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Saturday, 27 October, 2001, 14:18 GMT 15:18 UK
Terror risk to crops examined
combine in wheatfield
Scientists want to know how serious a risk there could be to agriculture
Alex Kirby

As scientists seek the source of the anthrax spores sent through the US mail system, others are investigating whether plants could also be a target.

If diseases were artificially introduced to a country's crops, the consequences could be grave.

More than a third of crop yields in the developing world are lost to pests and diseases.

But some scientists doubt that deliberate crop infection would be simple.

One international agricultural research group told BBC News Online: "We are investigating the possibility that bioterrorists could target farms.

"We're trying to see how feasible it would be, and what the consequences could be for production.

Deliberate spread

"Certainly pathogens can move from one country to another, and this has happened accidentally.

"But what we don't know at the moment is whether you could package the pathogens in the same sort of way as the anthrax spores have been treated."

Another international group contacted by BBC News Online and asked to name possible plant pathogens of concern suggested Agent Orange, a defoliant used in the Vietnam war.

Even if pathogens could be spread by terrorists, making sure they did the damage they were theoretically capable of might not be simple.

Climatic differences, cropping practices, and established local microbial competitors could all seriously weaken their power to spread havoc.

And for every successful invasion by an alien pathogen, there are probably several failed or inconsequential attempts.

Superpowers prepared

But there are still nagging doubts, and reassurance is hard to find. In December 1999 the New Scientist Magazine reported:

"Crop bioterrorism may not have made it on to the agenda in Europe, but a growing band of plant pathologists and defence analysts in North America claim that if your aim is to wreak economic damage, destabilise governments, or simply get a business advantage, there are few easier targets than those lonely waves of grain.

"No one is claiming that such attacks have already happened - although that has not been ruled out.

"But at a symposium on anti-crop bioweapons at the joint American and Canadian Phytopathological Society meeting in Montreal in August, they argued that measures must be taken now to stop bioterrorist strikes against crops becoming inevitable.

"Crop diseases are not a new temptation. By the time the US renounced biowarfare in 1968, it had stockpiled 30,000 tonnes of wheat stem rust spores to drop on the Soviet Union, and a tonne of rice blast for Asia.

"The Soviet Union stockpiled wheat stem rust, and pathogens of maize and rice. Iraq had a wheat smut bomb."

See also:

16 Oct 01 | World
The threat of bio-terrorism
20 Feb 01 | San Francisco
Biotechnology in the front line
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