What is agricultural biosecurity? CSU researchers across disciplines explain

What does agricultural biosecurity mean to researchers studying ways to prevent and prepare for disease outbreaks? Colorado State University researchers share how it relates to their discipline, and the importance of working with industry partners to safeguard our food supply.

Beneath the microscope

Jan Leach is the associate dean for research in the College of Agricultural Sciences and a University Distinguished Professor who studies the spread of pathogens and ways to enable crop resistance.

According to Leach, the first step is to identify what causes a crop to fail. “What is the disease, what is the insect, what is the pest?”

Plants can become infected in a number of ways. Insects can act as pests or as vectors that carry a disease to the plant. Even the fungi below ground can be responsible for the introduction of a virus or bacteria.

“It’s not only things that come through the air but things that come through the soil that can affect plants,” Leach said. “And not only biotic threats like pathogens, but also abiotic stresses like drought, high temperatures and low temperatures.”

Of interest to Leach are diseases that attack rice, a valuable source of calories for over half the world’s population. But there are other reasons for studying rice as well.

“It’s a good model,” Leach said. “It’s easy to work with and it has a genome that we can manipulate which has been sequenced. And the answers that we get might translate to other crop species.”

While no two pathogens or pests are exactly the same, Leach is focused on creating a method to make plants broadly resistant to threats.

“We call that the holy grail of plant pathology,” Leach said.

A changing climate makes studying disease resistance more complicated.

“Not only do we need to figure out how to make the plants resistant to the disease at normal temperatures, but we have to think to the future and make the plants more resistant to disease at higher temperatures,” Leach said.

Policy measures

According to Nikki Jeffrey, third-year Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Political Science, everything we eat is in some way affected by local, state or federal policy.

“From the safety of the food that you eat to whether or not you can have chickens in your backyard, those are all things that government decides that are all agriculture-related,” Jeffrey explained.

After the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, concerns surfaced that if someone wanted to create trouble for the United States, agriculture would be a means to do so. In response, funding increased to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and Department of Agriculture to regulate the industry as a matter for national security, especially as trade between countries expanded.

“If you are able to weaponize animal diseases, you could knock out all of the agricultural infrastructure of a country relatively quickly,” Jeffrey said. “So 9/11 was a big shift in biosecurity policy across the board.”

But not all governance of agriculture occurs at the federal or state level.

“Cities definitely play a huge role in this,” Jeffrey said, by zoning where and what type of agriculture takes place, spraying to control populations of insects that carry diseases, and keeping the public informed on disease outbreaks.

Whether farmers and citizens want the government involved with agriculture, now more than ever policies are being written to try to assure agricultural biosecurity is maintained within our nation’s borders.

“As the world evolves and technology evolves, not only does our disease technology have to get better, but our governance in general has to get better and more cohesive as well,” Jeffrey said.

Economic consequences

Jude Bayham, assistant professor in the CSU Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics, studies ways to prepare for outbreaks of livestock diseases, such as foot-and-mouth disease and African swine fever, that have not yet threatened U.S. herds.

Bayham studies the costs and benefits of how limited resources available for disease response could best be put to use, should such a disease surface.

“Should we stockpile a lot of vaccines? Should we use other technologies that could produce vaccines on demand in the event of an outbreak? We’re looking at the tradeoffs between different options to mitigate risk,” Bayham said.

Of course, preventing diseases from entering the country in the first place is a top priority.

“The agricultural industry should be very concerned about ag biosecurity, because if an outbreak occurs, it can result in pretty substantial economic losses,” Bayham said.

The U.S. is the top producer of beef in the world and one of the top exporting countries. A disease outbreak could create significant difficulties exporting to other countries.

“If the U.S. industry was to be affected by a disease, it would have substantial consequences for those trade relationships, likely reducing exports,” Bayham said. “Or trade bans would limit the ability to export our products.”

The immediate impact to the agriculture industry will result in consequences to the economy as a whole, not just in areas where livelihoods are closely related to agriculture.

The challenge in preventing devastating disease outbreaks is that we don’t experience them very often.

“These aren’t frequent events,” Bayham said, “and so preparing for them is challenging because there are a lot of unknowns.”

Partnering for solutions

To continue to solve the challenges of agriculture biosecurity, leaders in crop production and animal health have entered strategic partnerships with CSU.

Nutrien, the world’s largest provider of crop nutrients, inputs and services, is providing CSU’s College of Agricultural Sciences $1 million each year over the next 10 years to fund state-of-the-art research and teaching initiatives on campus and provide scholarship support to students. This will elevate CSU into a position of leadership in developing a diverse, highly skilled agricultural workforce and boosting Nutrien’s ability to deliver industry-leading products.

Zoetis, the world’s leading animal health company, has signed an agreement to establish a research lab at CSU that will explore the livestock immune system and target new immunotherapies – paving the way for new alternatives to antibiotics in food-producing animals.

With few alternatives today for treating life-threatening bacterial infections in animals, Zoetis supports the responsible use of antibiotic medicines in animals and in people, while ensuring that veterinarians and livestock producers have new and enhanced solutions to better predict, prevent, detect and treat disease in the animals under their care.

The new 3,000-square-foot Zoetis Incubator Research Lab will operate at the Research Innovation Center.

To read more about these stories, visit SOURCE, CSU’s news and information hub.

Blog written by Ty Betts