Homeland Security:

Challenges for the Food and Agriculture Sector in Responding to Potential Terrorist Attacks and Natural Disasters

GAO-11-946T: Published: Sep 13, 2011. Publicly Released: Sep 13, 2011.

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Lisa R. Shames
(202) 512-2649


Office of Public Affairs
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This testimony examines issues related to food and agriculture emergencies. Agriculture is critical to public health and the nation's economy. It annually produces $300 billion worth of food and other farm products 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--including natural disasters, disease outbreaks, and food contamination--can present a serious threat to the national economy and human health and can halt or slow trade. The food and agriculture systems are also vulnerable to terrorist attacks, such as the intentional introduction of a foreign animal or plant disease or the intentional contamination of food products. Recognizing the vulnerability of the U.S. food and agriculture systems, the President issued Homeland Security Presidential Directive (HSPD) -9 in January 2004 to establish a national policy to defend these systems against terrorist attacks, major disasters, and other emergencies. HSPD-9 assigns various emergency response planning and recovery responsibilities to federal agencies, including the Departments of Agriculture (USDA), Health and Human Services (HHS), and Homeland Security (DHS), and also the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Separately, DHS's 2008 National Response Framework outlines how the nation will collectively respond to any emergency, regardless of its cause or size. The framework includes 15 emergency support functions (ESF) for the federal response to an emergency or for federal support to states during an emergency. DHS activates individual ESFs when a threat or emergency necessitates a specific type of coordinated federal response. ESF-11 specifically addresses the federal food and agriculture response during emergencies, and USDA is designated as coordinator. This testimony summarizes the findings in our report on response and recovery efforts for food and agriculture emergencies..

There is no centralized coordination to oversee the federal government's overall progress implementing the nation's food and agriculture defense policy. Because the responsibilities outlined in this policy (HSPD-9) cut across several different agencies, centralized oversight is important to ensure that efforts are coordinated to avoid 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, and DHS supported these activities by coordinating agencies' reporting of HSPD-9 implementation progress. However, the Homeland Security Council and DHS's efforts are no longer ongoing. Top-level review can help ensure that management's directives are carried out and determine if agencies are effectively and efficiently using resources. USDA does not have a department-wide strategy for setting priorities and allocating resources for implementing its numerous HSPD-9 responsibilities. Instead, according to USDA, the department assigned HSPD-9 implementation responsibilities to its agencies based on their statutory authority and expertise and allowed individual agencies to determine their implementation and budget priorities. We have previously reported that developing a strategy to accomplish national security goals and desired outcomes helps agencies manage their programs more effectively and is an essential mechanism to guide progress in achieving desired results. Moreover, effective strategies help set priorities and allocate resources to inform decision making and help ensure accountability. Such priority setting and resource allocation is especially important in a fiscally constrained environment. Without such a strategy, USDA cannot be assured that its agencies' efforts are making progress to align with departmental priorities and effectively allocate resources. Therefore, USDA also cannot be assured that it is fulfilling its HSPD-9 responsibilities. According to USDA officials, the department would benefit from strategic direction from the National Security Staff--which supports the White House Homeland Security Council under the current administration--to help prioritize specific activities and funding decisions, given this time of limited resources. According to USDA, from 2007 through May 2011, it coordinated the federal food and agriculture response for 28 natural disasters, including hurricanes, floods, winter storms, and other weather-related emergencies. USDA and state officials we met with said that having a single USDA coordinator to facilitate communication during ESF-11 emergencies contributed to the success of USDA's ESF-11 response. However, they also identified some challenges. For example, when ESFs are activated and multiple federal agencies become involved, agencies' responsibilities for disposing of animal carcasses are not always clear, which has delayed previous disposal efforts and could pose a public health risk. We have previously reported that a lack of clarity in leadership roles and responsibilities can result in disjointed federal emergency response efforts among collaborating agencies and confusion about what resources would be provided within specific time frames. To address such a lack of clarity in leadership roles among collaborating agencies, we have reported that a practice to enhance and sustain collaboration is for agencies to work together to define and agree on their respective roles and responsibilities, including how the collaborative effort will be led.

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