Ag leaders at Nebraska university offer guidance about food supply
LINCOLN, Neb. — If — and that’s an extremely hypothetical if — David Richardson were to attack the country he serves as an assistant secretary in the Department of Homeland Security, his plan wouldn’t be flashy.
“I would do it in the most unsexy way possible,” said Richardson, by attacking the nation’s food supply.
Exposing the hog population to a deadly pathogen, for example, would dry up pork supplies in grocery stores within days, and compromise the rest of the animals in the pipeline, the former U.S. Marine officer said, hamstringing the economy in the process.
It’s a hypothetical scenario, but one Richardson thinks about often as the leader of Homeland Security’s Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction Office. His mission, in part, is to “prevent, deter and detect” biological, chemical and nuclear threats to American health and economic security.
The assistant secretary told the Lincoln Journal Star he needs help thinking through the future of protecting food production, plant and animal agriculture — what he calls “food-ag-vet” — over the next 10-15 years.
“What capabilities do we need, what processes and procedures will we need in place,” said Richardson, who was appointed to his position in July. “We need folks who really think at that level.”
That’s where the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources comes in.
While countering WMDs may not be the first connection many draw when thinking about UNL’s ag division, the pieces are all there, said UNL Vice Chancellor Mike Boehm, who has led the institute since 2017.
Plant pathology, agronomy, entomology, animal science and veterinary medicine are just a few of the 15 academic departments within IANR, Boehm said, which already do work around maintaining security of the food system.
IANR also boasts 17 different centers that examine the effects of drought, often a catalyst to conflict, research safe and effective ways for raw materials to end up on grocery store shelves, even how slight changes in a corn plant’s genetic makeup manifest themselves physically.
“While we don’t wake up every day thinking about weapons of mass destruction, the science of understanding pathogens and infectious entities, how they cause disease and how we keep things healthy is something we wake up every day thinking about at IANR,” he said.
Trained as a plant pathologist himself, Boehm is also a former Army Reserve medic and bioweapons testing specialist for the U.S. Navy who worked active duty following the terrorist attacks of 9/11.
In that role, Boehm was responsible for developing methods for detecting colorless and odorless biological threats — work that later carried over into his career in academia, where he taught classes on biosecurity and bioterrorism at Ohio State.
Boehm said Nebraska researchers are already working on ways to prevent bioweapons from being used to bring down the country’s food supply, although the general public may not think of it in terms of national security.
“The biosecurity of feed yards: Is that countering weapons of mass destruction, or is that thinking about how we keep the animal safe?” he asked. “We do the science, teach the next generation of producer, and engage with them.
“If we as a country are worried about pathogens getting into a feed yard system, we have the experts who can look for what the vulnerabilities are and solutions to minimize that,” Boehm added.
Through the National Strategic Research Institute, the university-affiliated research center that works with U.S. Strategic Command, and the National Counterterrorism Innovation, Technology, and Education Center in Omaha, Boehm said IANR was recently able to connect to the national defense apparatus.
During a visit to Lincoln earlier this month, which came on the heels of a tour of UNMC in Omaha, Richardson was briefed on various research efforts taking place within the Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources.
He learned UNL’s Food Processing Center, for example, has a lab capable of spiking food with a pathogen to study the physical changes, while the Nebraska Food for Health Center is skilled at determining the ecological factors that determine which organisms become infectious pathogens and which do not.
Richardson said he’s interested in the work already being done across the NU system, and extended an invitation to Nebraska experts and scientists to observe a war games exercise the Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction Office will do early next year.
The exercise is intended for the office to validate it can perform its mission the way it was intended, Richardson said. He wants independent scientists and experts to tell him if it was realistic and to offer an opinion if his office is walking away having learned the right lessons.
The Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources will also be asked to bid for a research contract for what he referred to as a “Vision 2035,” specifically how to think about protecting the “food-ag-vet” sector from weapons of mass destruction in the future.
“We know what it looks like five years out,” he said. “It’s a little fuzzy 10 years out. We want to get ahead of the power curve and start looking 15 years out.”
Boehm said he believes Nebraska has the right expertise to be a big part of that conversation, adding that IANR has escaped the notice of most.
“I think Nebraskans are amazing people, but they are really modest. Sometimes we just aren’t even a part of the conversation,” he said. “We’re thinking about integrated food systems, water, agriculture, health.
“It’s this amazing platform. It just hasn’t been on the radar of some of the agencies in (Washington) D.C. tasked with securing American agriculture.”