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Biosecurity involves preventing and minimizing intentional harm to people, crops, livestock, wildlife and ecosystems caused by biological agents that are either naturally occurring or human-made. Biosecurity technology research and development, policy formulation and operational practices principally pertain mostly to military weaponry, agriculture and medicine. The development and use of biological agents in these and related fields, such as aquaculture, are controversial primarily because they have intended and/or unintended positive or negative impacts on public health. For example, introducing naturally occurring biological agents into an ecosystem in order to control pests that are causing crop damage may have unintended negative impacts on unharmful organisms in addition to the positive impact of pest control. Consequently some leading experts distinguish biosecurity from "biosafety" which involves preventing and minimizing accidental harms caused by biological agents.

Biological Weapons and Warfare

Potential benefits and concern over threats caused by biological agents, and therefore the need for biosecurity, has existed through the ages and particularly with respect to their use as weapons in biological warfare. The first recorded instance of biological warfare occurred in 1346 when bodies of Tartar soldiers, who had died of plague, were catapulted over the walls of Kaffa (present-day Feodosiya, Ukraine) in order to infect the besieged residents. During the 1500s, Spanish conquest of South America and the Caribbean Islands spread infectious diseases to these unprotected regions. Similarly during the last of the French and Indian Wars, the English used blankets infected with smallpox to kill native populations in North America. In all such instances, naturally occurring biological agents were used to kill either enemies (during warfare), or native peoples, who were perceived as potential obstructionists to national expansionism.

Following discovery of the microbial basis of infectious diseases (i.e., germs) in the mid-to-late 1800s by European researchers Louis Pasteur (1822–1895) and Robert Koch (1843–1910), programs to research and develop chemical and biological weapons were conceived and implemented by several governments. Such weapons consist of a launching mechanism, artillery or missile delivery system, and an exploding canister or warhead capable of releasing chemicals or airborne pathogens. If inhaled, ingested or absorbed through the skin, such pathogens can cause diseases such as smallpox, anthrax, plague, or botulism, debilitating or killing people, livestock and/or wildlife.

Deaths of over 100,000 soldiers from Mustard Gas (a type of chemical weapon) during World War I heightened worldwide concern over the potential harm of biological weapons. The Geneva Protocol of 1925 banned the use of both chemical and biological weapons, although several countries including the U.S. and the former Union of Soviet Socialists Republic (USSR or Soviet Union) maintained "bioweapons" development programs and insisted on their right to use biological weapons in reprisal attacks if such devices were first used against them. During World War II, only Japan is known to have actually used biological weapons, namely during its battles against China: nevertheless, Britain, the USSR, and the United States all stockpiled biological weapons in the war's aftermath.

During the Cold War era (1945–1989) fear of biological (or germ) warfare was largely replaced with fear of radiological and nuclear weapons, although huge stockpiles of biological weapons were maintained by several nations. Offensive bioweapons programs in the U.S. were unilaterally halted by President Richard Nixon in 1972, just prior to an international convention to eliminate similar programs worldwide. Beginning in the 1990s the prospect of terrorist attacks involving chemical, biological, radiological, or even nuclear weapons of mass destruction became a new threat. Shortly after September 11, 2001, letters containing a refined preparation of dried anthrax spores were sent through the mail infecting more than twenty people and killing five individuals in cities across the Eastern U.S. Though the extent of this attack was limited, Jonathan B. Tucker notes that "it hinted at the mayhem that could result from the deliberate release of weaponized disease agents." Hence, according to a report published online by Michael Barletta in 2002, "bioterrorism — the deliberate use of microorganisms or toxins by non-state actors to sicken or kill people or destroy or poison food supplies upon which we depend — poses an uncertain but potentially devastating threat to the health and well-being of people around the world." In response there has been concerted interest in developing sensing technologies capable of detecting potentially harmful chemicals and pathogens in the environment.

Biological Threats to Livestock and Crops

Biological threats to plants and animals that are relied on by humans for food have existed since the beginnings of agriculture and domestication. Since that time there have been many instances in which biological agents have disrupted human food supplies. For example, the Irish Potato Famine (1845–1849) resulted in over 1 million deaths from starvation, a tragedy that came about because genetically invariant potato plants grown in Ireland at the time were susceptible to rapid infection by Phytophthora infestans fungi. Lack of genetic diversity limits natural defenses to disease and to biological agents that are intentionally introduced into an environment. In addition, new biological strains of livestock and plant pathogens can easily cause significant harm because they rapidly infect elements of ecosystems that have not developed immunities.

