When U.S. Navy Seals entered the hiding place for Osama Bin Laden they found a list of 16 deadly agricultural pathogens that Al Qaeda intended to use as bioweapons, said former Sen. Joe Lieberman during a recent Senate Committee on Agriculture hearing on agro-defense. Six of the bioweapons targeted livestock production. Four targeted crop production. Six more targeted humans.
The Senate Agriculture Committee hearing on Dec. 13, hosted by Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) and Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) discussed the importance of securing a safe food supply and preparing for an agro-terrorism attack.
Threats such as bio-terrorism, plus recent outbreaks of avian flu, Porcine epidemic diarrhea (PED) virus in hogs, and foot and mouth disease oversees, as well as other diseases underscore the need for more research, biological containment plans and vaccine readiness to protect agriculture, the food supply and the nation’s economy, committee leaders said.
Avian flu, by most estimates costs the U.S. economy more than $3 billion, Lieberman said.
Lieberman, is the co-chair of the Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense, alongside former Gov. Tom Ridge, former Sec. of Health and Human Services Donna Shalala, former Sen. Tom Daschle, former Rep. Jim Greenwood and Honorable Kenneth Wainstein. The group has published several reports on biodefense, finding “systemic weaknesses in the national biodefence posture.”
“Agriculture security is a broad-reaching issue, reaching many government agencies beyond the Department of Agriculture,” Roberts said.
Whether threats come intentionally or unintentionally, Stabenow added, we have to be prepared. She pointed to cherry farmers’ in her state of Michigan that had trouble controlling the Spotted Wing Drosophila in 2016. “We can’t allow our food system to be weaponized against us,” Stabenow added.
The last time the Agriculture Committee held a hearing on this topic was more than a decade ago, Roberts added. “Significance of this issue has only grown,” he said.
Lieberman shared results of a Blue Ribbon Study completed this fall, sharing three major challenges:
Lack of one central agency tasked to address agro-defense, coordinate resources and provide leadership.
Support given to bio-surveillance and medical countermeasures isn’t enough. “In fact, the Department of Homeland Security requested no—zero—budget for agro-defense research and development for fiscal year 2018,” Lieberman said.
Insufficient promotion of innovation. “Technological status-quo can’t really be tolerated anywhere,” he added. “it’s certainly inadequate to protect the food and agriculture sector from a major outbreak.”
Are There Solutions?
Roberts pointed to the construction of the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility (NBAF) that began this year at Kansas State University. The $1.25 billion research center will replace the aging Plum Island Animal Disease Center in New York.
“This new facility at Kansas State University will be a critical part of keeping U.S. agriculture, our food supply, economy and most importantly our people safe. Biological threats, whether naturally occurring, like the avian influenza outbreak of 2015 or introduced, could pose great harm to our food supply and economy.”
But the Blue Ribbon panel is concerned where the money for research will come from once the NBAF facility is complete. “We hope this committee can pave the way for this remarkable and needed facility being built…is adequately funded to do what we want it to do,” Lieberman said. “The nation needs new ideas and technological solutions to drive agro-defense approaches beyond their current borders,” he added.
“Agro-defense is so broad and complex a mission space, significant involvement of most federal departments, or a lot of them, is required. White House level leadership is critical to minimize the inevitable overlap,” Lieberman says.
Providing medially important resources, especially for livestock sectors, is crucial. Current supplies are far behind in production and would likely not be able to meet demand. If Congress would agree to a national stockpile, it would send a “strong message” that is a national asset.
“We recommend the establishment of a prevention fund, for animal health, much like what was created in the 2008 Farm Bill for plant health, because we believe that will create a real legislative basis for prevention activities,” Lieberman said.
Watch the full hearing below: