By Beth Forbes
Faster response: In the event of a natural or terrorist incident, the priorities will be sampling and diagnosing the disease or problem; quarantining affected crops, animals or people; and analyzing the data and communicating information to those involved. With the recent anthrax attacks, confirmation of the disease took four days. However, scientists recently have announced a new test that takes just an hour. "There are at least 20 diseases in the agricultural sector that we need this kind of rapid confirmation for," Lechtenberg says.
Education: Of all of the priorities, this one may be the easiest to implement because people in the agriculture and food industries are intensely interested in learning more about biosecurity. These days when Lechtenberg speaks on biosecurity issues, he often finds nearly every seat in the room taken.
"Right now we need educational programs related to biosecurity issues, and we're going to be needing a lot more in the coming months," he says.
Increased research and development: Future biosecurity research will focus on two areas, Lechtenberg says: the genetics of diseases and developing sophisticated computer models of how diseases disperse.
"During the past five years in agriculture, our research has focused on understanding the genomes and genetics of crops such as corn, wheat and rice," he says. "In the next four to five years, we'll spend a lot of our research time looking at the genomics of disease organisms. We'll find a whole host of targets that will allow us to deactivate those microbes. But that's going to take quite a bit of research effort."
Before 2001, agricultural leaders were aware that these security measures were needed. In 1998, an advisory board to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the National Agricultural Research, Extension, Education and Economics Advisory Board, which was chaired by Lechtenberg, issued a list of eight priorities in agriculture for then USDA Secretary Dan Glickman. Among those eight priority areas was "Preparedness and Response Capability."
"We identified emergency readiness as one of our top issues. We didn't call it biosecurity or agroterrorism at the time because we thought those terms sounded alarmist," Lechtenberg says. "Now, because of the events of this past summer, nobody is worrying too much about what words to use."