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Agriculture > 1. Protection of Food and Agriculture

Centrally coordinated oversight is needed to ensure nine federal agencies effectively and efficiently implement the nation’s fragmented policy to defend the food and agriculture systems against potential terrorist attacks and major disasters.

Why This Area Is Important


Agriculture is critical to public health and the nation’s economy. It annually produces $300 billion worth of food and other farm products, provides a major foundation for prosperity in rural areas, and is estimated to be responsible for 1 out of every 12 U.S. jobs. As a result, any natural or deliberate disruption of the agriculture or food production systems can present a serious threat to the national economy and human health. Recognizing the vulnerability of the U.S. food and agriculture systems, the President issued Homeland Security Presidential Directive-9 (HSPD-9) in January 2004 to establish a national policy to defend the food and agriculture systems against terrorist attacks, major disasters, and other emergencies. HSPD-9 assigns more than nine federal agencies various responsibilities to enhance the nation’s preparedness for food and agriculture emergencies.

What GAO Found


For many years, GAO has reported that federal oversight of food safety is fragmented and results in inconsistent oversight, ineffective coordination, and inefficient use of resources. In 2007, GAO added food safety to its list of high-risk areas that warrant attention by Congress and the executive branch. More recently GAO found that this fragmentation extends to the responsibilities across multiple agencies to defend food and agricultural systems against terrorist attacks and natural disasters. (See the table below for information on agencies’ roles and responsibilities under HSPD-9.) Many of these activities are everyday functions or part of the broader food and agriculture defense initiative and would be difficult for the agencies to separately quantify.


Federal Agency Roles and Responsibilities for Food and Agriculture Defense as Defined by HSPD-9

Federal Agency Roles and Responsibilities for Food and Agriculture Defense as Defined by HSPD-9

Part 2 of Federal Agency Roles and Responsibilities for Food and Agriculture Defense as Defined by HSPD-9

aThe National Response Plan was replaced by the National Response Framework in 2008.


As GAO reported in August 2011, there is no centralized coordination to oversee the federal government’s overall progress in implementing the nation’s food and agriculture defense policy. Because the responsibilities outlined in this policy (HSPD-9) are fragmented and cut across at least nine different agencies, centralized oversight is important to ensure that efforts are coordinated to overcome this fragmentation, efficiently use scarce funds, and promote the overall effectiveness of the federal government.

Previously, the White House Homeland Security Council conducted some coordinated activities to oversee federal agencies’ HSPD-9 implementation by gathering information from agencies about their progress. In 2008, it tasked the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) with creating an online forum intended to enable agencies to share information that coordinated their HSPD-9 efforts, allowing the Council to efficiently view agencies’ implementation progress in a consistent manner. However, these efforts are no longer ongoing. Officials from the U.S. Departments of Agriculture (USDA), Homeland Security, Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) told us that the Homeland Security Council’s efforts were valuable. For example, officials from EPA told us it was valuable to interact with other agencies regarding HSPD-9 efforts, HHS officials found the Homeland Security Council’s consolidation of information across multiple agencies to be useful. Officials from EPA noted that although the Homeland Security Council’s and DHS’s oversight roles have not been consistent for the past few years, EPA and other agencies have used multi-agency working groups to coordinate food and agriculture emergency activities.[1] It is unclear why the Homeland Security Council no longer gathers such information, but officials from DHS noted that interest from agencies and the Homeland Security Council has decreased, and as of late 2008 or early 2009, they no longer coordinate agencies’ reporting of their HSPD-9 implementation progress. Top-level review can help ensure that management’s directives are carried out and determine if agencies are effectively and efficiently using resources.

Moreover, without centrally coordinated oversight, agencies may not have sufficient direction for prioritizing responsibilities, and they may not have sufficient incentive to monitor progress internally. For example, GAO found that USDA does not have a departmentwide strategy for prioritizing and allocating resources to its numerous HSPD-9 responsibilities. According to USDA officials, because food and agriculture defense has not been a primary focus in recent years for the National Security Staff—which supports the White House Homeland Security Council under the current administration—USDA has been less focused on HSPD-9 oversight and has prioritized other, more recently directed activities. Instead, USDA assigned its responsibilities to its component agencies based on their statutory authority and expertise and allowed individual agencies to set their implementation and budget priorities.

