WASHINGTON (DTN) -- The U.S. is woefully unprepared to cope with outbreaks of emerging livestock or crop pathogens and pests, whether those outbreaks are caused intentionally or otherwise, experts told the Senate Agriculture Committee on Wednesday.
Agricultural security risks have become a major concern for Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., but the chairman acknowledged that talking about a possible attack on agriculture or food production is a hard conversation.
"This is a difficult issue because if you come out and say what's on your mind, you scare the dickens out of people," Roberts said.
Roberts said when he first became interested in the issue nearly two decades ago through his work on a Senate subcommittee on emerging threats, he kept telling farm organizations, veterinarians and others about the need to step up and examine the risk. The response, he said, was people asked him to quit talking about agro-security risks because it could affect commodity prices.
"Well, we should look out. I can promise you every member of this committee is aware of this threat," Roberts said.
Experts on Wednesday pointed to a recent report in the Washington Post that North Korean dictator Kim Jung Un is building up his country's biological infrastructure, based on an intelligence report. North Korea's new efforts in biological warfare have alarmed U.S. analysts, the Post reported.
Agrodefense is a broad and complex mission space. Collectively, experts testified Wednesday that the country faces a shortage of livestock vaccines, lack of coordination among federal agencies, lack of intelligence capability, lack of funding and overall lack of awareness.
"Other than that, we're in pretty good shape," Roberts commented.
Former Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman co-chairs a blue-ribbon panel on biodefense that released a report in October specifically looking at animal agriculture. Lieberman noted that, early in the Afghanistan war, a Navy Seal team found chemical formulas of 16 deadly pathogens in a cave. Six of those pathogens could target livestock, and four could attack crops.
"Agro-defense is a real national security problem," Lieberman said.
Speaking specifically of Kim Jung Un's desires, Lieberman said an attack on agriculture could do damage to the country and inject fear in people, and such an attack would be relatively easy. The problem, he said, is that such a concept largely flies under the radar.
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"How do you get attention for it? Unfortunately, it's very hard," Lieberman said.
Lieberman and others noted the U.S. has already seen some devastating livestock diseases in recent years that came into the country accidentally or through the wild. In 2015, for instance, avian influenza led to the deaths of nearly 50 million poultry and raised the price of eggs.
"The most visible, tangible example we've had was the avian flu outbreak, which not only cost the birds, but cost the economy an estimated over $3 billion," Lieberman said.
While avian influenza is largely spread by wild birds, Lieberman cited the risk and fear that avian influenza would spread from wild birds to people.
Pork producers also have been hit with a foreign animal disease. In 2013, porcine epidemic diarrhea virus (PEDv) hit the U.S. pork industry, killing more than 8 million pigs and causing major financial losses for some pork producers. Myers, in written testimony, said it's suspected PEDv came into the U.S. in feed products from China, but that has not been confirmed.
Retired Gen. Richard Myers, now president of Kansas State University, said the intelligence community has a strong recognition about the importance of food security to global stability. Myers noted 15 crops account for 90% of global food intake, with corn, wheat and rice accounting for fully two-thirds of food intake. If wheat, rice or corn were targeted by bioterrorists, or if a natural outbreak occurs, "We're going to be in big trouble," Myers said.
Kansas State University is now home to the National Bio-Agrodefense Facility, which is being constructed. But Myers said there is a funding gap for research and a real weakness in the vaccine stockpile on hand to deal with a major animal-disease outbreak.
Myers also said the U.S. doesn't have the right number of experts with appropriate clearances to deal with such possible outbreaks -- whether they are intentional or not.
The National Veterinary Stockpile receives less than $5 million in funding. Lieberman said that's a risk that would quickly become apparent if a quick-spreading disease hit livestock.
"When there is an outbreak, people are going to be screaming for vaccines or other countermeasures, and there is nothing there right now," Lieberman said.
R.D. Meckes, state veterinarian of North Carolina and a former Department of Homeland Security expert on agrodefense issues, reiterated the need for a more robust national veterinary stockpile of vaccines. A Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD) outbreak could cost the U.S. economy as much as $200 billion over 10 years, he said.
"An FMD outbreak in a livestock-dense area of the U.S. cannot be controlled without immediate access to millions of doses of FMD vaccine," he said.
The National Cattlemen's Beef Association and National Pork Producers Council have been requesting the House and Senate Agriculture Committees fund a more robust vaccine bank in the next farm bill that would set aside large amounts of vaccines for diseases such as FMD. Such a vaccine bank could be costly, but would be preventive medicine against an outbreak that could cost billions to agriculture if FMD were to show up in the U.S.
USDA is close to issuing a rule on reportable animal diseases, which Lieberman said would hopefully clarify the responsibility of the private sector to report those outbreaks.
Myers had several recommendations to boost biodefense readiness, including more research and funding related to diseases. Further, more outreach is needed to industry to help with research. Land-grant universities also should play a larger role in helping deal with agrodefense, he said.
Livestock and plant experts are telling the Senate Ag Committee the country is not prepared for some of the diseases -- introduced intentionally or not -- that could spread rapidly and devastate U.S. agriculture.
Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., ranking member of the Agriculture Committee, pointed to scares in Michigan, such as the cherry growers getting hit by a small pest called the spotted wing drosophila, which Stabenow said "has become a cherry grower's worst nightmare."
Another pressure leading to the spread of pathogens is climate change. "We're seeing pathogens in Michigan that used to not handle the winter, but now can survive over winter months," said Raymond Hammerschmidt a professor of plant, soil and microbial sciences at Michigan State University.
The Hudson Institute report "Defense of Animal Agriculture" can be found at https://www.hudson.org/….
Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com
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