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Protecting Our Food, Our Farms and Our Families

America's agriculture, food system, natural resources, and citizens always have been vulnerable to a wide range of potential threats. Natural disasters such as floods and droughts can affect farm production and public safety.
Dan Tancibok, director, Centre County Office of 911/Emergency Communications

Dan Tancibok, director, Centre County Office of 911/Emergency Communications

"With Penn State's assistance and expertise, we were able to develop the key digital maps to make our enhanced 9-1-1 system what it is today. Using these digital maps and other GIS tools, we can now identify individual structures and addresses, which has led to a dramatic improvement in dispatching police, fire, and ambulance crews."

A variety of domestic and foreign diseases -- accidentally or intentionally introduced -- may threaten human, animal, or plant health. Natural or human-made contaminants may wreak havoc with our food and water supplies.

Not only do these dangers put our health and safety at risk, but they also threaten our economy and sense of security. Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences conducts research and educational programs that are helping to enhance the security of our food system, the health and safety of our citizens, and the continued viability of our agriculture.

The Payoff

Protecting farms by mapping them

Critical to an emergency response is the ability to communicate with those directly affected, as well as those not yet affected but who may be at risk. When it comes to threats against animal agriculture operations scattered over hundreds of square miles in mostly rural areas -- some of which may not even be known to officials -- the task of communicating is daunting. To help streamline the process of responding to livestock disease outbreaks, Penn State Cooperative Extension's Geospatial Technology Program has partnered with the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture to create a mapping database of farm operations across the state. Called PaFarms, the project uses geographic information systems (GIS) technology to provide location and emergency contact information for all farms. A related project, the Pennsylvania Animal Health Emergency Response and Diagnostic System (PAHERDS), utilizes data from PaFarms to facilitate rapid response to animal-related emergencies. Having these data a few computer keystrokes away will save authorities precious time in contacting producers in the vicinity of a disease outbreak with instructions, precautions, and other critical information to keep the disease from spreading to or from their herds.

GIS to the rescue. When a disaster occurs, the first thing authorities often look for is maps of resources. In Centre County, for instance, there are 44 small, independent water companies, most of which have no maps showing the locations of wells, water lines, and similar infrastructure. If a well becomes contaminated overnight, of.cials may have trouble locating the well and water lines and may not know where to dig to install new lines and bring a replacement water source online. After tornadoes, telling where a house or other building had been located can be difficult. Penn State Cooperative Extension's Geospatial Technology Program works with local governments across the state to build GIS databases to map infrastructure and resources in communities. By having maps that show these resources and computer systems that allow quick retrieval, 9-1-1 and other local emergency responders may be able to locate and save victims or prevent further damage.

Teaching biosecurity to a new generation

Although protecting herds, crops, flocks, food, and water from the introduction of disease-causing pathogens always has been a concern, the threat of agroterrorism in recent years has heightened the need for biosecurity -- and biosecurity education. In spring 2003, the College of Agricultural Sciences launched what is believed to be the first university course in agricultural biosecurity. Aimed at graduate students across all disciplines in the college, the course covers the history of biowarfare and bioterrorism targeting the food system; invasive and introduced species; animal health and production, including foreign animal diseases; the role of government in addressing biosecurity concerns; and biosecurity at the local or county level.

A forensic database for plant pathogens

As the 1999 plum pox outbreak that decimated Pennsylvania's stone fruit< industry illustrated, the inadvertent introduction of a crop disease organism can have devastating economic effects. Increasing interstate and international commerce increases the likelihood of nonnative plant pathogens entering the United States with imported products. In addition, the September 11, 2001, attacks and the subsequent anthrax incidents called attention to the threat of deliberate releases of pathogens. The College of Agricultural Sciences is collaborating with other Penn State researchers and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to build a database of fungal plant pathogens that could help officials contain such crop disease events, as well as trace their origins and stop them at their sources.

The database will function much like the database used by the FBI to match the genetic fingerprints of a crime-scene sample with the DNA of known individuals. In the long run, researchers hope to add information to the database on pathogen groups other than fungi, including ones affecting human and animal health.

Ultrasound to kill bacteria

Ultrasound is a common medical technology often used to image a fetus or a patient's internal organs; however, researchers in the College of Agricultural Sciences helped to devise a method for using ultrasound to kill bacterial spores. The technique could be used to decontaminate mail -- a major concern after the well-publicized 2001 anthrax attacks -- or to sterilize surgical equipment, food, or the air handling systems in buildings and airplanes. In experiments, the scientists used high-power, noncontact ultrasound to kill 99.9 percent of Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), a bacterium that is commonly used as an insecticide and is a close relative of Bacillus anthracis, or anthrax. The technique works even without a contact medium, such as water or gel, which is necessary in most low-power, medical uses of ultrasound. The tests were the first to show that noncontact ultrasound can inactivate bacterial spores. Researchers are fine-tuning the process, with an eye toward commercializing the technology.

For more information, contact either Penn State Cooperative Extension at 814-863-3438 or the Office of Research and Graduate Education at 814-865-5410, or search for the topic on our website at agsci.psu.edu.