Biological weapons: attacking the food chain

  • Using a biological weapon on livestock could have a seriously detrimental effect on a country's infrastructure.
  • Anti-animal bioterrorism should therefore be addressed with the same dedication afforded to other weapons of mass destruction.
  • Historical incidents illustrate the need to plan for anti-animal bioterrorism attacks.

Over recent years much has been made of the threats posed by the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) into the hands of non-state actors, and the issue has risen quickly to the top of international security agendas.

Analysts report that terrorists are increasingly interested in developing attack strategies designed to inflict elevated levels of damage and create ever-greater levels of fear. Unsurprisingly, the possibility of these weapons finding their way into the hands of those willing to use them on unprotected civilian populations has raised serious concerns.

Destructive force

The phrase 'weapons of mass destruction', as currently understood, encompasses nuclear, biological and chemical weapons. This corresponds with the original definition of WMD, which marked out a number of weapons intrinsically different from conventional arms. The original list of WMD was more exhaustive but the same three categories of weapons dominate both. A debate continues, however, over whether biological and chemical weapons should really be considered WMD as even if their use killed more people, they would produce considerably less destruction than the detonation of a single, low-yield nuclear weapon.

The primary effects of chemical and biological weapons, as traditionally envisaged, are to cause human suffering or death. Their secondary effects include the inducement of fear and socio-political disruption. They do not destroy property, infrastructure or material. This has led to them being labelled by some as 'weapons of mass disruption'. This characteristic was part of the reason they provoked military interest in the first place: to compromise enemy military forces while leaving all of their infrastructure, supplies, resources and so on in perfect working order.

Contemporary definitions of chemical and biological weapons, in both international and national legal frameworks, cover arms that target humans, animals and plants. Biological weapons used against animals can inflict immense damage to national livestock. Attacking this property with biological weapons destroys their utility and value. As a result, an anti-animal biological weapon (AABW) can be considered to be a weapon of mass destruction. Furthermore, the technological hurdles to obtaining and deploying these weapons to instigate a mass-destruction event is considerably lower than with other weapons and is well within the reach of some non-state actors. Therefore, anti-animal bioterrorism deserves to be addressed with similar levels of dedication as the proliferation of other WMD to terrorists and should not be seen as a secondary or ancillary subject.

Conceptualising an attack

There are no documented cases in recent history to form the basis of any threat scenario for a biological weapon attack on livestock. Luckily, early threat assessments on this topic have been made public. One such document is a report dating from September 1954, The Susceptibility of UK agriculture to attack by the viruses of Foot-and-Mouth Disease. It could be argued that the capacity to undertake such an attack, the sole preserve of powerful states in 1954, is within the reach of well-organised terrorists in 2006. d The 1954 report considers a theoretical attack with foot-and-mouth disease, using sabotage techniques to target cattle markets and their ancillary services in the UK. Cattle markets were used as targets because they possess higher concentrations of animals than farms and offered more scope for the movement of infected animals throughout the country. They were, therefore, their own means of dispersal. The report concluded that a single infection in a heard was enough to establish an outbreak. The scenario developed for the report involved six cattle markets being infected with index cases of the disease. In 1954, each of the markets dealt with over seven thousand head a week - figures have increased significantly since then. Attacking six such facilities with foot-and-mouth disease would result in an epidemic covering almost the entire country (see Figure 1).

The UK study determined that the aim of an attacker would likely be to cause a sufficient number of outbreaks to overwhelm preventative precautions, resulting in the disease achieving endemic proportions. The report suggests that if several hundred foci of infection were to occur over a period of between three and six weeks (as would be the case by attacking the six cattle markets), control capabilities would be unable to cope. This would result in the infection and death (either through infection or as a preventative/control measure) of large numbers of animals. It was reported that if successful, such an AABW attack could result in the loss of 15 per cent of UK livestock. Losses could be doubled by successive attacks with different serotypes.

