Introduction to the Agricultural Biosecurity Case Studies

This set of educational modules is intended to raise awareness about agricultural biosecurity issues in the United States and is targeted towards the educated public. We focus on agriculture, defined as the domestication of crops and animals, since it yields a variety of products essential to our daily lives, including food grains, vegetables, meat, milk, eggs, cotton, and wool. These modules address two different aspects of agricultural biosecurity, the nexus of agricultural production and international security. They include interviews with experts, historical perspectives on agro-terrorism, and regulations.

Module 1 examines threats to the safety and security of the global food supply. Although most people in advanced industrial countries take for granted the availability of plentiful, nutritious, and affordable food, the agriculture and food-processing sectors are vulnerable to natural, accidental, and deliberate infections and infestations. A major outbreak of a crop or livestock disease or an incident of food contamination—either inadvertent or caused deliberately by criminals or terrorists—could produce food shortages. Such an attack could cause considerable economic damage, public fear, and, if the pathogen involved was “zoonotic” (capable of infecting both animals and humans), a threat to public health. Managing these risks requires both preventive and response capabilities.

Module 2 examines the safety and security concerns associated with developments in agricultural biotechnology. In addition to the long-standing debate over the benefits and risks of genetically modified organisms (GM) crops, such as corn that produces its own biopesticide, recent years have seen the genetic engineering of plants and farm animals for biomedical purposes. One such technology is “biopharming,” or the production of biopharmaceuticals in transgenic plants and animals. Another emerging agricultural biotechnology is “xenotransplanation,” an example being the use of transgenic pigs as a potential source of replacement organs and tissues for human patients. Finally, some agricultural biotechnologies are “dual-use” because they can be applied either for peaceful or hostile purposes. A few examples of such technologies are provided, along with strategies for managing their inherent security risks.