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Ripe for Attack: American Farmers Fear Agriterrorism

It's harvest time across America, and while prices are still a primary concern, farmers like Iowan Dave Pepper realize they could be facing something even more troubling: agriterrorism.

"My big concern is food security, how can we feed our nation if our food supply becomes tainted," says Pepper.

The food supply has been tainted before. Seventeen years ago, a cult spread salmonella in supermarkets and salad bars throughout Wasco County, Oregon--750 people were poisoned. Since then most grocers and food processors have tightened security nationwide.

"Yes, we're vulnerable. However, the real issue is whether we are prepared to respond to whatever might happen, and we don't know what might happen," says Edward Mather of the National Food Safety and Toxicology Center.

It's that uncertainty that's so unsettling, reports CBS News correspondent Cynthia Bowers. Many worry terrorists might find America's 400 million acres of farmland a tempting target.

"Clearly as we look at all the different threats to our country, it ranks right up there," said Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle.

But experts point out this country's crops are so spread out and so hardy, it would be difficult for any terrorist to engineer an epidemic.

"You could spend a lot of effort and the weather wouldn't cooperate and nothing would happen. We know that because we try to make crops sick all the time and sometimes we fail," explains plant pathologist Mark Gleason.

Far more fragile are the nation's farm animals. Most are raised in barns and pens, where infections can spread quickly. Last year the beef industry in Great Britain was decimated by an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease.

"It scares the pants off us sometimes, but we have to be ready and I think we are," says Iowa State University Veterinary College's Dr. Norman Cheville Dean.

However remote the prospects, if a terrorist were somehow able to introduce a disease like foot and mouth into American livestock the economic fallout could be enormous. In Iowa alone, cattle and hog production is a $5 billion a year business.

When asked what it would mean if we have to start quarantining or embargoing livestock, Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Patty Judge says, "It would mean a literal shutdown of commerce in the state."

To prevent contamination Dave Pepper grows his own feed, disinfects himself before entering his hog pens, and keeps strangers off his property.

"We can't spend our life down at the end of the lane guarding the driveway up. When it comes right down to it there's only so much we can do," Pepper says.

That may be true, but Iowa's farmers are now unlikely soldiers in the war against terror, defending their farms and the nation's food supply.
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