[permaculture] Old Big Brother Had a Farm
saor at ycbtal.net
Fri Mar 10 16:18:23 EST 2006
Old Big Brother Had a Farm
USDA ID-tag plan for farm animals has some small-scale farmers unhappy
By Amanda Griscom Little
10 Mar 2006
If only Orwell could get a load of this.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture is promoting a system that would have
farm-animal owners and livestock handlers attach microchips or other ID
tags to their furry and feathered charges so they could be monitored
throughout their lifetimes by a centralized computer network. The
National Animal Identification System, as it's known, has been in
development by the department since 2002, with help from an agribusiness
industry group that represents bigwigs like Cargill and Monsanto.
Is the USDA's ID-tag plan a baaaaad idea?
Is the USDA's ID-tag plan a baaaaad idea?
Sounds like Animal Farm meets Big Brother. Yet, while some small-scale
farmers are outspoken in their criticism of the scheme, many in the
agriculture community say it's high time the U.S. more carefully tracked
livestock. The question is how best to do it -- and the devil, as
always, is in the details.
The vision, says Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns, is to create a
comprehensive high-tech tracking system that would eventually know the
whereabouts of every cow, llama, hog, catfish, ostrich, and other farm
critter in the nation so that animal-borne diseases such as avian flu,
mad cow, and foot-and-mouth disease could be easily and systematically
kept in check. If an animal were discovered to be a carrier of a
disease, this system could supposedly track every location it had been
in through the course of its life and the other animals it may have come
in contact with; those exposed could then be killed before the disease
spread out of control.
Some independent farmers are concerned that the costs of NAIS would be
particularly burdensome for small-scale operators, who are already
struggling to stay afloat. "It's horribly insidious," says Lynn Miller,
editor of Small Farmer's Journal. "The USDA is poised to push us off our
Dore Mobley, spokesperson for the USDA, counters that such claims are
greatly exaggerated. "It's simply not true," she says, explaining that
the department has no intention of putting any farmer, no matter how
small, out of business. And though she acknowledges that farms of every
size will have to share the costs of the program, she reasons that it is
"an investment in the future of animal agriculture from which all will
Martha Noble of the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, which advocates
on behalf of midsize and small-scale farming, acknowledges that some
form of tracking system may be necessary for public-health reasons. "We
are not opposed to a tracking program, per se," she says. "We understand
the need for effective monitoring of animals and disease, but there's a
lot of disagreement about how is it going to be implemented, who is in
control, and how is it going to be paid for."
Some small-scale farmers also suspect that the program was designed by
big industry, for big industry -- and, indeed, there's no denying that
industry had a heavy hand in it. According to Glenn Slack, president of
the National Institute for Animal Agriculture, a trade group, "The
program is largely based on a plan developed in 2002 through an
industry-government collaborative effort facilitated by NIAA." NIAA
represents, among others, the biggest meat producers in the U.S.,
including Cargill Meat Solutions and the National Pork Producers
Council, and the makers of high-tech animal-ID equipment, such as Micro
Beef Technologies and Digital Angel. The latter group, needless to say,
could benefit directly from a nationwide animal-ID program.
Paul Shapiro of the Humane Society of the United States has taken no
position on the program, but argues it could actually be better for the
animals than current tagging methods: "If anything, microchips may be
less invasive to animals than branding or ear-clipping, which has been
going on for eons," he says. And according to Mobley, the ID program
would enable officials to be more prudent in choosing which animals are
killed in the event of a disease outbreak, rather than wiping out herds
and flocks on a large scale, as has generally been the approach
heretofore. (Granted, most of the animals are destined for the
slaughterhouse anyway, but that's another story.)
I'm Going to Have to See Your ID
The program -- which is thus far voluntary, but could eventually become
mandatory -- is designed to unfold in three stages. First, farmers and
producers would register the barns, factories, slaughterhouses, and even
homes where their animals -- be they 10,000 cows, a dozen chickens, or a
single potbellied pig -- reside and are processed.
Second, animals born or living on those premises would be assigned a
15-digit federal ID number and a tag -- in some cases, an implanted
radio-frequency identification (RFID) device. But producers of certain
species such as chickens and swine that are bought, moved, and
slaughtered in big groups could be allowed to identify an entire lot
with a single ID number -- a less time-intensive and expensive process.
