WASHINGTON, Nov. 11, 2015 - Kika de la Garza, the Texas Democrat who ran the House Agriculture Committee from 1981 to 1994, used to tell a story about a submarine to connect what might have seemed like disparate issues – agriculture and national security.
The story begins with de la Garza touring the Kings Bay nuclear submarine plant in Georgia. He asked a sub captain a series of questions, trying to get to the bottom of how a nuclear sub is able to stay submerged for so long. After covering all the possible ways in which it could be forced to surface, including running out of fuel, de la Garza found that only one factor determined if the sub would have to abandon its mission, or be able to complete it – its food supply.
Decades later, lawmakers continue to recall de la Garza’s story and ruminate on its moral: A nation that cannot secure its food, cannot secure its people.
The current chairman of the Agriculture Committee, Mike Conaway, R-Texas, opened a hearing on the intersection of agriculture and national security recently by alluding to de la Garza’s anecdote, then quickly broadened the discussion to include more contemporary security concerns. They included nutritional needs here and abroad, food safety and quality standards for imports and exports and what Conaway called “near-term threats to food security,” such as “weather, conflict, diseases, resource constraints and environmental degradation.”
One expert witness, John Negroponte, a former deputy secretary of state who served at different times as ambassador to Mexico, Honduras and the Philippines, testified that “homeland security is connected to agriculture” today more than ever because of “the importance of America’s global supply chains and food safety issues.”
While an increasingly globalized supply chain has meant cheaper foods for U.S. exporters and consumers, it has also made the U.S. and its allies more dependent on trade than ever, and therefore more vulnerable to international policy, emerging diseases, even bouts of poor weather abroad, Negroponte said.
A more globalized economy has also meant trouble for the world’s 1.4 billion subsistence farmers, he said. These farmers don’t have access to markets because they can’t compete with bigger players for a number of reasons, not limited to a lack of farming and transport equipment, market information and cost-effective inputs.
In effect, the same international trade agreements that ensure Americans and their allies “the benefit of agricultural competitiveness and the quality of agricultural production” from abroad – including the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the North American Free Trade Agreement – also can “marginalize” subsistence farmers, breeding political unrest within poor communities, Negroponte said.
International competition for limited resources critical to agriculture, like energy, water and soil, could “affect political stability and shift military priorities,” Negroponte continued. And a fast-growing global middle class will demand more productivity from U.S. agriculture and may “transform… many food markets.”
In order to solve these challenges, Negroponte told the panel to remember “science is our friend,” and that only by disseminating agricultural knowledge and building on it through “strong” research, will the world be able to meet the nutritional demands of 9 billion or more people by 2050.
“Having strong agriculture in any given country is going to be a real factor of stability. It’s what’s going to root people in the countryside; it’s going to keep them from depleting it and all pouring into the cities,” he said. When agricultural knowledge is shared, it can be “a tremendous diplomatic tool” that inspires cooperation and fosters “friendship” between countries, he added.
Tammy Beckham, the dean of the College of Veterinary Medicine at Kansas State University (KSU), added emerging and reemerging highly pathogenic diseases, like Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD), to the list of challenges facing U.S. food and threatening national security.
The costs associated with an FMD outbreak in the Midwest could cost the livestock and allied industries $188 billion in losses and the U.S. government up to $11 billion, according to a new KSU study quoted by Beckham.
The most recent PEDv outbreak (porcine epidemic diarrhea virus) in the U.S. infected half of the nation’s sows and killed 10 percent (7 million) of the piglets born to those sows. And outbreaks of highly pathogenic avian influenza this year infected 7.5 percent (7.5 million) of U.S. turkeys and more than 10 percent (42 million) of commercial chickens, costing the government approximately $191 million in indemnity funding.
What’s more, Beckham said that over 75 percent of all emerging global pathogens are zoonotic, which means they can pass between animals and humans like Ebola, AIDS and some avian and swine flu varieties have. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that animals spread more than half (60 percent) of the infectious diseases found in humans.
“The ability to protect our agricultural industries, food supply and public health sectors” from these concerns “is heavily dependent on an organized, strategic and well-funded approach” that integrates animal and human health research like “One Health,” she told the committee.
One Health is the concept that the health of humans is connected to the health of animals and the environment. Over the last few decades, the movement of humans, animals, livestock and farm products has become more globalized and more regular, Beckham said. This, coupled with more highly concentrated livestock production in the U.S. and other countries, has made it more likely that zoonotic diseases will spread geographically and between species, she said.
“We need to increase our research,” she said, to develop countermeasures that can “stamp out” a zoonotic disease “in animal populations before it gets to the human population.”
But for years, funding for research and detection of animal diseases has been significantly less than human ones – leaving the U.S. at risk of biosecurity breaches, Beckham said.
For instance, in fiscal 2014, 61 percent of federal funding for biodefense was allocated to the Department of Health and Human Services, while only 1 percent went to USDA for the same purpose, she said. For fiscal 2015, the Strategic National Stockpile – the U.S.’s repository for antibiotics, vaccines and other critical medical supplies for humans – received $534 million in funding, when the National Veterinary Stockpile received $3.973 million, according to USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS).
The newly released Bipartisan Report of the Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense, led by former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge and former Sen. Joe Lieberman of Rhode Island, found “the United States is underprepared for biological threats” and “despite significant progress on several fronts… is dangerously vulnerable to a biological event.”
“The root cause of this continuing vulnerability” the report read, is the country’s lack of “centralized leadership on biodefense.” It recommended the White House institutionalize the One Health concept and that APHIS work with the Interior Department’s Fish and Wildlife Service to develop a central animal disease surveillance system that could also be used by Health and Human Services. The report also suggested HHS, USDA and the Defense Department coordinate to prioritize emerging infectious disease threats.
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