I have to admit: I don’t normally read the e-mails from the Farm Bureau. I probably should pay more attention to rural politics, but I’m really just in it for the car insurance. And I’ve selected that provider for the most Iowan of reasons possible: My agent goes to church with my family back home. But when I read in one of their updates that U.S. Representative David Young (R-Iowa) had gotten a bill through the House to devote a portion of our nation’s Homeland Security efforts to something called “agro-terrorism,” I perked up. The Securing Our Food & Agriculture Act passed the House last month and its Senate companion – S. 500 – is pending before the Homeland Security Committee.
S. 500 on the surface sounds pretty benign. Its primary effect is to make the Assistant Secretary of Homeland Security for Health Affairs responsible for coordinating the defense of agriculture and food supplies against the threat of terrorism. But what threat do terrorists pose to our farms exactly? And what level of resources should be allocated to it? Fortunately, terrorism is a phenomenon that we can quantify.
After spending time in military service, the defense industry, and political advocacy, I’ve been privileged to finish out my graduate studies at the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism & Responses to Terrorism (START) at the University of Maryland. Most projects at START involve confidential government reports, but our most significant research for public consumption is the Global Terrorism Database (GTD). The GTD is the most comprehensive of its kind, detailing more than 150,000 terrorist attacks dating to 1970. It is used and cited regularly by government officials, academics, and the media because it is as reliable as it is thorough.
I pulled the numbers from the GTD for attacks on “farm/ranch” and included “food supply” and “farmer” to catch anything agriculture-related. This returned a mere 14 terrorism incidents. Expanding the search to include “water supply” netted another seven. Out of 2,646 attacks in the United States, agriculture interests were targeted in 0.000079 percent of the total. By contrast, banks were targeted 216 times (admittedly this includes robberies by known terrorist groups), factories 68 times, and the electrical grid 58 times. Of the attacks that did occur, most were acts of vandalism perpetrated by radical environmental groups such as the Earth Liberation Front and Animal Liberation Front that are only sporadically active. Their activities would be better addressed by a good local sheriff than a national-security strategy.
The state of Iowa is (thankfully) similarly isolated from terrorist activity. The 19 terrorist attacks in our state have come primarily in three chunks – a series of bombings by black nationalists in the 1970s, a string of bank robberies by white supremacists in the mid-’90s, and a handful of pipe bombs set off by a mentally ill college student for some vaguely anarchist reasoning in the early 2000s. Iowa has never faced an attack from the global jihadists who constitute the largest threat to American national security. In the upper Midwest as a whole, the plurality of terrorist attacks have taken place in Illinois. Of 264 attacks in our region, almost 30 percent took place in Illinois in the 1970s. The threat to the Midwest is mostly stagnant, and we’re much safer now than we were in that turbulent decade.
I’m not naive; I know that few Senators are going to vote against anything to do with “securing” something as precious as our food and farms. But to apply resources and management attention to areas of low risk is at best grandstanding and at worst gambling with safety. Real security for our entire homeland requires a rational allocation of resources to counter real threats. Congressman Young’s bill and S. 500 don’t do that, and we have the numbers to prove it.
Steve Hoodjer is a Master of Public Policy candidate at the University of Northern Iowa. He currently works in the Unconventional Weapons and Technology division at START – the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism & Responses to Terrorism. The views expressed are his own and not those of the organization.