U.S. Sens. Claire McCaskill and Pat Roberts greeted each other with a warm hug at the American Royal Friday before launching into a two-hour discussion of threats to the nation’s food supply.
The Missouri Democrat and Kansas Republican were joined by federal agency officials, the heads of the Missouri and Kansas National guards and agricultural experts for a conference on agricultural terrorism.
“You don’t want to be in the situation where we’re holding hearings on ‘Why the hell this happened?’ ” Roberts, who chairs the Senate Agriculture Committee, said about the need to identify and prepare for threats to the nation’s food supply.
He repeatedly recounted a trip to Russia in the 1990s where he observed biological weapons that had been stockpiled by the Soviet Union to destroy American crops and livestock.
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“The point is it’s still there,” Roberts told reporters after the forum. “I mean, the warehouses are still there. I hope those pathogens are still in the warehouses. But Mr. Putin is in control of those. … You know, drones today could be the crop dusters of tomorrow for the terrorists.”
Roberts said that he brought up the issue of agricultural terrorism during a meeting with President Donald Trump earlier this year.
“That raised his eyebrows. He said, ‘I’m very interested in that. Whatever I can do,’ ” Roberts recalled.
The Kansas City forum took place less than two months after Trump signed legislation, which was co-sponsored by Roberts and McCaskill, that requires the Department of Homeland Security to coordinate efforts to secure the nation’s food supply against terrorist and other high level threats.
“If you want to pick somebody to work in a bipartisan manner and get something done … you ask Claire McCaskill because she does get the job done,” Roberts said about their collaboration on the legislation.
Panelists repeatedly said that the U.S. has the safest food supply in the world, but DHS Under Secretary William Bryan said “you can’t protect everything.”
McCaskill expressed concern at one point that despite Trump’s focus on ramping up the agency’s resources to secure the southern border from illegal immigrants the administration is overlooking potentially larger threats in the nation’s ports.
“There’s no way we have enough officers at the ports to find the illegal fentanyl, to find the blueberries that have been infested,” McCaskill said.
Roberts quipped that he has blueberries on his cereal each morning.
The country has stockpiled vaccines for diseases that could spread to animals through a biological attack, but Jonathan Green, an official from DHS’ Office of Health Affairs, noted that the agency currently lacks a plan for how it disperses those vaccines to birds, for example, in the wake of an avian flu outbreak.
“It doesn't do any good to have the bank if you don’t know how to get it out in the field,” McCaskill said in response.