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Diligence needed to combat bioterrorism attacks on agriculture

But no one need wonder whether an enemy of the United States is capable of attacking us through our food supply. After September 11, 2001, one dares not wonder at anything any number of terrorist organizations or rogue nations would do to harm this country.

“The threat to and vulnerability of U.S. agriculture are real,” says Neville Clark, who actually does work for ICAAB.

Clark, in a presentation to the Texas Seed Trade Association recently in Dallas, said agriculture might be more vulnerable than folks would like to think.

“The large size of our agricultural production system and the complexity of it make it vulnerable,” Clark said. He said would-be-terrorists would find access relatively easy. “Our system is highly concentrated. And our limited genetic diversity makes crops and livestock susceptible to foreign diseases.”

He said more than 80 known plant diseases could pose a significant threat to U.S. cropland. And livestock diseases such as Newcastle’s, hog cholera, foot and mouth disease, anthrax and Rift Valley fever could cause devastating injury to poultry, swine, sheep, goat and cattle operations.

Clark said the threat could come from terrorist organizations, such as Al Qaeda, or from hostile nations, including Iran, Iraq and North Korea. “Disgruntled employees also cause some concern.”

Clark said the former Soviet Union maintained an active program for developing and collecting disease organisms designed to harm U.S. agriculture. “At one time, from 10,000 to 60,000 workers were involved in developing agricultural organisms,” he said.

Unfortunately, the fall of the Soviet Union did not eliminate the threat and may have exacerbated it.

“We are concerned about the dispersal of the organisms and the technical personnel involved in the operations,” he said. “We’re concerned that some of these organisms and personnel may now be working for rogue nations.”

He said biological weapons have been used before, in Tokyo and more recently with the anthrax exposures in the United States. The existence of these and other organisms, coupled with the ease of entry into the United States, makes agriculture vulnerable, he said.

The threat is two-pronged: pre-harvest crop injury creates an economic hardship for both livestock and crop producers. Post-harvest infection threatens public health.

“The two may overlap, as well,” Clark said. Processing facilities, transportation points and delivery sites all pose infection opportunities.

Animals could be infected by contaminated feed or delivery of an organism into feedlots or other production sites. Crops also could be susceptible to disease organisms through seed or in-season delivery.

Clark said the foot and mouth disease outbreak that hit the United Kingdom a year or so ago probably was not a terrorist act. But that tragedy shows how devastating a disease can be.

“They found that mass culling did not provide a workable solution to the problem,” Clark said. “The disease overwhelmed the country’ diagnostic capability.”

He said a scarcity of vaccine delayed use and allowed the outbreak to continue. “And lack of early detection led to rapid spread of the disease.”

The economic impact was staggering. “They had to suspend livestock trading and curtail trade agreements,” he said. “The damage begins the instant of diagnosis.”

That’s a gloomy picture of what could happen here, Clark said, but needn’t.

He said prevention includes a host of individuals, agencies and organizations. Early detection is crucial, as is rapid identification of the disease, an equally rapid response and a rapid return to trade.

“We have to think like the bad guys,” he said. “We understand that it does not take a lot of damage to disrupt confidence in our food supply.”

The key, he said, is for the United States to reduce the attractiveness of agriculture as a terrorist target. Prevention includes vaccines against known diseases, resistant varieties and consistent diligence. He said biotechnology will play an important role in protecting the nation’s food supply.

“We need to improve our diagnostic labs and make certain we contain foreign animal diseases at the border.”

Clark said first responders should watch for anything unusual and report quickly. That diligence begins with farmers and ranchers who may notice something unusual about their crops or livestock or be aware of strangers around their operations.

Extension service specialists and county agents, veterinarians, diagnostic lab technicians, grain dealers, state and federal regulatory agencies and others who come into contact with crops and livestock early in the transportation chain also are part of the first response team.

He said the Texas countermeasure effort includes a Governor’s Task Force, the Texas Department of Agriculture, the Texas Animal Health Commission, the Department of Health, the Department of Public Safety, Texas A&M and other universities.

“We have to develop a foreign animal disease plan and a plan for plant protection and bio-security. TDA will shoulder regulatory responsibility.”

Clark said diligent regulation will be necessary, “but we want to avoid over-regulation and instead focus on improvements to facilitate a rapid response.”

Clark said ICAAB had begun working on bio-terrorism prevention two years before 9/11/01. “We had recognized the potential as early as 1990, but 9/11 put it into perspective.”

e-mail: [email protected]

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