senior national leaders will of course see a lot more than the rest of us."
Individually, most speakers at the symposium appeared not to have sinister intentions. Their motivation in general seemed to be an honest desire to protect health and safety. But together, as components of a sprawling bureaucracy formed to address a hypothetical calamity, they start to sound pretty scary. And in his talk, one speaker managed to embody all that was both scary and sinister about the symposium.
DePaul University Professor Barry Kellman, special advisor to the international police agency Interpol, opened by telling the audience that there's absolutely no doubt about the threat of terrorism that hangs over our food supply, that terrorists have plans in the works and that we are woefully unprepared. With an oratorical style reminiscent of Zell Miller's notorious speech at the 2004 Republican National Convention, Kellman promised to provide ample evidence of such plotting, then spoke for a full hour without offering any evidence at all, apart from a general statement copied from a jihadist website.
Kellman showed slides with titles in red, tabloid-style capital italics, some including lurid pictures—none of which depicted actual bioterrorism—and spoke in terms of "multiple threat agents" and the need to handle the "massive quantitative data" on people's habits that could now be exploited by "data mining," if only other countries had the stomach for spying that America does. (In a faint echo of former U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, he asked, "How do we know what we don't know?")
The world intelligence community needs, said Kellman, to "expose anomalies" (like unusual hardware store purchases such as power washers—no explanation offered) and be able to "monitor hospitals and local health centers" everywhere. Interpol, Kellman said, is "engaged in ongoing collaborative discussions" with the World Health Organization (WHO) on collecting public health data that could be useful for "maintaining order" during troubled times. (This, he noted, can be difficult because "groups that are victims of discrimination may perceive that they are being picked on.")
When Chickens Are Outlawed, Only Outlaws Will Raise Chickens
Avian influenza strain H5N1—"bird flu"—figured prominently in the program schedule because of its potential to kill people and do economic damage. Dr. Kristy Pabilonia of Colorado State University provided the big picture on the disease, showing horrific slides of dead and diseased birds piled up in Hong Kong, Indonesian "wet markets" where poultry are sold live and slaughtered, and statistics showing that two-thirds of people who contract bird flu die. She spoke not long before lunch, which featured a choice of vegetarian pasta or broiled chicken. Preference for the vegetarian dish seemed much higher than it would normally be with such an audience.
The next day, the audience was shown a slickly produced film on bird flu emphasizing that the threat to humans is very low in the U.S. because our poultry are raised in "highly controlled and regulated biocontainment facilities." They were referring to what you and I would call "factory farms." Keeping thousands of chickens or turkeys jammed into metal buildings their whole lives does indeed isolate them from potentially infective wild birds and from humans. But it also means that a single infection could very quickly lead to the deaths of countless birds.
That kind of "biocontainment facility" can serve just as well as an incubator. Consumer Reports found last year that its "analysis of fresh, whole broilers bought nationwide revealed that 83 percent harbored Campylobacter or Salmonella, the leading bacterial causes of foodborne disease. ... That's a stunning increase from 2003, when we reported finding that 49 percent tested positive for one or both pathogens."
The symposium film emphasized that in the bird-flu problem areas of Asia, the "main problem is poultry on small farms" and that centralization of poultry processing is needed. There was also concern about the increase in home poultry-raising in the United States that has come with greater cultural diversity and an interest in more natural food. The film led some audience members to wonder if the pretext of an agroterror threat might lead to the outlawing of free-range poultry sometime in the not too distant future.
"When Everyone Is A Terrorist, No One Is"
In his 2004 resignation speech, U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson famously declared, "For the life of me, I cannot understand why the terrorists have not attacked our food supply, because it is so easy to do."
At the symposium, speaker David Acheson of FDA frankly admitted that our highly concentrated and import-dependent food system is indeed a sitting duck. He noted that 80 percent of our seafood and 50 to 60 percent of our fresh produce is imported, producing an overwhelming job for border inspectors. "We can't inspect our way out of this," he told the audience.
Acheson pointed out that just a few years ago, almost all iceberg lettuce was bought by the head, and if it was contaminated, it might sicken one family at most. Now that contaminated head of lettuce is shredded by a processor, mixed into an unknown number of bags of prepared salads ("Now, that's not a negative thing," he hastened to add), and shipped out to potentially infect hundreds of families.
