A bomb in your soup? Addressing possible biosecurity risks for Indian agriculture

Photo_ManishBy Manish Anand (The Energy and Resources Institute, TERI, New Delhi) manand@teri.res.in, anand.iim@gmail.com

For Citation: SITE4society Brief No. 5-2018
Related to: #SDG13 (Climate Action)  #SDG15 (Life on Land) @The Agricultural Biosecurity Bill, 2013 
SITE Focus:  Innovation: Innovations to address threats to a particular crop or animal from pests or diseases is viewed from the perspective of technological, institutional and socioeconomic context;
Infrastructure: For monitoring, surveillance and controls systems for reporting unusual occurrences and outbreaks of disease
Technology: A double-edged sword, capable of both doing and undoing damage to agricultural resources – a dual-use dilemma.
Environment: Environmental terrorism as an act of violence or non-violence that would impact the biodiversity and ecology in a particular geographical space

Country Focus: India
Sub-disciplines: Technology, Environment and Security.
Based on: Anand, M. (2018) “A Systems Approach to Agricultural Biosecurity”, Health
Security 16(1): 58-68. DOI: 10.1089/hs.2017.0035

AgricultureContext: Natural occurrence of pests and diseases and their control are integral components of crop and livestock farming systems. However, deliberate introduction of pests and diseases with a malicious intent is always possible. Hence, every country must be prepared to thwart such incidences. Agents against crops, livestock, and other animals have been part of nearly every nation-sponsored offensive biowarfare program. Biological weapons can be used against agricultural targets as strategic economic weapons. This is important as global terrorism is rising. With increased globalization and connectedness via world trade, the threat from transboundary pests and pathogens arriving in countries in which they were previously absent is expected to increase. Countries that are large crop and animal producers are most at risk from invasive pests and pathogens in absolute terms. Even a minor outbreak of exotic pests or pathogens can lead to export restrictions on agriculture-dependent countries with severe economic consequences.

 

Research Questions:

  1. How susceptible is Indian agriculture to the scare of bioterrorism?
  2. How well is India equipped to deal with such challenges; conversely, what are the agroterrorismtechnological and institutional agricultural-related disease diagnostic capabilities that might be useful in countering or addressing these threats and vulnerabilities?
  3. What should be India’s approach to the prevention, detection, and amelioration of agricultural bioterrorism?

 

Motivation for Research QuestionsPresently all developing countries have only rudimentary biosecurity systems for countering threats and disease outbreaks and management. They face multiple poorly understood challenges, such as a lack of capacity to monitor for potential agricultural pests and diseases, a lack of expertise in risk assessment practice and decision making, poor existing security measures, and often fragile economic circumstances. Funding for disease control and detection is usually inadequate making agriculture very susceptible to terrorist attacks. Institutional and political dimensions of innovation in the area of pest and disease management in agriculture are understudied. Institutional capabilities to accompany relevant technological change are weak. Taken together, it emphasizes an acute need for deeper studies.
Coming to India, the agriculture sector occupies a significant position in the Indian economy as it provides livelihood and employment to more than 54% of the population and contributes to around 13.9% to the gross domestic product. Malicious acts characterized by inappropriate farming practices or introduction of invasive pathogens can thus have enormous socio-economic consequences.

Methodology Used: The methodology for the study involved literature review, secondary data collection, primary data collection, data compilation, interpretation and analysis. Literature review focused on targets, threats, countermeasures, technologies, process, people, policies, research, regulation, standards and best practices. Secondary data included existing studies in public domain; existing studies not in public domain, but which the organizations concerned were willing to share, print and digital media sources. Primary data collection involved consultation with organizations and experts working in the relevant fields. Detailed interview schedules were prepared for conducting consultation with the experts.

