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As the nation searches for understanding of September's calamity, we examine faith, family, nation, ourselves and frequently come to meaning in simple things. For me, it has been the silence of an empty sky.

An avid, amateur aviation buff, I have pleasurably watched the procession of jetliners into and out of Washington's Reagan National Airport from my office window. But on Sept. 11 the parade of gently gliding and rapidly climbing airplanes abruptly stopped; Washington's quiet skies are now punctuated only by patrolling helicopters. The images are eerily powerful indicators of how the country changed, and reminders of that awful day.

The President - who has powerfully articulated the nation's resolve and earns exceptionally high marks for his leadership during this crisis - has rightfully urged us all to get back to our lives; our daily business. He has even opened Washington's airport. As I wait for the noise and the planes to return clutter to the sky, I too am thinking of what we in agriculture now face, and our role in meeting the country's new challenge.

Nurturing Security

I have always argued that food security is indispensable to national security. That will be especially true in two ways - ensuring a sufficient food supply, and protecting it. Agriculture will play a critical role, too, in our international response to the global war against terrorism.

Congress is in the midst of writing a new farm bill. Its resources will be critical to keeping many farm families on the land, just as emergency payments of the past few years have helped farmers under severe financial duress. However, our present commodity program-based farm policy needs reform, and that means examining the funds devoted to those programs as compared to other priorities in the farming sector and in rural communities.

I am wary of those who contend our national emergency makes it imperative to continue, unquestioned, the same farm policy spending priorities we have followed for years. I think we do ourselves a great disservice by equating the status quo with our national response to terrorism. Indeed, if we are determined to ensure national food self-sufficiency, we ought to debate investing in the financial security of the entire spectrum of agriculture, not just the handful of traditional commodity program-favored crops. Additionally, we should examine other investments to keep our food system competitive, vibrant and safe.

When I was at USDA, we launched a comprehensive, multi-agency review of potential terrorist threats to our food system, and our readiness to respond. Regrettably, that problem received little attention, and scant resources - until now. All of us are beginning to grasp the enormity of the problem and the work we need to do. Congress is holding hearings and I fully expect that the President's new Office of Homeland Security will also include protecting our food system as a key element of its charge.

As potentially troubling as this problem is, I am likewise concerned that we not unduly alarm our citizens. There are two key points to keep in mind on that score: First, the wide-spread use of the chemical or biological agents terrorists might use to attack our food supply are complex to produce, and even more complex and challenging to deliver. Second, the improvements we have made in our food safety system in the recent past has, in modernizing that system, provided for an infrastructure upon which efforts to counter and respond to this new threat can be built.

President Bush reminds us that we must apply all of our national resources to this new war, and that holds true for agriculture. We can expect American food assistance to figure into diplomatic efforts to solidify the international coalition fighting terrorism. Already the largest donor to food relief efforts for Afghanistan, the U.S. will undoubtedly play an integral role in alleviating hunger in that country in the wake of any military action. The successful resolution of the war will mean mitigating the abjectness that breeds terrorism. Food relief from American farmers will perhaps be one of the most important weapons in that challenge, just as it has helped rebuild and reinvigorate so many places torn by conflicts in the past. AM

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