“What If?” Desiccating Narratives to Assess a Never Fulfilled Risk: The Case of Agroterrorist Threats

Thursday, 2 July 2015: 8:30 AM-10:00 AM
TW2.1.03 (Tower Two)
Vincent Cardon, CURAPP-ESS (University of Amiens-CNRS), Amiens, France; Paris, France
In a context of globalization implying increased human circulation and exchanges of plants, seeds, and biological material, and hence pathogens, markets, countries but also science have to face new challenges regarding plant health and food quantity and quality. After 9/11, some American plant pathologists evoked the possibility that ill-intentioned persons might use plant pathogens to attack crops and starve, or at least scare, the population. Such an intentional attack on crops has never occurred – or at least succeeded – in history. Those professionals obtained significant funding to assess that risk and prepare a response to it, though. Not to be outdone, the European Union launched two successive programs to build up “expertise”, and develop “awareness” and “preparedness” concerning that risk of intentional threats against crops or food chains, and to assess possible economic outcomes of such an attack. How can such a risk that has never become reality be assessed, and by who? Does this “awareness” towards a potential future threat change existing plant health specialists’ knowledge, missions and networks? We studied plant epidemiology networks and knowledge infrastructures in phyto-pathology in relation to the development of biosecurity issues (bio-risk assessment, bioforensic, bioterrorism preparedness, dual-use prevention).

The research is threefold. First, it is based on an international comparison between France, Italy and Great Britain based on interviews with the main actors (scientific, governmental etc.) involved in biosecurity issues at the national level. This initial focus on national action systems grounds more specifically the social study of the constitution of knowledge systems for biosecurity: main regulations at work and organizational framework (administration, agency, public-private), administrative and professional bodies for diagnosis and epidemio-surveillance capabilities, knowledge centres and research capacities etc. The second part of the study uses scientometric methods in order to explore how scientific communities dealing with biosecurity are structured. A complex network analysis of the scientific literature on the subject reveals how concepts associated with biosecurity agroterrorism, bioterrorism, but also the authors and institutions involved in the production of those concepts, analysis and recommendations, contribute to structure this field of research. Finally, we studied one of the European programs (FP7) mentioned above. We carried out interviews tracing back its history and that of the involvement of its members. Moreover, our participation to several meetings allowed us to observe how plant pathologists transformed literary scenarios of attack into Bayesian models of risk analysis resting on already existing expertise on plant pathogens. Our study aims at showing how uncertainty can constitute an opportunity for some professions, but also how its apprehension modifies surveillance networks, scientific production and, finally, how coping with uncertainty requires the use of narratives that have to be desiccated and transformed into risk assessment models to become operational.