Large concentrations of livestock and extensive comingling and transport leave U.S. animal agriculture vulnerable to biological threats.
A new report cites a need for more leadership, funding and cooperation between government agencies to improve our ability to prevent or respond to biological threats to animal agriculture and our food supply. The report, titled “Defense of Animal Agriculture: A Bipartisan Report of the Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense,” outlines shortfalls in current preparedness and provides specific recommendations for the Executive and Legislative branches of the U.S. government.
The Blue Ribbon Panel, established in 2014, carries considerable weight, with members including former U.S. Senator Joe Lieberman and former Governor Tom Ridge as co-chairs, Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna Shalala, former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, former Representative Jim Greenwood, and the Honorable Ken Wainstein. Hudson Institute is the panel’s fiscal sponsor.
The authors note that biodefense efforts to date primarily have focused on infectious diseases directly affecting humans, whether naturally occurring, accidentally released or intentionally introduced. They point out though, that emergence of zoonotic diseases, coupled with the threat of nefarious introduction of livestock diseases, “indicate the necessity to exert more effort to combat threats, eliminate vulnerabilities, and reduce consequences associated with this sector.”
The report suggests the Administration must improve agrodefense at the department level, and also define responsibilities and coordinate activities between agencies, particularly the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and USDA. Funding levels, they add, do not currently reflect the scope of the threat. “Agrodefense in many ways appears to be an orphan, with long-view funding and policy priority finding a home in neither DHS nor USDA,” the authors note, adding that funds tend to become available when disaster strikes, rather than being invested in preparedness.
The report includes proposals for the Executive and Legislative branches of the federal government, focusing on four key areas.
- White House-level political leadership is necessary to elevate biodefense as a critical national and federal imperative.
- Agricultural defense is a broad and complex mission space that necessitates the significant involvement of most federal departments and agencies, with leadership from USDA and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).
- Federal agencies also must collaborate with non-federal stakeholders.
- The White House should ensure that the National Biodefense Strategy addresses threats to food and agriculture. The President and Congress should ensure that detailed agrodefense expenditures are incorporated into a cross-cutting biodefense budget analysis.
- The Panel recommends increased coordination between the USDA and FBI and development of an updated Food and Agriculture Incident Annex (FAIA) with planning for both natural and intentional events.
- The Federal Emergency Management Agency, the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, and the FBI should ensure that any update to the FAIA recognizes and addresses the investigative mission of the FBI, and clearly directs other federal departments and agencies to support inquiries into suspected acts of agricultural crime and terrorism.
- Effective overall homeland security, and agrodefense, depends on successful collaboration among federal and non-federal stakeholders.
- Rapid biodetection, diagnosis, and integrated biosurveillance of outbreaks are critical, but are hampered by an insufficient focus on rapid pen-side diagnostics and insufficient investment to develop new wildlife disease detection technologies and validate existing tests.
- Problems with information sharing between private and government entities hampers biosurveillance.
- The nation needs new ideas and scientific solutions to drive agrodefense approaches beyond their current limitations. One example would be to increase funding to the National Veterinary Stockpile.
- Far greater investment in advanced research and development is also necessary. The nation requires focused investment in pen-side, innovative diagnostic technology, and in better laboratory-based technology.
- The USDA should further develop its vaccine use policy for avian influenza and other high-consequence diseases, basing these policies on the use of platform technologies for rapid diagnostics and vaccines in response to outbreaks.
- Additionally, DHS and USDA should develop a business plan for the operation of the National Bio- and Agrodefense Facility, considering domestic and global markets for agrodefense research and development and identifying a dollar figure that defines both need and opportunity.
The authors also note that the President’s Fiscal Year 2018 budget request would eliminate all agriculture and animal-specific research by the DHS Science and Technology Directorate. “This signals a substantive diminishment of support from the Executive Branch for agriculture and agrodefense research.” They add that while food safety and food access account for only 5% of GDP, they affect 100% of the population. “Federal investment in agrodefense must focus on prevention and early identification to reduce or prevent the incursion of major costs and losses.”
Read the full report online.