EFFORTS TO keep the USA free of damaging insects, weeds and diseases not yet found in the nation have been redoubled following the 9/11 terrorism strikes in New York.

In the latest move to halt the deliberate or accidental introduction of such unwanted pests a National Plant Diagnostic Network has been launched under the Agricultural Bioterrorism Protection Act 2002, to complement already stringent border controls.

 “We want to be able to detect, diagnose, contain and eradicate invasive species whether they arrive here by terrorism, industrial sabotage or accident,” explains scheme architect Pete Goodell.

The nation is vulnerable, he admits. Work by some nations on bio-warfare agents using modified strains of potato blight, wheat covered smut and cereal rusts should have been halted under international agreements, but may not have been, he notes.

 With 38m tonnes of agricultural products imported annually, and just 2% inspected, 37m tonnes arrive without inspection. As one US commentator controversially stated in the media last year: “For the life of me I can”t understand why the terrorists haven”t attacked our food chain, because it is so easy to do.

” To combat the threat a national network of trained “first detectors”, many of them crop consultants, will act as neighbourhood watch officers, reporting any suspicious findings.

Diagnosis of suspicious species is being improved through investment in online image libraries and web-enabled digital microscopes so scientific expertise “half a world away” can be called in to confirm a diagnosis in real time. Finally, communication is being stepped up, with data analysis to spot trends where anomalies arise, which could point to an introduction being associated with an airport, distribution along a river or being thrown from a car window along a trunk road.

 “We have created a national network to rapidly and accurately detect and report pathogens, pests and weeds of national interest,” Dr Goodell concludes.