India and Agricultural Bioterrorism
All war in modern times contains elements of terrorism. In ancient times the dictum of war was the threat that “my god is better than your god, accept it or else!” In modern times it is “my system is better than your system, accept it or else!” Many authorities have tried to define terrorism in different ways but none totally satisfactorily. The whole world is now aware of the September 11, 2001, attack in New York City and suicide bombers in Israel. The western media has defined the term terrorism in a specific way. My view is that terror is a feeling, which cannot be defined. We can only give examples. What we saw on the faces of little children injured by napalm bombs, running on a village street in Vietnam, is terror, and the system perpetrating it is terrorism.56 In modern times, war means causing maximum damage to the adversary by whatever means is possible, be it psychological damage; human casualties; death; damage to crops, food, health, properties, land, water, air; or even the annihilation of a civilization. Weapons capable of inflicting an ever-increasing amount of damage on the adversary—either immediately or over several decades—are the hallmarks of modern warfare.
Terrorism, therefore, is an integral paradigm of modern warfare. It is used by both adversaries, both strong and weak, against each other. It is in this context that this paper discusses the possibility of terrorist attacks targeting agriculture in India.
INDIA’S SUSCEPTIBILITY TO AGRICULTURAL BIOTERRORISM
The population of India has surpassed 1 billion people and it is still increasing. The country has to grow sufficient food for all of its people. At the same time, the
amount of land devoted to agricultural purposes is shrinking, and it is unlikely that more land will be brought under the plough. Further, conversion of forests or wetlands into agricultural use is beset with ecological problems such as deforestation and land erosion.
Traditionally, India has been an agriculture-based country. The “green revolution” —the introduction of high-yielding varieties of wheat and rice together with irrigation—has raised the value of agriculture further in the overall economy of the country.
In India, agriculture has never been solely a means of profit. For a very large portion of the population, it has been, and still remains, a livelihood and a way of life. Even today more than half of the Indian population depends on agriculture and agriculture-related activities for their livelihood. The concept of a farm as a factory is alien to the Indian population. Tradition and the small size of landholdings make Indian agriculture heavily dependent upon cattle. Indian agriculture is based upon cattle- and buffalo-drawn power. The number of cattle needed for milk production is also large. Animals transport agricultural products in the villages. During the last 20 years, milk production has been enhanced. This was achieved by crossing high-milk breeds with local breeds. These animals are of great economic value in the rural sector of the country.
India’s citizens generally refrain from eating beef on religious grounds. Beef production in India is not a very important economic activity. However, there is a large, but clandestine, trade of cattle between India and her neighbors Bangladesh and Pakistan, where the animals are slaughtered and consumed. It is not known whether these countries export the meat from these animals.
The total economic value of this clandestine trade in cattle is difficult to assess. A great danger of the illegal trade is that diseased animals will be smuggled from one country to another, leading to massive epizootics. There are many examples of the transnational and transcontinental spread of epizootics. The best documented examples are African horse sickness in India and Rift Valley fever in Egypt and Saudi Arabia. These viruses are of sub-Saharan origin. For a long time they were only found in the southern Sahara. Somehow the African horse sickness virus crossed the Sahara and reached India via Syria, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. It caused the death of 2 million equines in India (including many equines in the Indian Army). The Rift Valley fever virus crossed the Sahara and reached Egypt via smuggled camels. It produced an immense epidemic and epizootic in Egypt. The Israeli government used very stringent methods to stop the progress of the virus to Asia. However, recently the virus has crossed through the Horn of Africa in Somalia and has reached Saudi Arabia. It is only a question of time until it reaches India.
Processing of hides in India is an important industry. Workers who process hides are susceptible to diseases carried by cattle, such as anthrax, cowpox, and buffalo pox. Meat from sheep, goats, and chickens is the main source of animal protein for a large part of the meat-consuming population in India. The per capita consumption of meat is low in India compared with other countries. Indian consumption of eggs and poultry is showing a slow and steady increase. However, the total volume of trade and the economic value of sheep, goats, and poultry in the country are considerable, as is the number of jobs tied to these industries.
The breeding and trade of sheep and goats are still in the hands of traditional
shepherds, who have a nomadic lifestyle, moving with their herds from place to place. Local breeding and sale of sheep and goats also occur, although the magnitude of these activities is difficult to assess.
