Environmental Rights and Biological Agroterrorism

by Emma Dismukes


Agroterorrism is a form of environmental human rights offense. When an individual, group, or government intentionally introduces disease into the food production system, the results are detrimental to the public health and economic stability of the community.[1] The Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment has recognized the rights of people to enjoy a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment.[2] Agroterorrism directly undermines this right. This is a modern-day approach to biological warfare and is easily defined. There are instances, as scientific knowledge grows and adapt, that are not as black and white as they once appeared. These developments in technology may require an updated understanding of Agroterrorism and its impact on the human right to the environment.

Removing the autonomy of a subset of the community who most directly rely on the land for their wellbeing, and thereby limiting their access to cultivate food and earn a livable wage, is cruel and manipulative.  According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), “[a]groterrorism is a threat to national security and could result in increased human illnesses and deaths, widespread destruction of crops and livestock, and significant economic loss to the Nation’s farmers and ranchers.”[3] Attacks on agriculture affects both the national economy, as well as community well-being and security,[4] particularly “in the event of a public health scare resulting from foodborne outbreaks or the spread of animal pathogens contagious to humans.”[5]

Agricultural workers are already an at risk population for the many detrimental health consequences associated with farming.[6] It is also one of the few industries where the families of employees are also directly impacted by the same health and environmental consequences.[7] In the United States, the population mostly responsible for farm labor is foreign born, with over 50% operating as unauthorized labor.[8] Additionally, this subset of people are extremely underpaid, with the median family income in 2001 under $15,000.[9] Across the U.S. in that same year, the median family income was $52,000.[10] Over three-fifths of farm workers live in poverty. This makes farming communities extremely susceptible to environmental harms resulting from agroterrorism. This applies not only to the U.S. agriculture industry but is true of farmer’s vulnerability world-wide.[11]

The majority of research and reporting on agroterrorism focuses on the impact these events have on the national economy, while ignoring the direct hit to the health and welfare of agriculture dependent communities.[12] In contrast with the typical cases of environmental human rights abuses, agroterrorism is less likely to be analyzed than unintentional consequences of development and corporate structure.[13] Agroterrorism is no less harmful to those directly impacted by the environmental harms, and in fact the impacts can be very similar.

It is very clear that intentional introduction of plant or animal disease for the purpose of disrupting a countries economic and public welfare is classified as agroterrorism, but what about more subtle methods of disrupting environmental health in food production? If a government acts with an imperialistic purpose in diverting the success of a nations agriculture system, they too are guilty of agroterrorism. The United States, in a bid for control over the burgeoning ethanol industry, has disrupted the corn industry in Mexico by subsidizing the introduction of genetically engineered (GE) seeds.[14] The use of genetically engineered seeds has increased the production of corn.[15] This has caused the price of corn, which communities have relied on as a source of food for generations, to drop.[16] Farmers are manipulated and communities have lost access to a piece of their culture.[17] The high value heterogeneous culture of maize agriculture in Mexico has lost extreme value due to generic GE alternatives entering the commerce stream.[18]

agroterrorism food crop

Maize Near Villavicencio”, by Neil Palmer (CIAT) is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

In many ways, this intentional introduction of GE seeds, in order to destabilize the corn industry and gain financial power and control over the production of the crop is very similar to traditional agroterrorism. By introducing GE strains of corn, they are affecting the corn industry, destabilizing the economy and violating cultural rights. It is particularly damaging the maize farming culture in Mexico because of cross contamination and has impacted even farmers who have not elected to use GE seeds. It has the same results as traditional biological warfare, but for some reason, because it is easily justified through scientific development, is not met with the same opposition as terrorism would usually face. The significant impact of GE presence has harmed these communities in the same manner as any other environmental human right violation has and should be treated with the same remedy structure and with extreme sensitivity and care.



[1] See Office of Inspector General, Audit Report 61701-0001-21, USDA: Agroterrorism Prevention, Detection, and Response (2017) [hereinafter USDA Audit Report].

[2] Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment, OHCHR.

[3] USDA Audit Report, supra note 1.

[4] See id.

[5] Agroterrorism: What is the Threat and What Can Be Done About it?, RAND Corp. (2003).

[6] Minority Farm Operator Occupational Injury Surveillance of Production Agriculture (M-OISPA) Survey, CDC.

[7] Id.

[8] Office of Programmatic Policy and Office of the Assistant Secretary for Policy, Research Report No. 9, USDL: Findings from the National Agricultural Workers Survey (NAWS) 3 (2005).

[9] Id. at 47.

[10] U.S. Census Bureau, P60-218, USDC: Money Income in the United States: 2001 1 (2002)..

[11] See generally Catherine Ward, Six Innovations Liftin the World’s Agricultural Workers out of Poverty, Nourishing the Planet (Sept. 3, 2012).

[12] See, e.g., Glenn R. Schmitt, Agroterrorism – Why We’re Not Ready: A Look at the Role of Law Enforcement, NIJ; Agroterrorism: What it is and Why it Should Matter to You, Smith, Gambrell & Russell, LLP (2009); Jim Monke, Cong. Research Serv., RL32521, Agroterrorism: Threats and Preparedness (2007).

[13] See, e.g., SERAP v. Nigeria, Judgment, ECW/CCJ/APP/12/07, ECOWAS (Nov. 30, 2010),and; Mossville Environmental Action Now v. U.S., Inter-Am. Ct. Report No. 43/10, Petition 242-05, (Mar. 17, 2010); Minors Oposa v. Secretary of the Department of Environmental and Natural Resources, 33 ILM 173 (1994), S. Ct. of the Philippines (July 30, 1993).

[14] John Ross, the Plot Against Mexican Maiz: Big Biotech Takes Advantage of Corn Crisis to Force Farmers to Buy GM Seeds, The Indypendent (Feb. 25, 2007).

[15] Carmelo Ruiz-Marrero, Genetic Pollution: Biotech Corn Invades Mexico, CorpWatch (Mar. 20, 2002).

[16] Id.

[17] Id.

[18] Ross, supra note 14.



Emma Dismukes is a second-year law student at Northeastern University School of Law with a focused interest in sustainable food production and environmentally safe agricultural and livestock practices. Emma is the co-chair of the Northeastern Environmental Law Society and a staffer on the Northeastern Law Review. She believes that access to safe, toxin-free, food and surroundings is a right and not a privilege and hopes to pursue a career in furtherance of this conviction.

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