Senator Wants $3.5 Billion for Agro-Terrorism Protection

By Jason Pierce | July 7, 2008 | 8:28 PM EDT

( - While the press and most of the country are focused on the threat of anthrax, farmers around the nation are worrying about the possibility of agro-terrorism hitting their farms.

In response, Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), a member of the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee, Monday introduced legislation that calls for spending more than $3.5 billion to protect the nation's food supply from terrorist attacks.

"Our nation's crops and livestock are now at very high risk," Roberts told a meeting of farm groups on Friday. "We must move quickly to prevent attacks on grain and livestock production and we must begin a massive research effort to develop vaccines and antidotes to halt diseases that could damage our food supply in the future."

Roberts' bill will spend $1.1 billion in 2002 and $271 million in each of the next 10 years to aid universities doing research on plant and animal diseases, and update and add security to U.S. Department of Agriculture facilities.

The immediate effects of the legislation would mean the development of "crash research programs," while USDA facilities were modernized and rapid response teams were trained. The facilities most affected would be The Plum Island Disease Laboratory in New York, the National Animal Disease Center in Iowa, the Southwest Poultry Research Laboratory in Georgia, the Animal Disease Research Laboratory in Wyoming and the Foreign Disease Laboratory at Ft. Detrick in Maryland.

Although Roberts stressed that the U.S. has an abundance of food, he added that the country must "ensure that crop and livestock diseases do not find their way to our fields and feedlots, either accidentally or as a result of terrorism."

Kathleen Phillips, spokesperson for the agriculture department at Texas A&M University, said Roberts' legislation is a good move because America's farms do potentially stand in harm's way. Phillips said researchers at Texas A&M have been testing systems and using biotechnology to see what options are available to deal with such an attack.

"Our farms are right out in the open with little protection, and any sort of agricultural attack would cause human harm and economic devastation and it is so easy to get to," Phillips said. "It could be as simple as a disease that kills the whole wheat crop across the whole country, but those are the things we are interested in, not only to prevent, but to counter should something happen like that."

Christopher Noun, spokesman for the American Farm Bureau, said farmers are being advised to take preventive measures in order to protect against any terrorist action.

"One of the things we have told producers and producer groups is ... to be aware of their surroundings, especially those who are around you," Noun said. "Overall, we are telling them to be all-around more cautious."

Sarah Ross, Roberts' press secretary, said the legislation is not just a knee-jerk reaction to the new war on terrorism, but instead a longstanding plan of action to protect agriculture from all threats.

"This is not just about Osama Bin Laden's threat. It is more for anything that threatens agriculture," Ross said. "It's aimed at the security of agriculture, whether it is a threat from abroad or a threat from within own our borders."