Agricultural Extortion and Terrorism

Single bottles of wine from La Romanée-Conti, the legendary vineyard of Burgundy, sell for upwards of $10,000. In 2010 the owner received a threat, the vineyard would be poisoned unless the owner paid one million euro. When the owner didn’t pay a map was delivered that identified several vines that had already been poisoned by drill and syringe. The French don’t want to talk about this and for good reason, agricultural extortion is very easy and they fear copycats.

I have thought about this issue on and off for many years beginning with the Chilean grape scare of 1989. In that scare an anonymous caller to the US Embassy in Chile announced that Chilean fruit had been injected with cyanide. The FDA found two grapes with evidence of cyanide poisoning. Exports of fruit from Chile were temporarily banned, millions of pounds of fruit were destroyed and the Chilean fruit industry lost millions of dollars.  Many people now think the call was a hoax and the FDA evidence mistaken but either way the point was demonstrated, it’s easy to create millions of dollars worth of damage.

A few other lesser known cases are even more concerning. In 1996, for example, the police were tipped off that liquid fat at a Wisconsin rendering plant had been contaminated doing some $250 million dollars worth of damage. The criminal probably would never have been caught had not more threatening letters and further contamination followed. Eventually a competitor was charged with the crime.

It would be easy to do billions of dollars worth of damage to crops and animals with little risk of being caught. As the Chilean case indicates, even a hoax can damage. Fortunately, criminals usually aren’t very smart. The vine poisoner mentioned earlier, for example, was caught trying to collect the money. A little bit of economics would have taught him that you can make lots of money from agricultural extortion without ever having to collect from the victim (and no, I am not saying how although it won’t be a mystery to most readers of this blog). Of course, a terrorist doesn’t even have to collect damages to succeed–just a bit of mad cow or corn rust and we are in trouble (and those aren’t even the biggest threats.)

I worry that this one of those dangers that is so threatening we are afraid to worry about it.


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