Terrorists could target farms

18 May, 2005 08:45 PM
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THE threat of biological terrorism against Australia's agricultural sector was a real and growing threat according to new university research.

Carl Ungerer a terrorism specialist and lecturer at the School of Political Science and International studies at Queensland University said Australia¹s disease-free status made it a prime target.

The issue was brought to the forefront last week by a letter to the New Zealand Government, which claimed Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD) had been released on a small island off the coast of Auckland.

"Australian agriculture remains free from many foreign animal diseases that have crippled livestock in other parts of the world," Dr Ungerer said.

"But the deliberate introduction of a biological agent such as Foot and Mouth disease (FMD) or avian influenza could have severe economic and social costs for Australia."

He said a determined terrorist group could acquire biological material from infected animals in South East Asia, and transfer it to Australia in six to eight hours.

"Our largest cattle farms in Queensland and the Northern Territory are only a few short flying hours from centres of endemic diseases in Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand," Dr Ungerer said.

"Animal diseases are not usually infectious to humans, it presents far fewer risks for the terrorist than the use of human biological pathogens or chemical agents."

He said agriculture contributed around 4pc of Australia's gross domestic product and a large share of exports, something that could be put at risk in the event of an attack.

"The 2001 FMD outbreak in the United Kingdom cost more than $10 billion to the British economy," Mr Ungerer said.

"A similar multipoint outbreak of FMD in Australia, with its much larger farms and greater reliance on agricultural exports, would have devastating economic consequences including widespread job losses in the food processing and tourism industries."

Dr Ungerer said some work was being done regarding possible accidental outbreaks of FMD

THE Federal Government allocated $586 million last year and $560m in the latest budget for quarantine border security.

But government agencies at state and federal levels had paid little attention to the deliberate introduction of a biological agent by a terrorist group, according to Dr Ungerer.

"Structural weakness within the agribusiness sector, including poor farm security and the absence of a national strategy to deal with biological weapons, only increase the vulnerability of Australia to a deliberate agro-terrorist attack," Dr Ungerer said.

The research to be published in the prestigious American journal Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, pointed to a number of policies to mitigate the threat of agri-terrorism.

Dr Ungerer's recommendations included better intelligence sharing between ASIO and the business sector, improvements in farm and border security and a national education campaign for frontline workers such as veterinarians and farmers.

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