A report by the National Academy of Sciences' National Research Council underscores America's vulnerability to agricultural bioterrorism and the need for a comprehensive plan to defend against attack.
The United States cannot quickly detect and identify many pests and pathogens, according to the report released in September, nor is the country able to rapidly respond to a large-scale attack, which would overwhelm existing laboratory and field resources.
"Countering Agricultural Bioterrorism" is the culmination of a project started by the NRC in August 1999 at the request of the Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service.
Several agriculture experts were impaneled with the task of evaluating the ability of the United States to "deter, prevent, detect, thwart, respond to, and recover from intentional biological attacks" on the country's live animal and live plant stage of food and fiber production.
In the report, the committee concludes the United States is vulnerable to agroterrorism; the nation has inadequate plans to deal with an attack; the current system is designed for defense against unintentional biological threats to animals and plants; and strengthening the existing system is not sufficient to address the threat.
"Biological agents that could be used to harm crops or livestock are widely available and pose a major threat to U.S. agriculture," said committee chair Dr. Harley Moon of the Iowa State University College of Veterinary Medicine.
"Part of the plan to defend against agricultural bioterrorism should be to enhance our basic understanding of the biology of pests and pathogens so we can develop new tools for surveillance and new ways to control an outbreak," Dr. Moon explained.
The report finds that, although an attack on U.S. agriculture isn't likely to result in famine or malnutrition, it could harm people, disrupt the economy, and cause widespread public concern and confusion, as well as diminish confidence in the safety of the U.S. food supply.
Given the importance of this report to homeland defense, the National Academies briefed the Office of Homeland Security and USDA earlier this year on the report's preliminary findings and conclusions.
Although the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service has several emergency plans for dealing with the unintentional introduction of plant and animal pests and pathogens, the committee could not find any publicly available, in-depth national plan to defend against the intentional introduction of biological agents in an act of terrorism. The committee also said that substantial gaps exist in U.S. knowledge about foreign pests and pathogens.
A comprehensive plan to counter agroterrorism should define the role each federal and state agency will play in preventing and responding to an attack and how they will cooperate with one another, the report states.
Agencies involved should develop a list of biological agents that could potentially be used in an attack. The agencies should also agree to a shorter list of agents—representative of various types of agents and the plant or animal species they would target—for which preparations can be made. Developing countermeasures for this subset of agents would be valuable to officials and front-line personnel in the event of an attack, even if the agent ultimately confronted does not happen to be on the short list.
In addition, credible spokespeople are needed and potential attack scenarios should be developed for training purposes. The report recommends building on the USDA's current emergency plans for coping with unintentional introduction of pests and pathogens, but emphasizes that the new plan must be designed specifically for terrorist threats.
As part of the plan, the United States needs to create a network of laboratories to coordinate the detection of bioterrorism agents in the event of an attack. The committee noted that the USDA appears to have budgeted for such a network in the next fiscal year.
A nationwide agricultural bioterrorism communication system, modeled after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Health Alert Network is also necessary. In addition, new technologies are needed to aid in the early detection of bioterrorism agents, especially genetically engineered ones. Early detection is key to stopping the spread of an agricultural bioterrorism attack.
The report was in final stages of preparation when President Bush called for transferring APHIS to the proposed Department of Homeland Security, so the committee did not analyze the significance of such a move.
In a statement, Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman said, "Many of these efforts identified in the (NRC) report are already under way. As well, the report discusses other priorities already in progress at (the) USDA." The secretary goes on to say that the USDA has identified a priority list of threat agents and has been working to strengthen its network of accredited laboratories. In addition, the department has increased research programs related to various biological agents and technology that could be utilized for early detection.
"Because of these aggressive efforts," Veneman said, "our nation's food and agriculture infrastructure is stronger today than a year ago."