Better Plan Needed to Protect U.S. Agriculture from Bioterrorism. (Update)

Article excerpt

The United States is vulnerable to agricultural bioterrorism and needs a comprehensive plan to defend against the threat, says a new report from the National Research Council (NRC) of the National Academies. The relevant government agencies cannot rapidly detect and identify many pests and pathogens and could not quickly respond to a large-scale attack, which would overwhelm existing laboratory and field resources.

"Biological agents that could be used to harm crops or livestock are widely available and pose a major threat to U.S. agriculture," said Harley W Moon, chair of the committee that wrote the report and professor of veterinary medicine at Iowa State University in Ames. "Part of the plan to defend against agricultural bioterrorism should be to enhance our basic understanding of the biology of pests and pathogens so that we can develop new tools for surveillance and new ways to control an outbreak."

The committee began its study at the request of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) before the September 11 terrorist attacks. Those acts and the subsequent anthrax attacks--which showed that "bioterrorism is now a reality," as the report puts it--heightened concerns about an attack on U.S. agriculture. The report says that while a bioterrorism attack on U.S. agriculture is highly unlikely to result in famine or malnutrition, it could harm people, disrupt the economy, and cause widespread public concern and confusion. The recent outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease that arose naturally in the United Kingdom, for example, led to the destruction of millions of animals and cost billions of dollars.

Given the importance of this report to homeland defense, the National Academies took the unusual step of briefing USDA and the Office of Homeland Security earlier this year on its preliminary findings and conclusions. The report also was submitted to USDA and the Office of Homeland Security for a classification review. Because the government has been aware of the main recommendations for several months, it is possible that authorities have already taken some steps to act on them. …