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New Mexico State University

New Mexico State University

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NMSU coordinates high school agriculture teacher training on agro-terrorism

ALBUQUERQUE - High school agriculture teachers from across New Mexico are more aware of the need for their communities to have emergency response plans for agricultural situations after completing a three-day course in preparedness and response to agro-terrorism.

Fifty-four teachers were among 85 participants in the course taught by instructors from the National Center for Biomedical Research and Training's Academy of Counter-Terrorist Education at Louisiana State University.

"The intent of the conference is to educate people in New Mexico who might potentially be the first person that would see an agriculture incident and could warn the appropriate authorities," said Billy Dictson of the Southwest Border Food Safety and Defense Center at New Mexico State University, which brought the training to Albuquerque.

"We are trying to get everyone in New Mexico who's involved in the agriculture industry aware that their county should have an agriculture emergency response plan," Dictson said.

The course provided skills needed to prepare for and respond to an incident that affects an area's food supply, whether it is a natural disaster, accidental occurrence or criminal activity. The participants received an overview of terrorism and weapons of mass destruction and the possible threats to the agricultural infrastructure, whether during production, transportation or distribution of the food product.

Information was provided on assessment and preparedness planning, recognition of agro-terrorism and response to an incident of suspected agro-terrorism, as well as the steps for disinfection, decontamination and remediation. The course ended with a five-hour table-top scenario exercise.

"This information is timely and informative," said Mark Runyan, Clovis High School agriculture teacher. "We all need to be aware that the community has an emergency management response plan. By telling our students this information we can start spreading the word; hopefully they will take it home to their parents."

Los Lunas High School agriculture teacher Daniel Matthews said it's nice to have the knowledge personally "in case I see something during my job while I'm visiting a student's project. I will know the steps I should follow to report the incident."

Course instructor Kelly Hamilton told his group of ag teachers that they needed to expose their students to the way incidents are handled, because they may be going into agriculture, law enforcement or many other careers that could be affected by the plan.

Belen High School ag teacher Jerrod Smith said he plans to teach about various foreign diseases during his animal and plant science units. "It's important that they know the threats that are out there," he said.

More than 225 people in New Mexico, including NMSU Cooperative Extension Service agents and New Mexico Department of Agriculture and New Mexico Livestock Board employees, have received the preparedness and response training.

"We're a small state in terms of agriculture personnel," said Dictson. "We probably only have 200 to 300 people who could be first detectors-first responders on the agriculture side if something happens. It is important that we train as many of those people who are out there on the ground on a daily basis and who might be the first ones to see something."

Since Sept. 11, 2001, the federal government has developed an emergency response system that includes local, state and federal emergency management plans. Agriculture has been identified as a critical infrastructure.

In 2004, President Bush signed a presidential directive to establish a national policy to defend the agriculture and food system against terrorist attacks, major disasters and other emergencies. This document established the requirement that county emergency response plans have an appendix for dealing with agricultural situations.

"To my knowledge only one county has an actual agriculture emergency plan," Dictson said. "Every county has an emergency plan, but Union County is the only one that has the agriculture appendix. It was put to test during the snow blizzards in January."

Dictson and Jeff Witte, New Mexico Department of Agriculture's Office of Agriculture biosecurity director, are working to help counties develop their plans.

"We are seeking funding for writing the plans. Once the plans are written, we will assist the counties in a training exercise," Dictson said.