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Students ready for terrorist attacks in food supply

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Students ready for terrorist attacks in food supply

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March 13, 2008

Dead pigeons don't usually attract much attention. But a few hundred of them infected with avian influenza and mysteriously found in several U.S. cities would cause, at the least, a media storm.

Fortunately, this scenario wasn't being discussed by a terrorist group. Instead, University of Georgia students made the attack through a PowerPoint presentation. Their classmates were geared up to defend against it.

In the "Terror and the Food Supply" class, students learn the strengths of the nation's food system and work to find its weaknesses through mock terrorism attacks using sodium cyanide and avian influenza. They learn to contain attacks, too, said Nick Hill, a UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences professor who teaches the class.

"There are very few students trained in this initiative of agrosecurity," Hill said.

The class is the first offered in the UGA certificate program in agrosecurity. UGA is the only university in the U.S. that offers a program "with comprehensive study of the plant, animal and food industries in relation to policy and food system security," said Sarah Workman, with the CAES Office of Global Programs. She wrote the proposal that got the program started.

A search on usajobs.gov shows 1,513 jobs related to homeland security, 15 within 100 miles of Athens, Ga. The agrosecurity certificate program can help UGA students get these jobs.

"There are a lot more openings for people who have a systems view of the food supply," Workman said. "We need people who will connect the dots and keep their eyes open for ways to assure our food and farms are not vulnerable to hazards."

UGA student Pauline Nguyen initially went into food science because, "literally, I like food, and I like science," she said.

But after Hill spoke in one of her classes, she decided an agrosecurity course would be an interesting way to fill one of her major's requirements. Agrosecurity is now her new career choice.

"I'll be changing the world because I accidentally signed up for a class," she said.

In 2004, Tommy Thompson, former U.S. secretary of health and human services, said he was surprised terrorists had not attacked the U.S. food supply. The words struck Hill, who in 2006 created the class on terrorism and the food supply.

In 2007, the CAES offered the agrosecurity certificate program.
This year, science-specific students can add three courses to their college majors, receive the certificate and get hands-on experience in how to handle agricultural incidents, assist in emergencies and help keep the U.S. food supply safer.

"Only 0.1 percent of the food imported into the U.S. gets tested," Hill said. "It's interesting because we're net importers of food - primarily fruits and vegetables. It's an opportunity for people to strike us."

Portions of this story were taken from an article published in the Athens Banner-Herald.