Poultry farming is carried out by a few large and many small producers throughout the country. The poultry industry was the last agricultural industry to be established in India and is better organized than the others.
The breeding of animals employed for agriculture in India is entirely in the hands of small farmers or individuals. It is true that for milk animals there has been a government program in conjunction with some of the agricultural universities. A number of organized dairy farms now operate in the villages. There are a number of milk cooperatives that function as nodal points for the breeding of milk animals. However, the breeding, use, and sale or exchange of draft animals are still predominantly within the unorganized sector. The sale or exchange of animals is usually carried out at cattle or animal fairs, where the owners bring their animals for display. The fairs are held throughout the country, and people travel a considerable distance to attend these fairs. Some fairs are very large. For example, the fair at Pushkar (near Ajmer in Rajasthan) or the Harihar Chhatra at Sonepur in Bihar attracts approximately half a million animals. In addition to draft cattle, milk cattle, buffaloes, camels, elephants, and horses are also brought to these fairs. Very large numbers of animals are crowded into a relatively small place for several days. The conditions are ideal for the spread of infections among the animals at the fair and for the distribution of these infections to other parts of India.
Unlike certain Southeast Asian countries and China, wild or exotic animals are not eaten in India, except as game from a hunting expedition, which is rare. Poachers do kill some wild game. They kill tigers for their body parts and skin, elephants for their tusks, rhinos for their horn, and deer or antelopes for meat. It may be remembered that wild animals are susceptible to some of the same diseases as domestic animals. These diseases include foot-and-mouth disease, Rinderpest, and pests petit ruminants. An epizootic in domestic animals may spill over to wild animals and decimate their population. This may create problems for the preservation of biodiversity. Conversely, domesticated animals can be infected by wild animals.
During the last 40 years or so, due to sustained efforts to increase the yield of milk, there has been extensive crossbreeding between exotic (for example, Jerseys and Holsteins) and Indian breeds of cows. Exotic breeds and crossbred animals are comparatively more susceptible to different diseases than are the local Indian breeds. Similarly, in order to improve the stocks of Indian sheep, crossbreeding with Scottish and Australian breeds has been carried out. Exotic and crossbred sheep also show a greater degree of susceptibility to diseases than do the local breed of animals.
Inland fisheries and prawn culture have emerged as important economic activities along the eastern coast of India. The total value exceeds a few billion rupees. These industries are susceptible to bacterial and viral infections that cause severe damage.
Marine fishing is emerging as an important activity. It is also susceptible to certain afflictions and to poaching by fishermen from other countries.
The surveillance system for animal and crop diseases in India is rather ill developed. Diagnosis of plant and animal diseases takes a long time, and much time is lost before remedial measures can be taken. This makes Indian agriculture very susceptible to terrorist attacks.
THE IMPORTANCE OF DIAGNOSIS
A large number of zoonotic, anthroponotic, and zoo-anthroponotic pathogens cause immense damage to humankind and to animals. A number of them circulate in human and animal populations. Sometimes, they are referred to as endemic diseases. Epidemic diseases emerge when changes occur in several of the following factors:
human intrusion in the ecosystem of a pathogen
changes in the ecosystem attributable to man-made causes
local and global climatic changes leading to an increase in the vector or pathogen population
increased human and animal population pressure leading to more rapid transmission of the infecting organism
rapid transport of humans or animals leading to the rapid spread of pathogens
global movement of processed or unprocessed food material
changes in vaccination policies (for example, stoppage of vaccination against smallpox has made people throughout the world susceptible to that disease)
changes in agricultural practices
increased storage and transport of food grains leading to an increase in the rodent population causing an increased occurrence of rodent-borne diseases
increased urbanization and the growth of urban slums, particularly in developing countries where large urban slums constitute a new kind of ecology for the sustenance and propagation of infectious diseases
increase in vector populations of infectious diseases leading to the rapid transmission of vector-borne diseases such as dengue and malaria
increase in vector resistance to insecticides
changes in the virus population that are reflected in its pathogenicity
changes in the parasite population reflected in the increased resistance of drugs to parasitic diseases such as malaria
This list is suggestive, not exhaustive. However, it is sufficient to indicate that pathogens of humans and animals are susceptible to many factors in their pathogenicity and disease-producing propensity. An intentional introduction of a pathogen or pathogens to achieve destructive goals can be accomplished by any number of different methods or by taking advantage of the natural conditions prevailing in an ecogeographical area. Certain pathogens, such as smallpox, anthrax, Rift Valley fever, tularemia, and plague, are perpetual and can be directly employed for biowarfare. Segmented RNA viruses, such as influenza, are perpetually emerging in nature, and new variants can certainly be produced in the laboratory with relative ease. The recent synthesis of wild-type poliovirus in the laboratory, and the introduction of IL4 gene and synthetic segments of DNA in the mouse pox and vaccinia viruses respectively, to make them more virulent, point to both the triumph of molecular biology and the diabolic possibilities for inflicting harm.