However, USDA agencies are facing various challenges carrying out these responsibilities. For example, from 2005 through 2010, USDA’s Agricultural Research Service allocated approximately $10.6 million to develop a system—the National Plant Disease Recovery System—to help the nation recover from plant disease outbreaks that could devastate the nation’s production of economically important crops. A major part of this effort involved developing recovery plans that identified critical research gaps; however, the Agricultural Research Service does not have a documented, systematic process to monitor the extent to which research gaps are filled, calling into question the efficient use of these funds. In addition, from 2006 through 2010, USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service allocated approximately $33 million (including about $18 million in supplemental funding) to develop the National Veterinary Stockpile—a stockpile containing resources to respond to the 17 most damaging animal diseases affecting human health and the economy. HSPD-9 calls for the National Veterinary Stockpile to leverage where appropriate the mechanisms and infrastructure that have been developed for HHS’s Strategic National Stockpile—which contains medical supplies to address public health emergencies. Although there has been some collaboration, there appears to be confusion about the mission and capabilities of the stockpiles that could hinder USDA’s and HHS’s efforts to identify leveraging opportunities. Unless resolved, the agencies may be missing opportunities to more efficiently use federal resources.

Because there is currently no centralized coordination to oversee agencies’ HSPD-9 implementation progress, it is unclear how effectively or efficiently agencies are using resources in implementing the nation’s food and agriculture defense policy. As a result, the nation may not be assured that agency efforts to protect agriculture and the food supply are well designed and effectively implemented. USDA officials told us that the department would benefit from strategic direction from the National Security Staff to help prioritize specific activities and funding decisions in this time of limited resources. GAO has previously reported that effective strategies help set priorities and allocate resources to inform decision making and help ensure accountability.[2] Such priority setting and resource allocation is especially important in a fiscally constrained environment.

[1]In 2005, GAO reported that, since the terrorist attacks of 2001, agencies had formed numerous working groups to protect agriculture. For example, DHS created a Food and Agriculture Sector Coordinating Council to help the federal government and industry share ideas about how to mitigate the risk of an attack on agriculture. See GAO, Homeland Security: Much Is Being Done to Protect Agriculture from a Terrorist Attack, but Important Challenges Remain, GAO-05-214 (Washington, D.C.: Mar. 8, 2005).

[2]See, for example, GAO, Combating Terrorism: Evaluation of Selected Characteristics in National Strategies Related to Terrorism, GAO-04-408T (Washington, D.C.: Feb. 3, 2004).

Actions Needed


GAO recommended in August 2011 that to help ensure that the federal government is effectively implementing the nation’s food and agriculture defense policy, the Secretary of Homeland Security should

  • resume DHS’s efforts to coordinate agencies’ overall HSPD-9 implementation efforts.

In addition, the Homeland Security Council should direct the National Security Staff to

  • establish an interagency process that would provide oversight of agencies’ implementation of HSPD-9; and
  • encourage agencies to participate in and contribute information to DHS’s efforts to coordinate agencies’ implementation of HSPD-9.

Furthermore, to ensure that USDA is fulfilling its responsibilities to protect the nation’s food and agriculture systems, the Secretary of Agriculture should

  • develop a departmentwide strategy for implementing its HSPD-9 responsibilities. Such a strategy would include an overarching framework for setting priorities, as well as allocating resources.

Also, to help ensure that the nation is adequately prepared to recover from high-consequence plant diseases, the Secretary of Agriculture should direct the Administrator of the Agricultural Research Service, in coordination with relevant USDA agencies, to

  • develop and implement a documented, systematic process to track research gaps identified in the National Plant Disease Recovery System recovery plans and monitor progress in filling these gaps.

Moreover, to ensure the most effective use of resources and to resolve any confusion, the Secretaries of Agriculture and Health and Human Services should

  • jointly determine on a periodic basis if there are appropriate opportunities for the National Veterinary Stockpile to leverage Strategic National Stockpile mechanisms or infrastructure as directed by HSPD-9. If such opportunities exist, the two agencies should formally agree upon a process for the National Veterinary Stockpile to use the identified mechanisms and infrastructure.

By taking these actions, federal decision makers will acquire critical information they need to help assess how well the nation is prepared for major emergencies and how efficiently agencies are using federal resources to prepare.

How GAO Conducted Its Work


This information contained in this analysis is based on findings from the products in the related GAO products section. GAO reviewed key documents and interviewed officials from USDA, DHS, HHS, and EPA because these agencies have the most responsibilities under HSPD-9. GAO also met with an official from the National Security Staff to discuss any current efforts they are coordinating to oversee agencies’ HSPD-9 implementation progress.

Agency Comments & GAO Contact


GAO provided a draft of its August 2011 report to DHS, HHS, USDA, EPA, and the National Security Staff for review and comment. DHS, HHS, and USDA generally agreed with GAO’s recommendations. In addition, in an e-mail received July 22, 2011, the National Security Staff’s Deputy Legal Advisor stated that the National Security Staff agrees that a review of HSPD-9 is appropriate and that they will look for an opportunity to do so. DHS, HHS, USDA, EPA, and the National Security Staff also provided technical comments, which were incorporated as appropriate. As part of GAO’s routine audit work, GAO will track agency actions to address these recommendations and report to Congress.


For additional information about this area, contact Lisa Shames at (202) 512-3841 or

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