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America’s food supply, a terrorist target?

By Dave Carter

WASHINGTON, D.C.—Everything just changed.

It’s time we change just about everything. Including food policy.

A delegation of farmers and ranchers from the Rocky Mountain region were in the Capitol complex lobbying on long-term farm policy this week when the first reports came in that an airliner had plunged into one of the towers of the World Trade Center. A small cluster of Colorado producers huddled around a television set with U.S. Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, R-Colo., to watch the first images of destruction before sitting down to visit about ideas for the new farm bill. Moments later, farmers and U.S. Senators alike were hustled out of the buildings as news arrived about the subsequent attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

The events of September 11, and the topic of long-term farm policy are not disconnected. Policymakers, in fact, should at last take seriously the relationship between food policy and national security.

Our current food policy clearly places this nation at risk.

Many leaders described the terrorist attacks on the United States as a second Pearl Harbor. It is a chilling analogy.

Japanese bombers launching their surprise bombing campaign on Pearl Harbor 60 years ago found the bulk of the U.S. Pacific fleet neatly tucked into one harbor in Hawaii. In a matter of minutes, most of the U.S. Navy lay in ruins. Our food production system today resembles the fleet tethered at Pearl Harbor.

Policymakers have accepted as gospel the notion that the United States should replace its system of millions of dispersed, diversified farms and ranches with a handful of mega operations. Instead of farmer-feeders scattered across the country, we now have a few feedlots on the Great Plains housing more than 100,000 animals apiece. Small packing plants have been pushed aside by the massive facilities that process 5,000 animals each day.

Each contraction in our food system places us more at risk.

The threat is already obvious.

An outbreak of e-coli in one processing plant three weeks ago resulted in the recall of ground beef in more than 30 states. An incidence of Karnal Bunt in a wheat field in Texas this summer soon caused infestations across the Southern Great Plans as the combines traveled northward. Those were incidental, accidental outbreaks. Imagine the destruction possible if someone deliberately sabotages our food system.

That danger has not been lost on federal policymakers. As Mad Cow disease and Foot-and-Mouth disease swept across Europe earlier this year, U.S. Department of Agriculture officials began to develop contingency plans to deal with the threat of bioterrorism. The terrorist attack this month will undoubtedly trigger those plans into action. The contingency plans undoubtedly focus on increasing security at the large agribusiness facilities. Loitering near a feedlot may soon become reason for being detained and questioned.

There is a better alternative to posting National Guard around feedlots and packing plants.

Following Pearl Harbor, the Navy began to move its fleet to a series of widely dispersed locations. Lawmakers should make sure that the new long-term farm policy encourages the same steps for our food system.

Elected officials have too long accepted the term “large-scale, efficient producers” as the mantra for American agricultural policy. Farm bills and other policies have actively encouraged consolidation and concentration in the American food production system.

Now, it’s time to question how efficient this system really is.

As lawmakers sit down in the coming months to craft the new long-term farm bill, perhaps it’s time to start thinking about a food system built on smaller-scale, efficient producers. Perhaps it’s time to talk about restoring a locally-based food system.

It’s not just about saving family farms.

It’s not just about saving rural communities.

It’s about national security.

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