U.S. grain, ag sectors re-asses security after terrorist attack

by Emily Wilson
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U.S. grain and agricultural interests have joined other Americans in re-examining domestic security issues in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the United States. Although few observers or analysts think U.S. grain handling and processing facilities are necessarily targets for future attacks, vigilance has become the watchword, industry representatives say.

U.S. agriculture experienced an immediate repercussion in the days after the attack when officials grounded crop dusters, the planes that spray herbicides and other chemicals over field crops, based on indications some of the Sept. 11 terrorists had attempted to purchase or learn to operate such planes. The grounding had little impact on major grain crops, given the season, but it was a reminder that agriculture is not immune to the changed circumstances.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture also told food processing companies to increase security measures to prevent possible deliberate contamination of food supplies. The U.S. food processing industry is diverse and geographically dispersed, mitigating against widespread problems, but large plants could be vulnerable, USDA said.

USDA officials noted that food processors already tested for contamination, but that such efforts should be intensified. Other recommendations included conducting employee background checks, especially for seasonal or part-time workers, and limiting access to critical parts of processing plants.

Many grain handling and processing companies indicated that while they did not fear attacks on their individual facilities, they were taking some precautions nonetheless. Most asked their workers to "be on the alert," but few, if any, had hired additional security personnel.

Many observers said the biggest threat to the U.S. grain handling and processing system would be a breakdown in nationwide rail or truck transportation. Such a development would wreak havoc with grain and other raw materials shipments, exports and product distribution, they noted.

Overall, analysts indicated that an attack on U.S. agricultural interests probably would not hit field crops, grain storage or food processors, but more likely could come through "bio-terrorism" against livestock and poultry. Because cattle, hogs and chickens are raised on compact feedlots or in poultry houses, diseases could spread quickly.

U.S. officials noted that in the wake of other countries’ experiences, notably this year’s foot-and-mouth disease outbreak in the U.K., U.S. federal and state officials already had developed emergency responses and programs, even before Sept. 11, to contain such diseases and minimize their effects.

Despite existing programs, at least one major U.S. agricultural organization urged the U.S. government to implement additional measures to help "safeguard agriculture and the U.S. food supply from terrorism."

In a letter to President George W. Bush, the American Farm Bureau Federation in early October asked that a special high-level staff position focusing on the prevention of agro-terrorism be appointed to serve under Tom Ridge, head of the new U.S. Office of Homeland Security.

"An attack aimed at the safety of our food supply and agricultural infrastructure could cause widespread and long-term damage," Bob Stallman, AFBF president, said in the letter. "We must continue to increase surveillance and ensure that adequate USDA resources are available to combat any posed biological threat or mobilize against any occurrence."

In other grain-related developments, officials at the three principal U.S. exchanges for wheat and other agricultural futures and options said the attacks had prompted a re-examination of their security precautions. The three exchanges were closed Sept. 11-12 after the attacks and the closing of financial markets in New York.

While the grain exchanges occasionally have had to interrupt trading because of electronic problems or weather, the September trading suspension was the most significant disruption since President Jimmy Carter in January 1980 imposed an embargo on the shipment of U.S. grain to the Soviet Union. Carter imposed the embargo on Jan. 4, 1980, in response to the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan, and the grain exchanges canceled trading on Jan. 7-8, 1980, as directed by the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, the market’s regulator.

The September exchange closings did not shut down cash grain movement or trading, though transactions mostly were made using basis numbers with actual pricing delayed until the resumption of futures buying and selling, according to grain merchants and flour millers.

Melissa Alexander,

World-Grain.com online editor

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