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Agroterrorism demands complete preparedness

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Keeping America safe from agroterrorism demands complete preparedness –- the current shortfalls must be addressed or the consequences could prove catastrophic.

Admittedly, the timing seems suspect. Given the current state of political divisiveness, any commentary about national security runs the risk of being perceived as nothing more than punditry. But that concern doesn’t really matter. Politics aside, when it comes to our food system, recent events underscore the importance of remaining vigilant.

Earlier this month, a woman traveling from Vietnam provided a negative customs declaration at the Dallas-Ft. Worth airport. However, she was subsequently (and appropriately) tagged for luggage inspection. That process revealed she was transporting 22 lb. of raw animal contraband, including brains hearts, heads, tongues and other body parts from chickens, pigs and cattle. However, the story didn't get much traction.

Unfortunately, when it comes to media coverage and broader discussion around Homeland Security, food and agriculture often get overlooked. That’s because so few people (including politicians) are actively engaged with food production. Thus, there’s little appreciation for the potential implications.

However, the story caught my attention. That largely results from collaboration in an agroterrorism project sponsored by the National Institute of Justice (NIJ). The project included a multidisciplinary approach with representation from various production segments, animal health, allied industry and law enforcement. The purpose was to draw attention to the critical importance of the nation’s infrastructure and agriculture’s vulnerability to a potential terrorism attack. 

Ten years ago, we knew the risks and knew we weren't prepared. For example, in 2006, the Animal Health Network and National Cattlemen’s Beef Assn. (NCBA) sponsored the Foot & Mouth Disease (FMD) Summit. Survey results prior to the meeting indicated that 25% of attendees agreed that, “Government and industry are well prepared to rapidly and effectively detect an FMD outbreak.” Following the meeting, only 9% of attendees agreed with that statement. We needed to get to work.

Worse yet, nothing has changed in 10 plus years: different venue, same theme. The House Committee on Homeland Security Emergency Preparedness, Response & Communications held a hearing just about a year ago (Feb. 26, 2016). The objective was to examine the risk of a terrorist attack (or natural disruption) on agriculture. The key question being, “Are the public and private sectors prepared to respond to these threats?” The committee identified several key vulnerabilities: 1. Insufficient quantity of FMD vaccine, 2. Gaps in U.S. biosecurity, 3. Need more robust scrutiny of imports, 4. Absence of traceability, 5. Resource constraints and 6. Gaps in early detection.

The fallout is huge! For example, based on our work with NIJ, a nationwide shutdown would cost the economy approximately $1.5 million per minute (based on current market prices). Then there’s additional costs associated with law enforcement, quarantine and eradication costs, production losses, disposal of contaminated products and/or destroyed animals and disruption of export markets and/or imposition of trade sanctions. None of that also considers the inconvenience and potential hysteria around potential food shortages.

Several years ago I noted in Feedstuffs that, “The especially hard part about terrorism is the reality 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. And that’s a highly complex process that mandates working coalitions across many disciplines (ones that don’t typically work together).”

While it may be innocent enough, the DFW scenario is a wake-up call. Homeland Security categorizes agriculture as a "Critical Infrastructure Sector." That’s all good, but the real challenge is remaining vigilant and maintaining real follow-through. After all, the threat is somewhat ambiguous and tempts us into becoming complacent.

But a real attack will come without warning. Keeping America safe from agroterrorism demands complete preparedness –- the current shortfalls must be addressed else the consequences could prove catastrophic.

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