When human pathogens are prepared as biowarfare agents, special precautions are required to protect the people who are making them and the people in the vicinity of the production facility. When biowarfare agents that affect agricultural crops are prepared,
precaution must be taken to contain them in the manufacturing facility so that they do not spread throughout the countryside. Nonetheless, since biowarfare agents that affect agriculture do not affect the people who are manufacturing them, they are more easily converted into weapons.
Though early diagnosis of a pathogen is essential, it is equally important to know whether the pathogen is man-made or has evolved in nature through natural processes. The rapid diagnosis of an offending organism is essential for the implementation of administrative and public health measures to prevent it from spreading. It is also key to determining appropriate modes of treatment for affected humans or animals, including the development of vaccines.
Appropriate forensic diagnosis of the pathogen can be of immense help in identifying the culprits if a bioterrorist attack occurs. There is a presumption that the courts would recognize the process and the methodology of forensic diagnosis. If a terrorist attack occurs, attempts must be made to rule out the arrival of a virus or a pathogen by natural processes and to determine its creation by artificial means in the laboratory.
It is the job of international policing and security systems to detect laboratories used for the development of pathogens. Unfortunately, the Biological Warfare Convention of the United Nations is under suspended animation. Under such circumstances, it is of utmost importance for India to develop a scientifically (and legally) acceptable system for rapid diagnosis and forensics of pathogenic agents. Recent developments in molecular biology, including genomics and proteomics, make this a real possibility. The recent work on Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) has demonstrated the efficacy of a microarray system in the rapid diagnosis of the virus and its recognition as a novel virus within a very short time frame. Automated sequencing of DNA or RNA viruses has also helped in the diagnosis of offending agents.
FOOD DEPRIVATION AND FAMINE
The final common path of agricultural damage is food deprivation and famine. India is considered to be self-sufficient in food grains and is a grain exporter, even though it has the largest population of malnourished children in the world. This is due to inequities in food distribution and the capacity to purchase food. India is indeed in a state of precarious balance.
The Bengal famine of 1943 (abetted by His Majesty’s government) was a terrible man-made disaster. International manipulation of the food supply caused the loss of 3 million lives and had far-reaching physical and mental health consequences.57 The Bengal famine was attributable not to a shortfall in food grain production, but rather to a lack of food-purchasing power on the part of a very large section of the population and no food distribution system to get food to the hungry masses. The famine was followed by epidemics of malaria, cholera, typhoid, dysentery, and smallpox. (In modern times, AIDS and tuberculosis epidemics add to the misery of hunger.)
It is my conviction that the partitioning of Bengal between India and Pakistan was possible only because of the consequences of the famine in 1943. The demoralized
population could not resist and meekly submitted to the partition plan. We should guard against this type of situation arising out of political warfare. Lessons learned from the Bengal famine should not be forgotten. In this era of globalization, the world’s economic powers could conceivably manipulate the food supply of a particular nation. Possible scenarios involve giant biotechnology companies, genetically modified crops, and the globalization of agricultural products. A man-made food shortage is a real possibility.
India has 6 to 7 million tons of food reserves, but these would be wiped out by two or three successive crop failures in different parts of the country, tilting the balance from self-sufficiency to deficiency. A bioattack during a lean period could aggravate the situation beyond repair. A conventional attack on food stocks could substantially damage them. A biological attack—introduction of fungal spores or poisons—could render the good stocks unfit for human or animal consumption.
