MIDDLEBURY — In the past 10 years, national security threats have come to be almost synonymous with terrorism.
But the security threats that top the list of Julie Smith of the University of Vermont Extension are of a different nature: They include foot and mouth disease, dangerous weather in livestock production centers, and anything that could disrupt U.S. agricultural systems.
Smith is midway through a three-year project funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture that aims to educate and develop strategies to combat possible hazards to the Vermont agricultural system — more specifically, dairy.
She is developing emergency action plans with four Addison County dairy farmers, and last Wednesday she gave the first in a series of agricultural lectures at the Ilsley Public Library in Middlebury. At the talk, titled “An Overview of Modern Livestock Production: Trends and Vulnerabilities,” Smith gave a broad overview of national trends in livestock production and vulnerabilities in the system, stressing that biosecurity in agriculture is more difficult than simply securing against an attack.
“In the terror world, protection usually means guards, gates and guns,” she said. “Farms tend to be accessible. Even if parts of the process are well contained, there may be other parts of the farm that aren’t.”
Smith said that even something as innocuous as manure from another farm on someone’s boots or a virus riding on a piece of clothing can carry an infectious disease, which could pose a health risk to livestock or, worse, humans.
To Smith, it’s important not only for farmers to be aware of vulnerabilities in the system, but for all Vermonters to have a grasp of the issue.
“The consequences of a foot and mouth outbreak are such that society at large needs to be aware of the threats and take an active role in preventing them,” said Smith.
She cited the lasting affects of the 2001 foot and mouth outbreak in the United Kingdom. Though most cases cropped up in the first eight weeks, the disease wasn’t eradicated for seven months. During that time, agricultural exports took a large hit, and customers in the country had to seek food alternatives — while foot and mouth disease does not affect humans, its highly contagious nature means that large numbers of livestock were killed to prevent its spread.
In the meantime, the outbreak cost the country roughly 6 billion British pounds, and the total societal cost, said Smith, is estimated to be more than four times that — the money lost was not only in agricultural imports and exports, but also in domestic commerce and tourism income.
Even farms that weren’t infected with the disease suffered in lost commerce.
A similar scenario in Vermont could cause dire consequences.
Smith said that the average dairy farm in the U.S. runs on such tight margins that it would run through its net income for the year in a matter of a few weeks if milk sales were halted to prevent disease spread.
The U.K. outbreak also brought about lingering agricultural issues in the country, since so many herds were culled. Between 1997 and 2003, beef production in the country decreased by 17 percent, dairy production decreased by 27 percent, and swine production decreased by 45 percent.
Smith said the scale of the outbreak in Britain arose in part because the country was not prepared to react.
“Really, we need to think about what it takes to (address a crisis) no matter if we’re faced with one case or 1,000,” said Smith.
A NATIONAL TREND
Smith said that the growing consolidation of livestock production changes emergency response strategies — and risks to the system. Increasingly, dairy and beef operations are moving west, swine operations moving south and west, and poultry operations centering in Delaware, Maryland and Virginia.
These farms aren’t just moving — they’re becoming fewer and larger, said Smith.
By 2001, three exporters controlled 81 percent of the country’s corn market, and in 2006 4 percent of the country’s dairies shipped about 45 percent of the country’s milk. By 2010, 30 feedlots covered 50 percent of the beef market.
And while these farms are consolidating in location, people across the country are still demanding the products so they must move meat and milk further and further to reach consumers.
“There’s an interdependence on that transportation infrastructure. We’re using fuel in all aspects of production,” Smith said.
But the system is also becoming more efficient — each cow, she said, is producing about 50 percent more milk than in 1985.
“Our cows are becoming real powerhouses of milk production,” she said.
This is good for the environment, said Smith, because each cow needs nutrients even when it’s not producing milk, so the dairy industry as a whole is drawing on fewer resources.
And that change in the industry changes the national approach to biosecurity, said Smith. It means severe weather events can take out large numbers of animals, and that disease can spread quickly.
“A little blip that seems localized can have a huge impact,” she said. “If that little blip is in a production center, it’s now going to be magnified through that whole production chain into the grocery store where you’re buying food.”
On the other hand, said Smith, consolidation has its good side.
“Consolidation is associated with standardization of protocols across an industry,” she said. “It means that when that emergency call has to be made, the list of (phone) numbers to call is shorter, so we can reach those major production centers right away.”
Again, though, there’s a downside. Smaller farms that aren’t in major production hubs aren’t as high up that list of phone numbers. As a result, these small farms face delays in information and emergency response since large concentrations of animals are high on the triage list in case of emergency.
So for Smith, it’s vitally important for Vermont to have emergency plans in place.
Joe Klopfenstein, a Vergennes large animal veterinarian, said Smith’s work has raised his own awareness of foot and mouth disease, and that of the farmers he works with.
“It’s on everybody’s radar,” he said. “We’re aware of the damage it did in Great Britain, and Julie has done a great job on getting systems into place.”
And it should be on everybody’s radar, said Klopfenstein — disease on one farm means restrictions on commerce for, at the very least, the neighboring farms.
“It doesn’t matter if a farm is infected or not,” he said. “Those diseases affect everybody.”
As part of the project, Smith is working with a range of dairy operations in Addison County, running the gamut from small organic (Mike Eastman in Addison) to small conventional (John Roberts in Cornwall) to large producers and processors (Monument Farms Dairy in Weybridge) to large-scale (Blue Spruce Farm in Bridport).
Smith is encouraging those farms to create emergency plans, to be aware of comings and goings on the farm, and she’s working on preparedness plans that can extend to other farms in the state. She said dairy farmers are the first responders in the emergency chain, as they must call the veterinarian in if they see illness in their animals that’s out of the ordinary. From there, the veterinarians report to the state and federal veterinarians in Montpelier, and if a threatening infectious disease is confirmed, the federal government takes control of the situation.
While Klopfenstein said he’s never seen anything that looks like foot and mouth disease (no outbreaks have ever occurred in the U.S.), he is always on the lookout for symptomatic blistered, painful lesions on the mouth and the feet.
Smith said anyone in the county wanting to learn more about biosecurity can find information — and a video of the talk — on UVM Extension’s website, and can attend a public issue forum in Vergennes on Sept. 14.
Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at email@example.com.