BY ERIC ENGLERT/ MEDILL NEWS SERVICE
The agriculture department was unprepared to respond to an attack on the nation’s food supply, an agency report found earlier this year. A new law now aims to correct that problem, and fast.
Government efforts to control agro-terrorism have lagged badly, an agriculture department report earlier this year found. Agro-terrorism is the “deliberate introduction of an animal or plant disease for the purpose of generating fear, causing economic loss, or undermining social stability,” according to a recent Congressional Research Service report.
Under a measure approved overwhelmingly by the House and Senate and signed into law last week by President Donald Trump, the Department of Homeland Security will take the lead in fighting agro-terrorism and ensuring a safe food supply by providing a better coordinated response between government agencies in the event of an outbreak.
Coordination between homeland security and the Department of Agriculture, which were supposed to be working together, was lacking.
The USDA inspector general’s office found in March that the agency’s agro-terrorism plans and exercises were inadequate and unavailable for inspection.
The USDA has adopted 11 of the inspector general’s 14 recommendations to date. Those not yet implemented include largely procedural matters.
“Animal, plant and human health are inextricably linked, but agriculture, food and emergency response sectors do not traditionally coordinate and communicate,” said DHS spokesman David Lapan.
The new law comes as the DHS is constructing a 574,000 square foot, $1.25 billion biocontainment laboratory for National Bio and Agro-Defense at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kansas. The center will help implement the new law.
The labs, set to be operational by 2022, will study diseases that “threaten the animal agriculture industry and public health” and will “strengthen our nation’s ability to conduct research, develop vaccines, diagnose emerging diseases and train veterinarians,” according to DHS.
Currently, the NBAF research facility on Plum Island, N.Y., built in 1950s, is handling agro-defense preparedness and is capable of handling hoof and mouth disease and other bio agents.
The Kansas site was chosen from among 17 proposed locations. Kansas State University officials said its infectious disease and biosecurity research facilities were key factors in the DHS decision. USDA scientists at the Center for Grain and Animal Health Research are also collaborating with KSU scientists on research, Ron Trewyn, the university’s liaison to the new facility, said.
The agro-defense facility can handle bio safety level 4 infectious diseases, meaning it will have the capability to work with the most dangerous bio-agents. Ebola is a bio safety level 4 agent.
“When you are working with that, you are in a room and wear a space suit,” said Stephen Higgs of the KSU Biosecurity Research Institute. “NBAF will be the only facility in the country with the capability to work with livestock at the level 4 level.”
It also is expected to add 40 businesses and 350 jobs and generate an economic return of $3.5 billion to Manhattan in its first 20 years.