The Biden administration wants to focus on the biggest threats to the nation’s food security, citing the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, increased ransomware attacks, climate change and the avian flu outbreak.

An updated National Security Memorandum signed by President Joe Biden Thursday says the federal government “will prioritize resources to prevent, protect against, mitigate, respond to, and recover from the threats and hazards that pose the greatest risk” to the food and ag sector.

Within a year, the Department of Homeland Security "shall produce a comprehensive risk assessment for the food and agriculture sector" that includes the highest-priority threats to the sector, the memo says. DHS must coordinate with USDA, the Department of Health and Human Services and the Justice Department, and other relevant agencies.   

The memo “outlines a process for the federal government to identify and assess threats of greatest consequence,” including cyber threats and “the consequences of the climate crisis,” according to a White House fact sheet. That process includes “redefining the way that chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) threats are defined, in relation to the food and agriculture sector specifically.” 

A senior administration official told reporters Thursday that traditionally, CBRN threats have been examined in relation to their threat to humans, but “the agricultural system has unique threats that are separate from those. So, for instance, we focus on the biological realm." The memo cites the possibility of threats from both pests and companion animals. 

Another new area agencies will be looking at includes the threat of “toxic industrial chemicals” to agriculture, “where it's not typically listed in one of the chemical warfare agent threats,” the official said. “As a whole, we just wanted to … point out that the food and agriculture sector does have unique threats to it.”

The memo says that “CBRN threats that may result in high-consequence and catastrophic incidents affecting the food and agriculture sector include but are not limited to: hazardous contaminants such as poisonous agents including toxic industrial compounds and materials, toxins, and chemical agents and precursors; natural or genetically engineered pests and pathogens of livestock, poultry, fish, shellfish, wildlife, plants, and insects; and physical effects of nuclear detonations or dispersion of radioactive materials.”

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Asked about whether additional resources would be provided to agencies to implement the new approach, the official said the administration would not comment on agency budgets, but that “departments and agencies have now been given a mandate by the President on how to strengthen the security and resilience of the food and agriculture sector.”

The memo directs USDA to work with HHS to collaborate with state, local, tribal and territorial (SLTT) agencies, universities and the private sector to “maintain and enhance” the National Veterinary Stockpile and the National Plant Disease Recovery System.

The National Plant Disease Recovery System will “utilize the genetic resources contained in the U.S. National Plant Germplasm System, as well as the scientific capabilities of federal, SLTT, private industry, and academic agricultural research and extension systems; and include emergency planning for the use of disease control measures to prevent, slow, or stop the spread of a high‑consequence plant disease, including deployment of resistant or tolerant plant material and appropriate use of pesticides,” the NSC memo says.

The memo also says that the the Department of Homeland Security shall, "in coordination with the Secretary of Agriculture and the Secretary of Health and Human Services, oversee university-based, Department of Homeland Security-funded centers of excellence in agriculture and food defense."

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