By Dr. Robert A. Norton
Special to Poultry Times
AUBURN, Ala. — Rumors of pending war seem to be everywhere in Washington, D.C. A recent Washington Post article quoted testimony dating back to 2013 by a national security analyst with the RAND Corp., who warned North Korea was more likely to carry out an attack with biological weapons than with nuclear devices.
The analyst, Bruce Bennett, went on to say the rogue nation has "…the ability to wage biological warfare with germs like anthrax, cholera, plague and smallpox…"
Why would the Washington Post reference four-year-old testimony? The simple answer is that the testimony is unclassified, while most other references to North Korea's capabilities are classified. Most of what the U.S. and its allies know about the hermit nation comes from spies and Intelligence tradecraft, which are never spoken of publicly.
So is Bennet a reliable and knowledgeable source of accurate information? Not knowing the man, I can only characterize the testimony as incomplete but highly plausible. The urgent question is, could North Korea's biological weapons program be a threat to animal agriculture in the U.S. and allied nations?
The simple answer is yes. The exact nature of that threat is not known publicly and likely never will be, since the U.S. scrupulously guards its intelligence sources and methods; telling the public what we know goes a long way toward telling our adversaries how we know. This means the public has to rely on experts willing to talk publicly-people like Bennet.
And Bennet has said North Korean biological weapons could pose a serious threat to the Republic of Korea, other countries in Northeast Asia, and the United States. North Korea may have developed a variety of serious biological weapons agents and is reported to have experimented on political prisoners with some of these agents.
Unfortunately, animal agriculture would be a plausible target for North Korean biological weapons, because Americans could be hit indirectly by hitting our food supply.
No one, including the "experts" inside or outside U.S. government, knows exactly what could happen were a thinking and capable adversary to target animal agriculture. It's never happened before, and we really don't know how bad it could be.
Bennett's testimony gives clues to what might happen. He said that during the past 10 years North Korean scientists and researchers have engaged in research to produce vaccines and diagnostic test kits for avian flu, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and anthrax. In 2004, scientists and Ministry of Health produced an anthrax rapid diagnostic kit.
Bennet has noted that such research is not only valuable for defensive biological warfare but could be directly applicable to offensive operations, according to a 2011 report by Jane's Sentinel Security Assessment, a highly reliable private military technology analyst group known for its accurate assessments of foreign militaries.
Another quote by Bennett raises concerns. "Since anthrax is not a major health concern in North Korea, one must wonder, in particular, about the motivation behind the North Korean anthrax defensive programs," he said.
Defensive programs can be used to obscure offensive programs, and agriculture is a probable target. Two of the biological agents that might be used are anthrax and avian influenza-meaning cattle and poultry production systems could be designated targets, should North Korea choose to attack the U.S. or our allies with biological weapons.
The threat of agro-terrorism is very real and not overstated, so how do we prepare? Two goals must be accomplished immediately.
First, biosecurity planning must be made more robust. An agro-terrorism event likely would unfold as many events at many locations, so there must be more communication between producers and processors. People in the industry are the first and most knowledgeable bio-detection sensors and first responders.
In addition, know what is happening in and around your facilities. Never let anyone enter your fields and facilities without knowing full well who they are and why they are there. If they don't need to be there, they never should have been allowed there in the first place. Practice it and perfect surveillance.
Secondly, don't wait until an actual emergency to practice response procedures. Is the decision tree appropriate to the threat? If you don't know, you had better find out-and fast! Make sure the call list is accurate, and then practice, practice, practice.
Complexity and confusion will be the watchwords in an agro-terrorism event. Therefore — prepare, practice and preserve — you and your livelihood. Stay vigilant and stay safe.
Dr. Robert A. Norton, a professor with Auburn University's Department of Poultry Science in Auburn, Ala., is also chairman of the AU's Food System Institute's Food and Water Defense Working Group (www.aufsi.auburn.edu/fooddefense). He is a long-time consultant to the U.S. military, federal and state law enforcement agencies. His food defense blog can be found at aufsi.auburn.edu/fooddefense/blog/.
Norton and production of this article were supported by the Alabama Agricultural Experiment Stations and the Hatch program of USDA's National Institute of Food and Agriculture. The article represents the personal opinion of Norton and does not reflect official policy or statutory related opinion of the federal government, NIFA or USDA.