RALEIGH, N.C. — Plant pathologists and entomologists at North Carolina State University are working with a federal grant to protect U.S. crops.
Officials said they know pathogens or pests can bust through borders either in the hands of terrorists or natural outbreak. The plan is to use a network of "early detectors" to spot trouble early and stop the spread.
"These are people who are very much in contact with agriculture on a daily basis. They may be farmers, county agents, crop consultants," said Gerald Holmes, a plant pathologist at N.C. State.
Holmes and his colleagues at N.C. State are creating an online distance education program. It will train 10,000 early detectors across the country. Suspicious plant samples will be examined in various labs.
Soybean producers already fear a disease threat called "soy bean rust" already rampant in South America.
"But we don't suspect that it will be an act of bioterrorism, that it will arrive on wind currents, naturally," Holmes said.
Because of the warm climate, North Carolina and the southeast region are prime targets for pest and disease problems.
"What's at stake is a way-of-life in this land of plenty -- an economy dependent on a safe, affordable and abundant supply of food," Holmes said.
N.C. State is the lead institution in the federal project, working with researchers at Kansas University and the University of Florida.
The Food and Drug Administration just finalized a new policy to increase food safety and security. It applies to products the agency suspects could threaten humans or animals.
The rule allows the FDA to hold food in a secure location while tests determine if it is indeed unsafe. The policy is part of the 2002 Bioterrorism Act.