Main findings: Technical barriers to agroterrorism are lower than those to human-targeted bioterrorism, and the sector is unique as even a very small disease outbreak could prompt international export restrictions. Key vulnerabilities in the agriculture sector stem from, among others a variety of factors such as given below.
rapid disease diagnosis

  • Insufficient monitoring, surveillance, and controls systems: The surveillance system for agriculture related diseases in India is rather underdeveloped. For instance, the National Institute of Veterinary Epidemiology and Disease Informatics (NIVEDI) is the only institute in the country catering to the needs of surveillance and monitoring of livestock diseases and it has developed a web application which can forecast the probability of the occurrence of diseases in a particular district, two months in advance.  Moreover, there is a need for a harmonized surveillance system at all levels – local, state and national.
  • Inefficient systems for reporting unusual occurrences and outbreaks of disease: A vertically integrated plant disease diagnostic network of university and government diagnostic laboratories, research institutes, and field stations to address the problems of efficient and effective disease diagnosis and pathogen detection is lacking.
  • Porosity of Borders: The issue of quarantine is not dealt with seriously at airports. Customs official generally perform the task of quarantine and they are generally not fully aware of the technicalities of the issue. Unlike Australia which has county to county quarantine, in India we don’t have any quarantine provisions for movement of agricultural materials and produce between states. Further, there is a lack of adequate human resources for quarantine purposes.
  • Need for institutional developments in terms of legislation and guidelines on crop and animal protection: There is a need to rationalize regulatory functions by coordinating effort and synergy of expertise from various organizations responsible for research and development, food safety and distribution in the agricultural and food systems. Currently there are agencies under different ministries with intersecting and parallel discourses (e.g. Review Committee on Genetic Manipulation (RCGM) of the Department of Biotechnology, Ministry of Science and Technology, and the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) of the Ministry of Environment, Forest& Climate Change). This poses challenge in terms of meeting the core priorities and distribution of scarce resources among various agencies and strategic needs. Also, there is inadequate involvement of sub-national agencies as the state and local governments perform a number of important functions ranging from farm and food inspection, and collection of information on human and animal health.
  • Need for catch-up in early and accurate disease diagnostics and pathogen detection: In India, traditional molecular diagnostic technologies are widely used to identify pathogenic agricultural organisms. Efforts are being made to produce better diagnostic kits to detect pathogens. Most research in cutting-edge science and technology, such as nanotechnology for disease detection, diagnosis, and control and its application in agriculture, is at an early stage. Although establishment of private and public plant health clinics in India has increased the diagnostic capacity; however, effective coordination and networking of the clinics is yet to be accomplished.
  • Changes in legal framework: The legal framework in India to protect the agricultural system from pests and diseases is ill-equipped to tackle the modern challenges of biosecurity. India’s Agriculture Biosecurity Bill (2013) was expected to replace the Destructive Insects and Pest Act (DIPA) of 1914 and the Livestock Importation Act of 1898. However, the bill that was pending in the parliament has now lapsed.

 

 Policy Recommendations: A variety of steps should be taken to ensure that national biodefense capabilities provide sufficient protection from emerging threats in the agricultural sector.
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1. Enable Rapid diagnosis and forensics of pathogenic agents and their outbreak: There is a need for an integrated national database to enable quick diagnosis of an outbreak. Public laboratories need to be connected centrally so that there is a quick flow of information and materials for diagnosis.

2. Standardize and harmonize safety protocols: The food-supply and agricultural safety measures have to be standardized and streamlined within the framework of a single, integrated strategy that cuts across the missions and capabilities of agencies at national, state, and local level. A harmonized surveillance system at all levels – local, state and national is crucial to address potential agroterrorism threats.

3. Strengthen capabilities of public laboratories: Develop and strengthen the biosafety measures (laboratories handling risk group III and IV pathogens) at research laboratories and modernize the laboratories engaged in production of veterinary biologicals, quality testing and diagnostic services with appropriate Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP)/ Good Laboratory Practice (GLP)/ biosafety compliant facilities under the new sanitary and phytosanitary regimes. Harness the latest scientific and technological advancements for  quick on-site detection of plant pathogens.

4. Educate farmers: Train farmers to watch-out for disease dispersion patterns and counter the threat of pests/ diseases.

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