What is Agroterrorism- Historical Perspective of Bioterrorism & Food Terrorism?

With this arena of development, many things have changed. Agriculture after the green revolution has changed by various degrees aiming for higher productivity infusing intensive land and crop management practices. Trade after globalization has changed aiming exchange of food produced across borders. Research and development have changed aiming for practical use of each object and has touched milestones in this century. With these changes, principles of mass destruction have also changed. Terrorists, to gain control over territories, have also changed their ways of attack. Agricultural terrorism is what they now aim to conduct. With the aforementioned development of various sectors, the threat of agro-terrorism has also increased but it’s never too late. This article will allow us to actively have a glimpse of furious past at a global level, history and recent developments of agro-terrorism, analysis of the real incidents or attacks of the past. Also, inferences from this article will allow us to understand our preparedness towards this crisis, identification of potential threats, the ability of involved actors, their motives and strategies of attack and will strengthen our knowledge about agroterrorism in general.


Terrorism across time has changed in the form of both – the concept and the method. Concept of early terrorism was based on the fact that to shake off the nation’s security system, a whole lot of investment is required. Now, cheap, easy to launch an economy centered terrorist activities are at a peak. The methods that terrorists adopt are based on its concept and thus require regular monitoring. Similarly, agriculture across the landscape has also changed its form due to global trade. The economic pattern that the countries follow is based on the law of advantage and thus monocultures retaliated. This is the highest price we will pay to tackle any agroterrorism in future. We are now equally exposed to people around us as we are to nature and this indeed will drag us to the dearth of human life.

Activities such as bombing, nuclear attack, using tactical weapons and hijacking planes are not their recent trends. Bioterrorism to weaken up the economy and hit the backbone of the country by disrupting services in the country is their new strategy. Bioterrorism is the deliberate use of pathogenic strains affecting humans, animals, and plants. It is an umbrella term that can be easily understood by its classification. Bioterrorism can be broadly divided into two categories based on the species it is aimed at. It can either affect human beings directly or affect human beings indirectly by attacking animals and plants. As animals and plants serve to be a category of food for us, this category can be explained as Food Terrorism. It can pose a challenge to food safety and security of any political entity.

The act of contamination of food with an intention to cause health hazards or death of civilian populations in order to create social or economic challenge leading to civil unrest or political instability is known as Food Terrorism. This attack can be practiced with certain injurious chemicals, exposure to radio-nuclear agents and inoculation of destructive biological agents. The threat can be posted at any time from the production of food in agricultural fields to its supply in the ready market after processing. Food terrorism can be further classified into categories, of which Agricultural Terrorism is widely practiced. Terrorists targeting food during post-harvest operations such as processing, storage, and distribution is often referred to as terrorism targeting processed food. Another case is contamination of food i.e. agricultural crops and livestock in agricultural fields or during harvesting, transport and storage are called Agricultural terrorism. This is often also shortened as Agroterrorism.

The agents used for agricultural terrorism are easy to acquire and relatively cheap. They also do not need too much knowledge to handle and are easy to launch. Laws being not so strong, if caught these types of activities are not immensely punishable and security system being not so aware checks the risk of easily being caught. Very sophisticated labs and instruments are not important to obtain or transport them. It is often very difficult to differentiate between agricultural terrorism attacks and naturally occurring epidemics. This indeed sets a stage ready for activities like Agricultural terrorism to thrive.

Historical overview and development of Agroterrorism 

Agroterrorism started dates back when scientific study gained importance. Some literature relates early actions of agroterrorism to the scientific study of plant pathology. With scientific progress of Plant Pathology and identification of Late Blight of Potato after Irish famine, certain cases of agroterrorism including stockpiling of fungal spores and its release in other territories to harm agricultural economy during the cold war were reported. Later, evidence from World War 1 was profound enough to support historical cases of agroterrorism.

During World War I, Germany in order to rise as a world power tried many times to paralyze other countries and inhibit them to either support opposite countries or defeat them in battles. Germany attacked draft horses, both involved in active and passive war using biological agents like Bacillus anthracis and Burkholderia mallei causing anthrax and glanders, respectively.

Historical evidence also reveals that time period between both world wars showed involvement of war participating countries like Germany and France in extensive study and research of agricultural pathogens like Puccinia spp. (causal organism of wheat rust), rinderpest virus, Phytophthora infestans (causal organism of late blight in potato) and various other insect pest spp. Immense research, however, did not add any advantage to Germany in World War 2 in terms of biological warfare. However, continuous efforts by the United Kingdom fueled this matter in media when it dumped 5 million cattle cakes infected with Bacillus anthracis on Germany. The United Kingdom in its early warfare techniques focused on antianimal and anticrop agents to be used against enemies. Other powerful nations were also involved in research and development of biological weapons especially anticrop agents during this period. Japan poured a considerate amount of funds to study and strengthen various agroterrorism agents to be used in disturbing peace conditions in China.

