MANHATTAN, Kan. — U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said Tuesday that construction of the National Bio- and Agro-Defense Facility near Kansas State University should move forward and not be considered a "parochial" issue relevant only to Kansas.
After a Landon Lecture Tuesday, Vilsack said having the proposed $650 million research facility was important to ensure the United States would continue to have a safe and adequate supply for its citizens and the world.
"I understand the importance and significance of getting that done," Vilsack said.
Kansas was awarded the NBAF project in 2010 to replace an aging USDA facility at Plum Island, N.Y. The lab would handle research on a host of deadly agricultural pathogens. Critics have said moving such research to the mainland would put the nation's food supply and security at unnecessary risk.
Vilsack said a recent revised risk assessment that put the chance of the release of a deadly animal pathogen such as foot-and-mouth disease at 1/10th of 1 percent. Vilsack said that was an indication of how safe NBAF was being designed and would be constructed to protect the nation's food supply.
However, the proposed 2013 federal budget does not contain funding for construction of NBAF and instead calls for the Department of Homeland Security to reassess the project. The budget does include $10 million to begin the transfer of some research from Plum Island to Kansas State's Biosecurity Research Institute on certain swine diseases.
"We're going to continue to work with members of Congress to figure out how and when, with difficult and tight budgets, we can fund this," Vilsack said.
U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts, a Kansas Republican and staunch backer of NBAF, said Vilsack understood the need for the lab and that if there were a deadly food safety outbreak it would fall to USDA to solve.
"He stands squarely behind this project and has said where there's a will there's a way," Roberts said.
Vilsack and Roberts said it made sense to begin transitioning some research out of New York regardless of the status of NBAF. Though Roberts said moving more research to the Midwest near researchers and experts in animal health bodes well for the overall project.
The National Academy of Sciences is holding a public hearing Friday in Washington to discuss options for moving NBAF along, following the guidance set forth in President Barack Obama's budget recommendation. The meeting is the first in a study conducted by the National Research Council, the operations arm of the NAS, which will look at the scientific options for the lab and the needs for the research facility.
One option the academy is considering is keeping Plum Island open but using foreign research labs to study the more dangerous diseases.
However, Vilsack said Plum Island was "antiquated" and that spending money to extend its life and capabilities wouldn't be in the nation's best interest.
Vilsack used his nearly hourlong Landon Lecture to discuss how agriculture helps provide greater economic and energy independence for the U.S., adding later that the NBAF project highlighted the industry's importance in the nation.
Vilsack planned to attend the afternoon dedication of the U.S. Agriculture Department's modernized Center for Grain and Animal Health Research near the Kansas State campus.
The Landon Lecture series is named for former Kansas Gov. Alf Landon, the 1936 Republican presidential nominee.