Farm Bill presents opportunities to protect livestock industry

Patrick G. Halbur
Dead chickens are hauled to be buried in a farm field near Rose Acre Farms on May 12, 2015. Rose Acre Farms was depopulating its Winterset egg-laying operation after the avian influenza virus was discovered there.

It is very important to our farmers, consumers and our states' economies to do everything we can to protect our animal agriculture industries. We can do more, and we have the opportunity to do so with the 2018 Farm Bill.

The biggest threat to our livestock and poultry industries is the introduction of a foreign animal disease – a disease that currently is not in this country – that would cause devastating losses to producers of all sizes and have a major impact on trade.

We have a system in place for surveillance for such diseases; however, it is not close to what it needs to be. It is crucial that Congress address this issue in a three-stage approach by establishing an Animal Pest, Disease and Disaster Prevention and Response Program; strengthening the National Animal Health Laboratory Network (NAHLN); and establishing and funding a robust U.S. Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD) Vaccine Bank in the 2018 Farm Bill.

Dr. Pat Halbur

Our current system has laid the foundation that allows the U.S. Department of Agriculture Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (USDA APHIS) to partner with and leverage state veterinary diagnostic laboratories (VDLs) to respond to emerging and foreign animal diseases.

It is the people who work in the state VDLs, like the one at Iowa State University, that have the day-to-day working relationships with local veterinarians and producers. Providing resources in the 2018 Farm Bill to strengthen surveillance on the front lines, like what occurs every day at Iowa State University, is a wise investment.

Congress can and should invest in preventing the next disease outbreak from becoming a crisis by establishing an Animal Pest, Disease and Disaster Prevention and Response Program. This would provide mandatory funding for the NAHLN. Iowa State’s VDL is one of 60 in the NAHLN. It is also a Tier 1 Lab and carries the largest food animal caseload of any VDL in the United States.

The NAHLN is considered our nation’s most vital early warning system for animal disease; however, the NAHLN is substantially underfunded and was severely challenged during the recent outbreak of highly pathogenic avian influenza. This proposed program – modeled after the highly successful Plant Pest and Disease Management and Disaster Prevention Program – would take a preventative approach to animal disease so we can work harder to stop outbreaks before they become crises. If an outbreak of FMD does occur, current vaccine stocks maintained by USDA APHIS are inadequate even to protect the hogs and cattle in my home state of Iowa alone.

But states like Iowa can’t afford for Congress to continue the status quo when it comes to animal diseases. Jobs and food security are on the line. Establishing an Animal Pest, Disease and Disaster Prevention and Response Program and strengthening the NAHLN can help address the next outbreak before it begins, and the ability to rapidly vaccinate susceptible livestock in the face of an FMD outbreak is also critical.

A significant front-end investment is needed now so that we can mitigate the cost of inaction. For instance, an uncontrolled outbreak of FMD has been estimated to come at a $200 billion cost to the U.S. economy. Congress must include these three actions in the Farm Bill to protect Iowa’s animal agriculture industry and our supply of nutritious and affordable animal protein. 

Dr. Patrick G. Halbur is professor and interim dean of Iowa State University College of Veterinary Medicine.