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Fighting Agroterrorism

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Fighting Agroterrorism

by Julie Cooper

Agriculture partners with USDA to protect food supply

To many, an academic degree in agriculture might mean a pathway to farming and ranching. But to an increasing number, it’s a step toward ensuring safety for the United States’ food supply. Threats to the nation’s food supply, which can impact public health and the country’s economy, are always a concern for the U.S. government. 

Since 9/11, the government has ramped up ways to deter “agroterrorism,” defined as terrorist acts intended to disrupt or damage a country’s agriculture. Part of that campaign against agroterrorism is being waged with education and training in food safety and inspection. In 2011, Texas State University received a $3.39 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) for its Food Safety & Agroterrorism Training Education (FATE) program. The university was one of seven federal Hispanic-Serving Institutions to be awarded the USDA grant. 

To add some perspective to the threat to food safety, Texas State agriculture professor Dr. Doug Morrish puts it this way:

 “What if I went to Iraq, or Iran, or any country where foot and mouth disease in cattle is pretty prevalent? I took out my handkerchief and rubbed it on a cow’s nose and put it back in my pocket. When I got on the plane to fly to the United States they check me for weapons, guns, or knives. But they don’t know I have foot and mouth disease on my handkerchief,” explains Morrish. “That person could then drive to Lubbock, throw that handkerchief into one of the pens and every one of those cows will get foot and mouth disease. When you really think about it, it is pretty scary.”

Although foot and mouth disease has not been a threat in this country since 1929, Morrish says such a scenario has the potential to cripple the nation’s beef supply.     

We recruited students anticipating they were going to come to a four-year university and major in agriculture or related science. We targeted biology students, engineering students, horticulture students, agriculture, and some kinds of life science.”

– Dr. Doug Morrish

Under the FATE grant, Morrish and Dr. Ryan Saucier, now a professor at Sam Houston State, trained 50 Hispanic undergraduates from community colleges in South and Central Texas for jobs in food safety and inspection or research with the Animal and Plant Inspection Service, the Food Safety Inspection Service, or another USDA agency.

Students received tuition and fee assistance, attended training and workshops, were eligible for USDA summer internships, worked with faculty mentors on research, and traveled to Costa Rica to study sustainable agriculture. 

At a USDA research lab in Beltsville, Maryland, Elizabeth Gomez studied the effects of pesticides on flies and herbicides on plants. Margarita Barco conducted research on poultry also in the Maryland facility. Marissa Martinez interned along the U.S.-Mexico border in South Texas inspecting truckloads of produce as it crossed the border.  David Vela completed five internships, four with the USDA as a FATE scholar and one with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Vela graduated in fall 2015 with a master’s degree in agriculture education and is pursuing a career with the Fish and Wildlife Service in an educational role.

In 2014 Texas State’s Department of Agriculture received another $1 million grant to train 21 students – 11 graduate and 10 undergraduate – to be certified by the Department of Homeland Security with experience in food safety, food security, and agroterrorism. 

“We recruited students anticipating they were going to come to a four-year university and major in agriculture or related science. We targeted biology students, engineering students, horticulture students, agriculture, and some kinds of life science,” Morrish says.  As a recruiter, he stresses to prospective students that agriculture education “is not just cows, plows, and sows.”  Since Morrish joined the agriculture faculty in 2005, enrollment has increased by roughly 54 percent, or about 470 students, in fall 2015.

In 2014 Texas State’s Department of Agriculture received another $1 million grant to train 21 students — 11 graduate and 10 undergraduate — to be certified by the Department of Homeland Security with experience in food safety, food security, and agroterrorism. Southwest Agriculture and Food Security Education (SAFE) works with students transferring from Austin Community College and Southwest Texas Junior College to Texas State and New Mexico State University.  

“Our students go and work for good places,” Morrish says. It might be the family ranch, large corporations such as H-E-B or state or federal agencies.

Changing the perceptions about agriculture education is one more thing to overcome. “That’s the battle we’ve had and that will probably be the battle agriculture will always have,” Morrish says.

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