In 2004, President Bush issued a Homeland Security Presidential Directive (HSPD-9) to establish a national policy to defend the food and ag systems against terrorist attacks, major disasters and other emergencies. Initially, the Homeland Security Council (HSC), established in 2001, conducted some coordinated activities to oversee HSPD-9 implementation. However, in early 2009, those efforts ceased and the HSC and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) efforts are no longer ongoing.

In fact, a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report released this week, which identifies the problems and challenges with interagency cooperation should a terrorist attack or natural disaster affect the U.S. food and ag system, begins this way: “There is no centralized coordination to oversee the federal government’s overall progress implementing the nation’s food and agriculture defense system (HSPD-9).

“Because there is no centralized coordination to oversee agencies’ overall HSPD-9 efforts, the nation may not be assured that these crosscutting agency efforts are effective at reducing the vulnerability to, and impact of, major emergencies,” the report concludes.

That’s not to say, however, that various federal government departments and agencies aren’t taking steps to be prepared. The report says, “USDA agencies have taken steps to implement the department’s HSPD-9 response and recovery responsibilities. However, various challenges remain, such as critical research gaps, which could impede recovery from high-consequence plant diseases that could devastate the nation’s production of economically important crops.”

The GAO report also notes that USDA doesn't have a department-wide strategy for setting its priorities and allocating resources for implementing its numerous HSPD-9 responsibilities. “Without such a strategy, USDA cannot be assured that its agencies are making progress to align with departmental priorities and that its HSPD-9 responsibilities are met,” the report concludes.

The GAO report makes these recommendations to help ensure that the federal government is effectively implementing the nation’s food and agriculture defense policy:

• The DHS Secretary resume his agency's efforts to coordinate agencies overall HSPD-9 implementation efforts.

•The HSC direct national security staff to establish an interagency process that would provide oversight of agencies’ implementation of HSPD-9.

•The HSC direct national security staff to encourage agencies to participate in and contribute information to DHS efforts to coordinate implementation of HSPD-9.

To ensure that the nation is adequately prepared to recover from high-consequence plant diseases, GAO recommends that:

•The USDA Secretary direct the administrator of the Ag Research Service (ARS), in coordination with relevant USDA agencies, to develop and implement a documented, systematic process to track research gaps and monitor progress in filling these gaps.

• The USDA Secretary direct the administrator of ARS, in coordination with relevant USDA agencies, to develop and implement a mechanism to ensure that recovery plans are shared with key state and federal plant health officials.

To ensure USDA is fulfilling its responsibilities to protect the nation’s food and agriculture systems, GAO recommends that:

•The USDA Secretary develop a department-wide strategy for implementing its HSPD-9 responsibilities. Such a strategy would include an overarching framework for setting priorities, as well as allocating resources.

To expedite response and recovery from major emergencies, GAO recommends that:

•The DHS Secretary and the administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, in coordination with key agencies, provide guidance that clarifies the roles and responsibilities that agencies will have regarding the disposal of animal carcasses.

To see the report highlights, click here. The complete report is available here.