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January 13, 2003

Purdue Extension serves at the front line against agroterrorism

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. Farmers are familiar with natural threats pests, weeds, bad weather and are used to dealing with them. However, when the threat is unknown or suspicious, producers say they expect to turn to a familiar resource for help.

When farmers were asked who to call if they suspected agroterrorism, the Cooperative Extension Service was at the top of their list.

In light of that, Purdue University and the Extension Disaster Education Network (EDEN) are working with state and federal officials to focus on plant biosecurity measures and information. The effort will include a new Web site on plant security to be unveiled this spring. Purdue also is coordinating the national EDEN Homeland Security Project.

"In a national assessment, 80 percent of the farmers said they would turn to Extension in the event of an unknown crop disease outbreak in their fields," said Steve Cain, Purdue Extension disaster communications specialist. "If something happened with their animals, Extension was the second most cited resource, with 55 percent of respondents saying they would turn to Extension."

More than 300 producers across the country participated in a Web-based survey conducted this fall by EDEN. The questions asked about the potential risks of agroterrorism and the information resources that farmers thought should be available regarding potential terrorist threats.

The results pretty much match with the best advice that we can give farmers," Cain said. "If farmers call their local Extension educators, they will know who to contact and what information resources are available."

In Indiana, the Board of Animal Health, in cooperation with Purdue's Animal Disease Diagnostic Laboratory, has a system for alerting authorities and the public in the event of an animal disease outbreak regardless of whether the outbreak is accidental or intentional.

The same type of system doesn't yet exist for plant diseases, but the U.S. Department of Agriculture is working with EDEN to increase interagency communication and information exchange at the local and national levels regarding plant biosecurity.

"Extension is the natural mechanism for facilitating a more coordinated effort with regard to plant biosecurity," said David Petritz, director of Purdue Extension. "Extension educators are easily located in the event of a local situation and are connected to a number of resources for assessing and dealing with a variety of plant concerns."

In this state, the Office of the Indiana State Chemist, located at Purdue, oversees the regulation of fertilizers, pesticides, seeds and animal feeds.

"A farmer might not know to contact us regarding a potential problem, but their Extension educator would know," said Alan Hanks, state chemist. "Here at Purdue, we have access to a variety of experts that can help us diagnose and respond to situations."

While no official authority oversees plant diseases in Indiana, diagnostic work is done at Purdue at the Plant and Pest Diagnostic Laboratory. The laboratory is connected to a network of diagnostic labs that share information on disease outbreaks, which would be vital in the event of a widespread attack.

While officials consider the threat of agroterrorism in the state to be low given Indiana's location and lack of national media attention, preventive practices and procedures are effective in curbing accidental contamination of crops and livestock, which could be even more costly to producers.

"We are constantly on the lookout for foreign animal diseases and outbreaks that could devastate producers," said Leon Thacker, ADDL director.

If a producer suspects a disease outbreak in livestock or contamination of their animals from terrorism-related activity, the first call should be to a local veterinarian. In the EDEN survey, 71 percent of respondents said they would call the vet first for an animal-related problem.

"The vet will contact the ADDL and the Board of Animal Health to report the situation," Thacker said. "Animals should not be moved from the farm if terrorism or a disease outbreak is suspected."

If the problem is in plants, Petritz said calling Extension would be appropriate. "We encourage producers to call local educators and are improving the educators' diagnostic abilities so that they can better serve local clients."

EDEN is a national initiative that links Extension educators from across the U.S. and various disciplines so they can use and share resources to reduce the impact of disasters.

Writer: Beth Forbes, (765) 494-2722, forbes@purdue.edu

Sources: Steve Cain, (765) 494-8410

David Petritz, (765) 494-8489

Alan Hanks, (765) 494-1492

Leon Thacker, (765) 494-7448

Related Web sites:

National Biosecurity Resource Center: https://www.biosecuritycenter.org/

Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096; purduenews@purdue.edu


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