By Bob Norton

Reuters reports that China’s embassy in Indonesia has expressed alarm about media reports accusing China of using a “biological weapon” against Indonesia, after four Chinese nationals were arrested for planting imported chili seeds contaminated with a bacteria. Although the details are not yet clear, this case illustrates the potential for economically motivated agro-sabotage/agroterrorism. Countries or companies wishing to gain economic competitive advantage could intentionally contaminate agricultural production areas with plant or animal pathogens, thereby gaining advantage in the marketplace.

There is significant geopolitical potential in such acts. If done by a company without the knowledge of the host country, that is a criminal act of economic sabotage. If the act were done with the knowledge of the host country, or done by the actual government or military, this would be an act of war and an international war crime. The trick is determining which type of event actually occurred. Determination of the actual liability is dependent in part on the findings related to the motivation of the perpetrator or perpetrators.

The biggest problem with this kind of event is the ease with which such sabotage could be accomplished. International trade ensures the exchange of agricultural products into countries, where those products can contaminate (intentionally or accidentally) domestic agricultural production areas. This is not to say that international commerce should be curtailed, but does indicate the need for robust inspection capabilities for imported goods. Trade has rapidly outpaced the ability of the government to inspect all incoming food and agricultural products. Smuggling is also a serious problem for the United States and most nations.

Technological advances could aid in detection of the type of events described in the article, but these technologies are expensive and not globally available. Beyond the technology is the need for a robust Intelligence capability focused on agriculturally based threats. Unfortunately, the U.S. lags in this capability. Serious investment will be needed to improve capabilities, which will certainly be required in the future because agro-sabotage/agroterrorism at the level described here could become more frequent.