Agriculture Biosecurity: Q&A with Alan Rudolph and Jane Christopher-Hennings

Agriculture Biosecurity Q&A

Scientists, policymakers, industry and academic leaders visited Colorado State University on Tuesday, Nov. 5, for a Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense discussion around agricultural biosecurity: the protection of a nation’s agriculture, farmers and people against the threats and potential impacts of diseases.

The event, “Too great a thing to leave undone: Defense of agriculture,” was held at the C. Wayne McIlwraith Translational Medicine Institute on CSU’s South Campus, and open to the public.

Prior to the event, Alan Rudolph, vice president for research at CSU, and Jane Christopher-Hennings, department head of veterinary and biomedical sciences at South Dakota State University and the director of the South Dakota Animal Disease Research and Diagnostic Laboratory, outlined the concepts of agricultural biosecurity.

An edited transcript is below.

Question: What is agricultural biosecurity?

Answer: Alan Rudolph

Agricultural biosecurity refers to the practices and investments in research and development that will increase the infrastructure and protection for agricultural commodities, including crops and livestock. It is important to protect these commodities from biological, chemical or other threats that could otherwise limit their production.

Answer: Jane Christopher-Hennings

Agriculture biosecurity would be the prevention of intentional or unintentional harm to the cultivation of plants and livestock used for food and other products necessarily to sustain life, provide economic development and foster well-being.

Q: What are some of the biggest challenges in agriculture biosecurity?

A: Rudolph

Predicting when threats could occur, how severe they could be, and what the opportunities are to avoid those threats are the biggest challenges ag biosecurity faces. We can solve these challenges by collecting data across the supply chain, from farms and fields to food that we eat.  It is also important to develop quality diagnostics or sensors to better understand how to protect commodities.

A: Christopher-Hennings

The diversity and large distribution of livestock and crops and their movements throughout the world makes it difficult to closely monitor and perform surveillance on these large areas. This calls for well-distributed and strategically located monitoring systems including well-trained personnel, such as food-animal specific veterinarians and precision technology monitoring systems.

Q: How are land-grant universities specifically equipped to address these issues?

A: Rudolph

Land-grant universities are particularly equipped to address ag biosecurity issues because of their historical ecosystem. If you look at Colorado State, we have an entire research pipeline from discovery to commercialization and Extension’s engagement in communities. Land-grant universities were created as agriculture and mechanical schools to take knowledge into the field. A lot of the historical topics that have been shared through Extension are related to ag security and have frequently been associated with threats to commodities that are the livelihoods of many people populating the West. So, land-grant universities through their research, ethos of practices in the communities, through Extension and through unique assets like BioMARC, participate in agricultural biosecurity in a unique way.

A: Christopher-Hennings

Land-grant universities were established to provide affordable education for student training in agriculture and other technical skills.  They are typically located in areas that have forms of agriculture and therefore have faculty and students familiar with agriculture and food related issues. Due to their outreach/extension focus, they are on the front lines, along with farmers, ranchers, producers, veterinarians, and wildlife and public health officials to observe and detect conditions that are abnormal. The universities also have the skills, technologies and connections with others, including federal, state and private entities, to provide solutions for detection and control of disease, while performing research with cutting- edge technologies and training the next generation of scientists to continue this process.

Q: What kind of agriculture-biosecurity research is happening at your university?

A: Rudolph

We have quite a bit of history in infectious disease and agriculture biosecurity, especially in creating gene traits in crops that are resistant to pathogens or resistant to drought. We have a lot of history in our research community around creating resilience for agricultural commodities.  Some of the more recent research we are involved in is for African Swine Fever. Even though there is not a lot of pork in Colorado, we are working with scientists all over the world on countermeasures for this current threat.

A: Christopher-Hennings

At South Dakota State University, we participate in agriculture biosecurity on a daily basis through the detection of various viruses, bacteria and other pathogens from clinical specimens that are submitted through the SDSU veterinary diagnostic laboratory by front-line veterinarians, producers or other clients (wildlife officials, food safety personnel, etc.).  Any “new” emerging disease issues are investigated within or between diagnostic sections (e.g., virology, serology, molecular diagnostics, clinical pathology, histopathology, parasitology, DNA sequencing, food safety or bacteriology) or in principal investigator laboratories.

Specifically, we have researchers, systems and technologies in place for investigations of Influenza D; vaccine vectors for inserts of bovine respiratory pathogens; microbiome techniques to exclude pathogens from the gut of pigs, chickens and people; development of reagents and tests for emerging diseases. For example, some of these have been developed for various pathogens including Porcine Reproductive and Respiratory Syndrome (PRRSV), swine enteric coronaviruses, porcine epidemic diarrhea virus (PEDv), porcine deltacoronavirus (PDCoV), swine acute diarrhea virus, (SADS) and influenza A, B, C, D; salmonella and E. coli.

We have also been activated for food security emergencies, being part of the FDA Food Emergency Response Network, and currently also perform research such as validation of various processes, media, extractions and molecular techniques for Staphylococcal enterotoxin; E. coli O157:H7; shigella; bacillus anthracis; clostridium botulinum neurotoxin; francisella tularensis; brucella; rotavirus; salmonella, yersinia pestis; and detection of protein toxins.

Since our state public health veterinarian is a faculty member within our Veterinary & Biomedical Sciences Department/SD Animal Disease Research & Diagnostic Laboratory, and our public health laboratory director is a member of our veterinary laboratory advisory committee, we also have a “One Health” focus. There is a SD One Health Initiative, and this allows for connections and joint research and educational projects with human health professionals on topics that affect both people and animals (e.g., brucellosis, anthrax, rabies, influenza, antibiotic resistance, petting zoo biosecurity, etc.).

Q: What do you see as some of the most pressing areas to solve in agriculture biosecurity?

A: Rudolph

Some of the most pressing areas of agriculture biosecurity are agility and resilience. We are not yet quick enough to respond to threats. We don’t have fast enough diagnostic response and were not able to make vaccines quick enough to respond to threats. I think the other pressing problem is educating the public on the use of these countermeasures – so engagement and education with the community is a key part of seeing these solutions and practices realized in the future. With effective communication and education we can increase resilience and increase our ability to respond to agriculture biosecurity threats.

A: Christopher-Hennings

Development of the will (incentivization) and way (federal/state approvals) to obtain proactive surveillance and participation in the secure supply of beef, eggs milk and pork. This should increase biosecurity from a grassroots level by producers, farmers and ranchers to protect against disease and, if permissions were given, there could be proactive monitoring for trade-impacting diseases. Currently, these continuity-of-business plans provide opportunities to voluntarily prepare before an outbreak and, if they don’t have evidence of infection, they can move animals to processing or another production premises under a movement permit issued by regulatory officials, and maintain business continuity for the  industry, including producers, haulers, and packers during a foreign animal disease outbreak.  Proactive surveillance for early detection is also important, so validated methods and protocols of cost-effective sampling would be needed. Input at the grassroots level would be needed, since they are innovative and know the most about what works in their systems.

Another area of pressing need in agriculture biosecurity is illustrating its importance in the context of “One Health” where early discoveries in animal/plant biosecurity issues have benefited people (e.g.,  cowpox discoveries benefited smallpox vaccination; early discovery of West Nile virus in birds was an early warning for people; etc.). This is helpful in making sure resources are appropriated in this important area.