The federal government is willing to admit to the existence of such dangers in an FBI terror conference, but would not consider holding a conference to discuss the role of the corporate food system in creating those dangers.
The feds continue to have a very keen interest in people they call "ecoterrorists." Although no one has ever been given that label as a result of threatening to sabotage the food supply or commit bio- or agroterrorism (unless you count the contamination of ten Oregon salad bars by followers of the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh in 1984, with the goal of influencing a local election), a session on ecoterrorism drew an enormous crowd at the symposium.
The crowd heard from Brenda Sinko, an FBI official specializing in "ecoterrorism." Sinko drew her examples chiefly from the Earth Liberation Front, Animal Liberation Front, and others who damage property or set animals free and, one would think, would be prosecutable under state or local vandalism laws. But these folks qualify for federal prosecution because, in the FBI's view, they are "coercing a population" for "social or political gain."
Sinko was actually quite fair in her discussion of the groups and individuals she monitors, noting that they go to great lengths to avoid killing or hurting humans or animals, and that when setting animals free from research facilities, they have refrained from opening cages labeled "Infected Animal."
But in the question-and-answer session, it was clear that Sinko had not fed the audience quite enough red meat. Attendees offered a host of suggestions for pursuing all kinds of other groups, from the Humane Society to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) to urban "gangs." Sinko explained patiently that law-abiding groups can't be prosecuted and those that do break the law don't qualify as terrorists unless they fit into a federal hierarchy of crime that depends not on what you do but rather on what you're thinking or with whom you associate. If you do it for money, you're just a criminal; if you do it for "social or political" ends, you're an "extremist" or possibly a "terrorist." Her team is interested only in the latter.
And you don't want to attract their interest. A year ago, following the convictions of 10 defendants arrested for damaging the property of timber companies, SUV dealerships and other businesses, federal prosecutors sought "terrorism enhancements" to the prison sentences; that could have tacked on as much as 20 years. Group members ended up receiving sentences of up to 13 years.
The National Lawyers' Guild responded by denouncing "terrorism enhancement" of sentences for such crimes; its executive director asked, "Is this what a terrorist is? Applying terrorism enhancement to property crimes where the perpetrators went out of their way to minimize the risk to human life makes little sense as a matter of law or common sense." Lauren Regan of the Civil Liberties Defense Center in Eugene, Ore. put her reaction even more succinctly to the Christian Science Monitor: "When everyone is a terrorist, no one is."
Doing It Without Terrorists' Help
The 1995 bombing of the Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City could be considered an act of agroterrorism, because Timothy McVeigh and friends used common agricultural inputs—diesel fuel and ammonium nitrate fertilizer—in making their bomb. But in a presentation entitled "The increasing threat of agricultural chemicals" by Janet Moser and David Reed of the Department of Homeland Security, those potential weapons received only a passing glance.
Moser and Reed dwelled mostly on the possible use of pesticides as terror weapons (after all, the pesticide industry was once joined at the hip with the chemical-weapons industry), and their talk was very persuasive. While they did not persuade me that terrorists are about to kill me with 2,4-D (at least no sooner than the lawn-care service working next door will), they presented highly convincing evidence that pesticides are toxic and dangerous. I hoped that other federal officials in the audience got the message.
There were plenty more presentations, on appetizing topics like "Salmonella water supply contamination," "The threat to wheat of the Uganda 99 stem rust race," and (my favorite title) "Profiting from unsafe food." But outside of Professor Kellman's talk, there was nothing to really inspire a good soldier in the War on Terror.
It was all in marked contrast to the Strategic Space and Defense Conference I attended last fall, where the speakers and audience had been galvanized by China's January 2007 shootdown of its own weather satellite. That had been a shot across the bow of America's space program, so when the speakers at that conference talked about their desire to do more snooping and spying, they at least had an "incident" to point to.
The FBI symposium demonstrated only that Tommy Thompson was right: it would be easy to sabotage America's food system. But hard experience has shown us that terrorists pick targets not because they're easy but because they create a bloody spectacle. We don't need terrorists' help in destroying either our food system or our Constitution; our government and corporations are taking care of that themselves."
Stan Cox is a plant breeder and writer in Salina, Kansas. His new book is Sick Planet: Corporate Food and Medicine.