Bipartisan bills to address the threat of agro-terrorism and high-risk events which pose serious threats to food, agriculture and livestock industries across the United States were jointly introduced by legislators in both the House and Senate this week.
It’s “imperative we take precautions and have preparedness policies in place to mitigate potential risks,” they said in a joint announcement.
The legislation comes at a time when authorities have repeatedly warned that public health preparedness nationwide is in serious disarray, as Homeland Security Today has reported.
The Securing our Agriculture and Food Act was introduced by Rep. David Young (R-IA), Rep. Donald Payne, Jr. (D-NJ) and Rep. Dan Donovan (R-NY), and Sens. Pat Roberts (R-KS) and Claire McCaskill (D-MO).
In their joint announcement, they said, “Our nation faces global and complex national security challenges. Agro-terrorism, and other high-risk events, pose serious threats to our food, agriculture and livestock industries across the United States. It is imperative we have preparedness policies in place to quickly respond to events threatening US agriculture or food production systems – ultimately protecting these key industries which impact every Americans on a daily basis.”
The Securing our Agriculture and Food Act requires the Secretary of [the Department of Homeland Security], through the Assistant Secretary for Health Affairs, to lead the government’s efforts to secure our nation’s food, agriculture and veterinary systems against terrorism and high-risk events,” they said, noting, “The bill also authorizes the secretary to collaborate with other agencies to ensure food, agriculture and animal and human health sectors receive attention and are integrated into the DHS’s domestic preparedness policy initiatives.”
“The Securing our Agriculture and Food Act is a vital step to protect our food supply and agriculture industries in Iowa from high-risk events and agro-terrorism,” Young said. “I am honored to be working with a group of bipartisan colleagues from both the US House of Representatives and the US Senate to continue the efforts I started last Congress that ensure the safety and reliability of our nation’s food supply. It is imperative our families and communities must always have the confidence the bounty of our growers and producers is protected.”
“I am very proud to join with Congressmen David Young and Dan Donovan to introduce this critical legislation to protect our nation’s food system from terrorist threats,” said Payne, ranking member of the House Subcommittee on Emergency Preparedness, Response and Communications. “Any attack on our food supply could have devastating consequences on our economy and our communities, so it’s essential that we mitigate against potential threats. With this bill, we are addressing critical security vulnerabilities before they can be exploited.”
Subcommittee chairman Donovan said, “Our nation’s enemies are intent on attacking us by exploiting our resources and vulnerabilities, including our food supply. Threats to US food, agriculture and livestock industries could devastate our food system, impacting millions of Americans, as well as our economy. This bill is essential to enhancing agro-terrorism preparedness and emergency response measures, and I look forward to working with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to pass this legislation.”
Roberts, chairman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, added, “I have introduced this legislation in the Senate because it reiterates the important and necessary role of the Department of Homeland Security [DHS] in the agro-terrorism space. As DHS continues to build the National Bio and Agro-defense Facility (NBAF) in Manhattan, Kansas, now is the exact time to shore up authorities regarding coordination and mitigation should the worst occur and the nation is hit by a biological attack on our food and agriculture. As former chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, I understand the unique threat our farmers and ranchers face. As the backbone of the US economy, the spread of any deadly pathogen among our livestock and plant population would cause irreparable damage. I look forward to continuing to work with DHS and US Department of Agriculture, which play equally important roles, in protecting our homeland’s food supply.”
US agriculture is a $1 trillion industry employing 9.2 percent of American workers. Domestic animal agriculture production in 2012 alone employed 1.8 million workers and generated $346 billion and provided $60 billion in household income.
“We don’t always think of a terrorist attack as a deliberate, mass food contamination, or the danger a major disease outbreak could pose. But agriculture is Missouri’s most important industry, and Congress needs to think forward about the wide array of threats we face and take action before there’s a tragedy, not afterwards,” said McCaskill, ranking member of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. “This bill is an example of setting aside differences to work across the aisle to keep American families safe, and that’s the greatest responsibility I have.”
