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Does US face agricultural terrorism?

By Sreekumar Raghavan in Mumbai
March 10, 2008 16:00 IST
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Are Americans really threatened by imported foods fearing `agricultural terrorism'? The theme could very well make a Hollywood thriller.

The recent visit of Michael O Leavitt, US Secretary of Health and Human Services and Dr Andrew von Eschenbach, Commissioner, Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to China and India was a pointer to the concern regarding safety of food imported into US from developing countries.

The recently concluded World Spice Congress in Goa had several international speakers deliberating on contamination of food imported from various countries. They also stressed how harmonisation of standards was required to ensure food safety and ease the travails faced by spices exporters from countries like India.

If that is not enough, a recent book by Brian Halweil, senior environmental research analyst and author of "Eat Here: Reclaiming home grown pleasures in a global supermarket" is even more revealing.

According to him, a few years ago the U S Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Agriculture ran a series of war games to see how the United States would fare against an act of agricultural terrorism.

For example, they asked what would happen if someone dropped some lethal E. coli into the mixer at a big food processing plant or someone walked onto a giant chicken farm with a sample of avian flu.

It was concluded that long-distance shipping and the centralisation of US food system made them into sitting ducks. Any spike in the price of oil, or large-scale food contamination -- whether accidental or malicious --

would cripple food supply.

Brian Halweil says that there is a new trend sweeping across America of preferring locally produced food. Even supermarkets such as Whole Foods and Wal Mart have started sourcing locally cultivated food. The number of farmers and food markets has also doubled in the last decade.

Apart from the spectre of agricultural terrorism, Halweil also point out that it is often bad economics to ship food from one continent to the other. The farmer in the producing countries get peanuts compared to what the wealthy consumers in advanced countries pay for the processed food.

"For most Third World exports, like bananas or coffee, the rural community actually gets very little of what wealthy consumers spend. Communities can often reap more benefit by processing the food for local markets instead -- like a group of women in Zimbabwe who were getting paid very little for their peanuts on the global market. After making peanut butter to market to local and national grocers, they kept profits that normally would have gone to traders, brokers, and processors," according to Brian Halweil.

The farther food travels, the less money stays in the local community and the less benefit that food has for the local community, he adds.

If indeed `grow more locally' trend catches on, what impact would it have on exporting countries that depend largely on agricultural exports?

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Sreekumar Raghavan in Mumbai

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