University Studies Bioterrorism Effects on Crops

STARKVILLE, Miss. (AP) - Mississippi State University researchers are working with the government on a plan to detect potential threats of biological terrorism against the nation's farms.

U.S. Department of Homeland Security wants a study to evaluate preparedness, assess technology and make recommendations for reducing risks to agriculture.

Mississippi State's GeoResources Institute has received a $1 million grant to work with the Department of Energy on the project.

"This project is vitally important as a first step in protecting agriculture and our overall economy from the threat of biological agents to our crops," said David Shaw, GeoResources director.

A 2003 National Research Council study concluded the U.S. farms are vulnerable to bioterrorism.

"We are developing systems to defend against the use of bioagents, biotoxins and biopests that are not currently found in this country, but could be easily and maliciously introduced and established in the U.S.," said Chuck Hill, GeoResources' associate director for technology integration and the study's principal investigator.

Hill said the use of space or aircraft-based remote sensing, which can assess and quantify crop injury often not visible by ground observation, figures prominently in the project.

Hill said the recent appearance of Asian soybean rust in the South will be used to test theories of early detection and monitoring of the devastating crop disease.

Soybeans represent the largest acreage of planted crops in the nation at 75 million acres. The crop is second only to corn in total value. Experts estimate damages from soybean rust could reach $2 billion during the upcoming growing season.

"The sensors we use can see a sudden-death syndrome in soybeans two weeks before you can see it with your eyes," Hill said. "Hopefully, we'll be able to see those outbreaks and treat those before four acres turns into 400 acres."

Hill said researchers are collecting data in South Africa, where the first outbreak of soybean rust occurred. He said rust sports cover long distances by wind and human contact. He said the spores arrived in the Southeast with Hurricane Ivan last fall.