The investigation also highlighted that an attack, as well as killing a large proportion of sheep, pigs and cattle, would have implications for food supplies (of between 650,000 and 870,000 tonnes), political stability and the economy.

The 1954 estimates indicated that the UK would need to import 207,000 tonnes of emergency foodstuffs to make good the losses. Such an event, by modern standards, would be considered a catastrophe.

Recent history would seem to suggest that similar vulnerabilities still exist. The outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in the UK in 2001 stretched response capabilities to their limit as indicated by the large numbers of carcasses left to rot while adequate disposal strategies were developed. This epidemic provides a useful lens through which a modern anti-animal biological attack can be viewed.

The epidemic in the UK was confirmed on 20 February 2001 and the country was not officially declared disease free until almost a year later. The source of the outbreak was never identified, but epidemiological investigations have indicated that the outbreak began with the infection of animals at one abattoir in Essex. Interestingly this can be defined as an ancillary service as outlined in the 1954 UK scenario. The figures collated from the 2001 outbreak would be considerably lower than if a biological attack, with six foci of infection, had taken place.

By the end of the 29th week of the epidemic, 2,008 outbreaks of the disease had resulted in more than 1.175 million confirmed infections in more than 30 counties (see Figure 2). By this point, almost three million sheep, more than 500,000 cattle and more than 100,000 pigs had been slaughtered.

Estimates of the total cost of the epidemic range from around GBP1 billion (USD1.9 billion) to tens of billions of pounds, depending upon what was included. Compensation packages arranged for those struck by the disease included: GBP600 million (USD1.1 billion) for culled infected livestock, GBP150 million (USD291 million) for culled healthy livestock, GBP72 million (USD140 million) for the tourist industry and GBP43 million (USD83 million) for rural communities. The economic effect of the epidemic must be considered massive.

The outbreak also had serious political ramifications, with the postponement of a general election and regional authorities ignoring central government edicts. Serious social effects mirrored the political problems. There were reports of farmers committing suicide, fears over food shortages, job losses and the closure of large numbers of leisure facilities and events.

The ecological effects were no less dramatic: independent research established that carcass pyres were dramatically increasing local levels of airborne pollutants. Waste from burnt carcasses had been pumped directly into the sea and fears surfaced over possible water pollution. When it became clear that the burning of corpses would have to be abandoned, other options, including burial, were examined. Burial itself was not without problems, as there were concerns over river pollution due to burials in the proximity of water sources. Dramatic environmental effects were witnessed when 1,500 sheep carcasses were dug up and burnt in Powys after reports of blood bubbling up through the ground.

There were even military ramifications as British soldiers were 'barred or restricted' from taking part in NATO exercises due to the risk of spreading the disease.

As a result, a successful AABW attack on a developed country, such as the UK, with a well developed animal-health architecture, would still lead to the mass destruction of property resulting in significant economic, socio-political and environmental problems.

Weapons and non-state actors

The acquisition and use of AABWs by non-state actors incorporates bioterrorism, criminal events using these weapons (those lacking a political motivation or the use of fear as a weapon), threats of use and allegations of the deliberate instigation of outbreaks. The use, or threat of use, of AABWs by non-state actors is rare. Of the 853 incidents involving WMD recorded in the database compiled by the Center for Non-proliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute by 2000, only 25 targeted animals or crops and only four led to the death of animals.

Although such events are rare, they do still occur. For example, Mau-Mau guerrillas in Kenya resorted to bioterrorism in 1952. They used an extract from the African Milk Bush to inoculate cattle.

A serious biocrime was committed as recently as 1997 in New Zealand, when a group of farmers admitted to smuggling a rabbit pathogen into the country and spreading it to control population levels. Equally,t allegations over the deliberate instigation of animal disease outbreaks continued into this century.

