Kansas State University recently co-hosted an event at the Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington-based nonprofit organization, highlighting the threat of agroterrorism and the importance of including agriculture in biosecurity and biodefense.
Gen. Richard Myers, interim president of Kansas State University, participated in the Oct. 13 Bipartisan Policy Center panel with Tom Daschle, former Senate majority leader and co-founder of the Bipartisan Policy Center, and Mike Rogers, a former congressman from Michigan. The talk was titled “Bio Agro-Defense Policy: America’s Food Supply, Health, and Economy at Risk.”
The panel discussed the 2015 Blue Ribbon Panel on Biodefense report, which noted the U.S. is still highly vulnerable to biological agents, including biological weapons and natural disease threats to agriculture.
“I think these are issues that deserve the highest attention and the most critical prioritization as we look at public policy in the context of national security,” said Daschle, as he described his firsthand experience with bioterrorism during the 2001 anthrax attacks. “I don’t think anyone disputes the importance of the issue, but what I don’t think has happened is that we have given it the kind of attention that it so justly deserves.”
Rogers, former chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, described how terrorists have become much more sophisticated and he highlighted the discovery of a laptop in Syria with a documented strategy for using biological warfare.
“It will happen,” Rogers said. “It is a matter now of are we prepared to deal with it, and have we set ourselves up for being successful in either beating it, disrupting it or reacting to it. And I think today, probably not.”
Myers said that when U.S. troops went into an Afghanistan cave in 2002, they found an al-Qaida list of planned bioweapons pathogens, including six human pathogens, six livestock and poultry pathogens, and four plant pathogens.
Crops are the under-addressed aspect of bioweapons, Myers said. A major outbreak of food animal or food crop diseases would do more than create an economic impact; it also would create fear among people and lead to distrust of the government – exactly what terrorists want.
“Food crop diseases are almost the perfect weapon because they involve relatively soft targets,” Myers said. “There is no danger to the perpetrator because they’re not going to be injured by what they are doing. It will take some time to discover it, especially with our current surveillance methods, which are inadequate. Plus, it will be very difficult to have attribution.”
The university’s biosafety level-3 Biosecurity Research Institute at Pat Roberts Hall supports comprehensive infectious disease research programs that address threats to plant, animal and human health. The Institute is jump-starting research planned for the National Bio and Agro-defense Facility (NBAF), including work on Japanese encephalitis, Rift Valley fever, classical swine fever and African swine fever.
Tammy Beckham, dean of the College of Veterinary Medicine, participated in a second panel at the Bipartisan Policy Center. She has spent a majority of her career in protecting food systems and discussed how to better use resources to combat bioterrorism.
“In the U.S., we have a very robust agricultural production system and we are thankful for that,” Beckham said. “The very things that make it robust also make it susceptible to disease introduction.”
Beckham noted critical gaps in the U.S., such as inadequate countermeasures, undeveloped diagnostic tests and a lack of a comprehensive biodefense program. She said it is important to incentivize people and organizations to improve biosecurity and address One Health — which involves connections between human, animal and environmental health.