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Agroterrorism a hot topic at state, national level

By Stephanie Schupska
University of Georgia

When the word "terrorism" pops up, the first image in most people's heads is not a field of soybeans.

But maybe it should be.

Terrorism isn't limited to blowing up buildings. Food supplies can also be a target.

That's why Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), who chairs the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, asked John Sherwood to participate in a Senate biosecurity and agroterrorism hearing July 20 in Washington, D.C.

Sherwood, head of the University of Georgia's plant pathology department, was one of eight experts to testify in the hearing and one of four to address the agrosecurity partnership between public and private sectors.

The latter group addressed what's being done for U.S. preparedness at local levels in coordination with farmers and ranchers, the scientific community and industry.

Partnership

"No effort to prepare for an attack can be successful without a healthy and strong public-private partnership," Chambliss said.

The agrosecurity hearing, only the second after the Sept. 11 attacks, reviewed national efforts to protect agriculture and the food supply from a deliberate attack of a biological agent, a toxin or a disease directed at crops and livestock.

Agriculture accounts for 13 percent of the U.S. gross domestic product, Chambliss said, and 18 percent of domestic employment. With the U.S. Department of Labor reporting the civilian workforce at 149.1 million, those in agriculture-related jobs numbers nearly 27 million.

"Securing our nation's crop production systems requires a multifaceted, multi-agency and highly coordinated effort," said Sherwood, who also represented the American Phytopathological Society.

Challenge

Preventing 100 percent of agricultural diseases is impossible. Scientists and farmers alike are struggling with soybean rust and sudden oak death, diseases new to certain parts of the United States.

"There is not just a single disease that's going to impact agriculture," Sherwood said. "We have to be aware of new diseases."

He emphasized "the need to fund competitive research, continue to support the National Plant Diagnostic Network and establish the National Center for Plant Biosecurity" at the hearing.

Chambliss said the events of Sept. 11, 2001, "propelled the government into action and forced federal agencies to rethink the threats facing agriculture and the need to take steps to prevent agroterrorist attacks."

The hearing offered "useful dialog," he said, as the Senate committee works to enhance agricultural protection in follow-up legislation to the Homeland Security Act of 2002 and Bioterrorism Act of 2002.

State preparedness

The week before Sherwood went to Washington, Georgia was already strengthening its forces. The state's agroterrorism committee and the Georgia National Guard partnered to help keep the food supply secure.

The meeting at Dobbins Air Reserve Base in Marietta allowed the two parties to share expertise "on how to best prepare and respond to agriculture and food-related acts of terrorism," said a state Department of Agriculture release.

"As the lead agency in the state in charge of agriculture and food defense, my staff is committed to doing everything in its power to protect the people of Georgia and the state's agriculture industry," said Georgia Commissioner of Agriculture Tommy Irvin.

Nets and bolts

The meeting wasn't just talk. The National Guard showcased its mobile laboratory capabilities and showed the proper biocontainment, sample collection and personal protective equipment to use when contact with dangerous pathogens is necessary.

The training continues. At different times throughout 2005, UGA Cooperative Extension will provide basic agroterrorism awareness training through a grant from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. The next session will be Aug. 4 in Vienna. Visit www.agrosecurity.uga.edu for other class dates and locations.

"We were the first state to include local jurisdictions in our statewide homeland security agriculture assessment," Irvin recently said of the training. "We knew we had to get down to the local level to adequately build a proper defense against agroterrrorism."

(Stephanie Schupska is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

(Stephanie Schupska is a news editor with the University of Georgia Public Affairs Office.)

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