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America’s land-grant universities uniquely positioned to fight today’s biological threats

Lindsey Shuey/Republican-Herald via AP, File
FILE – A chicken looks in the barn at Honey Brook Farm in Schuylkill Haven, Pa., on April 18, 2022. An outbreak of avian flu is forcing farmers to cull their flocks and leading to concerns about even higher food prices. While it doesn’t pose much of a threat to humans, the outbreak is prompting a new wave of some of the same conspiracy theories that emerged from the COVID-19 pandemic.

This year marks the 160th anniversary of the establishment of the first land-grant university by President Abraham Lincoln. President Lincoln valued higher education and recognized the role that dedicated institutions could play in supporting food, animals, and plants, while also ensuring that citizens with modest means could obtain a university education.

Land-grant universities are specially charged to solve problems affecting agricultural and rural areas. This mission could not be more relevant today.

A new report by the Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense contains 15 recommendations to leverage the capabilities of land-grant universities. “Boots on the Ground: Land-Grant Universities in the Fight Against Threats to Food and Agriculture” describes how to empower these institutions to help defend our country against current and future biological threats.

Despite national mobilization of scientific brilliance, which produced new vaccines and other medical interventions in record times, COVID-19 has killed 1 in 325 Americans and continues to sicken and take lives. Even as we continue to grapple with this pandemic, monkeypox cases are now spreading across the globe, including in the United States. It is only a question as to when — not if — the next biological threat emerges.

Importantly, biological threats can impact not only people, but also food and agriculture. Our nation is not ready for the diseases that threaten this $1 trillion industry.

Agricultural diseases pose serious threats to animal, plant, and human health, as well as food, the economy, and the environment. Although the pace of outbreaks is increasing, reinforcements exist that can help defend our crops, livestock, food, and farms: the nation’s 112 land-grant universities.

As an example of the challenges facing our nation’s food supply and agricultural industry, we need look no further than the avian influenza outbreak spreading around the country and the world. This highly pathogenic virus has been confirmed in a majority of states, affecting more than 40 million domestic birds. Many have been destroyed in the effort to contain and eliminate the disease. A similar outbreak in 2015 cost the U.S. economy $3.3 billion and impacted more than 50 million turkeys and chickens. Most emerging infectious diseases are zoonotic, meaning that they originate in animals before infecting humans. While the current avian influenza outbreak does not pose an immediate threat to human health, scientists warn that the virus could evolve to infect, sicken, and kill people.

Similarly, African swine fever has also swept dozens of countries across Europe, Latin America, Asia, and the Caribbean, wiping out millions of pigs. High mortality rates and lingering virus in local wildlife could power more devastating outbreaks. The U.S. pork industry could experience about $15 billion in losses if African swine fever enters the United States.

Fragmented surveillance and detection systems do not produce the real-time information decision-makers need to respond swiftly to outbreaks. These and other deficiencies leave the country vulnerable to outbreaks that can damage the agricultural economy and devastate rural communities.

Our nation’s land-grant universities can greatly enhance our agro-biodefense. These institutions possess deep research expertise and established credibility in local communities and operations in virtually every county in the U.S.

Land-grant universities engage in innovative research and development, cooperative extension activities, and emergency and disaster response.

Nationally and internationally recognized scientists work at land-grant universities in disciplines important for biodefense. They help affected state, local, and Tribal agriculture and public health programs track disease and monitor wildlife.

Land-grant universities are already present and able to assist affected communities well before (and after) the federal government arrives on the scene of a biological event. Further investment in these capabilities would bolster these universities for action times of crisis and strengthen national biodefense.

Building on President Lincoln’s legacy, we can strengthen national biodefense of food and agriculture by funding and reinforcing the work of the land-grant universities before an event destroys food, crops, herds, textiles, biofuels, and other agricultural products, and devastates our national and global economies. Land-grant universities have their boots on the ground in the battle against threats to food and agriculture. We need to provide them with what they require to protect the communities they serve.

Tom Daschle is a former Senate Majority Leader and Democratic Senator from South Dakota who serves on the Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense.

Tony Frank is Chancellor of the Colorado State University System and has a research focus on infectious disease pathology.

Tags Abraham Lincoln African swine fever virus Agriculture Avian influenza Biodefense Biological hazards biological threats coronavirus pandemic COVID-19 economy Food Monkeypox virus Poultry farming

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