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Securing the future

By Keener A. Tippin II



Drawing of proposed food safety facility at K-State
K-State's proposed food safety and security building
Cost -- $40 million
Proposed to Kansas Legislature Jan. 17

The importance of protecting our food crops, food animals and domestic food supply cannot be overemphasized. Agricultural production provides 22 million jobs in the United States, even though less than 2 million people are farmers and ranchers. The agribusiness sector contributes more than $1 trillion annually to our economy, which amounts to 15 percent of the U.S. gross domestic product.

K-State has numerous programs in pre- and post-harvest food safety. More than 130 faculty scientists are working on topics of relevance to this issue. K-State has collaborative research agreements with other Midwestern universities, and with the National Science Foundation.

A biosecure food safety and security research facility could combat bioterrorism threats as researchers develop ways to counter terrorist attacks on our food and agricultural systems.

According to bioterrorism expert Jerry Jaax, the economic consequences of a bioterrorism attack could be "devastating," crippling the agricultural-based economy of the region and creating a potential economic disaster.

"It would be easier to attack agricultural targets since many possible agents would not be as dangerous to humans, and the delivery of agricultural pathogens to targets would pose less of a risk to perpetrators in rural areas where detection would be difficult," he said.

Although they have been referred to as the "poor man's nuclear weapons" in the post-Cold War era, Jaax is quick to point out that while possible, the efficient use of biological agents as weapons is not an easy thing to do, and he cautions against hysteria. "If it was that easy, we probably would have seen it happen long before now," he said.

Jaax cautions that biological terrorism clearly is a legitimate threat that we are going to be dealing with for years to come. A coordinated and judicious response by national and state governments, in partnership with industry and academia, will best serve our collective interests.

"We need to bolster our response capabilities, applied and basic research programs and facilities, and our local and national public health infrastructure," Jaax said."And perhaps most importantly, don't simply wring our hands and panic."

George Kennedy, professor in the College of Veterinary Medicine, said the danger of diseases such as foot-and-mouth and the importance of stopping them quickly ties in with the food safety and security research building proposed at K-State. The building would also be used for researching diseases like E. coli and salmonella, which are found domestically, and could be used for diagnosing foreign diseases like foot-and-mouth.

Spring 2002