"The fear of an attack can be a success of its own," said Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., who was the opening speaker at the "Louisiana Food and Agricultural Biosecurity: Producer Awareness Conference" on the LSU-Alexandria campus Oct. 30.
Landrieu said the United States faces the difficulty of proving whether a plant or animal disease is the result of an overt act or a natural occurrence.
"We need state-of-the-art systems for detection and diagnosis," she told the attendees, who included agricultural commodity group leaders, consultants, suppliers, veterinarians and crop and livestock producers. "We need rigorous disease monitoring and surveillance."
The senator said preparations should include port-of-entry inspections and quarantines, immigration screening and fumigation, agricultural diagnostics and research, and taking advantage of the Cooperative Extension Service network of offices across the country. She suggested implementing programs of routine, random sampling for diseases and pathogens.
"Louisiana can be a real leader in homeland security," Landrieu said.
Conference organizers said the meeting was designed to present information about problems that could arise from the introduction of plant or animal diseases or pests into their operations.
Speakers were asked to discuss how Louisiana could establish a way to respond to biological threats to the nation's agricultural industries, said Paul Coreil, LSU AgCenter vice chancellor for Extension and chief organizer of the conference.
Speakers representing both animal and plant commodities said the agriculture industry must be prepared to reduce food contamination risks, develop an action plan in the event of food-related problems and address statewide education and outreach activities related to these issues.
"An outbreak of foreign animal disease is everyone's responsibility," said Dr. Joseph Annelli, chief of veterinarian emergency programs for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS). "Our food supply is what we're talking about."
Annelli said every state will have a response team, and conference organizers are asking for volunteers to work with the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry to put programs into place.
Annelli said the risks of foreign animal diseases and plant diseases can come accidentally from travelers who have been on farms in foreign countries or are bringing back food products-or intentionally from terrorist activity.
"We shouldn't be complacent that it doesn't happen to us," he said.
Conference speakers all emphasized the goal of biosecurity is to prevent harm from both the intentional and unintentional introduction of organisms that could damage agricultural crops and livestock and affect human health and the nation's infrastructure.
"We're talking about threats – new races or strains of pathogens and what they could do," said Clayton Hollier, a plant pathologist with the LSU AgCenter.
"Some things we miss because of natural introduction," Hollier said, pointing out how sugarcane rust arrived in Louisiana from the Caribbean in the winds of a hurricane.
"In our case, because plant pathogens can be blown in by the wind, we want to understand how organisms can have an impact on crops and the economy," he said.
Hollier suggested a surveillance network – a multi-agency effort – to look for and identify potential problems as quickly and accurately as possible.
Annelli said the industry must be aware of the deliberate introduction of plant or animal diseases, pointing out that 1.3 million passengers, 45,000 trucks and containers, and 550 ships enter the United States each day.
"We need to protect our borders and have a response mechanism," he said.
Conference presenters also included Dan Walsh, dean of continuing education at LSU; Chuck Schwalbe, assistant deputy administrator with responsibility for plant protection and quarantine with APHIS; and Dr. Alma Roy of the Louisiana Veterinary Medical Diagnostic Laboratory.
Co-sponsors of the event included the Louisiana Farm Bureau Federation, the Louisiana Cattlemen's Association, the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry, the LSU School of Veterinary Medicine and the LSU Division of Continuing Education.