ATTACKS ON THE ANIMAL POPULATION
The sheer physical problem of disposing of carcasses would pose serious challenges such as in the case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE, as in the recent U.K. outbreak. Needless to say, if a very large number of agricultural animals were to die, famine would be sure to follow.
The effect that a disease affecting food grains, cattle, or poultry would have on trade and commerce cannot be properly calculated. The economy of a nation can be crippled for several years by incidents such as the appearance of avian influenza affecting humans in China. The mere threat of a disease can cause extensive damage to a nation’s economy. The SARS scare in China is the most recent example. Diseases in fisheries can also be very damaging. In one instance, diseases in prawns created a panic across Southeast Asia, including in India. Furthermore, diseases in domesticated animals can spill over to wild animals, such as deer or antelopes, potentially damaging biodiversity.
A number of viral, fungal, and bacterial diseases of food crops and animals are already extant within India. Therefore, it is important to determine whether an outbreak is man-made or natural.
A number of diseases affecting rice are transmitted by insects (vectors). The insect population can rise very quickly and can transmit such organisms as the Tungro virus very rapidly, causing tremendous damage to crops. In 2000, the Tungro virus, transmitted by white flees, caused enormous damage to the rice crop in West Bengal. The introduction of a vector population, which can breed rapidly or in different conditions, or can transmit the organism more efficiently, can cause much damage. Mutant strains of viral, fungal, and bacterial diseases of food crops and animals can be generated by those who seek to inflict harm. Stocks of fungal spores sufficient to infect every rice and wheat plant on earth have been produced by some groups. Rift Valley fever, Rinderpest, and new variants of foot-and-mouth disease are high on the list for ruminant diseases. Chicken diseases and recombinant viruses of influenza that can jump the species barrier (for example, from chickens to humans) are also important. New strains of natural influenza (H5Nl types in China and Hong Kong and strain H7N2 in the Netherlands) have emerged that jump the species barrier and are potentially quite dangerous.
Similar viruses can be prepared in the laboratory. Many of the viral diseases that affect animals can be genetically engineered to attack humans. The de novo preparation of wild poliovirus, of virulent mouse pox virus by the introduction of a new IL4 gene, or of a virulent vaccinia virus by the introduction of new variola virus genes are possible. They could be prepared by people with evil intentions.
There are a number of methods that terrorists can use to inflict harm. They can burn or poison food stocks, destroy the food transport system, introduce poisons or infectious agents into processed food products or stored food grains, or pollute water with pathogenic organisms. With increasing amounts of processed food on the market, this method is likely to pose a greater danger in the future. Tampering with water quality is particularly dangerous in a time of water scarcity.
In modern warfare, the food production system of a country is often a prime target for destruction. North Koreans are not likely to forget the “object lesson in air power to all the communists in the world and especially the communists of North Korea” that was delivered in 1953, a month before the armistice in Korea and reported enthusiastically by the U.S. Air Force. U.S. bombers were dispatched to destroy irrigation dams furnishing 75 percent of the controlled rice supply for North Korea’s rice production. This loss of a staple commodity slowly starved the population to death. We may wonder whether such memories are in the background as the desperate North Korean leadership plays “nuclear chicken.”58
Historically, the Caliphate civilization in Iraq was annihilated by the hordes of Hulagu Khan (Hun), who destroyed the centuries-old irrigation system in the Tigris-Euphrates Valley. It can be argued that such massive damage to a country’s irrigation system can only be done by a very powerful adversary. It must be realized that damage to a few key irrigation dams, such as those in Bhakra-Nangal or Mettur, by terrorists could cause extensive damage to India’s agricultural productivity.
Who are the likely perpetrators of bioterrorism in India? At present the following groups of terrorists operate in India.
First, there are religiously stimulated terrorists abetted with foreign funds and support in Kashmir, Punjab, Bombay, Ahmedabad, and parts of the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. Second, there are separatists groups in northeastern India, which operate solely in that region and, at present, are unlikely to get involved in grain-producing areas in other states. They might target plantations with specific diseases that affect tea. With foreign assistance, these groups may be able to extend their activities to other parts of the country. Third, there are Maoist-Marxist groups in Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Chattisgarh, and Andhra Pradesh, with possible connections in Nepal, that work predominantly in the tribal areas of these states and among landless laborers.
