Center coordinates K-State's safety and security efforts
By Michelle Hall
The National Agricultural Biosecurity Center at Kansas State University is dedicated to protecting the nation's agricultural infrastructure through planning and training for threats, whether natural or intentional. The center coordinates interdisciplinary efforts in agricultural safety and security.
"NABC is an integrative center that is looking to create programs and research to protect and defend the agricultural and food infrastructure and economy," said Marty Vanier, the center's associate director, pictured at left.
"One of the things that makes us unique is that we're not strictly and purely academic," Vanier said. "That's certainly a strength, but we're also reaching out to and creating connections with the law enforcement community, for example -- all of the folks looking over the horizon."
K-State and the center are working to prepare diagnosticians, livestock and plant producers, law enforcement, emergency response personnel and leaders to deal with naturally or intentionally introduced disease.
"Kansas State University has long been a leader in animal health and food security," said David Franz, center director. "Endemic and emerging plant and animal disease and the safe movement of food animal and crop products to the tables of America have long been a priority on campus. So the scientists and clinicians across campus are superbly equipped to make a difference in the new smaller, faster world where the next outbreak of disease may be just a 'malicious intention' away."
The center was established in 2002, evolving from the ongoing Food Safety and Security Program at the university.
The center was in part a response to Sept. 11, 2001, but had been in the minds of many at K-State for years.
K-Staters have long emphasized the potential for an attack on the agriculture of this nation. In October 1999, K-State President Jon Wefald presented testimony to the U.S. Senate's Emerging Threats Subcommittee on the topic.
National Agricultural Biosecurity Center initiatives include planning, training, outreach and research activities related to threat and risk analyses, incident response and detection/prevention technologies. The center coordinates agricultural biosecurity activities with federal, state and local agencies as well as other universities and strategic partners; and works with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Department of Defense, the Department of Justice and other federal, state and local agencies to facilitate an effective strategy for rapid response to emerging agricultural threats.
Projects have included conducting three studies critical to America's agrosecurity as part of a $3 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. Center workers evaluated the means, hazards and obstacles involved in disposal of contaminated animal carcasses, assessed agroterrorism exercises and their outcomes, and analyzed pathways by which foreign plant and animal diseases might enter the country.
The center also has received funding from the Department of Defense to conduct agroterrorism exercises mobilizing U.S. military assets and integrating relevant information technology tools; and from the Department of Justice to conduct law enforcement agrosecurity assessments.
The center coordinates emergency preparedness exercises to test and strengthen state- and county-level readiness to respond to a significant agricultural disease event. The exercises involve many departments and agencies in Kansas and nationally.
Vanier said although the exercises they have performed with the various agencies are extremely important, what also is vital is the work they do before and after these "tests." Much planning happens before the exercise, and afterward the entities involved see what went right and wrong; see what worked and what didn't.
"The goal is to replicate how such an event would actually be managed if it were to occur," said Jerry Jaax, associate vice provost for research compliance and the principal investigator on the grant that established the National Agricultural Biosecurity Center, pictured at right. "We are testing the response plans -- are they adequate, can we identify shortcomings, gaps, or disconnects between the plans of participants at different levels of government?"
These exercises help create emergency response plans, Jaax said. The center also is developing a CD-based training program to help Kansas counties draw up and evaluate written emergency response plans.
"First responders to an agricultural emergency would likely be people out in the counties," he said. "The ranchers, livestock managers, veterinarians and extension agents are likely to be key players when a disease is first spotted."
"The process is as important as the product," Franz said. "Getting these busy people together now will pay big dividends if we ever face a real crisis in Kansas agriculture or public health."
Another initiative of the center also aims to help emergency management personnel respond more effectively to an agricultural or zoonotic bioterrorist event. The project, "Situational Competency, Simulations and Lessons Learned for Food/Agricultural Bioterrorism," is funded by the Department of Defense. K-State is working with subcontractors to scour the nation's emergency response community for examples of significant lessons learned from agrosecurity response efforts, adapt existing software and technologies to handle agrosecurity issues, and create an integrated system accessible via the Internet. Users will have access to a lessons learned database and a continuing education Web site.
"Having the critical information at the ready -- this library of what works and how to do it -- will empower the nation's first responders with knowledge, skills and capabilities to act effectively in the face of an agroterrorism incident," said Vanier, who is principal investigator of the project. "This helps so entities aren't reinventing the wheel."
The center's Web site also is a main project and was created in conjunction with the University of Alabama at Birmingham. It offers the lessons learned database, among other resources. Soon, the Web site will begin to include visualization work provided by the Geographic Information Systems Spatial Analysis Laboratory at K-State to show tracking capabilities.
K-State's new Biosecurity Research Institute will be an asset of the National Agricultural Biosecurity Center, Vanier said. The institute will offer unique research capabilities not seen anywhere else in the nation.
"K-State has a record of national leadership in the areas of food safety and security," said Jim Stack, director of the Biosecurity Research Institute. "The establishment of the National Agricultural Biosecurity Center is a statement of K-State's commitment to maintaining that leadership, both nationally and internationally. The BRI is a significant step in creating the research and training infrastructure necessary to achieve agricultural biosecurity. Within this facility, important food safety and security questions are addressed and practical solutions developed and validated."
Vanier said the Biosecurity Research Institute, a biosecurity level-3 laboratory building, will serve as a back-up, or surge-capacity, laboratory in the wake of a disaster that might overload front-line laboratories.
The National Agricultural Biosecurity Center is a collaborative, interdisciplinary entity. Center employees can help those around the university, the state and the nation with projects. In turn, those around the university help the center with projects they take on -- Vanier said the center identifies faculty and researchers on campus with the capabilities needed to complete tasks. Previous collaborators have included K-State faculty and researchers in veterinary medicine, geographic information systems, food science, behavioral health, plant pathology, biology and environmental engineering.
"It's part of the K-State culture to be very service-oriented," Vanier said. "The attitude is that our purpose is to make things better. We want to solve problems, we want to ensure human health, animal health, the health of the environment. We're trying to make things better.
"We're trying to take a really broad view and recognize that in this very small world, anything we do can have an impact," she said. "We secure and defend agriculture -- the most important industry in the state of Kansas."
"There is a new appreciation in this country and internationally regarding the threat of epidemic, or even pandemic, disease affecting us all," Franz, pictured at left, said. "In that past, we might have said, let the human health-care professionals take care of that problem. West Nile Encephalitis, SARS, Monkey Pox and highly pathogenic avian flu have changed all that. Each of those diseases -- significant threats to humans -- had their origin in animals. We can no longer afford to be content with our role as doctors to the animals and plants. We must develop in our students and our professionals a culture of looking for disease wherever it is found, not just when it affects humans directly.
"Whether an outbreak is a result of natural or intentional introduction -- human, animal or plant -- breaking into the disease cycle as quickly as possible is the most important thing we can do to reduce lives and dollars lost. This new world may be small, it may be connected, it may be fast, some jobs may be moving abroad -- but the critical role we have played in maintaining the state's and the national food and fiber supply has not -- and will not -- go away.
"We at the National Agricultural Biosecurity Center, a diverse and integrated group of experts across the entire campus at Kansas State University, intend to stand in the gap, for the university, the state of Kansas, for America and the world," Franz said.
Agricultural Biosecurity Center
Summer 2006/updated October 2006