Senate Agriculture Committee members can’t say they weren’t warned.
A panel of witnesses spoke to the committee on Wednesday and all essentially delivered the same message: the current defense against pests, pathogens, and biosecurity threats to the food system needs work.
“If you were an enemy of the United States and wanted to strike us, nuclear weapons always get the most attention because they’re so terrifying to everybody, but when you think about the damage that would be done to our economy, to our country, to our people, it would create a real sense of terror if somebody successfully attacked with a pathogen our agriculture sector,” former U.S. Senator Joe Lieberman, co-chair of the Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense, told the committee.
Other witnesses agreed. Raymond Hammerschmidt, a professor in Michigan State University’s Department of Plant, Soil and Microbial Sciences, said the country is “relatively ill-prepared” to combat pathogens and pests in the food supply. Kansas State University President Richard Meyers told of his time in the military and intelligence gathering that revealed al-Qaeda deliberations on the use of biological weaponry, even going as far as to test methods on animals. Even outside the realm of bioterrorism, R.D. Meckes, North Carolina’s State Veterinarian, spoke of a potential outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease, something that “cannot be controlled without immediate access to millions of doses of vaccines.”
The witnesses faced little pushback from the assembled senators to their claims; most of the lawmakers, in fact, were in agreement. But Pat Roberts, the Kansas Republican who chairs the committee, said there’s a real issue of drawing awareness to the concern without causing hysteria.
“This is a difficult issue, because if you really come out and say what’s on your mind, it would scare the dickens out of people,” Roberts said. “I can promise you that every member of this committee is aware of this threat.”
Lieberman’s Blue Ribbon panel issued a report in October calling for “immediate action” from the executive branch as well as Congress. Those recommendations ranged from figuring out how much money was being spent on agrodefense across the federal government – a number Lieberman said was somewhere between difficult and impossible to come by – to fully funding the National Veterinary Stockpile.
There was also talk at the hearing about the need to fulfill the objectives of Homeland Security Presidential Directive 9, which includes suggestions to increase the number of employees with security clearances at USDA as well as increasing support for increased surveillance systems that could warn of disease threats across the food system.
After the hearing, Roberts told reporters that HSPD-9, originally issued in 2004, needs to be looked at again to make sure the directive “fits today’s world and where we are.” He also spoke on the issues of “silos” in the intelligence community, which can hinder understanding and communication of the issue. As to the matter of increased employees with security clearances, Roberts said “we don’t need to have everybody over there have a top secret clearance.”
Livestock groups have made a FMD vaccine bank one of their top issues as talks shift to writing the 2018 farm bill. They have generally found support on Capitol Hill for their concerns, but the $250 million price tag has left many to wonder if the request could be funded in full in a farm bill that won’t have inflows of new money. Roberts told reporters he hopes to include the vaccine bank in the upcoming bill, noting that this is “one of the issues that doesn’t get much attention until its too late.”