Teaching people to recognize and quickly report crop diseases and infestations is the goal of Drs. Gerald Holmes, left, and Ron Stinner.

Dr. Gerald Holmes was working in California several years ago when a fungus known as Karnal bunt was found in stored grain. The state’s wheat exports were put under quarantine, resulting in huge economic losses. “I’ve seen how these things can disrupt consumer confidence and trade and just devastate crop values,” says Holmes, now an associate professor of plant pathology at NC State. Agricultural bioterrorism could have an even more devastating economic impact on the nation’s farming industry, and he hopes teaching people to detect and report crop diseases and insect infestations early will thwart that potential.

Under a three-year, $450,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Holmes and Dr. Ron Stinner, director of the Center for Integrated Pest Management in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, are creating an online training program for some 25,000 agricultural extension agents, master gardeners, and crop consultants—the equivalent of first responders to protect the nation’s food crops. “This is almost like a neighborhood watch for agriculture. If you see something unusual, report it,” Stinner says.

The education program builds on the recent work of the National Plant Diagnostic Network, a university-based effort to enhance national agricultural security by quickly detecting introduced pests and pathogens. Most existing training is done through in-person presentations, but Holmes says an Internet-based program offers certain advantages. Lessons can be standardized, people across the country can be taught quickly, and each lesson will include a test. Stinner, who is a biomathematician as well as an entomologist, will create a database to track who has passed various levels of training for different crops. “If this is going to be any part of the counterterrorism effort, we need lots of eyes and ears in the field equipped with the right knowledge,” Holmes says.

Stinner will also develop online indices to let extension agents and others search the Internet for supplemental training materials and link to government plant disease and pest information databases. Meanwhile, the Department of Homeland Security is interested in using the database information to find holes in the agricultural protection system that need to be plugged. “We don’t need to make people experts, but we do need to get information to them,” Stinner says. “The last thing we want is for a regulatory agency to come in and shut things down if a quarantine isn’t needed. But that’s the first thing we want if it is.”

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