Editor's note: Greg Henderson is editor of Drovers magazine, a sister publication of Pork.
It was a scathing report, one that raised fear and concern among policy makers, producers and consumers. Additionally, the National Research Council’s assessment of the safety of the proposed National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility in Manhattan, Kan., provided plenty of fodder for the site’s opponents.
Specifically, citing a Homeland Security Department risk assessment, the NRC says there is a 70 percent likelihood that in the next 50 years a dangerous pathogen would escape from NBAF. Unacceptable odds to be sure, yet, Kansas officials who worked hard to land the site say they are undeterred. And they hope construction, which is scheduled to begin next year, will not be derailed by politics.
Concern, however, was heightened because the NRC estimated that a FMD outbreak would create $9 billion to $50 billion in economic harm, a potentially devastating blow to the beef industry as 9.5 percent of the nation’s cattle are within a 200 mile radius of the NBAF site.
Kansas officials were justifiably concerned that this week’s report would increase opposition to the project, which is expected to create roughly 1,500 construction jobs and produce a lifetime economic benefit of more than $3 billion.
"There's no doubt in my mind that report will be used by folks who are opposed to the project to keep it from being built," Kansas Governor Mark Parkinson said.
One opponent, U.S. House Energy Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee Chairman Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), said the NRC assessment confirmed his panel's view that federal research on animal diseases should continue to be conducted at the Plum Island laboratory, which is located on an isolated and uninhabited island.
Uninhabited maybe, but Plum Island is far from isolated. It’s located just two miles off the tip of Long Island, New York, and six miles from the Connecticut coastline. That puts the facility relatively close to several major metropolitan areas. But Stupak’s view that disease research should stay at Plum Island also overlooks the fact that the facility is obsolete, and has been for some time. Operations began at the present facility in 1954, and even Congress recognized in 2007 that significant money was needed to modernize Plum Island.
While the recent NRC report made headlines with its claim of a 70-percent “likelihood” of a disease outbreak, experts also recognize that the dangers could be reduced through strong blueprinting, building and training in the management of disease agents. And, some risk-reducing measures have already been factored into the building’s design but were apparently not considered in the risk assessment.
For instance, the assessment criticized Homeland Security for omitting high-efficiency particulate air filters in its design, but DHS officials claim they already plan to use those filters.
It’s particularly discouraging that this much-needed research facility is in danger of becoming a political football. The alternatives to the proposed NBAF site are limited. America needs a modern, secure facility, and every day construction is delayed our present facility becomes more obsolete.
Safety and security at NBAF should be paramount. But, all the experts who participated in the risk-assessment agree that a state-of-the-art laboratory to study possible threats to our nation’s food supply is critical for the security of America’s economy and food supply.
Let’s move forward with NBAF, and with the work of reducing the ever-evolving risks to our nation’s food supply.