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Bioterrorism dead serious, official says

Safeguarding America's food supply is very serious business, and the fight to protect against biological warfare is far from over, according to Dr. Floyd Horn, with the U.S. Office of Homeland Security.

Biological warfare “can affect each and every one of you here,” Horn told the approximately 140 producers, university researchers and government officials gathered at the recent Food and Agricultural Biosecurity Summit at the Austin Hilton. The summit was co-sponsored by Texas A&M and Texas Tech universities.

The summit is part of the Agricultural and Natural Resources Summit Initiative, which began in 1993 to identify and resolve high priority issues facing Texas agriculture and natural resources.

“A safe, reliable, adequate food supply system is, I believe, critical to national security,” said Susan Combs, Texas agriculture commissioner, who was also one of the kickoff speakers for the two-day summit.

Horn said terrorism is “dead serious, and we really are at war. (Terrorists) want to get us, they want to get our economy, they want to kill us, they want to make us sick, get us out of the global marketplace, and they want to get us out of their part of the world. And they have very few constraints about how they want to go about it.

“We know that there are many nations that have biological weapon capabilities,” or the “poor man's nuclear weapon,” he said.

There are some nationalist groups, including Al Qaida, who have tried very hard to acquire biological weapons capabilities, he said.

In one unclassified document, he said, there are numerous examples of briefings given to Al Qaida about agricultural and biological warfare.

Recipes for bioterrorism written in English have been found in notebooks in the caves of Afghanistan and in the weapons and terrorism camps.

“All that is emerging now since we have access to better intelligence…would terrify the average farmer,” he said.

It is estimated that from 40,000 to 70,000 people went through the terrorist training activities in Afghanistan alone, “and we only know of where 8,000 of those are,” he said.

“There's a strong suspicion that many are in the U.S. already, probably nested in safe and secure positions where they are going to be very hard to find until they're called upon to do harm,” Horn said.

Agriculture is particularly vulnerable, in part because it is such a giant part — about 15 percent, Combs said — of the gross domestic product. One in six jobs in this country stems from American agriculture.

In exports, it is the one business that always has a positive return, she said.

“We produce more corn and soybeans (in the United State) than any other country in the world,” Combs said. America is also noted for having one of the most reliable and safe supplies of food in the world — and at a reasonable cost.

U.S. agricultural production and food-processing systems are large and complex, and easily accessed by almost anyone, Horn noted.

Also, American producers and scientists have done such good work with genetic selection that many of the major crops and livestock are relatively homogeneous and therefore could be susceptible to carefully selected or created disease organisms, Horn said.

The psychology of real, or threatened, outbreaks of disease can be devastating, he said.

Citing last year's outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in the United Kingdom, Horn said, “The psychology of this was awful. I met some of these people.

“The suicide rate was way up, people lost tremendous amounts of genetics (from animal seedstock) that had been in their families for generations, and many of them were not only stripped of their livestock and their livelihood, but their barns, if they were built of wood, were torn down and (used to burn carcasses).

It was something that was hard to imagine. The psychological impact of that, even on a national scale, will be very difficult to recover from.”

Economically, all of the livestock markets were tremendously affected.

The price of Scottish beef immediately shot up. Markets in the United Kingdom had just taken a hit from bovine spongiform encephalopathy (mad cow disease) when foot-and-mouth disease hit last year.

“The livestock markets went to the pit,” he said.

The outbreak created major political disruptions, a prime objective of terrorists.

“When people lose their faith in government to protect the food supply, there's big trouble. This is ice cream for the average terrorist, and it's something we have to worry about every day here,” Horn said.

The “take-home message” for participants at the summit is to “sustain an interest, believe there's a problem, and make sure you know as much as you can about what goes on in your sphere of influence” to prevent terrorism.

Agricultural producers and researchers need to add a “law enforcement mentality” to all their thinking.

Research needs to contribute to prevention of problems, and new tools to rapidly detect diseases are needed, he said.

Also, the agricultural community needs to be educated in “good, solid biosecurity practices based on good solid research,” Horn said.

Combs said, “There's no substitute for each man, woman and family member to take a look around their own backyard, their own shed, etc.”

Agriculture is the second-largest industry in Texas, Combs said, and farm and ranch receipts amount to about $15 billion annually.

“If you roll (the receipts) through the local communities, where you buy the gas, you buy the feed, the seed and the fertilizer, that makes about $45 billion,” she said. “You double that one more time because you've got a cotton tablecloth here (when) you had lunch, (that amounts to) $80 billion; all the grocery store businesses, all the truckers, all the people who are engaged in one form or fashion (in) the farm-to-fork chain.”

Texas is the livestock capital of the world, Combs said. “We have more animals than people,” she said. The state is No. 1 in the production of cattle, sheep and horses.

In crop production, Texas is No. 1 in cotton and hay, and No. 2 in grain sorghum and peanuts.

“So here we are, this incredible ag engine. Now how easy is it to keep our state secure? Our size makes it incredibly difficult, but not impossible,” she said.

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