Researchers at the Texas Agricultural Experiment Station say prevention, detection and clean up methods for bioterrorism at the farm level must be found now to avoid human harm and economic devastation of the food and fiber supply.
Bioterrorism, the deliberate release of toxins or infectious organisms, has been studied by national experts for years. The threat to the U.S. food supply and its underlying agricultural industry has more recently been recognized, heightened by the attacks on Sept. 11.
"The efforts in bioterrorism research are meant both to prevent attack and to offer rapid response to minimize consequences in case of terrorist action," said Dr. Neville Clarke, director of Texas A&M University's Center for Natural Resource Information Technology.
A proposal to establish a National Center for Countermeasures Against Agricultural Bioterrorism is being prepared at Texas A&M for consideration by the administration and Board of Regents. The proposal includes surveillance networking systems, satellite imaging technology, field and laboratory diagnostic capabilities using biotechnology, and an information system that could predict and track the spread following an attack.
Having such a facility at Texas A&M makes sense because of its strong history in agriculture and engineering research, its information delivery capabilities with Texas Cooperative Extension agents located in every county, and the state's long Mexican border which provides enormous potential for terrorist crossings, according to Clarke.
He said the nation must not only consider immediate actions that need to be taken, but should simultaneously adapt existing technology for the short run and develop new knowledge and technology for future protection.
"It is critically important that all three approaches be planned and implemented concurrently," Clarke said.
Dr. John Mullet, Institute for Plant Genomics and Biotechnology director and a cooperator in the proposal with Clarke and Texas A&M researchers Drs. Gary Adams and Jim Wild, agreed.
"The whole reason for studying bioterrorism is for preserving the healthfulness of our country," said Mullet. "The safety of our food supply is one of the most fundamental jobs in agriculture."
Biological weapons have been feared for decades. But current events have put the issue in the forefront of U.S. policy makers and the health services community. The threat to agriculture, especially in its production and processing phases, is a relatively new consideration, Clarke said, though the Pentagon issued a report last January noting that the nation's farms and ranches are highly vulnerable.
He said Texas A&M has been "heavily involved in counter-terrorism research" for at least 20 years. He cited, for example, Wild's mid-1980s development of an enzyme to inactivate chemical warfare agents.
But, he said, with changing technology as well as individuals and groups likely to attack, researchers have much work to do.
"We are concerned not with just the rogue nations, but with any individual who may be disgruntled and wish to carry out an act of bioterrorism," Clarke said. And he noted that such research also would be useful in the event of an accidental outbreak of some pestilence that threatens the food and fiber supply.