Advancing Food and Agriculture Safety and Security

The third session of the BIO biosecurity conference focused on agricultural biosecurity. If it sometimes seems difficult to defend major population centers against attack, that challenge is only magnified when considering the geographic scale, and economic importance, of the food supply.

James Roth – Session Chair
Director of the Center for Food Security and Public Health
Iowa State University

Dr. Roth discussed the vulnerabilities of US animal agriculture to infection – whether emerging, accidental, or intentional. The economies of scale used in modern agriculture have led to far greater concentration of both livestock and crops. Unfortunately, this increases the amounts of each that would be exposed in the event of an outbreak. Further, interstate transportation and mingling of animals would facilitate the spread of disease, while centralized feed supplies and distribution represent another potential point of vulnerability.

From the epidemiological side of things, the transport and mingling of animals makes it comparatively difficult to trace an outbreak to its initial source. Ironically, the relative lack of major diseases in the US, seemingly a victory for agricultural biosecurity, is also a potential vulnerability; there is limited to no immunity to many agricultural diseases, and equally limited market for countermeasures to diseases that are not prevalent in the US.

Finally, the relative lack of disease can potentially deter surveillance to identify any emerging outbreaks, as first responders (such as veterinarians) are not as familiar with symptoms of diseases that are not already endemic in the US. This could delay recognition of an infection until it has had time to spread, or even reach the general public via grocery store shelves. There is a significant need for faster diagnostics to aid in recognizing future agricultural threats.

José R. Díez
Associate Deputy Administrator, Veterinary Services
Emergency Management and Diagnostics, US Department of Agriculture

Dr Díez discussed steps taken at USDA to protect food and agriculture. The USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) works to manage, control, and eradicate food and animal diseases. It also employs a network of over 1000 veterinarians and animal health technicians, along with collaborators in state and local agencies, to provide a surveillance infrastructure for the nation.

One of the interesting challenges that USDA faces is how to ensure that the response to future outbreaks – such as destroying animals that might be infected – is not more damaging than the outbreak itself. In addition, since much of the US agricultural yield is shipped directly to store shelves within days, the system should ideally preserve as much uninfected food as possible and allow its continued shipment during a crisis. This will require ongoing evolution of the health response, to implement changes in agriculture and farming technology while combating zoonotic infections and emerging infectious diseases.

Cyril Gay
National Program Leader, Animal Production and Protection
U.S. Department of Agriculture

Dr. Gay heads the USDA’s intramural research program, which employs 2500 scientists on 1200 projects at 100 labs nationwide, with a $1.1 billion annual research budget. ARS views agricultural biosecurity as having three “pillars”.

The first pillar, lab biosecurity, is familiar to biosecurity professionals who work on human pathogens. This includes ensuring adequate containment of potential pathogens to ensure that they do not escape. ARS research is also reviewed internally for potential dual use research of concern – such as documenting techniques that could be used to perform so-called “reverse genetic” enhancement of pathogens.

The second pillar of agricultural biosecurity is the security of the actual farms. Decreasing the ability of infections to enter farms can play a significant role in slowing or preventing the spread of an outbreak. To this end, each facility is encouraged to have plans to decrease the probability of infection, including steps such as drawing up plans to limit the flow of vehicles, people, and materials that could potentially introduce disease.

The third pillar of agricultural biosecurity is the need for global food biosecurity, an area in which biodefense and agriculture will play an increasing role in feeding a growing global population. Innovation will be needed to counter all infectious diseases, whether endemic, emerging, or intentional. To this end, USDA has been engaging in international outreach in cooperation with the US State Department. By holding international workshops on biothreats and fostering cooperative research with international partners, they hope to improve diagnostics, surveillance, and responses and allow agriculture to reach its full potential.

Thomas Thornton
President & CEO
Kansas Bioscience Authority

Dr. Thornton closed the session by describing the efforts of the Kansas Bioscience Authority, a group funded by the state of Kansas to invest in relevant bioscience areas, including animal agriculture. Kansas hosts a large population of livestock and a major animal health industry, and is seeking to build upon this infrastructure with increased collaborative agricultural research programs. Of note, the National Bio and Agro Defense Facility, to be built in Manhattan, Kansas, will boost the local research capacity with the ability to study the most dangerous agricultural pathogens.

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