AIBS Welcomes Three New Member Societies
The AIBS Board of Directors voted to welcome the Natural Areas Association, the American Malacological Society, and the Orthopterists' Society into the AIBS federation, bringing the total number of member societies and organizations to 85.
The Natural Areas Association, founded in 1980, has as its mission to advance the preservation of natural diversity. It works to inform, unite, and support persons engaged in identifying, protecting, managing, and studying natural areas and biological diversity across landscapes and ecosystems. It publishes the Natural Areas Journal and the newsletter Natural Areas News and maintains a Web site at www.natareas.org. NAA sponsors an annual conference and international workshops.
The American Malacological Society, founded in 1931 as the American Malacological Union, is an international society of individuals and organizations with an interest in the study and conservation of mollusks. The society sponsors an annual meeting and publishes the American Malacological Bulletin and a newsletter, the AMS News. The society also maintains a Web site at http://erato.acnatsci.org/ams/.
The Orthopterists' Society, founded in 1976, is an international scientific organization devoted to fostering research and publication in all aspects of the biology of Orthoptera and related organisms. The society publishes the Journal of Orthoptera Research and a newsletter, Metaleptea, as well as Occasional Papers and Publications on Orthoptera Diversity; it has a Web site at http://viceroy.eeb.uconn.edu/OS_Homepage/. The organization meets internationally every three years.
AIBS Participates in Stakeholder Meeting for Department of Interior Strategic Plan
AIBS Public Policy Representative Ellen Paul took part in a two-day stakeholder meeting convened by P. Lynn Scarlett, Department of the Interior assistant secretary for policy, management, and budget, to help develop DOI's strategic plan. David Blockstein, AIBS Public Policy Review Committee member, also attended the session in his capacity as senior scientist for the National Council for Science and the Environment.
In the past, DOI strategic planning was a collection of bureau and agency strategic plans. Now, DOI intends to develop its own strategic plan, consistent with Secretary Gale Norton's “Four C's”—conservation through communication, cooperation, and consultation. This session, one of six, focused on the preservation and restoration of natural resources, although it also touched on resource use and recreation, which are the themes of future meetings. Ultimately, DOI will use the input and resulting strategic plan to shape its fiscal year 2004 budget request.
Paul and Blockstein also attended a stakeholder meeting held in October 2001, the USGS Listening Session.
AIBS Represented at International Biological Control Symposium
Matthew Greenstone, science editor of BioScience, delivered a paper at the First International Symposium on Biological Control of Arthropods, which took place 13–18 January 2002 in Honolulu. The paper described molecular methods used to verify the establishment of an exotic natural enemy after its release in South Africa to control an exotic cereal pest, the Russian wheat aphid. Greenstone developed the methods, which employed aphid species-specific polymerase chain reaction primers, at USDA's Agricultural Research Service in Stillwater, Oklahoma, before joining the BioScience staff. A proceedings volume containing all of the papers delivered at the symposium will be published later this year by the US Forest Service.
The 150 symposium participants represented research efforts in Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, China, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Ecuador, Egypt, France, Germany, Japan, Kenya, Mexico, The Netherlands, New Guinea, New Zealand, the Philippines, South Africa, Spain, Switzerland, Thailand, the United Kingdom, and the United States. They discussed ecological, ethical, technical, and policy issues connected with the rearing, conservation, augmentation, and release of biological control agents in glasshouse and field crop settings. The second international symposium is tentatively scheduled for fall 2005 in Switzerland.
AIBS Holds Roundtable on Agricultural Biosecurity
By John Pugh, Senior Scientist, AIBS SPARS Division
The inaugural AIBS roundtable on bioterrorism, “Agricultural Biosecurity,” was held at the National Press Club on Friday, 30 November 2001. The speakers were Laurence Madden of Ohio State University, Mark Wheelis of the Microbiology Department of the University of California–Davis, and Rocco Casagrande of Surface Logix. Curt Mann, special assistant in the office of the secretary of agriculture, spoke as a representative of the USDA.
“Be prepared to think the unthinkable,” President Bush cautioned after September 11. Casagrande stated that only 0.1% of the total $10 billion national budget to counter terrorism is directed against agroterrorism. The grim forecast presented by the roundtable scientists suggested that this figure should be greatly increased. Bioterrorism has not been high on the national security agenda in the United States since 1969, when government-funded research on biowarfare was curtailed as the nation prepared to sign the Biological Weapons Convention in 1972. Teaching the biology of exotic plant and animal pathogens at universities and veterinary colleges was not considered relevant in the last 30 years, and consequently there is now a severe shortage of trained experts capable of rapidly diagnosing and responding to unusual plant and animal infections. Wheelis reminded listeners that preventing agricultural bioterrorism in the United States is impractical because of the huge area to be defended, and he stressed that what is required is a clear plan on how to respond to and control outbreaks of specific crop or animal diseases.
US agriculture is a prime target for bioterrorists, because of low genetic diversity among crop plants, lack of genetic resistance to exotic plant and animal pathogens, the limitation of agriculture to only a few cash crops, and poor response capability. Moreover, because many infectious agents spread rapidly, often facilitated by transportation of feed and livestock by farmers, a bioterrorist would only have to initiate an infection and nature would do the rest. Today's bioterrorist would need no specialized equipment or expertise.
