Health Agency Transfer Stirs Scientist Fears

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Imagine a nation gripped not by terrorism-but by pests and weeds. This is what some scientists think may happen if the Homeland Security Department bill includes the integration of an important biological department.

UC Berkeley scientists are among 120 researchers who signed a letter expressing their opposition to the proposed transfer of the Animal Plant Health Inspection Service from the United States Department of Agriculture to the newly created Department of Homeland Security.

The letter cautions that the birth of the new Homeland Security Department may unleash harmful foreign pests, weeds and pathogens known as "invasive" species into the United States as a result.

The agency's responsibilities to prevent and control invasive species may no longer be a top priority if the service is completely folded into the Department of Homeland Security, scientists said in the letter.

Researchers think the reorganization under the department may lead to the neglect of national health and the importance of securing the food supply against pests such as zebra mussels, fire ants, Mediterranean fruit flies and killer bees, which can cause economic and environmental harm as well as harm to human health.

Scientists who signed the letter said the threat of invasive species is different than terrorism.

"(It's) not urgent and immediate, but chronic," said Dr. Phyllis Windle, senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists. "Over time (invasive species) can threaten the quality of our lives and the ecosystem services we take for granted."

Senator Tom Harkin of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry supports the Homeland Security bill and said he understands the transition will take time.

"Congress has to take the necessary time to make it happen," said Seth Boffeli, a spokesperson for Senator Harkin. "It is one of the greatest reorganizations in government in the last 50 years. If we rush through this, we will make mistakes."

United States Department of Agriculture spokesperson Jerry Redding said he understands the reasons for placing the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service under the Department of Homeland Security since a terrorist could potentially introduce an animal or plant disease into the United States as an act of terrorism.

Because Congress established the service to control pests and it will continue to receive the same funding, it is inconsequential to which department it reports, Redding said.

A hearing will be held with the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry on Wednesday, July 17, to address opposition to the restructuring.

"While we have a strong system of protections at our borders and ports of entry that helps prevent the entry of pests and diseases ... in this new age of threats, it is critical that we enhance the protection of America's food and agriculture supply," said Anne Veneman, US Secretary of Agriculture, in a statement.

According to figures provided by Cornell University, problems with invasive species cost the United States more than $138 billion each year.


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