The House Committee on Homeland Security’s Emergency Preparedness, Response, and Communications Subcommittee held a hearing on Friday 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.
US food and agriculture accounts for roughly one-fifth of the nation’s economic activity, contributed $835 billion to the US gross domestic product in 2014, and is responsible for one out of every 12 US jobs, according to Subcommittee Chairman Martha McSally (R-AZ). Consequently, an agroterrorist attack could have significant economic repercussions.
“An intentional attack or natural disruption of US agriculture or food, therefore, would present a serious threat to this nation and cause major economic damages on a number of levels,” McSally stated. “There will be costs related to containing disease and destruction of livestock, compensating farmers for loss of agricultural commodities and losses in other related industries, and trade embargoes imposed by other nations.”
For example, an August 2015 outbreak of Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI) in the Midwest and Pacific Northwest cost Iowa alone 1.5 million turkeys and thirty million layers and pullets, which cost the state an estimated $658 million. In addition to lost production, suppliers and vendors saw a reduced income, which in turn resulted in fewer household purchases, hurting the sales of other businesses.
According to Dr. Brian R. Williams, an Agricultural Economist from Mississippi State University, a study commissioned by Iowa Farm Bureau, this multiplier effect resulted in a total economic impact of $1.2 billion to the state of Iowa’s economy, including 8,444 lost jobs.
The 2015 outbreak of HPAI exposed a number of vulnerabilities in the poultry industry, despite the biosecurity measures already in place, many of which were developed in consultation with state agencies. Williams said these security measures were put in place by companies such as Sanderson Farms and Tyson, who own the birds but are contracting producers to grow and raise them, as a protection for their investment.
“Despite all of these measures that were already in place, the industry was ill-prepared for actually dealing with a disastrous event such as HPAI,” Williams stated. “In the time since the outbreak in 2015, industry leaders, state agencies, and federal agencies have all come together to develop an elaborate plan to quickly and efficiently address future outbreaks.”
Since the HPAI outbreak, industry leaders have come together with state and federal agencies to develop a future response plan. This plan, which Williams said can easily be applied in the event of an agroterrorism attack, includes a quarantine of the infected area, testing of all birds within a 3 mile radius, and requiring a written permit for anyone entering and/or exiting the area.
The US agricultural sector has proven remarkable resilience, when examining incidents such as the HPAI outbreak, among others. Williams believes the agricultural industry would recover if terrorists succeeded in launching an attack large enough to have a significant impact on the US economy.
“With the cooperation of individual industry groups, state governments, and the federal government in devising plans to respond to potential terror attacks or natural disasters, evidence suggests that damage from such disasters can be mitigated, Williams said.
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 aretrying to do—terrorize by any means possible,” McSally said.
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 stated, “For the life of me I cannot understand why terrorists have not targeted our food supply, since it is so easy to do.”
Despite the severe ramifications of an agroterrorist attack on the homeland, there is a growing consensus that there are significant vulnerabilities in the nation’s preparedness to deal with threats to US agriculture and the food supply, according to Bobby Acord, testifying on behalf of the National Pork Producers Council.
While the agricultural industry has always been vulnerable to pests and disease, today it faces the threat of terrorists with the capability to weaponize disease as a means of inflicting harm on the US economy. Acord said, “Whether by accident or deliberate introduction, the impact of a disease or pest on US agriculture and the food supply could be devastating.”
Acord outlined a number of current vulnerabilities and challenges impacting the US agricultural industry, including:
An insufficient quantity of Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD) vaccine: FMD is a highly contagious, easily spread viral disease affecting all cloven hoofed animals. The disease is endemic in 113 countries around the world. In 2014, the World Organization for Animal Health reported 779 FMD outbreaks in member countries. Despite the economic repercussions of an FMD outbreak, there is currently not enough vaccine available.
According to Dr. James Roth, professor and researcher at Iowa State University, at least 10 million doses would be needed during the first two weeks of an outbreak. Currently, there is no surge capacity to produce additional doses of vaccine.
Gaps in US Biosecurity: Acord says biosecurity is imperative at the beginning of an outbreak. While both the US Department of Agriculture and the Department of Homeland Security focus a lot of attention on test exercises, which can be very beneficial, they do not reveal what actually happens during a real outbreak.
Consequently, Acord recommends that, in addition to test exercises, federal and state agencies need a more robust review of biosecurity measures in each sector of the agriculture industry.
“While this would require additional resources, the potential savings to the government are significant, providing a very favorable cost/benefit ratio,” Acord said.
More robust scrutiny of imports: While federal agencies place a strong emphasis on ensuring that ports of entry do not become a gateway for disease, the same emphasis needs to be applied during processing and production of production in the countries of origin.
Acord explained, “Not enough resources are being made available to APHIS [Animal and Plant Health Inspection Services) and FDA [Food and Drug Administration] to do a thorough inspection of foreign manufacturers to determine if they are following Good Manufacturing Practices and if government regulation and oversight are effective. That shortfall increases the risk to US agriculture of disease introduction.”
Traceability: The US pork industry advocates a robust nationally standardized mandatory system for animal traceability; however, opposition from some sectors of the livestock community has resulted in a compromise that allows only a state-based system for tracing livestock movements.
Resource constraints: Many gaps in US efforts to protect agriculture and the food supply stem from a lack of adequate resources. Acord said, “It is hard to conceive that enough efficiencies can be found to address an increasing threat and save money at the same time. Collectively, the agriculture industry, the Obama administration and Congress must face the reality that addressing these serious shortcomings in the US safety net will require a significant outlay of additional funds. We can’t have it both ways!”
Gaps in early detection: Early disease detection and rapid response to any outbreak provide the best opportunity to limit the spread of Foreign Animal Diseases, explained Acord. However, current funding levels to support these efforts are inadequate.
Data sharing for regulated diseases: The HPAI outbreak demonstrated the need for data sharing to support response efforts. Acord said, “The industry is very concerned that this lack of connectivity will have direct and negative effects that will hinder the response to a foreign animal disease of swine.”
Based on witness testimony during the hearing, McSally concluded that the capability and the intent for an agroterrorist attack are there, making it critical that the US improve its preparedness efforts, saying, “We must ensure we are able to assess our level of preparedness for any type of major disruption to US food or agriculture.”