The Kansas Department of Agriculture is seeking authority to quarantine and treat or destroy crops that could pose a risk to public health because of toxicity.

Deputy Agriculture Secretary Chad Bontrager told legislators this week that the department needs that authority in part to be able to respond quickly to possible bioterrorism attacks.

“If somebody were to come in and do some sort of biological terrorism, well there’s millions of acres of standing crop (in Kansas),” he said.

Bontrager also raised the possibility of an herbicide applicator accidentally spraying a wheat field with chemicals approved for use only on soybeans.

“We don’t know what the impact might be if that wheat went into flour,” he said. “So that’s something we’d be concerned with.”

Bontrager told the House Committee on Agriculture and Natural Resources that the department started talking about the need for House Bill 2490 after a training exercise in which it had to respond to an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease among Kansas cattle.

The department has the legal authority to quarantine animals in such cases, Bontrager said, but its authority over plants is murkier. He noted that last year the department warned farmers of the spread of flag smut, a fungal infection, in some wheat crops. The flag smut, while damaging to yields, has no effect on human or animal health.

But Bontrager said because “that’s not necessarily true of everything,” the department’s plant quarantine statutes should be updated.

“This would just clarify you need to take into account if there’s a potential impact to public health,” Bontrager said.

Legislators had questions about the scope of the authority provided by the bill, but none expressed strong opposition to it.

Ron Seeber, senior vice president of the Kansas Grain and Feed Association and Kansas Agribusiness Retailers Association, said his organizations and the Kansas Cooperative Council support giving the Department of Agriculture the authority it’s seeking.

“Under HB 2490, the secretary of agriculture will be able to take actions to prevent contaminated crops from reaching our grain storage facilities and potentially contaminating thousands of bushels of non-contaminated grain,” Seeber said.