Russia was found to be secretly involved in the study of numerous antianimal agents namely FMD virus (causal organism of foot and mouth disease in cattle), Brucella spp. (causal organism of brucellosis), Newcastle disease virus (causal organism of Newcastle disease), Bacillus anthracis (causal organism of anthrax disease), Burkholderia mallei, Mycoplasma mycoides (causal organism of contagious bovine pleuropneumonia), avian influenza virus, Chlamydophila psittaci (causal organism of psittacosis or Avian chlamydiosis), Orf virus (causal organism of contagious ecthyma in sheep), Rinderpest virus (causal organism of Distemper), Venezuelan equine encephalitis virus, vesicular stomatitis virus, African swine fever virus. Apart from these various anticrop agroterrorism agents were used during cold war like potato virus Y (causal organism of mild viral disease), Magnaporthe grisea (causal organism of rice and rye blast), barley streak mosaic virus (causal organism of barley leaf streak), Puccinia sorghi (causal organism of maize rust),brown grass mosaic virus, Puccinia graminis (causal organism of wheat stem rust) and tobacco mosaic virus.

Period of 1943 to 1969 marked study and strong weaponization of agroterrorism in United States of America. Fort Detrick of Maryland was the research centre used by scientists and government to conduct such researches. Study of biological agents like Bacillus anthracis, FMD virus, Brucella spp., Phytophthora infestans, Chlamydophila psittaci, Avian influenza virus (causal organism of fowl plague), Magnaporthe oryzae Triticum (MoT) pathotype (causal organism of wheat blast), Puccinia graminis, B. mallei (causal organism of Glanders), Magnaporthe oryzae (causal organism of rice blast) and Bipolaris oryzae (causal organism of brown spot of rice), rinderpest virus and Newcastle disease virus were conducted on a large scale. Gulf countries like Iraq weaponized itself with fungal spores of covered smut/bunt of wheat by extensive research work. Production houses and large storage tanks of aflatoxins were also established in this era. Period after World War 2 marked sincere progress in research activities towards development of anticrop and antianimal agents especially plant pathogens in various other countries.

In 1969, a strong unilateral decision of then President Richard Nixon ended U.S. Biological Warfare Program in one go and led to destruction of already prepared agents of agricultural terrorism. This included destruction of huge quantities of wheat rust spores and other pathogens which were being stockpiled to attack Asian nations. In later stages strong policies were built to promote global peace and harmony which basically included International Biological and Toxic Weapons Convention (BTWC) of 1972 Analysis of case studies.

Agricultural terrorism has occurred from very early ages to strengthen own country or to disrupt political structure of other countries. Food serves as a backbone of human activities and agriculture and allied activities tend to regulate food supplies. Thus collapse of any structure can be related to situations like food inadequacy, food unavailability or food crisis. Situations resulting from past reflects evident examples based on agricultural terrorism throughout history but very less is available in terms of literature. Here we will discuss about it:

Case 1: Incident of poisoning cattle in Kenya during 1952

This historical incident relates to the national liberation movement against British colonial rule in Kenya in 1952. The Mau Mau Movement activists took advantage of locally available African milk bush plant (Synadenium grantii) to use its extract as a toxin to poison cattle in British station. This caused chaos and moral breakdown of local British leaders and farmers. However, in later reports, the poisoning was found to be rare due to certain unspecified reasons. An inference can be drawn that this action was an attack of available opportunities to sabotage British farmers and ultimately challenge British rule. It was later verified by Veterinary research Laboratory in Kabete (Kenya) that the extract of African milk bush plant was used as an agent of Agroterrorism.

Case 2: Poisoning of exported grapes from Chile to US during 1989

A phone call to the U.S. Embassy in Santiago reported a complaint about grapes being poisoned by cyanide which was exported from Chile. This created fear among US officials and all the imports were then investigated by the Food and Drug Administration. However, no such evidence of large scale agro terrorism planning was found but some grape packages were found to be poisoned from cyanide that was shipped from Chile to Philadelphia. This was dealt strongly by US authorities and suspecting of other fruits being contaminated allowed them to destroy 45 million crates of fruits including plums, peaches, nectarines, apples, raspberries, blueberries, pears and table grapes accounting to a total loss of $ 50 million. This shook Chile’s economy as the exports were also rejected by other countries.

