Ag experts discuss agrosecurity

FARGO, N.D. -- Imagine a situation in which foot-and-mouth disease or other disease was introduced into North America and the government imposed a "stop movement order?"...

FARGO, N.D. -- Imagine a situation in which foot-and-mouth disease or other disease was introduced into North America and the government imposed a "stop movement order?"

What would happen with all of the 35,000 trucks on U.S. roads every day -- filled with beef and swine and other livestock, in transit between birthing, nursery, feedlots and slaughtering facilities?

Where would they go?

How quickly could their movement be stopped?

Those were just two of the scenarios discussed at the Beyond Borders: North Central Animal AgroSecurity for the Extension Disaster Education Network. The event, held at the FargoDome, June 4 to 6, attracted 185 people from 16 states and four Canadian provinces.


Among the highest-ranking government officials at the event was Gale Buchanan, U.S. Department of Agriculture undersecretary for Research, Education and Economics in Washington, D.C., which is in charge of the Extension Service, among others.

Workin g together

Buchanan, a weed scientist by training, came to his post in 2005 after serving as a top administrator in research and education in Alabama and Georgia. Among other things, Buchanan pumped up the Extension Service troops in his audience, saying it is important now to define more clearly the role the agency plays, through EDEN.

"All of us hope" EDEN will never need to be called on, but Buchanan urged people to plan now, "when there is no emergency on the horizon." He ticked off a long list of groups that need to be involved in the planning, starting with producer groups, state veterinarians, private veterinarians and law enforcement. A former state National Guard battalion commander for military police, Buchanan says the military also will play a role.

He praised the group for strengthening associations between the U.S. and Canada for emergency preparedness.

"I can tell you the bugs and diseases we don't like -- they cross the border," Buchanan said, noting that airlines have brought marvelous mobility to societies, but also problems. "In fact, the flies can come "first class" if they happen to come in the front of the plane."

He said the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York City brought devastation, but it "took a while" to recognize that agriculture is a vulnerable area to terrorism -- the deliberate spread of diseases into our plant or animal production systems. He said the emergencies can be "intentional, accidental or from Mother Nature," and that the "preparedness or lack thereof will determine the outcome."

Buchanan said the 9,000 Extension Service agents, or educators, in the United States are in 3,000 counties -- "embedded everywhere." Surveys have indicated that citizens will turn to county agents 78 percent of the time to get answers during a plant emergency and 55 percent of the time in an animal emergency.


"A lot of them would turn to local veterinarians," Buchanan said.

Ill prepared

Steve Van Wie, an animal agrosecurity consultant from Hortonville, Wis., said North America is ill prepared to do much better than the "Let's go kill cows," mentality that took over during the foot-and-mouth disease outbreaks in the United Kingdom in 2001, and a smaller outbreak in 2007.

The 2001 outbreak meant 6 million animals were killed, including 4 million culled for disease control -- 1.3 million on infected farms, 1.5 million "dangerous contacts." This resulted in about $4.5 billion loss to agriculture and the food chain.

The 2007 outbreak required 10 farms to be depopulated, with an economic impact of about $90 million, Van Wie said.

Van Wie is a member of the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service's Veterinary Reserve Corps, and was sent to help respond to foot-and-mouth disease in the United Kingdom, staying for six months in the outbreak in 2001.

During a dramatic audio-visual presentation that focused on the human as well as economic catastrophe, Van Wie related he received a phone call from one of the dairy producers he'd depopulated in Britain.

Said the man: "I went to the barn to milk me cows, and me cows were gone," Van Wie said. While Van Wie tried to calm him on the phone and make an appointment for a visit, the farmer shot himself to death while Van Wie listened on the phone. "Do you think he was trying to send a message?" Van Wie said.


Van Wie said 62 guys "blew their brains out" in England, because of the impacts of the FMD disaster.

Among other things, Van Wie played a video that showed a hypothetical scenario of an attack in Tulare, Calif., in which terrorists intentionally put an FMD-infested rag into a herd of Jersey dairy cattle. Unchecked, the disease spread through bulk tank pickups to family members going to school or work.

Van Wie said there are ten times the number of semi-trailer rigs transporting beef and swine every day as there were airplanes flying on 9-11, when the U.S. government grounded them to avoid a new attack. He said it is "nigh onto impossible" to stop the movement of all of these vehicles across state lines.

He said one group of experts recently did a hypothetical "exercise" at a Colorado meeting to think about where stopped vehicles would go. To a county fairgrounds? To truck stops?

"We haven't planned for this," Van Wie said. State permitting systems and law enforcement policies are either undeveloped.

He said extension, which has no regulatory or enforcement role should play a key role for farmers outside of the most critical infection areas, to keep healthy stock healthy and to help deal with farmers' informational and emotional needs.

In case of emergency

Van Wie said livestock farmers individually need to think ahead to plan for what will happen when normal transportation and input infrastructure is not available to their farms -- how they can maintain and create isolation for their herds and flocks in the case of an emergency. He said farmers with high-value animals and genetics would probably benefit from an annual official appraisal of their value.


Further, he said, farmers need to imagine an "exit strategy" from their farms if their animals must be depopulated. "They need to think about what if I had to start over? How would I feed my family if I could not farm?"

When caught in a depopulation crisis, some farmers without options will resist government intervention. After the United Kingdom outbreak in February 2001, Van Wie noted that 76 farmers in the Cumbria, England, area by July 1 had barricaded their homes against inspection.

Van Wie said that while most U.S. farmers tend to believe that the government will compensate the loss of animals, there is no firm policy on how farmers are indemnified. He said even when the government pays farmers the value of the animals just prior to an emergency, that amount can fall short of the cost of replacing the animals after the disaster. In England, he said, the replacement cattle in some cases were worth triple their value prior to the disaster.

"If we cannot afford to replace, financially, our national livestock herd, don't you think the farmers have the right to know that?" Van Wie said.

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