Ag needs more attention from homeland security agency (commentary)

Ag needs more attention from homeland security agency (commentary)

AS this goes to press, the Obama Administration has yet to name a potential replacement for outgoing Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.

Meanwhile, a number of other top posts within the U.S. Department of Homeland Security remain unfilled.

Given the large number of agency vacancies, coupled with fallout from the Boston Marathon bombings, it's likely that the Administration's nominee will face some especially intense questioning. These are unsettled times, with hugely important issues.

Call me biased, but amid the line of questioning, a broader focus sure would be refreshing. When it comes to homeland security, there's one critically important aspect that has been increasingly discounted in recent years: agriculture.

Food and fiber production is inherently vital to our nation's survival and prosperity. Agriculture's efficiency and productivity provides U.S. citizens with the most abundant, safe and affordable food supply while also allowing the U.S. to be a key provider of commodities and food (not to mention agricultural knowledge and technology) to the rest of the world.

No other industry is more important or essential to the overall foundation and strength of the U.S. economy. With that in mind, agriculture mandates special consideration when it comes to terrorism threats and subsequent erosion of national security. Unfortunately, that's not particularly straightforward or easily explained to the broader public (or to politicians, for that matter).

That's not because the information isn't available. Some excellent congressional research has been completed regarding terrorism and agriculture. Specifically, some of the research points out that terrorist events don't necessarily need to induce human casualties in order to be effective; they simply need to create sufficient disruption that invokes subsequent economic after-effects.

With that in mind, any successful, broad-reaching attack on agriculture could severely interrupt the food production system, and if that were to occur, any number of unfavorable consequences could ensue, including the need to dispose of contaminated food products and/or destroyed animals and the potential for long-lasting export embargoes.

Perhaps more important, though, is the influence on U.S. consumers. Primarily, there's the immediate issue of potential panic regarding the food supply — both qualitatively and quantitatively.

Second, over the long run, we'd all experience some decline in spending power due to food supply shortfalls and the subsequent rise in the price of food.

Finally, keep in mind that re-establishing confidence in food security and safety within the general public is no easy task.

The resultant damage from disrupting the food and agriculture system is something that must be taken seriously. The especially hard part about terrorism, though, is the reality that there's never a distinct moment of victory. It's easy to get lulled to sleep.

What's needed is a never-ending commitment; it's a long grind requiring continual vigilance to protect agriculture's infrastructure, but that's a highly complex process that mandates having working coalitions across many disciplines (ones that don't typically work together).

Given agriculture's fundamental importance to the nation's economy, it's a highly viable target. Not to mention, the inherent nature of agriculture's production, processing and marketing systems also makes it especially vulnerable and difficult to defend.

Despite its importance and being categorized as a "critical infrastructure sector" by DHS, the food and agriculture sector remains relatively low on the agency's priority list.

With all that in mind, the confirmation process for the next DHS secretary is one I'll be watching especially closely. I'm not holding my breath, but I will remain ever hopeful that, perhaps, there'll be some line of questioning and/or reminders about the importance of security for food and agriculture.

*Dr. Nevil C. Speer is with Western Kentucky University and serves on the board of the National Institute for Animal Agriculture, a national organization devoted to engaging livestock producers and livestock health professionals in developing solutions for issues in the livestock industry.

Volume:85 Issue:30

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