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New federal law steps up work on agro-terrorism defense

New federal law steps up work on agro-terrorism defense

July 30th, 2017 by Bob Watson in Local News

Beef-producing cattle could be a potential target if enemies of the United States decided to attack the nation's food chain. Politicians and agricultural leaders are concerned about the possible effects of agro-terrorism on the nation's food supply.

Photo by Julie Smith /News Tribune.

"Food security is national security," Missouri Pork Producers Executive Vice President Don Nikodim said last week.

He is one of many agricultural leaders concerned the nation's food supply could be targeted in a terrorist attack.

"A good example of a threat for which we are ill-prepared — one with devastating ramifications for hog farmers and for other livestock producers — is a foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) outbreak," he explained.

"Two points should give us pause: FMD is easily spread through the air. And among al Qaeda documents found in a 2002 military raid on an Afghan cave were ones about infecting U.S. livestock with FMD."

Mike Deering, the Missouri Cattlemen's Association's executive vice president, added: "The cumulative impact of a foot-and-mouth disease outbreak on the beef and pork sectors over a 10-year period is projected to exceed $128 billion. The annual jobs impact of such a reduction in industry revenue is estimated to surpass 58,000 in direct employment — and nearly 154,000 in total employment."

While there always have been concerns about food safety, they multiplied after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Stewart Truelsen, a food and agriculture freelance writer, noted last year — in a Missouri Farm Bureau "Cut to the Chase" column — a 2002 University of Minnesota economics professor's white paper outlined biological weapons threats to livestock and crops.

"Among top concerns," Truelsen wrote, "were the introduction of foot-and-mouth disease in feedlots and the spread of deadly pathogens, like anthrax, on fruits and vegetables. Another threat was the contamination of corn and soybean oil to disrupt all downstream users and manufacturers of processed foods."

Food safety was one of then-President George W. Bush's reasons for asking Congress to create the federal Homeland Security Department in 2002.

In a briefing booklet, the Bush administration said then: "The Department would unify our defenses against agricultural terrorism — the malicious use of plant or animal pathogens to cause disease in the agricultural sector. The Department would exclude agricultural pests and diseases at the border. It would strengthen national research programs and surveillance systems to shield agriculture from natural or deliberately induced pests or disease."

The proposal argued the new department would work with the U.S. Agriculture and Health and Human Services departments to "ensure rigorous inspection and quality assurance programs protect the food supply from farm to fork."

Fifteen years later, those concerns remain. Last month, President Donald Trump signed into federal law the "Securing our Agriculture and Food Act," which requires the Homeland Security secretary to lead the government's efforts to secure the nation's food, agriculture, and veterinary systems against terrorism and high-risk events.

U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Missouri, co-sponsored the bill with Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kansas.

McCaskill recently told reporters the new law "mandates that they have people in place — and they have people working around the clock and throughout the year — to help protect livestock and limit the spread of contagious diseases, and to monitor any possible technology developments that would allow terrorists to attack our food supply."

In his news release announcing the president's signing the bill, Roberts said, "The spread of any deadly pathogen among our livestock and plant population would cause irreparable damage."

He noted Homeland Security is building the National Bio and Agro-defense Facility (NBAF) in Manhattan, Kansas, and said: "Now is the exact time to" make sure the government is ready to act "should the worst occur, and the nation is hit by a biological attack on our food and agriculture."

Deering said the Cattlemen's Association "certainly supports requiring better coordination, collaboration and communications among federal agencies. These agencies need to be focused on solving problems and working together, to be prepared for the unintentional and intentional introduction of diseases into the livestock industry in Missouri and throughout the United States."

Agriculture has a huge impact on the national economy.

In Missouri alone, a state Agriculture Department study for 2016 determined agriculture, forestry and related industries contributed:

$88.4 billion in economic impact.

378,232 jobs.

$17.5 billion in labor income.

$6.2 billion in state, local and federal taxes.

Noting agriculture's economic importance, McCaskill said efforts to fight agricultural terrorism are as "essential" as the focus on cyber-security, border security and airline travel.

The new federal law follows a 2014 Senate-passed resolution — co-sponsored by McCaskill, Roberts and Sens. Jerry Moran, R-Kansas, and Roy Blunt, R-Missouri — highlighted the importance of bio-security.

"Further development of the Animal Health Corridor in the Kansas City region is the next step in bolstering our nation's biosecurity and agro-defense," Blunt said then.

"Farm families in Missouri and nationwide understand the severity that these devastating attacks could have on our food supply, the agriculture industry and our national security."

Part of the concern is the vastness of the nation's agricultural production space — Missouri alone has nearly 100,000 farms using 28.3 million acres for agriculture production.

In his 2002 Minnesota white paper, economist C. Ford Runge concluded those wide-open spaces meant it would be hard for terrorists to do serious damage to the American food system.

But technology and weapons of mass destruction would make it easier to target production facilities and water supplies, Runge said.

McCaskill said the new law doesn't seek to control the "millions of acres of farmland and ranches and feeder-pig operations" around the country.

Instead, she explained: "I think it's more about what could be used to interrupt our food supply — in other words, what kinds of agents could be introduced that would contaminate the food supply? What kind of contagious diseases could be introduced into the food supply, and do we have antidotes for them? Are we prepared to address some kind of issue like this, that could arise?"

Nikodim noted the United States "doesn't have the capability, now, to deal with more than a small, localized FMD outbreak, which is why the livestock industry is urging Congress to establish a robust FMD vaccine bank through the 2018 Farm Bill."

Deering said the Cattlemen's Association also supports "full funding for an FMD vaccine bank to protect American agriculture and its consumers," adding that without it, "the consequences would be catastrophic. Period."

He noted the nation's beef cattle industry has taken "well over a decade to get back up to speed in Asia," after a 2003 scare involving a disease known as BSE.

Missouri's Farm Bureau delegates have adopted a policy that says: "We must continue to increase surveillance and ensure that adequate resources are available for USDA and other agencies to combat any posed biological threat or mobilize against any occurrence."

The Farm Bureau policy supports "funding for the development of ways to better safeguard agriculture and America's food supply from the potential impact of agro-terrorism."