Case 3: Activity of releasing sewer water in Palestinian agricultural fields during 2000

The mass agitation in 2000 during Palestinian-Israeli conflict reported unusual activity in the national daily. The report stated claims of Palestinian farmers against the Israeli settlers in the West Bank of releasing huge quantities of sewage water into their agricultural fields in order to weaken their occupation and vacate their lands. This was done in recurring cycles in order to deteriorate the quality of their land. This was another impulsive issue of agricultural terrorism during a local conflict.

Case 4: Threatening US and UK livestock with spread of foot-and-mouth disease virus during 2011

Another activity of 2011 caught news attention when a South African man claimed to acquire possessions of Foot and Mouth Disease virus. He threatened governments of United States of America and Great Britain to pay a ransome amount of US$ 4 million. The news sources reported of a great economic setback for GDP in general and Agriculture and allied economy in specific, if, this biological agent was released in open. This posed challenge for both the governments to safeguard their nation from loss of property and economy. Later during investigations after his arrest for terrorism activity involvement he was found with no possession of claimed virus samples. He offered threat due to a personal frustration on both governments not taking actions when ‘white farmers’ were banished from their lands in Zimbawe.

Case 5: Food contamination by Malathion insecticide in Japan during 2014

Japanese factory worker Toshiki Abe was found guilty for intentional involvement in agricultural terrorism activity by contaminating frozen food products with an insecticide called as Malathion. The insecticide is widely used against agricultural insect pests in open fields especially against fruit flies and mosquitoes. As this chemical is not used by industries very often, it was easier to detect such higher dozes, nature of the chemical and act was found to be intentional. Reports express that doze was found to be 2.6 million times higher than recommended by law. About 2500 people across Japan were sickened by this act and it was termed as one of the most alarming acts of Japan’s history. Hotels claimed products like pizzas, pancakes, croquettes and other such items were contaminated at a large scale and >6 million packed products were destroyed. The person caught in the act was found to be guilty and was sentenced to prison for about 3.5 years.


Although the development and use of biological weapons, especially agents used for agricultural terrorism, is prohibited in most countries and there are strict laws enacted by the governments to gain control of peace in their territories, yet voluntary involvement of people to disturb peace and launch attack against civilians can never be ignored. The Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention of 1972 has been signed and ratified by more than 165 countries to restore peace and stabilizing global harmony. But the tensions still prevails, as some countries have not agreed to some or all points of the accord and are still engaged in research on biological weapons. If these countries are not suspected to create chaos at international level yet they may fall a prey to global terrorist organizations that may be successful in hijacking their systems and creating nuisance in the society. In fact ambitious politicians can also use these resources in their favour which can lead to proximities of war. However, official list of the countries is not yet declared and there is little or no open source information about them or their up to date achievements regarding status of research and development of biological weapons and their warfare potential presently.

Secret reliable sources reveal that some countries are secretly involved in building bio weapons for offensive use against other nations. Syria, North Korea and Iran are some countries whose names are mentioned in these illicit connections. Also, Russia maintained huge lines of bio weapons under govt. orders of former Soviet Union produced in the past. There is no information about what has been done to dispose of prepared weapons but some scientists suspect them to be in circulation with knowledge of the state.

With time and space things have changed. Development across the globe has also developed agenda, instruments and practices of terrorism. Direct economic and indirect social impacts like panic and fear among civilians, challenged trade relations, political instability and havoc within territories can easily agitate masses and reform systems. Low cost and efficient agents of Agricultural terrorism do not require scientific knowledge and thus can be used easily at all levels without fear of being punished. Motivations like revenge can easily enable people to fight back against governments yielding greater losses. Globalization with increased food trade has exposed us to agricultural terrorism and more vulnerable attacks.

This brief examination of history will make it possible to identify patterns of attack, preparedness required against the attack and also understand motives and agendas of terrorism organization, scale of their attack and risks and mitigation practices associated to tackle such situations. However the article explains that agricultural terrorism was not a fear at a global level till date and all such activities were done to influence local leaders and gain control over political system and these activities were not frequent in nature yet the article does not deny any such activity in near future and allow us to understand, react and prepare in advance for the attacks of agricultural terrorists.

By Author

Pranesh Lavania and Geeta Sharma
Department of Plant Pathology, College of Agriculture
G. B. Pant University of Agriculture and Technology, Pantnagar, Uttarakhand

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