Date: Sept. 19, 2002

Contacts: Bill Kearney, Media Relations Officer
Chris Dobbins, Media Relations Assistant
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Better Plan Needed to Protect U.S. Agriculture From Bioterror Attack

WASHINGTON -- The United States is vulnerable to agricultural bioterrorism and needs a comprehensive plan to defend against it, says a new report from the National Academies' National Research Council. The United States cannot rapidly detect and identify many pests and pathogens and could not quickly respond to a large-scale attack, which would overwhelm existing laboratory and field resources.

"Biological agents that could be used to harm crops or livestock are widely available and pose a major threat to U.S. agriculture," said Harley W. Moon, chair of the committee that wrote the report, and professor of veterinary medicine, Iowa State University, Ames. "Part of the plan to defend against agricultural bioterrorism should be to enhance our basic understanding of the biology of pests and pathogens so we can develop new tools for surveillance and new ways to control an outbreak."

The committee began its study at the request of the U.S. Department of Agriculture prior to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Those acts and the subsequent anthrax attacks -- which showed that "bioterrorism is now a reality," as the report puts it -- heightened concerns about an attack on U.S. agriculture. The report says that while a bioterrorism attack on U.S. agriculture is highly unlikely to result in famine or malnutrition, it could harm people, disrupt the economy, and cause widespread public concern and confusion. The recent outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease that arose naturally in the United Kingdom, for example, led to the destruction of millions of animals and cost billions of dollars.

Given the importance of this report to homeland defense, the National Academies took the unusual step of briefing the Office of Homeland Security and USDA earlier this year on the report's preliminary findings and conclusions. The report also was submitted to USDA and the Office of Homeland Security for a classification review. Because the government has been aware of the report's main recommendations for several months, it is possible that authorities have already taken some steps to act on them.

At its own discretion, the National Academies decided to remove certain detailed and specific information from the report. An appendix of the material that was removed is not for distribution to the general public.

"We are convinced that this report will increase our security by helping to inform and assist the nation in improving its awareness, capabilities, and plans to defend against threats of agricultural bioterrorism," wrote the presidents of the National Academies in a foreword to the report.

Although USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service has several emergency plans for dealing with the unintentional introduction of plant and animal pests and pathogens, the committee could not find, as of last spring, any publicly available in-depth national plan to defend against the intentional introduction of biological agents in an act of terror. The committee also said that significant gaps exist in U.S. knowledge about foreign pests and pathogens.

A comprehensive plan to counter agricultural bioterrorism should define the role each federal and state agency will play in preventing and responding to an attack and how they will cooperate with one another, the report says. The agencies involved also should develop a consensus list of biological agents that could potentially be used in an attack. The agencies should further agree to a shorter list of agents -- representative of various types of agents and the plant or animal species they would target -- for which preparations can be made. Developing countermeasures for this subset of agents would be valuable to officials and front-line personnel in the event of an attack, even if the agent ultimately confronted does not happen to be on the short list.

In addition, credible spokespeople are needed and potential attack scenarios should be developed for training purposes. The report recommends building upon USDA's current emergency plans for coping with unintentional introduction of pests and pathogens, but emphasizes that the new plan must be designed specifically for terrorist threats.

As part of the plan, the United States needs to create a network of laboratories to coordinate the detection of bioterror agents in the event of an attack. USDA appears to have budgeted for such a network in the next fiscal year, the committee said. A nationwide agricultural bioterrorism communication system, modeled after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's "Health Alert Network," also is necessary. And new technologies are needed to aid in the early detection of bioterror agents, especially genetically engineered ones. Early detection is key to stopping the spread of an agricultural bioterror attack.

The report was already in final stages of preparation when President Bush called for transferring the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service to the proposed Department of Homeland Security, so the committee did not analyze the significance of such a move.

The study was sponsored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The National Research Council is the principal operating arm of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering. It is a private, nonprofit institution that provides science and technology advice under a congressional charter. A committee roster follows.

Printed copies of Countering Agricultural Bioterrorism are available for purchase from the National Academy Press Web site or by calling (202) 334-3313 or 1-800-624-6242. Reporters may obtain a copy from the Office of News and Public Information (contacts listed above).

Division on Earth and Life Studies
Board on Agriculture and Natural Resources

Committee on Biological Threats to Agricultural Plants and Animals

Harley W. Moon1 (chair)
F.K. Ramsey Chair
Veterinary Medical Research Institute
Iowa State University

Michael Ascher
Viral and Rickettsial Laboratory
Division of Communicable Disease Control
California Department of Health Services
Richmond, and
Associate Director
Office of Public Health Preparedness
Department of Human and Health Services
Washington, D.C.

R. James Cook1
Endowed Chair in Wheat Research
Washington State University

David R. Franz
Vice President
Chemical and Biological Defense Division
Southern Research Institute
Frederick, Md.

Marjorie Hoy
Davis, Fischer, and Eckes Professor of Biological Control
Department of Entomology and Nematology
University of Florida

Donald F. Husnik
Consultant, and
Deputy Administrator of Plant Protection and Quarantine
Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service
U.S. Department of Agriculture (retired)
Birchwood, Minn.

Helen H. Jensen
Professor of Economics, and
Food and Nutrition Policy Division
Center for Agricultural and Rural Development
Iowa State University

Kenneth H. Keller2
Charles M. Denny Jr. Professor of Science, Technology, and Public Affairs
Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs
University of Minnesota

Joshua Lederberg1,3
Sackler Foundation Scholar
Rockefeller University
New York City

Laurence V. Madden
Professor of Plant Pathology
Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center
Ohio State University

Linda S. Powers
National Center for the Design of Molecular Function,
Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, and
Professor of Biological and Irrigation Engineering
Utah State University

Alfred D. Steinberg4
Consulting Physician-Scientist
McLean, Va.


Jennifer Kuzma
Study Director

1 Member, National Academy of Sciences
2 Member, National Academy of Engineering
3 Member, Institute of Medicine
4 Committee member, through January 2002