Casagrande's presentation focused on the economic impact of livestock diseases. He recounted how a recent outbreak of the foot and mouth disease virus (FMDV) in Taiwan destroyed the pig farming industry on the island and cost $15 billion in lost trade. The outbreak was traced to three infected pigs imported illegally from China, where FMDV is endemic. The virus spread from one farm to 713 within two weeks.
No FMDV outbreaks have occurred in the United States, though the recent devastating outbreak in the United Kingdom put US authorities on high alert. To further demonstrate how the United States has made itself such an attractive target for bioterrorists, Casagrande shared some alarming statistics: Only four meat packing facilities process 90% of all meat in the United States; commercial poultry farms typically contain millions of birds; and the 30 largest feedlots fatten more than 50% of the nation's cattle. Clearly, attacks on any one of these large sites would have major consequences. Losses in trade and consumer confidence usually continue for many months after a country succeeds in controlling an outbreak of FMDV or other serious livestock pathogen. On a more optimistic note, it is likely that restricting animal movement combined with rapid diagnosis and response would thwart most agricultural terrorism.
Madden discussed plant pathogens with biowarfare potential. Approximately two-thirds of the 50,000 diseases of plants in the United States are caused by fungi. The United States spends approximately $33 billion to control crop diseases each year, and the chemical industry struggles to stay ahead of the game by developing new pesticides that will overcome resistance of pathogenic organisms. There has never been a concerted effort in the United States to eradicate some of the more serious crop diseases, such as wheat stem rust, soybean rust, late blight of potato, and bunt of wheat. Plant pathogens also spread rapidly if favorable weather conditions prevail. Madden cited citrus canker and chestnut blight as examples of plant diseases that have rapidly spread through regions of the United States in recent years.
Agroterrorism has a long history. One ancient example occurred in 600 BC, when the Syrians poisoned the drinking wells of their enemies with alkaloids (perhaps ergot of rye). Accusations can rarely be proven: witness Cuba's long-standing claim that the US Central Intelligence Agency attempted to contaminate the country's tobacco crop with downy mildew in the 1960s. Madden emphasized the urgent need for an agreed-upon list of the top 10 most dangerous plant pathogens and for an international effort to develop a response to bioterrorism attacks that employ these organisms.
Curt Mann's comments addressed the USDA's response to recent events. While clearly not at liberty to disclose details concerning national security, he told us that as part of the government's Homeland Security initiative, steps had been taken to improve defense of the nation's food supply and of the pathogens stored at the five USDA containment laboratories, and to provide increased levels of security for USDA personnel and general infrastructure. In 2002 the department will add 350 new inspectors to the 3400 that currently patrol US borders. The 7400 meat inspectors employed by the USDA have been on full alert since the FMDV outbreak in the United Kingdom this summer. We were reminded of the heavy responsibilities confronting administrators at USDA, where approximately 100,000 employees maintain a complex and extensive infrastructure that includes the nation's water supplies, electric power lines, nuclear power, dams, telephones, and railroads.
In sum, agriculture represents a relatively soft target for bioterrorists. The vast area of arable land in the United States, current farming methods, ease of handling of crop and animal pathogens by nonspecialists, low risk of disease or capture for the perpetrator, and the natural rapid rate of spread of infectious agents all contribute to creating this highly vulnerable situation. However, greater education and research on exotic pathogens, rapid detection of bioattacks, and a clearly defined plan of action in response to infections with specific crop and animal pathogens will help curb the effectiveness of a bioterrorist attack.
Roundtable on Bioterrorism Threats to Natural and Urban Ecosystems
AIBS partnered with two of its members, the Ecological Society of America and the Association of Ecosystem Research Centers, to hold a public roundtable on bioterrorism threats to natural and urban ecosystems on Friday, 22 February 2002, at the National Press Club in Washington, DC.
Panelists were Mark Wheelis, Section of Microbiology, University of California–Davis, who spoke on “Ecological Aspects of Bioterrorism”; Terry Yates, vice-provost for research, University of New Mexico, and deputy director of the National Center for the Study of Emerging Viruses, who addressed the question “How do we know if we are under attack?”; and James Ehleringer, Department of Biology, University of Utah, who spoke on “Forensic Ecology and Bioterrorism.” Commentary on the proposed National Ecological Observatory Network was provided by Mary E. Clutter, assistant director of the Directorate for Biological Sciences, National Science Foundation, and by Tom Weimer, deputy assistant secretary for water and science, Department of the Interior.
Videotape sets of the roundtable are available for $20, plus shipping and handling; call 202/628-1500, ext. 202, or e-mail email@example.com. A complete AIBSnews report on the event will appear in a later issue of BioScience.
Dr. Wheelis's presentation can be found at www.fas.org/bwc/agr/main.htm
“A Population-Dynamics Approach to Assess the Threat of Plant Pathogens as Biological Weapons against Annual Crops,” by Laurence V. Madden and Frank van den Bosch (BioScience 52: 65–74).
“Biological Terrorism Targeted at Agriculture: The Threat to US National Security,” by Rocco Cassagrande (Nonproliferation Review 7: 92–105).
The AIBS home page—www.aibs.org—has a number of links to sites with information concerning biological warfare agents.
AIBSnews compiled and reported by Donna Royston