Critics argue that since factory farms are in the business of mass
production of animals, this would present them with a cost advantage.
Miller says this is a loophole that effectively "renders the whole
Third, data on each animal's whereabouts would be compiled and regularly
updated in a centralized computer network, which the USDA expects to be
up and running on a national scale by 2009 at the earliest. The
department has suggested that animals' RFID tags could eventually be
tracked real-time by a Global Positioning System, but there is no clear
time frame for this scenario.
Many producers have voiced concern that if the government controls this
kind of proprietary information about the purchase and sale of their
products, the IRS or a competitor could get ahold of it through a
Freedom of Information Act request. That's presumably much of the reason
why, though the first two stages of NAIS are intended to be carried out
by federal and state agencies, the USDA has decided that the third stage
of the program should be overseen by private entities. Exactly which
entities remains to be seen. (Johanns, who happens to be the former
governor of a big beef-producing state, Nebraska, had at one point
supported a proposal that would have a spin-off of the National
Cattlemen's Beef Association take a leadership role in overseeing the
database for much of the program. That didn't go over so well.)
Already some 200,000 large-scale facilities are voluntarily
participating in stage one, having registered themselves on the state
level, perhaps believing that a tracking program will eventually help
demonstrate the safety of their meat products to overseas customers.
Says NIAA's Slack, "In addition to providing a much-needed national
emergency-response capability in the event of disease outbreak, NAIS
will help enlarge the international market for U.S. livestock products."
A draft plan released by the USDA last April proposed making the program
mandatory as soon as 2008, and indicated that there would be no
significant federal funding assistance for the tagging process. The
proposal ignited a firestorm of opposition within the farming community,
and Johanns has since backed off the mandatory aspect.
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The USDA hopes to release a revised plan by the end of this year, and it
will likely leave to state officials decisions about whether to make the
program voluntary or mandatory. The agency's NAIS coordinator, Neil
Hammerschmidt, said in a speech last month to the cattle-industry group
R-Calf USA that USDA isn't sure whether it has the authority to impose a
federally mandated program that requires producers to report to a
In the meantime, states are moving on their own to put the
animal-tracking system in place. Minnesota and Wisconsin have approved
measures that make stage one of the NAIS program mandatory, according to
Mobley, and Maine, North Carolina, Texas, Vermont, and Washington are
considering similar legislation. The USDA has allocated more than $60
million to help states implement the animal-ID program, Mobley says.
Not Safe, Just Sorry
What irks Mary Zanoni, executive director of Farm for Life, which works
to protect the rights of small farmers, is that she believes the current
USDA proposal would not make the U.S. meat supply appreciably safer.
"Basically, the NAIS system would be of no use at all in dealing with
the most common types of meat contamination in the U.S., the occurrence
of pathogens such as listeria or E. coli in processed meat," she says.
That's because when contaminants occur in industrial-scale quantities of
meat -- as is often the case -- and are not discovered until the meat
has been distributed through the supply chain, it is all but impossible
to find the source. "There is no way to identify individual cows from
one million pounds of hamburger," she says.
But would the NAIS help control the spread of mad cow or avian flu? "We
have reams of scientific data that tell us without exception that by far
the highest incidence of any transmittable contagion happens in
industrial farm applications," says Lynn Miller. "That's where animals
are in cramped, unhealthy conditions, and vulnerable to widespread
disease outbreak." If the USDA wants to control disease, he says, it
should develop standards for healthier animal conditions and then put in
place a monitoring and tracking system solely for factory farms.
Zanoni sums up the views of many independent farmers: "Real food
security comes from raising food yourself or buying from a local farmer
you actually know. The USDA plan will only stifle local sources of
production through over-regulation and unmanageable costs."
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- - - - - - - - - -
Amanda Griscom Little writes Grist's Muckraker
<http://www.grist.org/news/muck/> column on environmental politics and
policy and interviews green luminaries for the magazine. Her articles on
energy and the environment have also appeared in publications ranging
from Rolling Stone to The New York Times Magazine.
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