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Is Congress dithering while leaving American agriculture exposed?

There is no doubt the U.S. has dedicated, smart and well-financed enemies out there, and with the dominant position it enjoys in world of agriculture, it is probably only a matter of time before some anti-American group mounts an attack on the centerpiece of the U.S. economy.

Not long after the horrible events of Sept. 11, I was driving across Kansas with a new found friend. He was a rancher who raised cattle and grew some row crops; corn being his preference. As was everybody in those fearful days, we were discussing security issues. We had plenty of time, an east to west cross-Kansas trek along I-70 takes almost eight hours, including rest stops.

We talked about the usual vulnerabilities; planes crashing into buildings, of course, suicide bombers, even intentional poisoning of our food supply in places like restaurants and institutional feeders. It had been just 17 years since the shock of the largest bioterrorism attack in American history. In 1984, the Rajneeshee cult deliberately used a Salmonella strain to poison 10 salad bars in The Dalles, Oregon. Seven hundred and fifty-one people were taken ill. All those years later, I was still avoiding salad bars and 'self-serve' restaurants.

The Dalles incident ended almost as quickly as it began, though. It was isolated to one small town but it still took authorities almost a year to identify the culprits. My friend was alarmed, too, by that incident even though he scoffed at the amateurishness of the bioterrorism behind it.

He pointed at a trio of grain silos perched somewhere in the middle of a very rural, lightly populated area of central Kansas, maybe on hour west of Topeka. There was nothing else in sight; no farm houses, no barns, only a few lonely cows off in the distance.

"What about those?" he asked, suggesting that something far worse could happen here in the heartland of America. "Someone could climb to the top of one of those things, pour something particularly noxious into it and disappear. No one would ever know that the grain in there was poisoned and it could be used for thousands of products. Thousands of people would be sickened, a lot of them would die and faith in the safety of our food supply would be destroyed."

I agreed that it MIGHT happen but put it in the same category of a person being hit by a meteor. The possibility was there but the odds were ridiculously long. Not long enough, though. It reportedly happened at least twice, once eight years ago in England and 63 years ago in Alabama.

So let the scoffers eat crow. Terrorism relies on the unexpected, the unimaginable incidents, to be effective. Sure, a suicide bomber in a train station can create some serious concern but real impact comes when the sacred and previously untouched parts of our lives are disrupted.

And that brings me to Jacqui Fatka's recent Feedstuffs story, headlined "Agro-defense, a 'real national security problem.'"

Beneath that alarming headline was this subhead: "Senate Agriculture Committee hearing looked at vulnerabilities of U.S. farmers and economy from biological threats, as well as solutions to safeguard American agriculture from these threats."
In her story, former Sen. Joe Lieberman, co-chair of the Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense, mimicked the urgency of a four-alarm fire. He said that as his committee reviewed agro-defense and how to develop recommendations to help safeguard our food supply, it became evident that agro-defense is a “real national security problem.”

To be specific, we have no real plan to safeguard our farms and ranches and none to react with if (when?) an attack happens. We can't 'duck and cover.' We don't have a mechanism to quickly identify safe vs infected foods. With the year it took to pinpoint the source in The Dalles, we don't have any kind of 'trace back' system to identify the point of origin with any acceptable speed.

We are naked and vulnerable.

Within the story was this worst case, horror movie scenario: “If you’re an enemy and you wanted to strike us, nuclear weapons get the most attention,” Lieberman said. "However, if you want to create a real sense of terror and deal damage to the economy, attacking the U.S. agricultural system with a pathogen would be devastating."

Well, there is no doubt that we have dedicated, smart and well-financed enemies out there. With the dominant position we enjoy in world agriculture, we should consider it only a matter of time before some anti-American group mounts an attack on the centerpiece of our economy. You can expect massive disruption in our food chain and an immediate ban on our export business. Beef, pork, poultry, soybeans, corn -- all of it could be banned by almost every country around the world.

Senate Agriculture Committee chairman Pat Roberts (R., Kan.), talking about our ability to respond to such an attack, said the nation still has a lack of vaccines, lack of coordination, lack of response capability, lack of funding, lack of awareness and lack of intelligence capability.

Dr. Doug Meckes, state veterinarian and director of the North Carolina Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services’ Veterinary Division, said "Our animal agriculture industry remains as vulnerable to foreign animal diseases today as it was 13 years ago; particularly concerning is foot and mouth disease."

Let me borrow another paragraph from Fatka's story. "He (Meckes) noted that many agricultural groups, animal science organizations and veterinarians support the inclusion of a new Animal Disease & Disaster Prevention Program (AD&DPP) in the 2018 farm bill. Additionally, a proposal for establishing and funding a robust U.S. FMD vaccine bank in the 2018 farm bill is considered a top priority by many in the animal agriculture industry."

If it takes that long, so be it. Something in the 2018 Farm Bill might take years to be implemented, and take several more years to become an effective deterrent. Establishing and funding AD&DPP and building a robust FMD vaccine bank should have top priority now. Later might be entirely too late.


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