In a USA Today op-ed last October, Tom Daschle, a former Senate majority leader and a member of the bipartisan Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense, and Richard B. Myers, a retired Air Force general and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wrote, “The 15th anniversary of September 11 honored the far-too-many who lost their lives that horrific day. Almost unnoticed was the 15th anniversary of the US anthrax attacks that occurred soon thereafter and left 5 dead, 17 infected and more than 10,000 at risk of exposure. The magnitude of those attacks clarified the need to address bioterrorism more comprehensively in the United States.”
However, they pointed out, “Americans rarely consider the potential for our enemies to attack our nation’s agricultural infrastructure and food supply with biological weapons. They should. Agriculture security is national security.”
“Fourteen years ago,” they said, US Navy SEALs found a list of pathogens and a schematic in an Afghanistan cave that Al Qaeda planned to use to produce bioweapons. In addition to six human pathogens, ten pathogens targeted food, six targeted livestock and poultry and four targeted crops. Clearly, Al Qaeda was considering agro-terrorism.”
In the bipartisan Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense’s December 2016 report, Biodefense Indicators; One Year Later, Events Outpacing Federal Efforts to Defend the Nation, the panel stated, “One of the most glaring issues we examinedin 2015 was the disconnectedness of department-level biodefense budgets. Budgetary division and insufficient advanced planning for predictable emerging infectious disease events negatively impact federal governance of biodefense. The prolonged 2016 debate over Zika funding illuminated the need to correct the current, reactive budgeting and appropriations posture. It is neither sustainable nor necessary to fund responses to these crises through emergency supplementals. We know that major infectious diseases will continue to emerge. The increasing frequency of outbreaks from emerging pathogens and the recognition that they are of zoonotic origin concern us. We expect these trends to continue for many years to come, producing novel infections and creating pandemics against which we cannot adequately defend.”
“Emergency funding for biological incidents may occasionally be required,” the report stated, “but should not be the default mechanism for providing the biodefense enterprise with the financial resources it needs to save lives. We must build biodefense into budgets before these predictable crises occur.”
in the Feb/March, 2016 Homeland Security Today report, The Threat of Agroterrorism, Eric Winn, Captain of Investigation at the Henry County Sheriff’s Office in Martinsville, Virginia with a master’s degree from Virginia Commonwealth University in Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, wrote, “An attack against the agricultural industry is a multidimensional threat that would have impacts that far exceed the death or destruction of plants and animals. The agricultural industry is very broad and diverse and can encompass the production of animals, plants, fish, forestry products, fertilizer production and a host of other activities. An attack against the industry would impact the economy of the United States and the rest of the world. The introduction of a food-borne illness into the food supply that affects many of the nation’s citizenry would create mass panic and result in losses in revenue for producers and retailers.”
“The financial impact of the introduction of an animal or plant disease into the agricultural infrastructure would not only result in the loss of agricultural products, it would also disrupt trade and employment,” Winn said, pointing out that, “Terrorists search for areas of vulnerability and targets that are easy to exploit. The failure to recognize the threat posed by agroterrorism, and the lack of adequate policies and programs to educate the agricultural industry, will leave the nation weak and vulnerable to an attack.”
In addition to the economic cost, an agroterrorist attack could undermine trust in the government and spur significant public uncertainty over the safety of the food supply.
“This goes to the heart of what we know groups like ISIS are trying to do—terrorize by any means possible,” said House Committee on Homeland Security’s Emergency Preparedness, Response and Communications Subcommittee Chairman Martha McSally (R-AZ) at the subcommittee’s February 26, 2016 hearing, Food for Thought: Efforts to Defend the Nation’s Agriculture and Food, to examine the risk the nation faces from a terrorist attack or natural disruption of the US agriculture sector, and whether the public and private sectors are prepared to respond to these threats.
“The food supply is an attractive terrorist target—it’s also among the most vulnerable and least protected of all potential targets of attack. Quoting former Governor of Wisconsin Tommy Thompson, McSally said, “For the life of me, I cannot understand why terrorists have not targeted our food supply,since it is so easy to do.”