As former administrators of the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), we have firsthand knowledge of how destructive animal and plant pests and diseases can be. Disease and pest introductions are a threat to food availability and can cost billions of dollars to control and eradicate.
The $1 trillion agriculture sector of the U.S. economy is constantly threatened by the potential introduction of animal and plant pests and diseases from foreign sources. Sadly, as the world has become painfully aware throughout this global COVID-19 pandemic, new and emerging zoonotic diseases that spread from animals to humans are a serious threat to public health. This is an alarming worldwide concern requiring increased vigilance to prevent the entry into the United States.
Our first line of defense against introduction of these diseases and pests is inspection of passengers, passenger baggage and cargo at ports of entry by the U.S. Bureau of Customs and Border Protection’s (BCBP) Agriculture Quarantine Inspectors. These inspectors are biologists who are difficult to recruit, spend months in training and require extensive experience in regulatory enforcement. This activity is funded by user fees collected by APHIS from international passengers and importers, which are then transferred to BCBP. The COVID-19 pandemic has severely disrupted travel and cargo arrivals to the point that user fee collections are insufficient to sustain the inspectors’ employment. Even worse, the user fee reserve fund maintained for such contingencies will be depleted this month. With travel and cargo arrivals not likely to recover next year, APHIS estimates that it will require $630 million to fund these agricultural inspections through the fiscal year ending in September 2021.
This tremendous shortfall requires congressional action to appropriate new funds to fill the gap until travel and trade return to normal levels. Furloughing these inspectors for any period of time is not a viable option, as many inspectors would likely not return, and the agencies would have to expend even more resources on recruitment and training. Even before COVID 19’s unprecedented impact, BCBP was already 700 inspectors short of its staffing requirements. It is unthinkable that we would forgo these port of entry inspections and impose a significant risk to U.S. agriculture and public health. We urge Congress to take immediate action to appropriate the $630 million needed to fund these inspectors through September 2021. Sufficient funding would ensure our agriculture inspectors continue to prevent harmful animal and plant diseases from entering the country, and our $1 trillion agriculture sector remains a vibrant, economic powerhouse throughout the nation and world.
Bobby Acord, Ron DeHaven, Lonnie King, and Cindy Smith are all former administrators of USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS).