Wichita — Legislation to fight agroterrorism is a higher priority now than passing a farm bill, U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts told farmers on Wednesday at the Kansas Commodity Classic.
Roberts speaking by telephone from a basement room where his office was relocated after anthrax was detected on Capitol Hill said the agricultural economy and the farm sector should get no less attention than security at airports.
"I say that because on the Intelligence Committee the reports that we get and I don't want to scare anybody, I just want to warn folks that the risks to the U.S. food supply and the overall economy are real," he said.
Agriculture, agribusiness and all the related industries represent 23 million jobs and 17 percent of the nation's gross domestic product, he said.
Diseases such as foot-and-mouth disease to the livestock or Karnal bunt in the nation's wheat industry would be devastating, he said.
Roberts, who also serves on the Senate's Agriculture and Armed Services committees, said the reports he saw showed a high probability of an attack on the nation's food supply because it was so easy to do and would create chaos.
His agroterrorism bill calls for more spending to boost security, put in place a response strategy, and fund grants to research diseases in the agriculture industry. Another $1.1 billion would be spent next year and $271 million would be spent each of the next 10 years.
In a separate session of Wednesday's gathering, Tom Sim, program manager for plant protection at the Kansas Department of Agriculture, said regulation to control Karnal bunt will be successful only for the short run. He said long-term quality strategies such as the development of resistant varieties are needed to deal with the wheat disease.
Karnal bunt, a fungus that cuts yields, discolors flour, giving it a harmless, unpleasant odor and taste.
The disease was found last summer in four northern Texas counties, the first cases of it in the nation's wheat belt.
Currently, 78 countries or 60 percent of customers of U.S. wheat exports have some restrictions against bringing in Karnal bunt-infested wheat. Mexico and India have had great difficulty in exporting their wheat because of Karnal bunt in their countries, he said.
Sim said the USDA should do more research to provide disease-resistant wheat varieties. But he said that was years away for winter wheat because most research has been for spring durum wheat because those research fields are in Mexico or India where it is too warm to grow winter wheat.
He said some fields infected with Karnal bunt could be used for research. Roberts said the House version of the new farm bill treats Kansas farmers, especially wheat growers, well but disproportionately favors southern growers paying far more for rice and cotton than for wheat.