There have been, and likely will continue to be, non-state actors willing to use disease as a weapon against animals. It is possible to envisage a number of scenarios where such weapons could be used in the future, including attacks by international terrorist organisations with religious, social or political objectives, or by criminals who might use disease against animals for economic reasons, such as opening up new markets or closing down competitors (due to export restrictions placed upon states suffering from many of these diseases).


The history of AABW demonstrates that the development of these weapons is feasible and can be achieved with limited access to science and technology. The approaches adopted in the past appear antiquated by modern standards and are accessible to all states and most non-state actors. Furthermore, the effort and resources expended to develop AABW illustrates their perceived tactical and strategic value.

Threat assessments and recent experiences with animal disease outbreaks suggest that a successful anti-animal biological attack on a developed country, such as the UK, with a well-developed animal-health architecture, would lead to the mass destruction of livestock resulting in significant economic, socio-political and environmental problems. Furthermore, even the briefest review of non-state interest in these weapons reveals there have been, and likely will continue to be, people willing to use disease as a weapon against animals.

Future threat

Assessing the likelihood of a future AABW attack relies upon access to classified information. Those with access to this information have been quoted, stating that there is an apparent increase in interest amongst terrorist organisation in acquiring WMDs. It is imperative, therefore, that the issue of AABW receives greater attention than now and that prudent steps are taken to minimise the chances of such weapons falling into the wrong hands. The first step should be an exhaustive threat assessment that could be used as part of a comprehensive risk management framework. n

Dr Piers D Millet is a political officer in the Department for Disarmament Affairs of the United Nations Office at Geneva and has been a member of the Biological Weapons Convention Meetings Secretariat since 2001.

    A brief history

    Examining the history of state-run programmes establishes the desirability, feasibility and utility of these weapons.

    Germany: First World War

    German anti-animal biological weapons (AABW) sabotage programmes have been documented on three continents, in five countries (the US, Argentina, Spain, Romania and Norway). There is also indicative evidence of similar operations in Italy and France. This was the first biological weapons programme of the modern era and exclusively targeted animals.

    The German programme was based upon a rudimentary understanding of the mechanisms of disease and used contemporary scientific understanding to create simple delivery mechanisms. AABW operations close to Germany were supplied directly with agents from home, while operations at more distant locations required local production facilities. Both approaches took advantage of logistical resources operated by various arms of government, including those from the military, intelligence and civilian fields, suggesting that senior officials were aware of, and were sponsoring, the programme. German AABW activities appear to have been designed to interrupt the shipment of animals destined for Allied use on the Western Front. Agents inoculated animals directly with glanders or anthrax using simple homemade delivery devices. The efficiency of the programme has yet to be established - those involved claim hundreds of thousands of animals were infected and made militarily useless but no documentary evidence has been discovered to confirm or deny these allegations.

    Other early programmes

    France appears to have conducted an offensive research and development programme for biological weapons, including animal sabotage, in the lead up to the First World War. Documentary evidence from both French and German sources suggest that limited sabotage activities were conducted during the war, targeting German mounted troops.

    German archives also suggest that Poland had developed a rudimentary sabotage capability, which was used by saboteurs to target German livestock. Archives from the UK indicate that the Netherlands, Belgium and Ireland had also indicated an interest in developing biological weapons during this period.

    UK: mid-20th century

    Although the majority of UK interest in biological weapons seems to have been directed against humans, a substantial AABW programme existed. During the Second World War, Operation Vegetarian saw the design and assembly of five million anthrax-laced cattle cakes and the development of a strategy for their widespread dispersal over German agricultural areas. These weapons were never used and were destroyed after the war. Offensive activities, however, continued.

    UK interests shifted from anthrax to foot-and-mouth disease. The issue of AABW sabotage rose in prominence and was a recurring issue at the meetings of the Biological Research Advisory Board (BRAB), established to guide UK biological weapon activities. Developments in the field were pursued in concert with the US and Canada. Due to a reorganisation, AABW activity was moved outside of the BRAB in the early 1950s. Informal co-operation with allied states continued but interest in the programme waned and offensive activities were eventually abandoned.

