It’s Time to Talk about Food and Agriculture Security

Guest post by Dr. Krista Versteeg, Senior Scientific Advisor and Biosurety Manager in the Science and Technology Directorate’s (S&T) Office of National Laboratories (ONL).

Dr. Krista Versteeg

When large scale threats affect food and agriculture supplies, they become matters of national security. Many different threats to our food and agriculture sector exist, and any disruption to the supply chain can cause shortages at your local grocery store and limit the availability of food. Diseases affecting U.S. livestock can affect meat supply and the ability to export food products, a major source of income for farmers. Outbreaks of wheat rust, a devastating plant fungal disease, have ruined global harvests of crops, which millions depend on for sustenance and income. Invasive animal and plant species diminish crop yields causing economic loss and food shortages.

In November 2022, President Biden signed the National Security Memorandum-16 (NSM-16) to ensure that Americans have access to safe food. NSM-16 directs federal agencies to strengthen the security of the food and agriculture sector by ensuring that the American food and agricultural system is better prepared for high impact threats that may disrupt the supply chain. S&T’s role in NSM-16 is to provide data and tools to help policy makers make decisions to prevent, mitigate, and ultimately, if needed, to respond to incidents affecting food and agriculture security.

S&T has been doing work in this space for years before NSM-16 and has the laboratories, capabilities and programs needed to protect the food and agriculture sector. In the Probabilistic Analysis for National Threats Hazards and Risks program, S&T characterizes chemical and biological threats and their impact on food or agriculture, and then prepares analyses that measure the risks of disruptions to the food and agriculture sector. The Food, Agriculture, and Veterinary Defense program develops countermeasures like vaccines and detection devices for transboundary animal diseases, such as African Swine Fever virus. The work done by these programs provides valuable tools to animal health officials and informs the emergency planning and response of DHS components like U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Here at ONL, we are focused on maintaining the scientific research capabilities needed to address NSM-16. We have two S&T national laboratories conducting work in the food and agriculture space: the Plum Island Animal Disease Center conducts research on animal diseases and the Chemical Security Analysis Center focuses on chemical threats. ONL and these laboratories work closely with our S&T scientific program managers to ensure effective collaboration with all stakeholders to address animal diseases, food contamination and adulteration, agricultural pests and crop diseases, and other threats that may harm our food systems, animals, and plants. Because many current and future threats (biological or chemical) cross the boundaries of different scientific disciplines, ONL works with multiple partners, bringing together a variety of scientific expertise to conduct research, development, test, and evaluation on solutions and capabilities throughout this Food and Agriculture Security space to avoid duplicate work efforts, thus saving taxpayer dollars.

ONL is looking to the future and making plans to ensure that our laboratory capabilities will continue to provide innovative solutions to keep our food and agriculture systems safe. For this, we are developing partnerships with interagency partners, academia, the DHS Centers of Excellence, and S&T’s International Cooperative Programs Office. All these relationships will increase the amount of forward thinking work that S&T is able to do to protect the food and agriculture sector. Consulting with our partners also helps us understand specific areas of concern (like decontamination of diseases) and determine where S&T can invest to make the best difference.

While NSM-16 opens a door for S&T to work with new partners and projects, we will continue to build solid partnerships, so our food and agriculture defense mission can support the high priority areas related to homeland security. With NSM-16’s implementation, we will continue to address the food and agriculture threats and challenges that await us in the future.

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