In 2015, the United States was hit with its largest and most expensive animal health emergency in history when highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) swept across 15 states. By the time the crisis was over, more than 48 million chickens and turkeys had been depopulated, farmers and related businesses had suffered an economic loss of $3.3 billion, and consumers were faced with soaring food prices.

While Michigan was not part of this large-scale outbreak, HPAI was later found in a wild bird population in our state in June 2015. Thanks to the quick response of the expert staff at the Michigan Departments of Natural Resources and Agriculture & Rural Development, the disease was contained and did not affect poultry operations in our state.

Although we have been lucky to withstand these incidents, these emergencies made it crystal clear that Michigan and the rest of the U.S. are not equipped to respond to a full-scale animal disease outbreak. However, right now, Congress has an opportunity to protect our family farmers and local communities by including an Animal Pest and Disease Disaster Prevention Program in the 2018 Farm Bill.

A single outbreak of foot and mouth disease — a highly-infectious viral disease that affects cattle, sheep, goats, pigs, deer, and other animals — would close valuable export markets, causing an estimated $200 billion economic impact over 10 years. Jobs would be lost, multi-generational family farms would be closed, and rural communities across the nation would be devastated.

To protect ourselves against these kinds of disasters, we need a comprehensive prevention program supporting rapid response at the state level, sufficient laboratory capacity for surveillance, and a robust vaccine bank that can be rapidly deployed during an outbreak. The program would also provide additional federal resources for MDARD response efforts and university research helping minimize disease impact.

All too often, critical programs like these are created after we’ve suffered through a preventable disaster. We want our family farms to survive. We want Michigan agriculture to keep providing jobs in both rural and urban communities. And we want everybody to have access to healthy, affordable food. To make this happen, we cannot let this opportunity pass us by.

Through this farm bill, Congress can show farmers, communities, and consumers like you and me that they share these same values — that they don’t want to gamble with farmers’ livelihoods, the economic health of our state, or our access to basic, affordable foods.

Animal diseases have the potential to be devastating. We know the risks, we know what’s at stake, and we know what it would take to protect ourselves.

Most of us are fortunate enough to take our food for granted. When we want milk for our cereal, a turkey for Thanksgiving, a hotdog at the ballpark, or an ice cream cone on a hot summer day, it’s just there. And we don’t have to break the bank to buy it.

When we enjoy these great Michigan-made products — and countless others — we don’t naturally think about the importance of some obscure legislation with a boring name. Nor should we. And that’s exactly why it’s important. If Congress takes a proactive approach by including a prevention program in the 2018 Farm Bill, we may never have to worry about the availability of foods we need and enjoy every day.

If you agree, help us support the program with the boring name. Contact your senators and representatives and tell them, “I support Michigan farmers; and access to healthy, affordable food is important to me. Please include an Animal Pest and Disease Disaster Prevention Program in the 2018 Farm Bill.”

Gordon Wenk is director of the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development.

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