NEWS

USDA Working Hard to Prevent Agroterrorism, Secretary Says

By Matthew Harwood

Newly christened Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer addressed the Third Symposium on Agroterrorism yesterday,  underscoring the importance of a safe and secure food supply since 9-11 and amid global unrest due to food shortages.

"More than ever, we have to assure Americans that their food is safe," Secretary of Agriculture Ed Schafer told agricultural security stakeholders attending the Third International Symposium on Agroterrorism. To protect not only American lives, but their livelihoods, Schafer said that food safety is the number one priority of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Since 9-11, the agency's  mission has a new dimension: fighting agroterrorism.

"The USDA has to think of how we are vulnerable to terrorists and strengthen protective measures against terrorism," Shafer said, adding "a great deal has been accomplished" to secure the food supply from agroterrorism.

In 2005, the USDA launched the Food Emergency Response Network (FERN), an integrated network of laboratories that could respond to deliberate contamination of the nation's food supply. Partnering with Health and Human Services and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), FERN seeks to expand and manage a group of more than 90 federal, state, and local laboratories to detect and identify biological, chemical, and radiological agents entered into the food supply.

While FERN is functioning well, USDA must recruit more labs into the network, Shafer said. A third of the nation's agriculture laboratories currently participate.

Shafer also discussed the Strategic Partnership Program Agroterrorism (SPPA), a partnership of the USDA, FDA, FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, states, and private industry. SPPA is conducting a series of risk assessments to poke and prod the agricultural sector for vulnerabilities by identifying security gaps and closing them before terrorists or criminals exploit them.

USDA also plans to invest in a new poultry research facility, Shafer said. The agency considers bird flu a high priority "because the risk of mutation still remains high." Scientists and public health officials fear bird flu could mutate or combine with the highly contagious seasonal flu to create a new strain with pandemic potential.

The Secretary disagreed with charges by others that biofuels are contributing to global food shortages.

Recent global food riots over high prices caused by shortages, Schafer said, "serves to remind us that any threat to a people's food supply creates great anxiety."

During a question-and-answer period with reporters, however, Schafer asserted the increased production of biofuels had little to do with the rise in food prices and tight global food supplies.

Stan Cox, a senior scientist at the Land Institute, disagreed with Schafer's assessment the previous day in a presentation on biofuels at the conference.

"Expanding biofuel production from grain," he said, "is adding to the severity of food shortages and threatens to undermine future food production."

Answering critics of food-based biofuel production such as Cox, Schafer said, "People [who] say that are totally wrong," adding that only 25 percent of the U.S. corn crop goes toward ethanol production and that the U.S. has expanded corn production to ensure corn stocks for food do not decline.

Current food shortage and associated high prices are attributable to an increase in energy prices, bad weather, and a rise in the global demand for food driven by the economic development of China and India, Shafer said. The shortages, he argued, have more to do with foreign agricultural practices than any actions taken by the U.S. government or agricultural producers.

"Unless we can convince other nations to accept the biotechnology and the good farming practices and the precision farming methods that we use today in the United States to increase yields across the globe," Shafer said, "we're going to continue to have these price structure and problems with food and hunger in the world today."

On a brighter note, Shafter noted that these are good times for American agriculture. Agricultural exports are estimated to pass $100 billion this year.

Schafer closed his speech by thanking the agroterrorism conference's attendees for their work, telling them that he was "confident with their help, we can protect the food supply of America."

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