If there's one thing the horrors of Sept. 11 accomplished, it was to force us to examine the all-too-many fronts on which we in this country are vulnerable, exposed.

In many instances, unfortunately, the resulting awareness is all the more disturbing as we realize that no matter how hard we try, no matter how vigilant we are, it's simply impossible to plug all the holes. The country's too big, we can't (and wouldn't want to) watch everyone, eavesdrop on everybody every minute of every day and night. So, those of evil intent can capitalize on this and carry out their carefully hatched plots.

Even if the powers-that-be are able to forestall such spectacular acts of terrorism as those in New York and Washington, how do they ferret out and prevent the smaller, random acts of violence that tinge our taken-for-granted freedoms with constant fear and dread? The bound-for-glory guy, wrapped in plastic explosive, who strolls into a crowded street or restaurant or theater and blows himself and dozens of others to smithereens — it happens with sickening regularity in armed-to-the-teeth Israel, with one of the best intelligence forces on the planet. Or the person who deliberately infects himself with deadly smallpox and goes out and mixes with crowds, launching a wave of death that silently spreads and spreads — it hasn't happened anywhere yet, but we know all too well that it could. And there's agonizingly little we can do about it.

On a different scale, we're also being forced to acknowledge that the terror might not involve initially overt death and destruction. It could be a slower, more subtle process, such as major disruptions to our highly productive agricultural system and the super-efficient processing and distribution system that keeps the supermarket shelves abundantly stocked.

A food supply in ruins would wreak unimaginable havoc on a majority urbanized nation. How prepared are we, in this day and age, to grow our own fruits and vegetables, raise our own chickens and hogs, graze and milk our own cows, harvest and slaughter and can (particularly if, adding horror upon horror, there were no electricity to aid those endeavors)?

The answer is: not very. We have come to take for granted the cornucopia of sustenance made possible by America's agriculture and the many industries allied with it.

Several farm organizations and ag industry groups last week urged President Bush to appoint a specialist within the newly-created Office of Homeland Security to oversee measures to help safeguard U.S. agriculture and the nation's food supply from terrorism.

“As our nation and the world prepare to embark on a war against terrorism, there are concerns and speculation about how agriculture and other sectors of the economy will be affected,” said Bob Stallman, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation.

“An attack aimed at the safety of our food supply and agricultural infrastructure could cause widespread and long term damage. We must continue to increase surveillance and insure that adequate USDA resources are available to combat any posed biological threat or to mobilize against any occurrence of agricultural terrorism.”

Stallman said agriculture “takes seriously the ability of terrorists to transmit a foreign animal disease into the U.S.,” and other ag experts worry that it would be possible to loose potentially destructive crop diseases.

While they admit it would be difficult, because of the vast acreages and distances involved, to launch a single crippling blow to the nation's agriculture, the impact of a poisoned fruit scare, a hoof and mouth disease outbreak, a contaminated grain occurrence, or destruction or crippling of major food processing facilities, could result in significant supply disruptions and, as bad, the loss of public confidence in the safety of the food supply.

The economic impact on the U.S. agricultural system could be enormous — many billions of dollars. Worse would be the chaos that could result from empty supermarket shelves and a nation forced into backyard food production.


e-mail: hbrandon@primediabusiness.com