Alabama biosecurity expert cites threats to agriculture

Robert Norton spends a lot of his time researching and thinking about the threats to U.S. agriculture and the food supply.

But after all, that’s his job as a biosecurity expert at Auburn University — to keep government leaders, law enforcement officials and ordinary citizens updated on these threats.

One issue that has assumed a prominent place on Norton’s radar lately is international trade, especially trade with China. As a matter of fact, Norton, who works with the Alabama Cooperative Extension System to alert Americans to these sorts of risks, is convinced that it is the nation’s biggest threat to the food supply and to human safety in general.

The problem, as everyone knows, is lack of control standards in China and other major trading powers — a problem reflected in use of substances in the production of food and manufactured goods that have been illegal in the United States and much of the West for decades.

“China has very serious problems in terms of chemical use — pesticides, herbicides and other types of chemical contamination that are sometimes caught but sometimes not,” he says.

In China’s defense, Norton believes a lot of the inspection shortfalls can be attributed to where these nations are in terms of economic development. All of these nations possess modern food production and distribution systems that exist side by side with practices that have prevailed for centuries. Making the full transition to a fully modern system will take time. After all, it took the United States more than 100 years to develop the food safety inspection system that is the envy of the world.

“China is going through the same thing we did at the turn of the century,” says Norton, pointing out that one street vendor recently was caught selling cardboard as food.

In the United States, something like that would be almost unimaginable, he says. But it is not so uncommon in emerging countries, where a supermarket with all the conveniences of modern living may operate just up the street from street vendors selling live animals for food.

Unfortunately for China and other countries, time is a luxury they don’t have in an era of global trade, Norton says. Indeed Norton fears that if they don’t manage to overcome these problems quickly, they will have a serious price to pay over the long-run in terms of trade and economic growth.

Norton is confident the problem will be resolved. Regulators in China and other emerging countries already are working on the problem. So are their counterparts in the United States. But for now, though, these countries still have a long way to go, and the next few months may be especially bumpy.

“This is going to start to hurt, but they’re likely going to have even more bad news this year,” says Norton, stressing that there probably is still plenty on U.S. store shelves that may cause them grief.

One other issue that concerns Norton is climate change. And while he is not ready to buy into global climate change, Norton believes changes are taking place in many locations around the world that have been fully documented.

In many of these locations, these changes may have profound long-term implications for the ability to grow food.

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