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Securing Our Homeland's Food System

We live in a different world after Sepember 11, 2001. Aspects of our lives that we always counted on to be safe and reliable could be targets for terrorists. Although bombs and hijacked passenger jets may be the most obvious threats, an attack on the air we breathe, the food we eat, or the water we drink has the potential to affect a far greater number of people.
Allen Behrer, managing partner, Willow Behrer Farms, Huntingdon County

Allen Behrer, managing partner, Willow Behrer Farms, Huntingdon County

"In the last few years, we almost tripled our herd size, and that meant bringing a lot of new animals onto the farm. By implementing Penn State biosecurity recommendations, we've been able to isolate and identify diseased animals before they could affect the rest of the herd, and that's increased our profitability."

A biological attack could directly harm thousands-if not millions-of people and place a strain on our rescue and health care systems. More-over, contamination or disruption of water supplies or food production and processing could wreak havoc on our economy, causing higher food prices in the supermarket and billions of dollars in losses for crop and livestock producers, food processors, transportation firms, retailers, and many others. But whether an emergency is caused by terrorists or a natural or accidental event, the science and protocols needed to respond effectively are virtually identical. When we improve our defenses against agroterrorism, we contribute to the ongoing safety of our food supply and to the profitability of agriculture, whether a terrorist act occurs or not. Researchers and extension educators in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences are at the forefront in developing the tools, methods, and programs needed to respond to emergencies and to protect our citizens, our food system, and our economy.

The Payoff

An emergency response network

Penn State Cooperative Extension has a tradition of responding to emergencies and natural disasters. Penn State researchers and extension specialists worked with state officials to contain the 1999 plum pox outbreak that threatened Pennsylvania's stone fruit industry; educated livestock producers to help keep foreign animal diseases out of the United States following a 2001 European outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease; helped contain a 2001 avian influenza outbreak, potentially saving the state's poultry industry millions of dollars; and provided information and expertise that helped minimize the effects of drought on farm businesses, families, and communities in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Penn State Cooperative Extension is uniquely positioned to respond to emergencies. The organization can bring to bear a network of educators around the state and an emergency response contact in every county extension office. A task force of Penn State faculty and extension specialists also has been assembled to lend expertise in response to a wide variety of potential emergencies. Working with local, state and federal agencies, cooperative extension can quickly assist with communication and provide information covering a range of agricultural and consumer issues, including farm biosecurity, plant and animal health, risk management, food safety and human health, and family and household management.

Keeping farms "biosecure"

Biosecurity is the series of management steps taken to prevent the introduction of infectious agents into a herd, flock, or crop. Penn State extension veterinarians work with livestock producers to implement sound biosecurity plans, which typically include screening, testing, and isolating incoming animals, monitoring to quickly detect and act upon disease symptoms, and restrictions on farm visitors. The ultimate goals are to enhance animal health and productivity, ensure consumer food safety, and maintain farm profitability. Penn State veterinary scientists have collaborated with the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture to develop on-farm biosecurity educational programs and materials. As a result, veterinarians, food animal producers, and others have learned how to implement biosecurity practices that have helped reduce the threat posed by the accidental or intentional introduction of domestic and foreign animal diseases.

The science of rapid detection

In the event of a bioterrorism attack or natural disease event, the ability to respond effectively may depend on the capacity to detect and diagnose the problem quickly. A rapid diagnostic test developed by Penn State veterinary scientists is paying dividends in curbing avian influenza, a disease that could seriously cripple the state's $700 million poultry industry. Using this test, Pennsylvania's 2001 avian flu episode was diagnosed in one day. As a result, the outbreak affected 140,000 birds on seven farms and cost $350,000. An outbreak of the same virus in another Mid-Atlantic state a few months later took about seven days to confirm. That state's eradication toll: 4.8 million birds on nearly 200 farms at a cost of more than $114 million. Agricultural and biological engineers are also researching advanced sensors that would allow processors to detect pathogens, spoilage, and other imperfections in fruits and vegetables before the produce gets to market. In early tests, one such device-an "electronic nose" with 32 compound-specific sensors-has been used to detect E. coli bacteria on apples. Optical sensors under development use infrared light to create spectroscopic "fingerprints" of produce that can immediately reveal potentially harmful microorganisms or chemicals.

Plants as sentinels

Because they are rooted in their environment, plants must respond dynamically to environmental changes. Many of these responses can be observed or measured, such as changes in color, shape, or growth habit, or the emitting of volatiles into the air. Penn State scientists are laying the groundwork for genetically modifying plants that can act as an early-warning system by sensing and signaling the presence of chemical warfare agents, explosives, or animal pathogens, such as anthrax. The technology also holds promise for "precision" agriculture. As researchers learn more about how plants sense and respond to insects, diseases, poor soils, drought, and other environmental challenges, this knowledge may enable growers to treat for these problems only when and where they exist, minimizing the environmental impact of farming and reducing costs for producers.

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 the College of Agricultural Sciences' website.