    US: mid-20th century

    There are indications that during the 1940s offensive AABW activity occurred at Camp (later Fort) Detrick, the primary biological weapons facility in the US. By the end of the decade, the US Air Force had established a requirement for AABW to target horses, cattle and swine.

    Due to US legislation there were serious hurdles to working with these agents on the US mainland. This problem was overcome in 1952 by the opening of Fort Terry on Plum Island, New York. The US Chemical Corps, the body overseeing US Army biological warfare work, ran this facility. Fort Terry was tasked with researching and developing AABW agents. The causative organisms of foot-and-mouth disease and rinderpest appear to have received the most attention but work also focused on swine fever, fowl plague, Newcastle disease and warthog disease. At least four delivery devices were also constructed elsewhere, including: spray tanks, balloon bombs, feather bombs and particulate bombs. Complete weapon systems had been tested prior to 1957. There are also indications that the US was interested in developing a sabotage capability, although few details have made it into the public record. Offensive activities waned during the 1950s with Fort Terry being transferred to the US Department of Agriculture and shifting to purely peaceful research. It is likely all US offensive activities ceased prior to their unilateral rejection of biological weapons in 1969.

    Other mid-century programmes

    Germany appears to have had an active research and development programme for AABW during the Second World War. Although Adolf Hitler prohibited offensive biological weapon activities, other senior figures appear to have worked on the issue. Historical archives record the testing of a foot-and-mouth disease weapon in 1943. The programme ceased as the war turned against Germany.

    The well-documented Japanese biological weapons programme of the same era also included a dedicated anti-animal and anti-plant team, Unit 100. For the most part, there was little differentiation between anti-personnel and anti-animal utility. The Japanese studied numerous zoonotic diseases. The Japanese developed a variety of dispersal devices including hand grenades and balloon bombs. Offensive biological weapons activities were abandoned and the programme was dismantled in advance of progress made by Allied troops.

    Soviet Union programmes

    Russia admitted that the former Soviet Union conducted offensive biological weapons activities almost up until its collapse. A series of defectors provided many details pertaining to its concealed anti-personnel programme. Much less information is available about its anti-animal activities. It appears that Project Ecology, the codename for the anti-animal and plant programme was comprised of three sections: one targeting plants; a second targeting animals; and the last examining weapons to target both humans and animals. It has been described as one of the most successful Soviet biological weapons programmes. Project Ecology is believed to have had dedicated research, production and testing facilities working with a range of anti-animal agents. There have also been allegations that the Soviet Union used AABWs in Afghanistan. The programme seems to have been abandoned prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union.

    Lessons from history

    The history of anti-animal biological warfare demonstrates that the development of these weapons is feasible and can be achieved with limited access to science and technology. A relatively small number of agents have been associated with these programmes (see Common anti-animal agents). The approaches detailed in past offensive programmes would appear antiquated by modern standards and easily accessible to all states and most non-state actors. Furthermore, a wide variety of powerful, advanced States saw sufficient tactical and strategic value in these weapons to warrant investing considerable efforts and resources. The concepts involved might, therefore, not be as outlandish as when first considered.

    DiseaseMicro-organism Most common host organism
    Anthrax Bacillus anthracisHerbivora
    GlandersPseudomonas malleiEquines
    PlagueYersinia pestis Animals, Fowl, Fish
    Foot and mouth diseaseAphthovirusCloven hoofed animals
    TularaemiaPasteurella tularensis Ticks
    RinderpestMorbillivirus Cattle
    Newcastle diseaseParamyxovirusChickens, Turkeys, Pheasants
    Avian influenzaMyxovirus,Influenzae Most avian species
    BrucellosisBrucella spp  
    (in Cattle)B. abortus Cattle
    (in Pigs)B. suis Pigs
    (in Goats)B. melitensisGoats
    (in Sheep)B. ovisSheep
    (in Dogs)B. canisDogs

Explore our related content