Controlling the spread of infectious diseases and associated harms may involve restrictions on growing plants or breeding animals, and controls on harvesting, shipping or processing of these for food or other purposes, as well as controlling the economic and ecological impacts of invasive alien species. Several nations including the U.S., as well as some states within the U.S. ban importation of certain types of fruits and vegetables. Most governments also require livestock owners to inoculate their animals against disease, such as foot-and-mouth disease (FMD). In 2002 a severe outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in Britain required over 3 million animals in that country to be slaughtered. Controls to prevent the spread of infectious diseases may also need to involve quarantining livestock. The Paris-based World Organisation for Animal Health tracks infectious disease outbreaks in livestock, promotes animal health standards and makes recommendations for policy and legislation to governments throughout the world.

Government Oversight and Ethical Concerns

Introduction of naturally occurring or manmade genetically modified (e.g., recombinant DNA) viruses and experimental biotechnology into weaponry, livestock and plant and crops and medicine is controversial because, if not adequately controlled, these threaten the well-being of entire populations and ecosystems. For this reason government agencies in countries throughout the world impose health standards and carefully monitor and regulate experimental biotechnology research and development often as part of an overall biosecurity (and/or biosafety) policy. In the United States, the Department of Agriculture (USDA) has primary oversight of food production, processing, storage, and distribution; threats against the agriculture sector and rapid response to such threats; border surveillance and protection to prevent introduction of plant and animal pests and diseases; and food safety activities concerning meat, poultry, and egg inspection, laboratory support, research, education and outbreaks of food borne illness. Along with these responsibilities, the USDA also maintains a list of high consequence pathogens.

Also in the U.S. the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) regulates several biosecurity matters and maintains a worldwide emergency biological threat response, assessment and control capability. Originally formed in 1946 to handle malaria outbreaks, the CDC now identifies and investigates outbreaks of disease and indicators of bioterrorism attacks through BioWatch. This program, which is co-sponsored by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, includes over 4000 atmospheric monitoring stations located in cities throughout the United States, whose readings are constantly analyzed for evidence of harmful biological agents indicative of terrorist attacks.

The potential for dangerous microbes or their products being misused or mishandled and thereby causing harm to human beings and ecosystems on enormous scales also raises ethical concerns about their creation and management. Ethically, the potential for harm must be weighed against scientific, entrepreneurial or commercial freedoms to research and develop microbes for useful and even necessary reasons. Robert H. Sprinkle suggests that the classic "moral norm" shared among ethical scientists and physicians can be advanced by creating a "Biological Trust." Given ongoing invasions of ecological systems by alien species, as well as the potential for bioterrorism, other scientists including Laura A. Meyerson and Jaime K. Reaser concur that governments and scientists must work together to foster adequate and ethical policies and technological capabilities to prevent, detect, and respond to incidents involving microbes.

Today there is concern about whether or not professional ethics in science and engineering can adequately address biosecurity. Issues of particular concern pertain to international use of tax, trade and tariff policies to promote consistent biosecurity policies among nations; corporate investment in biosecurity research and development; and the fact that biosecurity in practice needs to be active and proactive for national deployments of sensing and monitoring technologies especially in unprotected metropolitan areas deemed most susceptible to potential harms caused by biological agents.


SEE ALSO Security; Weapons of Mass Destruction.


Barletta, M., (2002). Biosecurity Measures for Preventing Bioterrorism. Monterey, California: Monterey Institute of International Studies. Available from

British Medical Association. (1999). Biotechnology, Weapons and Humanity. Report prepared under auspices of the Board of Science and Education of the British Medical Association. Amsterdam, Netherlands: Harwood Academic Publishers.

Guillemin, J. (2001). Anthrax: The Investigation of a Deadly Outbreak. Berkeley, California: University of California Press.

Meyerson, L. A., and J. K. Reaser. (2002). "The Biosecurity: Moving Toward a Comprehensive Approach." Bioscience 52: 593–600.

Meyerson, L. A., and J.K. Reaser. (2003). "Biosecurity, Bioinvasions and Bioterrorism." Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 1(6): 307–314.

National Academies of Sciences. (2002). Predicting Invasions of Non-indigenous Plants and Plant Pests. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

Society of Photo-optical Instrumentation Engineers. (2002). Sensors, and Command, Control, Communications, and Intelligence (C3I) Technologies for Homeland Defense and Law Enforcement. Conference Proceedings of the SPIE, April 1-5 (Orlando, Florida) Bellingham, Washington: SPIE.

Sprinkle, R. H. (2003). "The Biosecurity Trust." Bioscience 53: 270–278.

Tucker, J. B. (2003). Biosecurity: Limiting Terrorists Access to Deadly Pathogens. Peaceworks No 52. Washington, DC: US Institute for Peace.

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