These groups target government organizations with conventional types of firearms and explosives. Amartya Sen and P. C. Mahalanobis have shown that during the Bengal famine, the people who were most affected were those who did not have adequate
land on which to grow their own food for the year.59 Landless laborers, weavers, fishermen, and sailors had to earn wages in order to buy food. Many of these families were annihilated during the famine. Since the Maoist-Marxist groups rely on such people in the tribal areas for support, they are unlikely to indulge in agro-bioterrorism.
Any external power in conjunction with any one of the other three groups listed could change their objectives and modus operandi. Other domestic groups such as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) or global groups such as al Qaeda have not indulged in agro-bioterrorism so far. However, according to press reports, al Qaeda does have such ambitions.
WHAT CAN BE DONE: TEN PROPOSALS
As far as India is concerned, the following list constitutes a comprehensive 10-part approach to the prevention, detection, and amelioration of bioterrorism.
There must be an efficient surveillance system, with rapid communication systems. Public panic has to be controlled by providing appropriate and accurate information to the media.
Rapid diagnostics for plant and animal diseases, including fish and chickens, is important. This should include reagents for diagnosis, safe laboratories for handling pathogens, and trained employees. Modern genomic and proteomic technologies can help in rapid diagnosis and forensics. Development of a sound and foolproof system for sample collection and a transport system for sending the specimens to the diagnostic laboratory is a very important aspect of a working diagnostic system.
India needs to develop databases for all pathogens affecting important crops of the country. During a bioterrorist attack the perpetrators may use a single organism or multiple organisms. The organisms may be classically known pathogens, including Rinderpest, foot-and-mouth disease virus affecting cattle, brucellosis affecting milk animals and humans, and plant pathogens affecting food crops. Newly created pathogens or organisms with increased virulence or ease of transmission can be designed by people with highly sophisticated laboratories.
For a proper diagnosis and to determine the methods of control, it is essential that the laboratory system have a comprehensive inventory of all the known pathogens with their DNA or RNA sequences in an epidemiologic-epizootic database for rapid comparison. It would be necessary to obtain the various pieces of equipment and reagent systems for rapid diagnosis and their evaluation under simulated field conditions. Development of a specimen bank for standards and a serum bank from different kinds of animals from throughout the country is a sine qua non for such an endeavor. Needless to
say, development of such a comprehensive diagnostic system requires international cooperation to technically train the personnel. Rapid-action forces for damage control must be created.
A sound, democratic political system that can ensure the distribution of life-sustaining food to all sectors of society during times of scarcity is the best insurance against indigenous terrorism. It must be remembered that the prolonged insurgency in Mizoram arose because the government was unable to address a near-famine situation in Mizoram caused by crop failure. Hunger produces anger: the Adivasis in central India, Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, and Jharkhand are chronically hungry, and they have turned to terrorism.
The legal system must be able to deter, apprehend, and punish offenders. In my opinion, the Indian Prevention of Terrorist Act (POTA) and the Indian Penal Code are hopelessly inadequate to deal with biowarfare and bioterrorism, particularly agricultural bioterrorism.
India must develop capabilities in i-forensics60 for dealing with bioterrorism and biowarfare. Such forensics is totally different from ordinary forensics, and India must start from scratch in this field. India could look closely at the U.S. Bioterrorism Act of 2002 and work out a system suitable for its own circumstances.
An interactive system of government officials and social workers can improve food and water hygiene and detect and report anything amiss.
International cooperation is important for information exchange and extraditing bioterrorists. The revival of the 1972 Biological and Toxic Weapons Convention (BWC) is necessary so that a workable arrangement comparable to the Chemical Weapons Convention is available worldwide. Vectors of diseases as potential agents of biowarfare should be included in the BWC.
There must be continued development of disease-resistant varieties of crops such as rice, wheat, sorghum, sugarcane, pulses, and oilseed. So far, Indian scientists attempt to obtain resistant cultivars through classical genetic methods. The methodology is slow, but it has been proven to be useful. Several Indian scientists have mastered the technology, and therefore research should be continued. New molecular methods are likely to give faster results. Such methods should certainly be introduced and fostered, but not at the cost of classical methodology. Each methodology has its advantages and disadvantages.
Finally, we must critically assess genetically modified (GM) crops for their profitability and sustainability, and when considering “farmer’s rights.” GM