Food scientists and policymakers met in Brussels during a 7 February workshop to discuss best practices and techniques for creating agro-food “security of supply” across Europe against biological attacks. The meeting took place under auspices of the FP7 Security Research project known as PlantFoodSec.
“Europe is one of the largest exporters of food”, moderator Christian Paterman, a member of PlantFoodSec’s security panel, told the workshop. “If attacked, the damage could be devastating.”
A five-year project, PlantFoodSec was launched in February 2011 with a total budget of EUR 5.6 million of which about 80 percent (EUR 4.6 million) was provided by the Commission. PlantFoodSec is a so-called “network of excellence” (NoE) project whose goal is to knit together Europe’s bio-security community to improve best practices and to stimulate research innovation in the sector.
Among the needs identified by the project is the ability to rapidly diagnose and track pathogens outbreaks using microbial forensics. Such a capability would help Europe’s law enforcement authorities determine if a bio-agent attack was intentional or accidental, for example.
“Natural outbreaks of disease in agriculture show the destructive potential of an agro-terrorist attack, said Jacqueline Fletcher, project participant and director of the US National Institute for Microbial Forensics and Food and Agricultural Biosecurity at Oklahoma State University
Marta Bonifert of Hungary’s Regional Environment Center and a researcher within the project, agreed. She added that “bio-security affects all sectors and at the moment there are gaps in legal regimes at national and European level between bio-security, trade, biodiversity and food safety”. Networking between other EU funded projects in the field of bio-security should be enhanced to take advantage of synergies that exist across all sectors, she argued.
One useful tool PlantFoodSec is currently working on is a database of EU and international expertise for contingency planning, the tracking of pathogen outbreaks, modeling of management systems of bio-terrorism threats, and defining strategies in risk communication. These experts and officials could react quickly with practical advice to governments in case of a disease outbreak affecting Europe’s crops.
The project also aims to identify EU priorities for research and regulatory policy in the sector. “There are many vulnerable targets throughout the food distribution system, including the stages of harvesting, transport, storage. Current EU capabilities to detect and respond to agro-terrorism are very modest,” Fletcher told the workshop, adding that stronger coordination within the EU and across the member states is needed.