Centers to combat “agro-terror”
UC Davis recently received two major grant awards to help combat “agro-terror” by protecting crop plants and food from contamination, disease, pests or pathogens, whether introduced accidentally or by terrorist acts.
A $900,000 homeland security grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) will provide the initial funding for a new Western Center for Plant Disease and Pest Surveillance and Detection at UC Davis, coordinated by the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. “Establishing an effective network for monitoring, detecting and diagnosing plant pests and diseases will be a challenging but vital task,” says center director Richard Bostock, chair of the UC Davis plant pathology department.
And a new $5 million center located at UC Davis, the Western Institute for Food Safety and Security, will facilitate a partnership between UC, the California Department of Food and Agriculture and the California Department of Health Services. “Our food supply is increasingly subject to contamination from both biological and chemical sources; and now we have the new threat of intentional contamination of food through bioterrorism,” says Jerry Gillespie, institute director and UC Davis veterinary pathologist.
In September, a National Research Council report concluded that the United States is vulnerable to agricultural bioterrorism and needs a comprehensive defense plan. “Biological agents that could be used to harm crops or livestock are widely available and pose a major threat to U.S. agriculture,” NRC committee chair Harley Moon of Iowa State University said. (The committee began its study prior to the September 11 attacks and the subsequent anthrax outbreak.) Over the past year, the federal government has allocated an additional $328 million to USDA for homeland security programs to protect the food supply, including $43 million for research to states and land-grant universities.
The plant-disease and pest network will concentrate on linking personnel, information systems and databases at diagnostic laboratories throughout the western region to better track the health of crops or the progression of a disease or insect outbreak.
The food safety institute's mission will be to develop the capability to identify food-borne hazards more rapidly and accurately, as well as methods to prevent natural and intentional food contamination. One area of emphasis will be the development of rapid diagnostic tests for disease-causing microbes such as Salmonella, deadly strains of E. coli, Cryptosporidium, anthrax and foreign foodborne diseases such as “mad cow disease.”